A lot of us grew up playing video games, but are they more than just empty entertainment? HonorsLounge writers Schyler Richards and Kevin Shirley respond to the question: "Can video games be art?" Read Schyler's response here. Kevin's is below:
Before, I make my case, let me ask you all a question: “what is art?” Sure, it seems like a question that doesn’t need to be asked; art is part of our everyday lives. We’ve grown up with it. To ask what art is would be like asking what breathing is.
Yet, the debate over video games as art has proven that none of us are entirely sure what art is. The late, great Roger Ebert argued quite infamously that video games could never be art. One of his central arguments was that you could win at playing a video game, but you couldn’t win at a piece of art.
Mr. Ebert, if you’re looking down at us from heaven, I want to tell you that I have great admiration for your contribution to the form of film criticism, and I also want you to know that you’re wrong. Case in point: Metal Gear Solid 3: SNAAAAAAKE EATEEEEERRR!!!
In MGS3, you take on the role of black ops military soldier, Naked Snake(I don’t want to hear your penis jokes). You hide from enemies, search for weapons, and fight a fantastic selection of bosses. And, much like the standard blockbuster gaming experience, there is a final boss at the end. You beat the final boss in a fight, and suddenly, you’re overcome with that feeling of victory.
Then, that last hour of cut-scenes happens.
You learn that the big evil you killed in that field was not evil at all; she was a sacrificial lion who gave her own life to prevent nuclear war. You, as Naked Snake, have murdered the physical personification of heroism. You realize that you are a pawn in a corrupt system. Your heart is crushed, and this emotional blow will lead you down the path to becoming a terrorist and war criminal.
You are not a winner.
By combining well-established game mechanics with a heart-wrenching narrative in the cut-scenes, Hideo Kojima manages to deconstruct the idea of winning the game. You may get to the end of the level in record time. You may find all the weapons there are to unlock, but in the world of the game, your character loses his soul. When I finished Metal Gear Solid 3, I was unable to go to bed that night- I was so distraught by the tragic conclusion.
MGS3 touches the mind and emotions like all great pieces of art should. There are so many subtextual layers; the deconstruction of James Bond, a commentary on the arms race of the 1960s told from the one country that was subject to nuclear attacks. It contains content that you can find in many Hollywood action films, while annihilating the Hollywood-style happy ending. Do these elements satisfy Ebert’s artistic demands? Unfortunately, he’s not around for us to ask him. But, one person can’t decide what art is. To me, Snake Eater is much more intellectually stimulating than a Cy Twombly painting. There. I said it.
There is an area in which video games most certainly have the advantage over movies: threequels. My next game is another number 3: Persona 3. I played Persona 3 for the first time last summer. At first, I didn’t quite get the game; there was a lot of text to sift through before I could get to playing, and the game’s time cycle was a system shock to someone who had grown up on video games that ignored the law of time. But once I got the hang of the game, I realized its magnificence.
Persona 3 is a game which applies a yin-yang relationship to the mundane and the fantastical. During the day, you are a regular high school student, who goes to class, participates in after-school activites, while trying to build friendships. But come midnight, you enter a twenty-fifth hour of the day, the Dark Hour, in which you and your dorm-mates visit the high school, which has turned into a giant tower, called Tartarus, filled with demons to fight. To defeat the creatures that fill the mega-dungeon, you must awaken the mythological creature within yourself: the titular Persona.
The experience of Persona 3 serves as an extended metaphor for the life of the average teenager playing the game. In Persona 3, high school is a streamlined experience, in which time is condensed, and the player relinquishes much of his or her agency to the game’s script. At first, this take on the high school experience caught me off-guard, but upon further inspection, I realize how well these deviations do to capture the essence of what it was like to be in high school. After all, how much control did you have in that institution? You went to class, did what you were told, and continued the cycle until you graduated. The game’s abridged daytime represents how you became numb to the cycle of high school, and time began to fly right by you.
The Dark Hour, then, represents your time playing a video game. In the Dark Hour, time becomes loosely defined. You’re told that this part of the day is an hour, but you may be hacking away at enemies in that dungeon for a smaller or larger amount of time. For many gamers, part of becoming lost in a game’s world is to lose track of time in the real world. After playing through that tough level or overcoming that imposing boss, you are shocked to learn that your twenty minutes of hitting buttons on the controller was actually two hours. Helping the metaphor is the differing game mechanics of daytime and the Dark Hour. The Dark Hour follows a style of play more familiar to average video gamers than the high school simulation: the dungeon-crawling RPG. Your time in Tartarus is when you most feel like you are playing a video game.
To succeed in Tartarus, you must rely on inner spirits called Personas. The game describes the Persona as representing something within the soul of the person. Awakening the Persona symbolizes the self-actualization component of video games. By playing video games, we awaken alternate identities which lie within our subconscious, characters that represent that represent our inner desires, our power fantasies. Your Persona is that person you pretend to be when you pick up the controller.
In addition to commenting on the gamer’s experience, Persona 3 presents an international buffet of mythology. Players get to collect and fuse Personas, which are characters and creatures from a wide multitude of world mythology. By making these entities part of the main character’s psyche, the game makes a statement about cultural heritage; our minds and worldviews are shaped by generations of storytelling traditions and cultural exchange that came about years before we were born. The evolution of human culture has been building up to this moment in which characters from Hindu, Greek, and Shinto mythology fight alongside a guy who holds his sword like a baseball bat, an android with pistol hands, and Akihiko “I’ve been waiting for this” Sanada.
Am I the authority on what art is? Well, you could say I’m the authority on what art is to myself. I’d argue that the only objective truth about art is that it’s subjective. Every person has the right to decide for themselves what art is. For me, art is a game that dwells on the perils of the nuclear age, while featuring a soldier who hides in a cardboard box. In the museum of KAS, there is a display devoted to that moment when you upgrade Junpei’s weapon, and he gives you that ridiculous smile while saying, “seriously?”. Roger Ebert once said video games could never be art, and in the mindscape of Ebert, that was true. But, in the art museum of your own brain, do you see a few video games?