Artistic Legitimacy in Games
Games are an art form. Nobody can contest that. What they can contest, however, is that games are a mature or legitimate art form. With so many other matured mediums - such as comics, movies, novels, plays, music, and so on - games have an uphill struggle to be deemed "artistically legitimate" by society at large.
What can we do to make games seem a legitimate art form?
Legitimacy Through Capitalism
Games make a lot of money. More money than Hollywood, in fact. A few games even beat out the largest Hollywood blockbusters in terms of revenue gained at launch. With all this money, how could games not be a legitimate art form?
While a tempting argument, appealing to capitalistic value is not the way to establish legitimacy. It degrades games, actually; it establishes them as a product to be sold and consumed, like cucumbers or gasoline. Art - not functional art, like a nice chair, but "non-functional art" like paintings or books - is meant to be experienced, pored over, and thought about. It is not meant to be a cog in a machine that prints money for the rich and leaves creators in the dust.
That's why appealing to the amount of money games make is a fundamentally flawed ideal. It advocates conformity and productivity over creativity and cultural value. It says that what you care about is not the game itself, but rather the revenue it pulls in and the jobs it creates. It says that you want games to stay the same so that they keep making larger and larger amounts of money.
Maturity is gained through growth and change, and capitalism does not bring growth and change to artistic mediums. It brings stagnation.
Legitimacy through Criticism
Critics are important to a healthy creative system, but they also lend an air of artistic legitimacy to a medium.
Art is subjective. This means that art must be discussed and dissected in order to find hidden personal, social, or cultural meaning. Critics are usually the focal point of this dissection, but they don't have to be; if the audience is willing to look deeper and find their own meaning, you don't necessarily need people explicitly marked off as "critics."
The importance of good discussion about themes, allegories, and metaphors can't be overstated. We absolutely should have a talk about how militarization of the police impacts how people look at Battlefield Hardline, or how Resident Evil 4 utilizes the trope of the helpless woman. These are criticisms, and they should be heard and thought about. Critics that give a bad review to a game because it bothered them on some level shouldn't be vilified. They should be lauded. It's tough to talk about hidden meanings and how they influence your thoughts - it requires a remarkable amount of cultural understanding and self-awareness - and attacking somebody because they reviewed a game through their personal lens is harmful. It says to the culture at large that we don't care about hearing other creative voices when they say stuff that challenges our niche.
This doesn't mean that all games should conform to some social ideal of pure grace. It just means that we should be aware of the media we consume and what it says to us and others. Talking about a game being sexist because it encourages you to fondle and ogle at women is not a call for all games to never be sexist or the industry will collapse and all creators will be blacklisted. It's just a discussion, and one that needs to happen.
Who Cares About Legitimacy?
Who really cares about being artistically legitimate, though?
Why do we need to prove ourselves? Why do we need to find some way to explain to the suited middle-aged business executive that games are a legitimate art form deserving of respect? Games are an art form - that much is self-evident - and they are absolutely not going to disappear. Why do we need to show the world at large that we are relevant or interesting?
Games are an escape from life into a world of somebody else's design. Whether that world is about a powerful muscle man saving beautiful princesses or a quiet deliveryman embarking upon a surreal adventure through Americana is entirely up to the creator. Talking about the messages these games convey to us, both on a social and a personal level, is not harmful. Whether those messages are positive or negative is of no consequence; all that matters is the discussion.
The medium of games is legitimate because it has meaning to us.
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