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by Brett Smith
There certainly is a consensus among players of role-playing games that video games certainly are, or at least have the capacity to be, works of art. However, it seems that the same people have a bit of difficulty explaining why this is. This, by no means, is a bad thing: so long as you recognize that it creates an affective response within you, that is all you need to know. It would also be useful, though, to consider the abilities of video games as an art form. The defining aspect of the video game which distinguishes it from other forms of art is its interactivity with the player.
It is very simple to compare and find the similarities between video games and another, more widely understood and accepted art form, movies. Both blend various artistic elements -- the storytelling of novels, the power of images, and the emotion of music -- together to unify these various elements into a single, coherent, powerful theme. However, simply defending games as art by noting their similarities with movies will not earn the medium any merit. By doing so, we open ourselves to the inevitable question: why not make movies rather than video games? As it presently stands, the abilities of movies to effectively use these elements are largely above those of video games: the image and sound quality are better and more fluent (anyone who denies that there is a difference between the full-motion video and battle scenes of today's games is using wishful thinking).
Therefore, we must consider the traits of video games which movies lack, and then describe how this can be used artistically. This trait, quite simply, is the element which video games have always emphasized: their interactivity. Thus far, the only editorial which has made direct mention of this critical fact is Michael Harnest's, and his fleeting mention of it at the very end of his essay would not sufficiently convince anyone outside the community.
This interactivity works in two ways to make video games an art form with their own unique characteristics. First, as Harnest mentions, it gives the audience an ability to react directly with the work, and in doing so, influence the actual work itself. For instance, during my first play of Final Fantasy VII, I found some of the characteristics of Nanaki (Red XIII) to be interesting. When I played it again, I worked him into my party at every opportunity, and as a result, discovered more about him, leading me to belive that he is the most symbolic character in the game. As I interacted with the work, it changed in order to more effectively convey its message.
The interactivity of a game also works in the other direction, however. This is an aspect of video games which almost everyone who plays one understands, but distressingly few seem to comprehend. In your interaction with the game, you develop a very direct level upon which emotional responses can be created. You feel triumphant when the characters triumphantly defeat the final enemy. You feel at a loss when a character is lost to the party. By directly involving the player, the video game is able to establish an emotional connection with her. This makes it easier for the video game to create an emotional response with the player, becuase it is the player's affair, not the affairs of some remote star-crossed lovers.
It is this ability of video games, through interactivity, to more directly respond to the player and create more direct response from him, that distinguishes the medium from movies or other forms of art. This is the characteristic that we should mention to others when explaining video games' artistic capacity, because this trait is what makes the video game, on a particular level, more powerful and telling than the most profound movie, gorgeous painting, or stunning music.
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