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Apr
11
2013

BioShock Infinite and the "Are Video Games Art?" Debate

Gamers have always been enjoying games that reach literary heights with storytelling. I’m referring to titles like Myst that just pull you in and completely change the way you look at life afterwards. Recently, the mainstream media is starting to take notice that games can also have vivid and detailed story lines. Naturally, the old-guard has gone out of their way to defend “real art” from the invasion of video games, but you can’t deny that video games are becoming more and more beautiful entertaining pieces of art.

What!? Video Games Have Story Lines?

The latest phenomenal release in the BioShock franchise: BioShock Infinite resurges the “are video games art?” argument. Its critical acclaim has risen to a point where NPR (NPR!?!) is doing interviews with game developers, and not the typical kind of articles about video games and violence. The host basically gushes over the visual richness and immersive storytelling of the game, something I’d argue the entire franchise has done rather well.

There are critics of the tightly controlled storyline, something that Tomb Raider has been called out for as well, but I’m not sure you can get such a rich storyline and controlled drama without moving the player on a guided path throughout the narrative. Though, you could argue that an open world could do the same, but if it were so easy, more developers would have accomplished it already.

It’s that quality and richness of the world that makes me glad I have a screaming gaming laptop that lets me take this game everywhere with me. I really haven’t been able to put it down, and I’m still trying to move my way through the world of Columbia on the hardest difficulty setting.

Also, it’s that richness of the storytelling that’s forcing some critics to say that the world deserves better than the same graphics engine and familiar game-play since past games. This work of art—this city in the clouds—has outgrown the game it lives in. It’s clear that the game is getting attention because those outside the gaming community have long grown comfortable with their bias against video games as a medium without sophistication, a refuge for the button-mashing masses.

Why it is Stupid to Argue with the Elitists

There’s always been a debate among some about whether or not video games can be considered legitimate art. Of course, the answer is that art is in the perceiver, and whether there’s an audience and market for a certain style of art.

But the gatekeepers of “taste” in mainstream publications have been loath to recognize this new trend in entertainment and artistic expression, just as their predecessors called rock and roll and TV the downfall of culture and civilization before them. And just like those before them condemned film as the corruption of modern sensibilities. They were all wrong, and they’re wrong again now, as the maturity of the medium is starting to show.

Video Games Did Not Grow Up, They Were Always Vehicles of Good Story

The frustrating thing about this conversation is that computer games have always been a bastion of great storytelling; BioShock Infinite is standing on the shoulders of a generation or more of amazing games with complex characters, rich virtual worlds and challenging player participation.

Yet the industry is still viewed as one which only produces mindless FPS and repetitive action games. But no one would argue that filmmaking can’t simultaneously produce bubble-gum blockbusters and fine vintage dramas at the same time. Clearly, the critics are biased against games (and gamers) in general; something which surfaces in arguments about video games and violence and discussions of obesity. Television and movies aren’t exactly kind with their inaccurate gamer stereotypes either.

What Has Changed?

The current tone of the conversation has shifted, and it may have as much to do about how the gaming industry and players think about themselves as much as the rest of society now views video games. They’ve certainly become an economic force, out-stripping movies in annual revenue as a form of entertainment.

The gamer generation is also coming into its own. The average gamer is in their thirties, with an even mixture of female and male gamers, something that shows the maturity of this as an entertainment medium that has universal appeal. It was inevitable that gaming technology would advance enough to appeal to a wider range of people. The sheer amount of money involved meant that this industry was bound to sweep up an ever larger portion of the population.

We’re the tastemakers now. You see it on TV, in film and every other form of entertainment. The world is catering to the geeks now. And maybe in another 20 years, it’ll be aged gamers critiquing some new medium of entertainment. But, given the stigma so many of us have endured, somehow I doubt we’ll be so close-minded.

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