“Video games can never be art.”
This was a quote by the late, great Roger Ebert on the validity of video games being considered exactly that: art. However, as great as Ebert was in the realm of film and other aspects of visual study (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” needs to be seen by more people), he was categorically mistaken in the ways in which video games should be received by an audience.
Video games are art, and have always been such. They may even be the best example of reflexive art with the potential to critique the viewer’s method of viewing.
As an easy example, look at the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” The term itself applies to the dissonant manner in which some games’ gameplay contradicts the narrative of the game it supports, otherwise counteracting the raison d’etre (or “reason for being”) of the player character.
One instance of this comes out of the oft-maligned “Grand Theft Auto” series of games. While the main character of the fourth installment narratively wants to live a normal life away from his violent past, player agency enables him to go on a citywide rampage, spawning tanks from the ether to blow up hospitals. This isn’t to say that the game is malicious in giving players the option to do so, it simply leaves the choice up to the player themselves.
This same term is scoffed at by most players, however, as it is used in arguments about violence in video games and how disconnects between story and gameplay are harmful to consumers. Without the ability to truly grasp the term for themselves and use the rhetoric in defense of the medium, players become unable to create a basis for critique and discussion as to the artistic and cultural value of video games.
If understood as a tool for the critique of culture, then ludonarrative dissonance could become the groundwork for the ways in which video games are used in the artistic critique of culture, and the way in which we consume as viewers.
Though it came about after Ebert’s unfortunate passing, the indie game “The Stanley Parable” shows a magnificent stride toward the creation of video games as intrinsically artistic, and not only critiques the game industry as a whole, but questions the player agency that games like the aforementioned “Grand Theft Auto” are so well known for. Players are kept constantly aware of their inability to break out of a series of narrative cycles allowed by the coding of the game, humorously encouraged to think critically about the range of choice they actually have when engaging the work.
Without the proper education in the reading of these texts as potentially groundbreaking interactive artistic mediums, though, the conversation is likely to become another flame war on the infinite message boards of the Internet. Offering classes dedicated to understanding the video game medium will engage future and current generations in discussions as to the real cultural value of these texts, and expand the viability they already possess as art.
Schools like MIT already offer such courses; however, it must fall to large and highly respected institutions outside the Ivy League to make these a standard in majors such as media and cultural studies. Therefore, why not UCR? As a pioneer in offering majors non-native to the UC system (think creative writing), then why should we not also offer the first series of courses on the analytical study of video games?
Funding for this could come almost entirely out of the budget that is already allotted to arts education and research in the UC, simply changing the focus of the wealth of filmic and static visual art study to focus on video games. Additionally, research grants for those first few brave souls to take the plunge into a relatively unexplored medium could help to buoy funds.
Given time to create the coursework and refine the techniques, video game analysis could easily become this generation’s film critique. All it needs is a nudge in the scholastic direction.