Why Video Games Don’t Need a Savior
Taylor Clark doesn’t waste any time. Profiling iconoclastic game designer Jonathan Blow for the prestigious magazine The Atlantic, the author plants his flag right underneath the title: “Never mind that they’re now among the most lucrative forms of entertainment in America, video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy.”
Later in the article, Clark delivers another angry critique, which is amusing, and worth quoting in full:
“…video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. In games, brick-shaped men yell catchphrases like “Suck pavement!” and wield giant rifles that double as chain saws, while back-breakingly buxom women rush into combat wearing outfits that would make a Victoria’s Secret photographer blush. In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding.”
Clark is hardly the first gamer to be frustrated by these excesses, though he may be first to express his frustration in the pages of one of America’s most respected periodicals. Unfortunately, by doing so, he falls into a common rhetorical trap: Why should “video games,” as a whole, be defined by the medium’s bloviating blockbusters? Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the fourth-highest grossing film of all time. Does its wild popularity mean that cinema is “dumb?” Of course not. Nor does Justin Beiber’s runaway success represent a crisis in the future of music. People like all sorts of turgid crap, designed to titillate the lowest common denominator — they always have, and always will.
The author might be forgiven if he didn’t compound his error later in the article by making this stunning, bad-faith argument: “It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.”
Video games don’t need to “demand respect.” Now a $74 billion industry, they are already respected by a swelling demographic tide of the young and not-so-young who grew up playing games and respect them reflexively. Physicist Max Planck, discussing a different subject, explained exactly how this works: “New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
I’m not going to waste anyone’s time citing the specific examples that prove Clark spectacularly wrong, though by using the second person (“you have to struggle”), he’s practically inviting me to. In fact, if it came down to it, I am confident that Clark could come up with plenty himself, without much effort. The explanation behind the author’s cynical hyperbole is simple: it makes Jonathan Blow, his subject, seem much more important.
Throughout the article, Clark is determined to portray the Braid designer as a messianic figure, set to transform the “dumb” world of video games with one fell swoop of artistic intentionality: “With The Witness, produced with about $2 million of his own money, he [Blow] plans to do nothing less than establish the video game as an art form — a medium capable of producing something far richer and more meaningful than the brain-dead digital toys currently on offer.” It’s a classic bit of “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” thinking: video games are stalking Hollywood Boulevard in thigh-high boots, and Jonathan Blow is Richard Gere, ready to whisk them away in his Tesla Roadster and show the world that despite the rough manners and loose morals, this a woman worth wedding.
Video games are already established as an art form, and have been since their inception. The debate — “are games art?” — is as tiresome as it is endless. Defining the meaning of “art” is a similarly tedious business, but if you doubt the ability of games to depict beauty and truth, or their ability to inspire joy, wonder, and sadness, you’ve obviously never played one. As designer Tim Schafer once facetiously quipped: “There is art inside of games, but the games themselves are not art — this is sort of hard to explain. You see, we wrap the art in a thick layer of non-art that we call gameplay. That hides the art, and neutralizes its ability to connect with people and express emotion – like botox.”
Despite the stunning variety of different games, and their demonstrable power to connect with people and express emotion, writers like Taylor Clark insist on penning exaggerated, self-castigating apologies, as if admitting the lowbrow nature of Gears of War will somehow convince the mainstream intelligentsia to give video games a seat at the table of culture. Forgetting that games are already taken seriously by millions of people, they search for a savior, a visionary who will somehow convince other, more important people to take games seriously. Paradoxically, it is exactly this fundamental insecurity that undermines their stated goals. As long as certain writers continue to apologize for games being games, certain people — readers of The Atlantic, perhaps — will continue to treat them as something that requires an apology.