Saturday, August 1, 2009

Anthony Burch Destructoid Rant On How Games should be Artistically Relevant

I usually don’t blog about industry topics / news, because 1) I like to focus on game design issues, solutions, experience, etc and 2) well, I’m just a small cog (right now) in our very young game industry. But after reading the “95% of games are juvenile, etc, etc” video rant by Anthony Burch of Destructoid, I felt I had to at the very least give my simple minded perspective on what games have meant and mean to me and also just to simply state that his rant is factually inaccurate.

You can find his rant here:

Just a warning: Yes, I’m going to ramble and be all over the place; I’m not really trying to write an academic paper, although I could, I’m not. I’m just shooting from the hip here.

Games are More than Art or Entertainment

I think those that are lobbying for that one game to “legitimize” video games as an “art” form are missing the entire point of what video games are: they are more than entertainment or art (although they can obviously function as both); they are immersive physical, conscious and subconscious interaction reality replacements. Although I agree with Anthony Burch’s conclusion that games can be about anything, why stop at trying to be a legitimate artistic medium? But if you must place the art label within this medium, I think video games have already established themselves as a legitimate art form. We just don’t know it yet. We’re too busy trying to compare video games to all these other mediums like movies, books, drawings, music, etc. instead of celebrating what video games have already accomplished in comparison to the other mediums. This is where we are being blinded. We are searching for something artistically relevant? But relevant to whom? Games are relevant to many groups of people from 12-year-old boys to housewives to teenagers to Grandma Hardcore. They are relevant because of the investment required to play them. You simply cannot “watch” a videogame. You actually have to put forth all types of effort (physical, psychological, emotional) to experience their…experience.

Games are their Own Relevance

Games have created their own type of relevance. Something that was not possible before with movies. Sure, video games right now may still be niche and carry a sub-culture stigma to it, but nevertheless, video games have created their own sub-cultures. A brand new method of escapism. I for one am not waiting around for our video game equivalent to Citizen Kane; we’ve already got Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid, ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, the list goes on and on. This is something movies or any other medium can’t match in terms of immersion and interaction, balance of visual stimulation through color, mood, pacing, dialogue, story, music, etc. Video games have taken all of the elements of the other mediums and created something beyond labels such as art or entertainment.

So you might be asking what is the human relevance to these games? What are they doing for humanity’s advancement? In my best simple minded response: they are making us forget about all of the real life nonsense we have to deal with in the real world. And they did a better job than movies, books, music, drawing, etc., well at least for me. Call it what you want: diversionary, mindless, juvenile…it doesn’t matter. For example, some of us 80s kids, these games were instrumental in guiding us through our childhood. The wonderful worlds we got to INTERACT with was just enough for us at that time. Those games were able to take my mind, body and spirit to that so-called zone and make me forget everything around me that I needed to forget. It wasn’t even an effort on my part to forget my real world troubles, daily routines. I forgot them instantly because these games were firing on all cylinders. These games, and many more that I haven’t listed, in my opinion, pushed the envelope on what the medium can do WITHOUT actually telling you they were making you feel happiness, carefree, lonely, worried, scared, etc. They did this through the careful balance of gameplay, setting, camera, pacing, sound, color, shapes and every other element and technique needed to draw you in into their world. And they didn’t even do this with real world graphics, settings or openly and overtly talking about the real life issues. These games were multi-faceted: they allowed the player to make his own interpretation on what issues are being represented in these games, but they also were just simply fun “games”. Years later you can still come back to these games with a more educated and intellectual mind and break down the psychology and the subconscious lessons being taught through the game. That’s not art or entertainment; it’s something beyond those labels, something that speaks to the player directly and puts you in the zone of immersion. This is the true power of the medium…and it’s been doing this on and off for 20+ years.

And now I’m a grown adult, a professional I guess. And games are still doing for me now what they did for me when I was 4-years-old or a teenager: creating not just a diversion from “real life” stuff, but creating a “real” world for me where I can lose myself and forget the real world stuff I want and sometimes need to forget. Sure, books and movies can somewhat accomplish that, but video games take it to a whole another level.

Inaccuracies and Hyperbole

Anthony Burch is just inaccurate when he states, and I’m paraphrasing, “95% of games are mindless, juvenile, violent, etc…” I mean have you even walked into a GameStop lately? Off the top of my head, I can think of a cornucopia of non-violent mainstream games like Nintendogs, Wii Sports, Madden, Mario Kart, Mirror’s Edge, Broken Sword that evoke a certain type of emotion however shallow. I mean have you played Nintendogs? Nurturing and parental emotion evoking going on there. No violence. Mirror’s Edge? This game gets the adrenaline pumping without directly being related to violence. Broken Sword? This point-and-click fuses the slow and deliberate pacing of a book with interactive bits. Only real life violence represented here. Maybe Anthony Burch is just upset that many derivative games are violent and are commercially successful at the same time and that innovation has taken a back seat to the company’s bottom line. Yeah, that sucks, but there are so many different games out there that try to have different approaches and try to reach different audiences. A lot of mainstream games serve their purpose very well. The proof is in the communities that sprout up and the following they foster. I just don’t understand some of the statistics he’s throwing out there. His rant just seems filled with so many absolutes, hyperbole and a touch of elitism.


Anthony Burch talks about how mainstream games right now are “primarily about one thing: mindless violence.” Then he goes on to talk about how, yeah, a lot of crappy movies may get released every year but there’s always like “12 or so really good movies or movies that attempt some kind of artistic statement.” Can’t you say the same thing about video games? There's always a handful of games each year (Braid, Flower, for example) that attempt to bring something new to the table and push the medium in a different direction than what is considering the current trend, like WWII shooter derivative or zombies or whatnot.

Street Fighter Transcended The Medium

I come from the Street Fighter competitive scene. This is pretty much how I came to be introduced to the video game industry. What Street Fighter has contributed to the so-called “art form” that is video games are immense and amazing and probably unexpected…which makes it even more magical. It has created its own sub-culture within a sub culture. This “mindless” violent and silly game had the power to create a competitive “sport” where players from all around the world travel thousands of miles to compete against each other to see who the best is. This mindless and irrelevant game has brought people from all over the world together to celebrate and showcase the talents and abilities of real people, in real world situations. These players have trained and studied to become the best they can be. Street Fighter has given them an outlet to feel good about themselves. Street Fighter has given them a sense of belonging and pride and confidence they were possibly lacking in "real life." Lifelong friendships have been formed…because of Street Fighter. Entire communities have been formed because of Street Fighter. Elements of other video games have been improved because of Street Fighter. See, when I hear Anthony Burch rant about how 95% of games are juvenile and irrelevant, it kind of hits a nerve because it’s an indirect attack on a game like Street Fighter that has actually improved the human spirit of a small chunk of society. Street Fighter has brought together people that probably would have never interacted with each other. Street Fighter transcended video games and the medium along with it, with these group of people. A video game did this. This is more than art or entertainment.

Tip of the Gaming Iceberg

Why stop at trying to legitimize games as an art? Games can be so much more than just art or entertainment. What about Wii Fit? Nintendo is actually trying (directly, indirectly, pseudo, it doesn’t really matter) to save lives (maybe a bit of hyperbole on my part) through video games. I think trying to legitimize games as Art is only the tip of the iceberg in a sea of thousands of icebergs. Games are so much more powerful than that.