Should an arts website cover video games?

3 minute read
"Assassin's Creed 4," art by agentromi via Deviant Art/Creative Commons.
"Assassin's Creed 4," art by agentromi via Deviant Art/Creative Commons.

I won’t argue that video games are art. Everyone from the late Roger Ebert to the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue without either side delivering a once-and-for-all, deathblow conclusion. The debate whimpered away along with the shock value of shooting pixels at human-shaped pixels.

The ebb of opinions allowed the Broad Street Review to carry on without any reason to either cover or consciously ignore the medium. The only driving force behind BSR’s lack of coverage, editor Judy Weightman tells me, is the lack of articles submitted about video games. But evasion is not viable. The billion-dollar games industry has produced unknown hours of entertainment and just as many discussions — not only about points or power ups, but also conversations about the very nature of what it means to be a creator or an audience.

Narrative control is an issue central to many art movements, perhaps none more so than our modernist, postmodernist — post-postmodernist? — age. An unlikely battleground in this debate is the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The series consists of “open world” games, so called for their large 3D landscapes — most recently the 18th-century Caribbean — and the player’s freedom to run, ride, and in this case sail through them at his or her own discretion. The games include linear story lines told through short, animated scenes (known as “cut scenes”), but players may ignore most of them in favor of world exploration.

Who controls the narrative?

This leads to two different fan bases, with contrasting ideas about the direction of the franchise. One side favors the complex, overarching narratives crafted by the developers, while the other enjoys moving through these locales and creating their own experiences along the way. It becomes a microcosm of larger artist questions: Can a creator tell a story, or will the audience always forge its own? Should we foster one over the other? Can the two be reconciled?

Player enjoyment furthers the question of authorship. Many people view video games as candy or a small vacation — mindless relaxation tinged with guilty pleasure. Hotline Miami takes this to an extreme that wraps back around into a critique of the medium. The game is mostly an arcade-style shooter — you move through stylized 2D rooms killing people as fast as you can for points — but the game’s brief cut scenes take this lack of motivation and turn it back on the audience. You don’t know why you’re killing these people. You just keep murdering people because you’re told to.

I won’t spoil any of the ending(s) that might explain these actions, but the debate over the game is important. Many players push against this idea of games making them feel bad or subverting their fun; others praise the surreal storyline; and still others ignore it entirely to kill things as fast as they can for points. Is any group better than the other? Is there a right way or a wrong way to enjoy entertainment?

These questions reflect the intricate, ongoing conversations in the games industry, conversations that push past high scores and kill streaks in favor of the most fundamental issues within the art world: What does it mean to be a creator? Or an audience? Or artwork? While I won’t argue that video games are art, I will argue that these issues belong on an arts website — especially one that, like BSR, prides itself on the breadth of its coverage.

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