Last week there was an article in The London Review of Books about video games. It was entitled, 'Is It Art?' and was written by the contributing editor John Lanchester. Over the course of a couple of pages, Lanchester set out a pretty good stall, advertising the potential for video games to be 'a good thing', in a worthy, high-cultural sense. Although the answer to the titular question never came, Lanchester was optimistic for the future of video games, seemingly saying that, even though the games industry might be stagnant or superficial on the whole, there were enough tantalizing anomalies to possibly redeem the mode. All of this was swaddled in a neat history of the form, revealing one or two vaguely startling truths (Nintendo starting off as a playing card manufacturer in 19th century Japan being my favourite), and some carefully selected examples of contemporary game innovation. Inevitably, however – and despite clearly being a rather knowledgeable games player himself – Lanchester's essay was obliged to stop short of any real examination of the medium, undoubtedly because of context.
Without presuming too much, one could safely bet that the majority readership of The LRB are not games players; on the contrary – and as Lanchester himself delicately points out at the top of his article – they are almost certainly oblivious to even the existence of video games. In fact, the incongruity of the article's object with its core demographic was so striking as to make me wonder why on earth Lanchester, as contributing editor, deemed the subject worthy of inclusion. Because video games, particularly under the duress of academia and the megalithic art forms (far more so than their board- and card-based cousins) are commonly conceived of as completely unworthy. Unlike any other art form (I'm going to stick my neck out and declare video games as such), video games have not been allowed to mature beyond infancy. Or to be more precise, video games, like unbaptised catholic children, have been consigned to an eternity of pre- and fledgling adolescent purgatory, occupying that awkward, liminal space between fantasy and callous reality. It's no coincidence that the vast majority of games produced are aimed squarely at that tragically over-determined group, the lone male pubescent – which generally means that the games in question take the form of some repetitive pornography of violence. Not only is this a rather sad and flagrant oversimplification of a demographic, it means that video games become conspicuously attached to this misconception, which in turn blooms into prejudice – bolstered every time the games industry (the only true misogynists in this model) releases yet another third- or first-person shooter set in some Apocalyptica peopled exclusively by fantastical pneumatodes with terrifying arsenals and equally terrifying breasts. "Art is play, as theoreticians from Huizinga to Roger Caillois have been keen to point out"*; but never in such simple terms as video games seem to offer. In his article, Lanchester celebrates the "silliness" of Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto's games: a kindergarten aesthetic coupled with a unique and absurd Barthesian symbolism of Japanese culture, coming together to make a truly joyful, purely playful experience for old and young alike. As such, the innocence Nintendo propounds is extraordinary, and completely unlike any other company's. However, to propound the concept of play at such an innocuous level ignores any observations of how video games have come to parallel male adolescence – wherein a flux of identity, both desirous and self-loathing, confounds innocence, perfectly represented by the Manga sylphs and the buxom damsels that litter much of video game lore. In the contemporary art world, play has become commitedly politicized via techniques that were clumsily gathered under the now-tattered banner of Relational Art. Interactivity, a concept that is at once everywhere and nowhere, is video games' M.O. – necessitating the semblance of superficiality and unreality, whether in the form of extrovert fantasy or simply the mechanistic exercise of hand-eye coordination. Art, on the other hand, when attempting to be participatory in as explicit a sense as video games, is apparently approaching from the other end of the tracks, desperately trying to avoid the pratfalls of superficiality and unreality. In both cases the interactivity or play is restrictive, socially contingent and hugely problematic. Cory Arcangel's work hijacking of old N.E.S cartridges is a particularly succinct expression of video games' relative newness as a cultural product, and its subsequent unavoidably derivative aesthetic; but it also delivers a great paean to how boring and how exclusive contemporary art can be, denying Super Mario Brothers of its purpose and appeal by eliminating every element of the game except for the iconic, pixilated clouds. You can't even play it.
Lanchester mentions that video games are probably the most segregating cultural product, with the world pretty much falling either into a camp of players or oblivious non-spectators. But this isn't true. There is a spectatorial audience for video games, but it is generally contemptuous, debarring its evolution outside of the massive corporations, on the grounds of those aforementioned prejudices that cast superficiality (or perhaps play, pleasure, desire or fantasy) as worthless.
This doesn't explore why there are so few genuinely different games made. And despite the massive success of the Nintendo Wii, I'm sceptical of just how innovative their unique infrared paddle will turn out to be. At the moment, sales of the console far outstrip those of the games, meaning that, as shrewd businessmen, Nintendo will surely shift their funds away from the software and into more odd chunks of plasticky hardware, such as the WiiFit slab. Certainly, developing kit and software that is squarely aimed at the non-gaming market ('Brain Training', fitness programs, group karaoke, a library of classic books, to name a few) has opened up video games to a previously completely uninterested clutch of people. However, it seems to me that the success of these sorts of games is due in no small part to their inbuilt caveat – that they are conventionally worthy. You either get fit, cleverer or learn something while you play, which is all good, but completely swerves around the far more interesting and singular experience of playing a game without excuse.
As far as Nintendo's competition goes, a large part of the problem is, predictably, economic. It makes very little sense to risk the millions that it takes to produce a game on a concept that is completely unproven, and whereas innovation or alterity in cinema will still produce recognisable cinema, the same qualities in a piece of software can make it so wildly different from its peers as to be barely comparable. Change in video games, when it comes, is regularly comprehensive, because the mode is so inextricably tied to the forefront of computer technology. With structural paradigm shifts so fundamental to computing, is it any wonder that game studios are derivative when it comes to the cosmetics? The right amount of product familiarity to the consumer is a most highly prized commodity. However, the all-encompassing repetitiousness that seems to infect most areas of the games industry is worrying. Without an attempt to understand this massive industry – let alone its potential as an form of art – video games will continue to hurtle towards reification as the misogynistic, condescending and ostracising ideology that we are accustomed to, whether we play them or not.