Video Games as High Art

A few years back, I listened to a phenomenal ten-part lecture series on commerce and culture by Paul Cantor.  In the final lecture, he discusses the future of art, and his prediction is that video games will emerge as the next dominant medium.  I thought it was an interesting conjecture, but it didn’t really sink in.

Fast forward to today, when my eight-year-old son is immersed in a world of video games I could not have imagined.  It’s not gaming as I knew it, which was basically another form of sports – a competitive one-on-one or one-vs.-computer activity that involved the same trash talking and bragging rights as a basketball game or water balloon fight.  Nor is it an arms race for the most realistic graphics, or the most amazing explosions, as it once was.  My son and his peers use games as the backdrop for their imagination, and the medium to convey both fanciful and practical narratives.

They have more graphic realism available to them then we ever did, but that’s not the thing they care most about.  They’re equally happy with lifelike 3D, cartoonish 2D, and even old-school pixelation.  What they like is the story, they worlds, the characters, and the collaboration.  Cantor was dead-on in comparing video games to the most enduring works of sci-fi and fantasy; those that spawn multi-generational followings and fan fiction.

What makes Star Wars or Lord of the Rings so powerful is that they are not single stories, but entire universes.  They are loved as much for the minor details of the worlds in which the characters live as for the characters themselves.  They are so vast in their scope that the consumer cannot help but imagine what lies outside the area traveled by the main characters, or what background the minor characters have.  It’s not a passive kind of art, but an immersive, almost participatory one.  And it’s fully participatory when the fans begin to write their own prequels, sequels, and spin-offs.

Video games take this participation to a whole new level.  Not only do they place you in a massive world, they let you control where to explore, and some even let you expand and create that world.  You are not only adding new story arcs and characters to the imagined universe, you are co-imagining that universe as you go.

What amazes me is how games have become the default creative language for my son.  He spends hours imagining and creating – from drawing, to Legos, to things entirely in his mind.  It used to be that he made up stories and characters in the abstract.  Once he began playing video games, all of his stories and characters and even Lego creations are nested in video games he’s invented.  He thinks in games.  So much so that when he starts to describe elements of a game, we have to stop him and ask if this is an existing game or one in his mind.  To him, it’s a blurry line.  The role that books, movies and TV shows played for me as a kid – a realm of imaginative play and allegory – seems to be dominated by games for my son.

He might pass out of this phase, but it seems pretty clear that games will continue to grow as a medium for conveying ideas and showing off artistic talent.  I’ve noticed profound and deeply philosophical story lines, amazing design work, and even excellent original music in games.

Like all the media that have come before – epic poems, theater, novels, radio, cinema, TV – gaming has a bad rap with older generations.  There is a tendency to think the medium itself is somehow inferior to older media, even if the content is the same.  It’s not.  If anything, gaming might be a more interactive, stimulating, and cooperative medium than some of the older, more passive forms.

Movies were low-brow common fare for years before many emerged as high art.  TV shows are going through a similar transition, as many beautiful and powerful shows have emerged from the blasé heap of sitcoms.  Comic books are sometimes called graphic novels now, revealing a deeper level of respect for them as culture.  Video games are next.  I still barely understand them, but it’s exciting to watch a new art form evolve.