Video Games as Cultural Capital

Can games be considered art?
This is one prevalent philosophical question that I’ve seen time and time again in this site. And to me, this is just weird because even still, this question to me makes no sense. What is this art we’re speaking of and why do people only consider some games as art and not many others? Or why do some people say games can never be considered as art? It’s a loaded question with no correct answer and for that matter, no wrong answer. And yet, it’s so interesting to see people so fierce when they try to answer this question.

I guess in the end, I have to assume that by art, people mean something that contains incredible amount of creativity. I mean, that has to be why Ico is considered as art but Tomb Raider isn’t. And probably why Metroid Prime is considered as art but Halo isn’t. I have no clue why there’s this general consensus but if you ask me, it could go either way. Every game starts out from art concepts so since it has art in it, you could say it’s art. XD Or I could argue that since there’s still no game in existence that really could be appreciated for what its form is, rather than be judged on its interactivity or on its technical achievements, no game is art but just a form of entertainment. In paintings, you can just look at it and be inspired just by what it is and you don’t ever have to talk about techniques or styles the painter used to make that painting. In a novel, a particular phrase or sections of words can be artistic in that sense. So I guess I can argue that games have not achieved that artistic level yet.

Of course, my answer to this question is not so absolute. I don’t believe that all games are art and I also don’t believe that no games are art. What I mean to say is, I see artistic quality in every single video game, yes even in a game like Gears of War (just look at the vistas! look at the realistic meat that falls out with a headshot!), but at the same time, I feel that video games don’t count as cultural capital.

Now, by cultural capital, I mean something that increases your societal position or knowledge by possessing it. For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is considered as a huge cultural capital because knowledge of it can provoke numerous discussions in which you can use Hamlet as a reference. Inside Hamlet itself are also numerous cultural capital which the reader must already know about, such as the bible.

In today’s society, games are still not at the level where it can be used as cultural capitals. In fact, not many games even contain cultural capital. There are exceptions of course since Metal Gear Solid 4 has tons and tons of it (references to all sorts of movies galore) but how many games are there that require the player to know about different cultural products to fully understand the game? Did you have to have read the bible to fully understand Call of Duty 4? No, I highly doubt that.

Games simply don’t count as cultural capital today. If you’re writing an essay about viability of machines with artificial intelligence in your English class, it just wouldn’t be right to use Half-Life as a reference. Your English teacher would be confused and would not understand the reference. It would have been much better if you used the movie Matrix as the reference.

Of course, now we come to a point where we come to ask, is something considered art only when it is considered as cultural capital? Now this is problematic since for something to become a good reference material, it not only has to provoke intelligent discussion, it must also be somewhat mainstream and popular to certain audiences. Bible is a large cultural capital because it’s the best selling literary work in the whole wide world. Hamlet is a cultural capital because literary professors have all read it.

But my point here is not that games should become mainstream to English professors so it would become a cultural capital. That’d actually be very terrible because then games would be made to be accessible to English teachers which is just… ugh. What I’m saying here is that if all current games became to be played by everyone today, it still wouldn’t really count as cultural capital. There isn’t many games today that actually contain cultural capital except for very few games like Metal Gear Solid or Bioshock but even these games are minimal when it comes to this issue.

Of course, you could argue that a game is not supposed to spark any kind of intellectual or philosophical discussion but to be just fun and entertaining. Does it need to have any cultural capital at all? No, of course not. But why separate fun and intellect? Movies are fun to watch but there are tons and tons of movies that are both fun and intellectually provoking, even some movies geared towards kids.

This is my long-winded way of saying simply, I would like to see more novel references, more movie references, more thought-provoking themes in my games. And they should be made so that even if people don’t understand those references, they can still have a good grasp of the game and have tons of fun with it. Kind of like Bioshock, which had a bunch of references and themes derived from the novels Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) and 1984 (George Orwell) and yet even for people who’ve never read any of those novels, it was still enjoyable. More games should be like that. It would still be hard to argue that games are art even when games become rich in cultural capital but at least then they would be more artistic than before. That’s what I think anyway.

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