Art, Gaming and First-Person Emotions

After reading Paul Izod’s article ‘A Stick to Beat Gamers With’ about the negative image and consequent low self-esteem of the gaming industry, I was drawn into a melancholic stupor. He was right. The word ‘gamer’ is often wrongly synonomous with ‘loner’ or ‘wierdo’, and it isn’t fair when there are imaginitive and sophisticated games being made. Games that devote more effort to its jiggle physics than its narrative serve only to fuel the undesirable and unfortunately ubiquitous view that gaming is a debauched and even potentially dangerous pastime. So for this editorial, I’m going to selfishly cheer myself up by championing gaming as an artistic medium.

Pieces of music are often considered to be art. Movies are often considered to be art. Why then is gaming shunned as just a frivolous hobby? In my opinion, the greatest feature a piece of art can have is the ability to provoke emotions. Games can provoke particular emotions in people that other art forms cannot, emotions I’m going to fittingly call ‘first-person emotions’, feelings like personal triumph or guilt. When you read or watch The Green Mile, you don’t feel guilty for what happens to John Coffey. You may feel incredibly upset and you may feel pity, but you certainly do not feel guilty, as you are far-removed from the events occurring on-screen. You’re merely a spectator. However, when playing the absolutely magnificent Spec Ops: The Line (there are not enough accolades in the world to praise such an astounding game) the player feels genuine pangs of guilt through-out.

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Spec Ops: The Line follows Captain Walker and his two squad members, Adams and Lugo, on what is meant to be a short, scout for survivors around the storm wall enveloping Dubai. However, a simple mission mutates and deforms into a horrific journey of self-loathing. Spec Ops: The Line is the first game I have ever played that made me feel physically sick and nauseous. A deep-lying feeling of guilt is instilled within the player from an early stage in the game, as horrific things happen around the protagonist that can be attributed to his actions, even though he has good intentions at heart. For the most part, this is just an unnerving, ugly feeling that gradually intensifies as the game progresses. There was one moment that genuinely made me feel sick to my stomach as I glared in horror at what I had just done. I was absolutely stunned with terror at my own actions; not just the protagonist’s actions, mine. Having been conditioned by games in which you can shoot a thousand Russians without consequence, your heavy-handedness causes untold devastation… you monster.

Spec Ops: The Line attempts to convey the same anti-war messages through terrible examples of inhumanity and brutality that many works of literature and film have attempted. It’s true that it is influenced by other artistic endeavours, but I honestly believe that it is as successful in its agenda as any of its influences; it often surpasses them as it engages with the audience on an interactive level. I wasn’t just an observer, reading or watching Walker spiral further as he lost his mind and his conscience, I was Captain Walker, his actions were my own, and consequently the guilt is on my head, not just the protagonist’s, and Spec Ops is unique in that it evokes crushing remorse from the audience in the face of its deeds in a way that no other art-form could achieve. It provokes the ‘first-person emotions’ I previously referred to. It conveyed its message to me so sucessfully that it is still prominent in my memory today: that there are no heroes in war, just villains and victims.

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Spec Ops: The Line is an unmatched psychological experience, bombastic in nature and brutal with its message, but some games manage to provoke intense, ‘first-person emotions’ in subtle and subversive ways, like the PSN exclusive Journey. With no dialogue and no tangible structure, Journey provokes a feeling of smallness in the player as you sprint through a huge, rolling desert, and it induces an odd and unique feeling of compassion between strangers that other art-forms couldn’t achieve. It’s a completely immersive and personal experience in a way that another art-form couldn’t be.

Games can also be as visually magnificent as any other art-form. The bleak visuals of Limbo, the brutally horrific but strangely mesmerising imagery in Deadly Premonition, the beauty of feudal-Japan embodied in Okami. These games are all as visually enthralling as any piece of art I’ve personally come across, and unlike a beautiful painting, with which you engage by observing it, with a game like Okami you can climb into the painting and explore the stunning environments in a way that is unique to gaming.

Okami

Despite it being common parlance that games turn healthy, emotionally stable young men and women into aggressive, psychotic serial killers, games are beginning to receive the artistic appreciation they deserve. Recently, fourteen games, including Portal, were inducted into New York’s Museum of Modern Art. If this rise in esteem continues, maybe gamers won’t be the first target the next time somebody does something awful and violent.

Damning the entire industry and assuming that all games are unsophisticated, gore-fests just because games like Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad unfortunately exist like so many non-gamers do is like watching Porky’s and assuming that all films are debauched and juvenile. The lesson here kids is that there are some games that provoke unique and unmatched emotional responses and should be considered as artistic as any other art form, and there are some games in which you play as a Mexican demon hunter who shoots a hand-gun called ‘the boner’. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that you shouldn’t play games like the hugely enjoyable Shadows of the Damned; I’m trying to say that each game should be considered on its own merit, and that sometimes games can and should be considered as art.

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About Joseph Butler-Hartley
A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.