cultural critic

Proust, Joyce, Woolf – Solid Snake? Video games and their cultural value.

The greatest visual art has moved from the big screen to T.V. in the past decade. We've had great shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones, or Battlestar Galactica, Fringe and Lost. The list goes on. I'd like to add the addendum, and maybe as grounds for a future project, that video games are genuinely carrying on the tradition of great cultural art.

In a video interview with Neil Gaiman, he mentions that not long ago, graphic novels and comic books were looked on unfavorably by the media. They were seen as childish and low-brow; somehow they were not true art.


We need to re-think our attitude towards gaming, too.

Video games, like graphic novels and comic books and even great T.V. shows, carry on the new generation of cultural art. We don't have Lucas or Speilberg. We have Hideo Kojima and Kazushige Nojima.

Now it's true that video games have their own set of problems. I've seen the industry make some poor decisions over the past few years, emphasizing special effects over narrative and story-telling. Big breasts and pointless shoot-em-ups. Games are slowly becoming playable Hollywood action films. This won't do. We can do better, and I hope that some of us who enter the gaming industry go in there as thoughtful creators, knowing full well that the worlds they build will be received in the hands of millions of young men and women, boys and girls. We are inheriting the role that directors and writers and artists of the past had. What will we make? More than big boobs and guns, I hope.

If I was honest with my professors in undergrad, I would cite not only George Orwell's 1984, Virginia Woolf, Tolkien, and the classics as my education; I would refer also to Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy and as my educators and myth-makers. These stories give lessons. They explore problems like climate change, industrialization, politics and war. They tell human stories. Growth and tragedy, challenge and transformation. And kids grow up with them. We need to make room in the visual medium to recognize the potent and sophisticated mythologies present in video games.

Intellectuals and cultural writers need to make room on their shelves for a video game collection. Right next to their book shelves and DVD racks (or digital libraries, for that matter).

The big jump, of course, is recognizing that they are interactive story-telling. Participatory myths we can leap into and co-operate in the unfoldment of the narrative. Perhaps in the future, we'll have Roger Ebert's of video game reflection, or PhD students whose dissertations analyze the relevance of Metal Gear Solid on international politics. Who knows.

Dystopian Futures and Cyborg Heroes: Metal Gear as one example.

The Metal Gear Solid series imagines a digital world of information control and nano technology gone awry. Like a good Philip K. Dick novel, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Metal Gear creates a scary future populated by genetically engineered soldiers, corporatized warfare and ubiquitous nano-machine technology in our bodies. You can see from this video that the game typically explores deep political and technological questions of our time, better than most cinema can do:


All the while, MGS offers powerful heroic narrative of an aging warrior, picking up that age-old motif and reinventing it for a digital century. It was gripping and cinematic. And I grew up with stories like this, and many others, sitting in front of the television as a thirteen year old kid, mashing the buttons between bites of pop-tarts before the 7 AM school bus could be heard roaring down the road.

The evolution of technology offers us the new, digital art form of gaming. An art form we should take as seriously as anything that came before it. Being so participatory, they challenge our static notion of art as a "text" or "artifact" that we observe and appreciate at a distance. Unlike that kind of art, you'll find yourself sometimes throwing the controller to the floor or leaping out of your seat to urge on the character on the screen. And although Philip K. Dick may have predicted video games in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the devices he imagined – and are now in our hands – are no less powerful a medium than his own written word. Indeed, games pick up on the tradition of science fiction and cultural reflection; the all-important human act of meaning-making. The form has changed, but the role remains the same.