THE BLOG

Video Games and Art

05/11/2015 09:57 GMT | Updated 04/11/2016 09:12 GMT

Whether we like it or not, video games have a big impact on society. The industry is estimated to be worth £1 billion of GDP in the UK today. The global worth is estimated to be worth £80 billion. But economics aside, what are the intrinsic values of video games? Are they a respectable art form?

Among the many different "art forms", video games are the least respectable. In fact, video games are accused of eroding the pursuit of more worthwhile and healthier activities.

I am not in favour of video games replacing anything; they should not substitute the pursuit of healthy interests and real-life stuff, but they are taking a lot of our attention, especially that of the younger generation - and both genders: surveys average out a 60:40 ratio between boy and girl gamers respectively. The popularity of video games isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as gamers don't neglect other worthwhile activities. Video games can - and should - be a very respectable art form.

Mechanics

Video games are hard to make. As any artist needs to learn his or her craft, game developers have to know about coding and utilizing programmes to fit around their plans for the game. A lot of effort goes into making even a simple game (by today's standards) such as Space Invaders. The coding is done on a program resembling Microsoft Excel. Each coding segment starts with the symbol //: and in each box follows instructions like //:character.head. You constantly have to save as you go in case of glitches, which are detected as you preview the coding; you sort of play as you go. It takes a lot of time and effort, not unlike other "more respectable" considered crafts and art forms. There's a lot of backtracking too. One wrong symbol can make all the difference. Anything beyond the rudimentary levels of a game like Space Invaders requires a lot of skill and knowledge (and patience). Therefore it would be ignorant to dismiss game developers who work so hard.

Artwork designers are able to create worlds better thanks to new technology, which takes their art, whether it be landscape or character design, and edit their work quicker on the computer to adapt designs to specifics in the game to make them more realistic: for example a tree reacting to wind, or a person being shot. New programs mean artists can edit their work without having to start from scrap. Thanks to this, games can be more remarkable to look at. Graphics are enhanced without slowing down the game thanks to technology which streamlines what the player can and can't see. The result is often work of beauty: art work which is not ruined, but mostly enhanced, by technology.

Beyond the Coding

It's not just coding and technology that have advanced; storytelling and musical scores are what really make video games great, too. Some of the story and character narratives are as deep and satisfying as great books and films. Some musical scores have become classics in their own right, such as the theme-tune for Final Fantasy X 'To Zanarkand', and the theme-tune for Halo 3.

Listing games with great storytelling would far exceed my word-count limit. Even faster-paced games such as the first two 'Modern Warfare' Call of Duty games have had innovating, and often controversial, plots. The quality has dipped since then and even become farcical, but I think this is reflective of the video games industry as a whole. Many games have strayed from their natural storytelling structure. For example, you wouldn't narrate a film the same way you would narrate a book, nor vice versa. Games have tried too much to imitate films, not just in cut scenes, but in actual gameplay as well. Imitating films deprives games of the key element that makes them so unique to the experience of the gamer in the first place: that element is what the philosopher Roland Barthes would call 'the writerly text'. This allows gamers to take an active role in the game by, for example, choosing how to kit out the hero/heroine, choosing what paths to take, and making other active decisions which affect the progress of the game. One wrong move could change the outcome of an event - or even result in a 'game over, you-are-dead' screen. Something the movie-goer doesn't experience.

When it comes to sales, managers don't necessarily feel the need to employ professional writers when it's primarily gameplay and mechanics which sells the game. I mentioned earlier the brilliant story of the first Call of Duty Modern Warfare games, but it's their online gameplay which makes them so popular. But to a lot of gamers like myself, expunging the story-telling element takes away a vital part of the emersion into a game.

Here to Stay

Games are much easier to do than playing the violin, finishing that school essay due next week, reading War and Peace, or playing football. But they should not replace anything. However, they are becoming more popular and therefore more responsible for the influence they have. For this reason, they must be as respectable as possible.

Video games have become so ubiquitous that we can forget how clever they are. There's more to them than a lot of us think.