I rant write a lot about genres and mediums. Discussing what’s considered art, or why science fiction is important. As I’ve said, a lot stories get dismissed simply because they take place in space or in the pages of a comic book.
Which is a bummer.
Especially considering the novel used to be held up as a lesser form. See, poetry used to be seen as being superior to the novel. Allen Tate, critic and generally important writer, thought that it was until Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary that the medium of the novel caught up. Not surpassed, mind you, caught up. It took a staggering amount of time, given that the novel came into being in 1008 or 1605 (depending on if you see The Tale of Genji or Don Quixote as the birth of the novel) and Madame Bovary wasn’t written until 1856. Way Tate sees it, most things written before then failed to measure up to the perfection of poetry. That means Gulliver’s Travels and Pride and Prejudice may have been good, but as a medium as a whole weren’t nearly good as a poem. The medium just wasn’t elevated enough.
These days novels are seen as being pretty darn artistic. Movies – the medium, if not all genres – too have grown up and are held up as another Paragon of Good Culture. These mediums are important, y’hear; a serious movie or book matters. Least that’s how it is now, anyway.
Right now, video games are to film as novels were to poetry in the days of Tate. Games are slowly catching up to film with regards to not just narrative, but also with technical prowess. Though supposedly still ignored by mainstream critics, gaming has been steadily getting better and better, with games like The Last of Us mining great emotional depths, BioShock: Infinite reconciling mechanics and story, and Papers Please showing off the potential of immersion. They’re becoming a medium, an art form, unto themselves. They are set apart from existing artistic mediums by the potential for audience involvement, like projection and empathy. Games are doing big things.
What’s interesting is that gaming started out so, well, basic. Spacewar! and Pong were hardly intended as the forerunners of gaming as we know it. They’ve long been seen as hobbies and ‘just’ games, like playing pretend or model making. So there’s a weird sort of pubescence that video games are going through as they go not from a pulpy form of storytelling, but from hobby to art form.
This is where comes the push back, because gaming is suddenly forced to confront the same literary criticism that other mediums are held up to. For so long gaming has been seen as simple amusement, that there’s almost a sort of culture shock as more critical lenses are applied to it. You don’t have to look hard on the internet to hear the cries of gamers who want games to be left out of this sort of scrutiny.
Literary criticism is incredibly important, especially in a nascent medium like video games. This can mean asking hard questions, like why are so many games about white men? Why are we usually fighting faceless, vaguely brown enemies? What is it with video games and portraying women as helpless sex objects? Seriously, what’s with all the white guys? There needs to be a discussion over topics like these and there needs to be a change in the way games handle these topics.
And in response, some games are becoming more self-aware. The new Tomb Raider eschews Lara’s previous sexualization for a characterization more befitting being a ‘female Indiana Jones’ and Spec Ops: The Line brutally destroyed the tropes of the military shooter. Moving things even further, Thomas Was Alone and Gone Home are modern games that don’t have you fighting enemies to progress, yet remain compelling games.
We need more of this. For games to really stand alongside film and books as not just legitimate, but accepted forms of storytelling there needs to be a conversation. It can’t just be independent developers making games that aren’t about violence and movies without white male protagonists shouldn’t be the exception. We’ve got a new medium here, one with great and new potential, it’s time we start treating it seriously.