And so we arrive at explanation #2: pretentious self-justification.
When a person reads books, he or she is literate. Hikes through the mountains? An outdoorsman. Plays baseball on the weekend? An athlete. When a greasy-haired mountain of a man rips off his shirt in winter and squeals like a prepubescent schoolgirl for his favorite sports team? He’s a fan. My oh my—can’t you just feel the positive connotations seeping out of the text?
But what about gamers? What kinds of words do people associate with our hobby?
Not a pretty list. And, to be sure, a great many games are violent. There are games where you kill people and rape people. Anyone who’s ever tolerated a few minutes of Xbox Live can tell you with grim certainty that a large number of gamers are stupid and crass. Gaming is also a sedentary activity, frequently performed in solitude. Ever single item on that list holds a grain of truth. And that truth motivates us all the more to defend our beloved hobby. Most of us aren’t stupid or lazy. We don’t go around killing people because we couldn’t play Grand Theft Auto, or because we thought the fun of decapitating a human being in virtual-reality would carry over to reality. A great many of us are competent, intelligent human beings who are rightly offended by being stuck in such a terrible stereotype just because of how we spend our free time.
So we defend ourselves as best we can. We can’t tell the truth–God no. The mainstream media paints us in a bad light constantly. We’re told to be ashamed or our hobby. Constantly. And our shame is heightened when even the best of our truths tend to taste like ash. It’s hard to try to explain how playing Echochrome enhances our spatial awareness, or Freespace our eye-and coordination, when we’re peering out through eyes that years of gaming have made farsighted in one, nearsighted in the other. Gaming doesn’t have many negative effects, but it doesn’t have many positive ones either–like most hobbies. How, then, do we defend it?
Art. We call games art. Everyone respects art, and gamers are a community in desperate need of respect. If we must pose a defense, however, I feel that we should at least be sure our defense is a valid one. And, really, there’s only one defense for gaming. It so happens to be the same sole defense for backpacking, reading, or watching the Cardinals all the way through to the tenth inning—it’s fun. Gaming is fun, therefore we game. Nothing more needs be said.
But the Games-are-Art argument is extremely prevalent these days. Now, more than ever before. Strangely, I don’t recall anyone declaring Baldur’s Gate II to be a work of art, despite the beauty that outshines many a game today. Was Mechwarrior 3 art? Age of Kings? No. Why are games art now, but weren’t then?
And so we begin to wrap things up with explanation #3: our incapability to properly categorize. Sounds dull, I know, but hear me out. The gaming industry has exploded. There are more people buying, playing and producing games now than there ever have been—and those numbers have been increasing exponentially for years. There are tens and thousands of titles, but, really, very few games. So many games are so very similar to one another we’ve come to put them into genres: first-person shooters, real-time strategy, role-playing, third-person action, racing, simulation, fighting. Our thinking has been bent to the point where we expect genre.
The first time you hear about a new game, what’s the first question you ask? “What kind of game is it?” Genre is helpful. If it’s a shooter, we know it will be very similar to Half Life. If it’s a strategy game, we know it will be very similar to Warcraft. But what happens when we meet a game that defies genre?
Let’s look at the marvelous Flower. It’s a game, yes, but what kind of game is it? It’s not a platformer. It’s not a shooter. It’s not a simulation. It’s not strategy, action or fighting. We’re so accustomed to constantly categorizing the games we see, that when we’re faced with a game devoid of category a strong part of us wants to think that it’s not a game at all. And if it’s not a game, it’s art.
No real-time strategy game, fighting-game, or flight-simulator will ever be creative. By being part of a genre, a game is borrowing the self—the soul—of countless previous titles. Something new and imaginative, something like the marvelous Flower, defies our attempts to categorize it. It’s not a game where you play as a ruggedly-handsome brown-haired man shooting senseless evil soldiers/aliens/monsters. It’s a game where you play as wind. You’re not trying to kill things, you’re trying to blow stuff. How bloody cool is that? How many other games are in any way similar?
Zero. There is no other game like Flower. It’s beautiful, imaginative and fun. Is it art? Like Braid, the artistic aspect of the game is nearly unparalleled. But it’s not art, it’s a game. A fantastic game. I can’t help but feel that we do a disservice to the many men and women who spent so much of their time, effort and love on the game when we dismiss it as art. We struggle to grasp at a genre and we eventually decide that “art” is a genre—only art isn’t a genre. Rather than try to file away these games in a particular category, rather than try to fit these stunning concepts in rigid boxes, we should accept them for what they are. Astonishingly fun games, in a startlingly homogeneous industry.
In gaming there is neither pride nor shame. Gaming is a hobby: a thing of interest that rewards our attention with enjoyment. It is only one of many such facets of creation. No more, no less. Can’t that be enough? Can’t we accept the new and innovative without pigeon-holing? As a medium of expression, gaming will never evolve until we gamers accept the possibility than it can evolve. Art is art. Games are games, and games can be more tomorrow than they are today.
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