GTA V & The Sims: Proving videogames ARE works of Art

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Thirteen years ago a cultural critic wrote a column criticising the idea that video games could ever be art. Calling video games art, they suggested, was nothing short of a “sacrilege”. Unlike novels, paintings or even films, video games were “trivial” forms of entertainment, the argument went.

Games were designed for the lowest common denominator audience — or, as the critic in question phrased it, “the multitude”. Individual players were worse still: an audience of “vile” lowlives whose joystick-twiddling thumbs stood in stark contrast to their generally “empty” eyes. Evidence of the average gamer’s short-attention span was further evidenced by the names assigned to the products they bought by the truckload: “Sega”, “Capcom” and the then-forthcoming “Xbox”.

These were words simple enough to be remembered even by the semi literate.

In fact, this is something of a cheat. The above description wasn’t made by a critic of video games at all, but rather by a critic of photography writing roughly 150 years earlier. (In this case, the company name “Kodak” stood in for the likes of Sega and Capcom.) I quote this critic (none other than renowned art critic Charles Baudelaire) only because his strongly-worded polemic offers a good illustration of the extent to which our appraisals of art have shifted over time. The people who readily accepted photography as art were quick to put down cinema, just as the defenders of cinema now put down video games.

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The question of whether video games can be art was again posed (and, if the title is to be believed, answered) in a recent article for The Scotsman confidently titled “GTA V is a great game, but it’s not art”. After running through some pointless statistics regarding the game’s development budget, author Tiffany Jenkins — whose other video game references in the story included the oh-so-modern Space Invaders and Pac-Man — swoops in to make what she believes to be her argumental headshot:

“… [H]igh art and videogames are different. Great art explores profound questions about the state of the world, who we are and what it means to be human, through an art form that has developed its own rules. It explores the human condition.”

Unnecessarily reductive it might be (do great landscape painters explore the human condition?), Ms. Jenkins’ point is also demonstrably wrong. Before even getting to the question of whether GTA V is a work of art, there seem few video games that better fulfill her criteria of what defines a great work of art than The Sims franchise. The Sims is one of a number of games analysed by media scholar McKenzie Wark in his excellent book Gamer Theory. To quote Wark directly:

“Benjamin gets up in the morning. He goes to the toilet. He leaves the seat up. He showers and fixes breakfast. He reads the paper. He finds a job – as a Test Subject – starting tomorrow. It’s not much, but times are hard. He reads a book, and then another. He fixes lunch, naps, reads again. He goes to bed. He gets up. Toilet, shower, breakfast again. He does not make his bed. He goes to work … There is new furniture. That makes him a bit happier, but not much … He dreams of yachts and big screen TVs. Benjamin is a Sim … One could be forgiven for imagining this was somebody’s life.”

You don’t get much more “human condition” than that, do you? Whether The Sims is a parody of real life and consumerism is a matter of debate (creator Will Wright thinks it is; game scholar Gonzalo Frasca thinks it isn’t), but neither was the point of Ms. Jenkins’ article, which was simply another rephrasing of the idea that games can’t possibly be art because of some kind of unbridgeable cultural divide that will never make them the equivalent of the novels she grew up reading, or the films she grew up watching.

In this sense, she’s absolutely right: games will never look like novels or films, just like novels will never look like poems, and films will never look paintings. If they do, they’re likely doing something wrong. As Eric Zimmerman wrote in his recent video games manifesto, games are destined to be the defining cultural format of the 21st century; the kind of non-linear, interactive medium that will sum up an age much as the linear fixedness of cinema and books did in the last century.

To return again to McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory: “Ever get the feeling you’re playing some vast and useless game whose goal you don’t know and whose rules you can’t remember? Ever get the fierce desire to quit, to resign, to forfeit, only to discover there’s no umpire, no referee, no regulator to whom you can announce your capitulation? Ever get the vague dread that while you have no choice but to play the game, you can’t win it, can’t know the score, or who keeps it?”

This is hardly a glowing vision of game-as-life, any more than Evgeny Morozov’s critique of gamification in his recent book To Save Everything, Click Here is an effusive defense of the idea of life-as-game. That doesn’t really matter though. The “violent, satirical masterpiece” that is GTA V isn’t about defending the idea of life as a desensitised ultra-violent video game, so much as it is a nihilistic evisceration of the culture that has led us there.

GTA V might not be an introspective, shoegazing work of art but — for my £42.99 — it is as smart, funny and, most notably, relevant as the work of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was in the 90s, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was in the 80s, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets was in the 70s, John Boorman’s Point Blank was in the 60s … and so on down the line. And nobody’s queuing up to strip any of them of these works of their “art” status.

All of this is without even mentioning how gorgeous the game looks. And, hey, doesn’t beauty have its own part to play in whether something is a work of art or not?

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