Video Games = Art?
In Hollywood Highbrow, Shyou Baumann examines the sociological factors that led to Hollywood’s historical transformation from being considered merely a form of mass entertainment to an artistic medium. Adopting a sociology of culture framework, Baumann identifies what he considers to be the three essential factors needed for any cultural medium to be considered an art, including: an opportunity space, institutionalized resources/activities, and intellectualization. Given the massive popularity of video games in contemporary America, it may be useful to take some of Baumann’s key insights and apply them to this burgeoning medium. While video games have certainly become one of America’s favorite leisure activities, they have yet to be widely recognized as an art. Perhaps the tools employed by Baumann to examine Hollywood film may help us gain a better understanding of the current situation enjoyed by video games in America and identify what needs to occur in order for video games to be more widely received as a legitimate form of artistic expression.
Baumann suggests that the massive popularity of television in the 1950s granted Hollywood an opening to redefine itself, leading to the marketing of films as a more sophisticated, artistic activity relative to watching television. During this time, movie attendance was rapidly declining as television became one of America’s favorite leisure activities. By making the claim that film is a form of art, Hollywood sought to legitimize the film industry and maintain its attendance rates in light of the threat issued by television. Of course, the industry’s assertion is not enough by itself to change America’s perception of the medium. According to Baumann, it was until this activity was coupled with the “intellectualization” of the medium, meaning the emergence of the “auteur” theory in film schools as well as the shift in rhetoric to a focus on the artistic aspects of film on the part of film critics, that film finally became viewed as art by the American public.
In some sense, America’s video game industry has taken steps similar to Hollywood’s actions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of the ways Hollywood helped cultivate the image of film as art was through the development of “artistic” film festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca. The video game industry appears to be engaging in a similar activity, hosting the annual DICE summit as well as the Game Developer’s Conference, both of which include awards shows with an at least partial emphasis on video games as an artistic medium. Additionally, the advent of digital distribution has provided smaller game developers a better opportunity to share their works with the game audience. Baumann suggests that the occurrence of a similar event (the emergence of smaller film studios and art house theaters) helped legitimize film as a form of art. Moreover, video game reviews of begun to appear in some of America’s most prestigious newspapers. Yet, while game journalists have been referring to video games as art for years, one rarely encounters such rhetoric in the more mainstream press, which leads one to wonder why this is the case.
Perhaps the answer is that unlike Hollywood in the 1950s, the video game industry has yet to face a threat from a rival though comparable leisure activity. While video games have been commercially available for over three decades, it has only been in recent years that they have garnered more mainstream success and escaped from their original antisocial stereotype. Yet maybe the game industry can encounter an internal “threat” that propels a section of the community to more strongly assert the medium’s artistic status, as opposed to the external threat film endured from television. A growing concern has developed in recent years within the more “hardcore” gaming community over gaming’s more mainstream success. In online forums and gaming websites, many of the more “serious” gamers are worried that the success of such “casual” (or easy to play) games as Wii Sports and Wii Fit will eventually spell the demise of the more nuanced (or demanding) video games that these gamers enjoy. Could it be that the alleged threat of “casual” games could lead a certain section of the gaming community to more stringently assert the artistic capability of games?