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Can Video Games Be Art?

Early cinema and literature tend to get a free pass for objectionable content, but such free passes must be earned, and I can't see the video-game industry redeeming itself in the near future.
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My boyfriend is majoring in video games.

No, seriously.

I know it sounds like a comic hyperbole illustrating the shocking laziness of my generation ("You think it's a real kick to goof off all day, don't you, son? We'll see how far you get with a degree in video games!"), or perhaps the permissiveness of modern universities ("Man, USC is so chill, my boyfriend is literally majoring in video games LOL!!!"). But it's a real undergraduate program, though here at USC it's technically known as Interactive Media.

You can insert your own joke here. "Can you believe you're going to college to play games?" "You gonna prove in your thesis that Halo 3 totally kicks ass?" "Dude, me too -- just last night I pulled an all-nighter studying Doom! Ha!" Feel free to be creative, because God knows my boyfriend and his fellow Interactive Media students have heard them all. They don't mind, they say, since they know they'll be getting the last laugh. "Interactive entertainment is the fastest-growing industry in the world, and the USC Interactive Media program is more selective than Harvard Law School," they'll inform you, glaze-eyed, before their heads crash onto their computer keyboards from exhaustion because they just spent the last straight 72 hours computer-coding for Intermediate Interactivity Interface Design Programming Workshop Seminar.

Or something like that. I try not to pay too close attention, because the truth is, I hate video games. I'm not just indifferent to them or unfamiliar with them -- I am actively against them. I'm one of those antediluvian killjoys who have always found them a mind-numbing, headache-inducing, imagination-trammeling, morally desensitizing, graphically violent and misogynistic waste of time. Yes, I know they've been shown to heighten reflexes, increase the attention span, improve decision-making, and teach economics or history or Shakespeare or whatever. I don't care. As far as I can tell, it's still just a whole lot of blowing shit up.

This causes great pain for my boyfriend. He doesn't simply enjoy video games -- he takes them seriously. "Can you imagine the narrative possibilities," he always says, "of a story that interacts with you?" He believes that games can be as viable an art form as cinema, music, or literature; he has compared the game Shadow of the Colossus to "an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama," and its score to Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3. "As gamers age," he predicts, "and the first generation of brilliant auteurship appears, it will finally become recognized as a legitimate medium."

This causes great pain for me. It sickens me to think of future scholars (let alone present scholars) giving the same benefit of the doubt to the prostitute-killing mechanics in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as to Griffith's Ku Klux Klan imagery in Birth of a Nation, or to Dickens's anti-Semitic language in Oliver Twist. Early cinema and literature tend to get a free pass for objectionable content, but such free passes must be earned, and I can't see the video-game industry redeeming itself in the near future. Even the most idealistic gamers agree that majority of new games hinge on violence and killing -- and if they don't, they tend to be boring.

My boyfriend takes issue with my fatalistic views. "You know, there was a time when the novel was heralded as the end of civilization, too," he inevitably reminds me. "And comic books. And movies. And the waltz!"

My roommate, Carrie, sides with me. "Video games will never really be accepted as a genuine art form, for one reason," she says, "which is that girls don't play them. That's half the population! Listen, video games are like purses: every now and then you'll find a guy holding a purse, but mostly it's a one-sex thing. Movies, on the other hand, are like shirts. Everybody wears shirts." Of course, Carrie is biased: she's majoring in screenwriting.

I have my own theory: every art form retains something from the historical period in which it was created. Superhero comics appeared in the 1940s, and they never lost their good-against-evil populism. Jazz entered the mainstream in the 1920s, and to this day we think of it as sexy, rebellious, liberated. (Who's afraid of Prohibition? Not us!) Cinema was invented at the end of the Victorian era, when supernaturalism -- the belief in ghosts, animism, and the occult -- was at an all-time high. Over a century later, we still believe in a kind of magic when we go to the movies. As cynical as we've become, we have never stopped expecting film to hypnotize us, to open up new worlds and take us places we've never been. Every movie viewing is, in a way, a séance.

But video games took hold in the Reagan 80s -- a decidedly unmagical decade, characterized by materialism, excess, and relentless competition at the international, economic, and personal level. There were no spirits haunting the 1980s, no flapper-packed speakeasies, no postwar triumph: there was only cold, slick, ugly machinery -- computers, portable phones, space shuttles, the Terminator -- and money, and using machines to make more money, and spending money on better machines, and on and on until you won. The 80s were fundamentally about winning. Thus video games, then and now and forever, are fundamentally about winning.

Can we really have an art form that is nothing more than an automated economic system? Can a computerized economy reveal profound truths about humanity? Maybe it can; maybe I'm just resisting the tide of change. My biggest fear, I admit, is not that art will become cheapened by acceptance of violence and technology -- it's that I've bet on the wrong horse. I can't stand losing, which is another reason I can't stand video games.

But my boyfriend will never give up trying to convert me, and recently he enlisted the help of his classmate Max. Max is a thoughtful, softspoken guy with a dazzling vocabulary and a professorial demeanor, plus he's studying Classics in addition to Interactive Media, so I trust him. My boyfriend knows this. "Max," he said, "convince Frankie that video games have artistic value."

Max thought for a long time, bless him, before he answered. We watched him with suspense as he sat there formulating an answer. Finally he said carefully, "I don't think they do. Yet."

"When will they?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "And I don't think anybody else knows, either. It's a nascent form -- fetal, maybe even embryonic, and we don't know whether the labor pains will start this year, or next year, or fifteen years from now. We're all just fumbling around in the dark. But we do it because we believe in it -- blindly, yes, and maybe wrongly..." He trailed off. "Sorry," he said, with an apologetic shrug. "I'm probably doing a terrible job convincing you."

He wasn't: this was the closest I'd ever come to being convinced. Fumbling around in the dark, not knowing whether you'd produce anything good or worthwhile, sticking with it for no other reason than vain, deluded faith -- isn't that what all art is?

On the other hand, I may yet win. The other night, around two in the morning, my boyfriend called me on the phone after a full day of Interactive Media homework. Crazed with sleep deprivation, he told me, "I've been staring at a computer screen for 12 hours. I can't take it anymore. Please let me come over. I give up. Video games are a worthless medium."

"I know," I said.

In the background, I could hear Max laughing, dazed, hysterical with fatigue. "No, don't let her find out!" he cried out. "She'll tell the Internet!"