Before They're Art, Video Games Need To Mean Something

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 11:00 am
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April 26, 1937 fell on a Monday. It was a Market Day throughout most of rural Spain, and in the northern Basque country, this day of quiet commerce was clogged by lines of sooty men in tattered clothes. They, like the rifles in their hands, were of various ages and calibers, and they believed dearly in freedom. General Franco's Nationalist army was skirting their region, threatening to send hot shells and sharp swords through the thinning, improvised Republican army as it sought to maintain the Basque's political and ethnic autonomy in light of the fascist regime.

On that same day, Adolf Hitler held an experiment. He had found an ally in Franco -- the two were similar in their core ideologies, save for expansion -- and an ally in the precarious Spanish Revolution that was brimming at the time. Hitler's mind was clever, and he coordinated a plan with Franco to send a clear and vivid telegraph to the Spanish people. The two chose the town of Guernica. It was largely populated by Basque civilians, a feature beneficial to the fascist leaders because whatever message they sent would transmit to the core of Republican sympathizers, no matter their level of involvement in the revolution. Guernica sat close to Germany, was besieged by the ocean's waves to the north, and buffered by hostility on the remaining sides. 

Knowing this, the Nazi Condor Legion dropped twenty thousand kilograms of explosives into Guernica's crowded streets. Hitler wanted to see what would happen. Franco saw the opportunity.

It's possible for historians to calculate in hard figures what became of this event. Hundreds upon hundreds of deaths were detailed and recorded, and though those numbers shift depending on the source, accountants of the Guernica bombing can offer excellent estimations of the human capital that was lost. Families appraised the damage done to their homes, their businesses. Hospitals certainly kept track of fees to mend the injuries that could be mended. Cost incurred from the event over decades, generations, can be kept by way of receipts, check stubs, and bills. And Hitler noted that his airborne fleet could leave civilian cities engulfed in flames and buildings on the ground. He proved his hypothesis.

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But those pieces of information haven't become what we know as Guernica. Newspaper headlines don't solidify this event as the pinnacle of politically-charged violence in the past century. Left to historians and data-collectors, Guernica would be yet another well-documented textbook catastrophe in the years leading up to World War II, faceless alongside the thousands of casualties across dozens of wars around the world. We know Guernica because Pablo Picasso painted a picture of it and that picture resonated in the part of our brains that doesn't respond to anything other than art.


The discussion of video games and art has been dragging on for a long time. We've heard all the different sides, the "scholars" arguing for and against it, people responding with a great enthusiasm this way and that. Over the last year or so, as I've sort of slipped into this whole video game blogging thing, I've become so entrenched in this culture that "art" and "video games" cross my mind all the time. I struggle to understand how I'm sometimes delivered pieces of true beauty in a medium that resembles known artistic media, and can't reconcile that they are, in fact, culturally significant on a scale any deeper than just entertainment. And I've been searching for this fugitive answer.

Using these public forums has helped me find my answer, though it is still problematic and complicated. Art, to be art, must be a function through which content and ideas are filtered -- from society, back into society. I think art happens at that midway point. We've all heard the cliche, "Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?" and been perplexed at this conundrum. However, I think for a work, or a series of works, to become art, it must be informed by life. Then, once informed, it is incumbent on that work to inform life. It is a cycle. And that cycle has only gone one-half rotation to this point. 

We're given plenty of games that imitate life (though, oftentimes only loosely -- eg. Mass Effect, Call of Duty), and none that make a thought-provoking statement on life profound enough to make an actual impact on the world-at-large. People wonder why video games don't get the "respect" that film, literature, and music do, and yet as life passes us by, our supposedly "artistic" medium does nothing to complicate that which impacts our day-to-day, except to take us away from it. Which is fine -- if we want to settle with video games as just "escape through entertainment" to solve the puzzle, so be it. I'm just unsatisfied with that. And considering how many English Major bloggers, critics, and other mental masturbators we have tackling video games as something more than entertainment, I think a lot of others are unsatisfied with that answer, too.

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The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred, video games had no response. Unjust executions, political corruption, the Patriot Act, homophobia -- there are countless instances that shape the real world, and yet this thing we offer up as "art" has nothing to to with them. Unless of course, the subject matter will benefit the consumer. For instance, war is used to make games fun. If money is to be made, video games will load up on sniper rifles and explosions. But not if there's a stance to be taken. Not if there isn't a dollar to be earned.

And I don't mean specifically politics and culture. There are plenty of films that try to understand human nature on very small scales. Books that explore fictional struggles that people fight against in their lives. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar went into the psychology of depression and sparked a lot of interest in mental health and women's rights, as well as in the beauty of her creation.

I don't think the answer is that all video games must satisfy this stringent rule to qualify as art. I think that there needs to be enough people influencing the world to think differently through video games for the others to fall under that umbrella. Bob Ross was an artist because Salvador Dali did The Persistence of Memory. The Harry Potter series is art because Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. They belong in the fold because they are a part of something larger that has meant something tangible to the world. In the future, maybe a few games will tell us something we don't know about ourselves and Limbo will become art.


During World War II, a Nazi officer entered Picasso's apartment in Paris, France. Picasso had  a small photograph of Guernica hanging on his wall. By this time, the world's attention had been pointed at the Spanish Civil War, and the painting incited a tremendous amount of international interest in the atrocities committed there.

"Did you do this?" the Nazi officer asked him.

"No, you did."

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.
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