Friday, January 23, 2009

Do Videogames Need To Be Fun??

Though I think videogames are still in their infancy as an artform, things like this, and the responses that they get from the community, get me wondering again about this whole 'games as art' thing. Should they even try to be art?? If in order to be art they become less 'fun', isn't this a self-defeating action, since people don't want to play things that aren't fun??

All forms of art have many works within their fields that you wouldn't consider 'art.' There are many paintings, films, books, albums, etc. that are meant purely for entertainment; even if the creator's intent is for something like 'art', sometimes the work still ends up being quite less. We don't have conversations about whether novels or albums are art because they're well established forms, yet a good majority of the products of both are just entertainment. They aren't trying to 'say' anything but that's not their aim. They're just trying to be 'fun.' But videogames are not a well established and accepted form of art, so we have these kind of debates. Anyway, they've got 'games' in their name, so shouldn't videogames just try to be fun?? If somebody brought a board game to you and said "this isn't exactly fun, but it's an incredible experience", what would your reaction be??

Anyway, games as an artform are problematic for a few reasons. The first is that the thing that makes them different--interactivity--also limits their audience and cultural impact. Certainly some novels can take just as long to read as some games do to play, but novels are still quite passive compared to videogames and cost less money. There's a much larger monetary and time investment for videogames, and the more time that goes on, the less money I have to spend on them and the less time I'm willing to invest on them. This isn't me "outgrowing" an infantile hobby. I'm just old enough to the point where 'everything else' eats up most of my free time, and I don't really want to spend $50 on a game and potentially not like it or get stuck/frustrated at a certain point. Anyway, quantity is always less desirable to me than quality, so knowing a game is 30 hours long isn't a plus. Oddly, then, people always complain when the newest $60 game has less than X hours of gameplay, as if quantity always trumps quality. But that's a side issue.

What I was trying to get at was that, in order for games to function as art, the designer/creator must make something with their own vision in mind but also the eventual player. Music is primarily an auditory medium, movies are primarily a visual medium; videogames make use of both of these, but the interactivity sets them apart. Using interactivity to tell a story, to 'say' something, is quite difficult because you've got to keep the audience in mind. Anyone with eyes can look at a painting, anyone with ears can listen to music. And while it's true that you still can't make those people think about what they experienced, it's still a passive activity. Playing a videogame can be like controlling a movie, depending on how much choice you let the player have, but the danger comes in giving the player too much freedom or too little. Moreover, depending on how the game is designed, you might get stuck on a certain point and give up. Sure you can read 150 pages into a novel and give up, but you still spent less time and money on it, and you stopped because the content was bad. You didn't stop because there was a difficult boss you couldn't beat. But this all comes back to the art vs. fun thing, in a round-a-bout way, because if you make a game too easy people complain that it might as well play itself, but if you make it too hard then most people won't experience the whole thing and the whole point of making a game is that someone will get to experience it. Imagine if all the people who watched Memento only got halfway through it.

The second problem with videogames as an artform is that the audience seems to think this is an either/or proposition. On one hand you get the people who are always mocking the 'artsy' games because they're "not fun" to play. On the other hand you get the people who look at every new action or sports game while rolling their eyes and wondering when we can move on to the next phase of videogames, leaving behind the childish associations in the process. Well, both groups have valid opinions, but they're both wrong, too. As I said earlier, there's room enough in every form of art for the sheer entertainment stuff and the high brow stuff. Admittedly I'm being a bit reductionist here, because there's a lot of overlap between the two camps. Somewhere between a symphony and the Spice Girls lies the Beatles. Or something like that. Anyway, there may be some validity to this argument, because, again, the gamer audience only has so much time and money. If you're buying Gears Of War 2 and Dead Space, it probably means you aren't playing Little Big Planet and Mirror's Edge. Yes, the success of a piece of crap mainstream film like Wild Hogs doesn't ruin the chances of, I dunno, The Darjeeling Limited from being made or making money. But the film audience is much larger and films ask for much less time and money to experience them.

The last problem I see with videogames is their sheer ephemeral nature. This is something that doesn't get addressed much, but videogames are a bleeding edge, blink-and-you-miss-it entertainment medium. To be fair, it's not as though every album, painting, book, movie, or TV show ever released is readily available, but because of the way the videogame industry operates--the way it costs a lot of money to develop and publish games, the way new platforms come out every 5-6 years or so--it quickly becomes hard to go back. Services like the Virtual Console on the Nintendo Wii make some classic titles available again, but it's not the same as playing those games when they came out. You can still get copies of Casablanca and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band today, and while they may be on DVD and CD instead of their original film and vinyl record formats, it's still the same content, ultimately. Due to all the ways licensing and publishing work, I can't go back to Silent Hill 1 after playing the new one because the first one was available on the first Playstation, and neither Silent Hill 1 nor the Playstation 1 are available in stores anymore. Yeah, I can get them off eBay, maybe, but at stupid prices. Maybe this is just how videogames as a medium will be, but it limits their cultural impact and lasting power. If you want to know the history, aesthetics, and semiotics of a medium, you have to be able to access their past as well as their present. This is not even to mention online-only games, or games with a heavy online component. Can you intelligently talk about Quake II or the original Phantasy Star Online without having played them in their hey-day?? Sure, a lot of novels, albums, and films haven't aged well and were only extraordinary in their day, but this problem is much worse with videogames.

I don't know that it's even possible to 'review' a lot of games these days, because they change over time. The critical approach of a reviewing a work as released isn't as viable anymore. The original Mario for NES will always be fun because it's always the same game. You can't make the same judgments based on World of Warcraft, because the game it was at launch, the game it was when the expansions were released, and the game it will be a year from's all the same game, all those changes and additions mean it technically isn't. It's as if we need a new critical approach to match what videogames are. Things like podcasts and blogs may not have the same cache and official-ness as a magazine or newspaper review, but they're more consistent with both the audience and the medium. You don't need to sit down and approach a videogame from either the "is this art??" or the "is this fun??" viewpoint, basing your review/critique on "what is this game trying to say/how does it make me feel??" or "the graphics are good/the controls are stiff" metrics. But I digress.

A lot of this post is just me wondering out loud and trying to answer the questions for myself. I still do think videogames are capable of being art, but there's many problems with it, too. It's got a long way to go until it's respected and understood by the general populace and even by its own audience. I bought a copy of House Of Leaves today and it's not as if you see people posting about how it's boring, difficult, and not fun to read all over the Internet. But a game like Flower?? Of course. No one's complaining that House Of Leaves costs too much or takes only a few hours to read, but that's exactly what you see with Flower.

But let's return to my original question: do videogames need to be fun?? Well, we could get really philosophical and ask what "fun" is, since it's a subjective term and we all have different ideas of which things are fun and which aren't. Maybe the way to answer this is to ask a different question: do videogames need to be art?? Of course not. Films don't need to be art or fun. The general consensus for so long has been that videogames are supposed to be fun and if they fail at that, then they aren't any good. But this is a mindset that has persisted because the first few generations of videogames weren't trying to be anything else other than, well, fun. In order to move forward, I think this is one of the things that the audience needs to understand and something that needs to be made clear to the populace at large. Videogames can be fun, but they don't need to be. Videogames can be art, but they don't need to be. Videogames can be both, even, but they don't need to be both.

It's perfectly fine to want videogames that are art. Or videogames that are fun. But demanding that all of them be one or another is pointless. Videogames as an art form have a lot of inherent problems (as does videogame criticism and reviewing), but that doesn't mean they can't be art or shouldn't try to be.

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