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“For Whom the Bell Tolls”: Video games as Social Fiction



When Roger Ebert said perhaps the most iconic (and foolish) words of his prolific career, “video games can never be art,” I nearly threw my personal issue of Game Informer across the room. Five years later, he rescinded his statement, stating simply “my error… was to think I could make a convincing argument on purely theoretical grounds.” Yet in the ten years since his foolhardy launch into this debate, Mr. Ebert never picked up a controller of any kind except to switch the channel on his television.

While his words come too little, too late to gamers who have already moved on to the next world to be explored, there is a band of us, perhaps not so small, whose eyes narrow and necks pop when we think of Mr. Ebert and his woefully ignorant words on what is already an art form. In fact, what makes videogames an art form is the reality that they are a cultural force.

There comes a point in the life of all art media when they become responsible for more than what Mr. Ebert describes as his definition of art (which seems to be the ability to compare it to other art forms, if you read his blog), and video games are no exception. Whether the final product arises out of a partnership between industry players and military entities, or a relatively pedestrian effort to grieve the slow and painful death of an infant child, there comes a point at which video games, by virtue of being played, become indicative of the society which they are both distributed to and arise from. Even if, by some astronomical stretch of the imagination, one argues that videogames are not yet art, videogames as a means of entertainment are already cultural players on scale as titanic as old media. Nowadays, video games are not just social play arenas; they are, like film (and poetry, and novels,) social faculties of critique— perhaps this was Ebert’s anxiety when he made his original comment ten years ago, as well as condescendingly reasserting his position while cutting down the people responsible to bringing a game to completion.

“Social Fiction” may seem like a phrase spoken from the depths of a steampunk literature seminar, but its relevance speaks to the challenges already awaiting the art of gaming. Social Fiction is defined as literature “concerned less with technology/space opera and more with speculation about human society,” and I am certain, Dear Reader, that no shortage of games come to mind when contemplating this definition.

What makes video games social fiction starts from the sheer daring of the ideological themes making games atmospheric. The world of Rapture, Aperture Science, and Infected Philly are examples of the phenomenon of video games serving as commentaries as much as play areas. As we play the interactive world, deeper questions begin to form in our minds about ideologies which have been distilled from the outside world, and how we are invited to think about them.

What this angle implies for video games, however, is worth a new consideration altogether. Just as gaming taps into the social imperative of play that is as fundamental to culture as its cousins story and sound, videogames ultimately serve the same cultural purpose as music, poetry, literature, and film. As video games have swelled in ubiquity in the technological age, moving from arcade machines to in-house consoles to portable devices and now onto mobile phones, they have come to encompass and face the faculties that their predecessors featured–the storied quality of great literature, the rhythm of poetry, the soundtrack of musics, and the shots and angles of film. These are also industries which have found themselves in the midst of a innovative crises as the consumer has become increasingly familiar narrative structure, and has begun to take up the role of artist–anyone can write a book, anyone can make music, anyone can shoot a movie.

And Anyone can make a game–developers are the first to say it.

The question then remains, can gaming survive as social fiction, and as an art form?

As the next generation has grown up with dizzyingly more media than even the generation directly before them, they have come to demand more concerning the nature and quality of the stories told. This posture is evident when one considers the astounding commercial success of Netflix’s original content compared to the dwindling ratings of cable television. Millennials don’t just talk about film and literature and television–they dissect them and judge their implications, and games are no different.

Gamers are questioning the role of violence, the white protagonist, sexuality, gender, and player experience, and they are dissatisfied with the way older art forms have fled these questions for the “tried and hopefully still true.” In a way, Mr. Ebert’s words ring true for gamers when he says about art: “I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged.” Gamers are starting to ask when, if ever, the gaming industry will address these needs. The response from industry developers are starting to looking troublingly like their cousins.

As as a form, video games make us take pause–it can be from the shock of the size (or resulting cinematography) of a nuclear detonation, the leery feeling of a new environment in a survival horror game, the grief seed at the core of every zombie apocalypse, or the promise of adventure. But if video games are to survive, they are going to need to morph into more social creations–we will need to live the lives unlike our own, experience “play” as more than a fog of war, and have the games we play speak to us in a form that prompts us to speak back.

  • Maynard Hearns

Maynard is a Sonic Fan in a Super Mario World.