Are games art? This argument comes and goes within the mainstream and academic circles, and mostly ends as a discussion of what is the definition of “art” rather than discussing elements of games as they relate to art. The question becomes more complicated as new genres emerge and change what we think about a game. I also have seen Ian Bogost give a talk at Meaningful play about his concept of “Art Games”, games with and artistic endeavor, and while it’s a an interesting topic its not what I am trying to address. What I wish to discuss is one element of art that I believe that games, all games, excel at achieving: expressing cultural values of the people who made them.
A short disclaimer: In talking about culture, I run the risk of sticking my foot in my mouth and offending someone. I do not think anything represented in games really reflects negatively on the culture that produced it, and there are equally bad games from all over the world. In any case, the examples described below are not the only element, or even the most prominent element, from each region’s culture. I loved learning about other cultures during what travels I have had and think this is just the start of a much larger issue I will be examining for a long time.
How this started: Perfection
During a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” he visited Japan and discussed how he saw a quest for perfection a driving force in much of Japan’s culture. Examples of this during the show came from the care taken preparing food and forging knives. As I thought about this, I saw a few parallels in games which have come from Japan. From unforgiving RPGs and “Bullet Hell” shoot-em-ups, to Rhythm and 2d Fighters these games push their players to “Perfection”. The difference in play from someone smashing buttons in Street fighter to an Evo tournament player is worlds apart. Sometimes the games are deep, requiring an understanding of the underlying mechanics. Other times pure memorization of levels or patters is the only way for the player to survive. In either case, perfection on part of the player is the goal.
I believe other aspects of ones culture make themselves apparent in video games with closer investigation and I will be exploring this in the coming week.