In Defence of the Video Game

Theatre Editor KIERAN CORCORAN makes a call for his other favourite art-form, carving out a case for video games being as artistically valid as any other entertainment form, with the added benefit of giving you the chance to get sweet high scores.

Bioshock Braid Fallout gaming kieran corcoran video games

It’s the vacation, which means I’m back in Essex, where there’s rather little for a Theatre Editor to do. It’s time to catch up on my other big entertainment interest – the video game.

I feel I should point out that this doesn’t make me depraved or moronic, despite what dubious ‘studies’ might have to say about it rotting my brain or corroding the brassy shine of my moral compass.

Nor does it make me culturally vacuous. It seems to be critics’ favourite put down lately to compare bad films to video games, meaning, we are to infer, they are ‘gratuitously violent’, ‘puerile’, ‘badly-plotted’, or ‘pointlessly flashy’.

But that’s an unfair caricature (if a spot-on description of this). While they may apply to some games some of the time, these allegedly archetypal offences are actually more typical of modern Hollywood blockbusters, a far more stultified medium than the the video game. The pace of technological advances in gaming calls for constant innovation, so standards keep rising over time.

A while ago The Tab ran a crushingly critical piece on gaming, which reaches this unhappy conclusion:

Gaming is a place to where your panicky student retreats in order to unwind from the unrelenting realness of daily life. And thats [sic] the point of gaming.

While it may be true that some best-sellers are only good for a quick fix of escapist dopamine, this is hardly the case for all of them. In fact, in the video games industry (now apparently worth more filthy billions per annum than the Hollywood film industry) feels a little more meritocratic. A lot of the time the most cutting-edge innovators, like Valve, Bungie or Bioware, are also the biggest names and biggest earners. If there is a divide between soulless unit-shifters and genuinely thoughtful creations, it’s a lot less clear than the one  between arty and mainstream bug-budget numbers in the film industry, or serious writing and profit-making chick-lit /spy thrillers in the publishing industry.

Which is good. Especially because in recent years games seem to have really started to come to grips with what they’re about. They have their own narrative style; their own ways to create experiences and meaning. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be treated as cultural endeavours as worthwhile as any other. They also benefit from a couple of key features that make them unique among other types of entertainment.

Games require a constant and dynamic input from the person experiencing them, which gives them all sorts of potential for irony and wrong-footing which just doesn’t exist elsewhere. 2007’s Bioshock remains the masterwork in this regard, painstakingly building your power and confidence across hours and hours of gameplay only to wrench it all away in a sublimely-constructed three-word twist..


Bioshock: Deep Stuff (& violent so don’t watch if you’re squeamish)

Another unique feature of first-class gaming is immersion: the illusion that a player is fully a part of what’s happening. This is a phenomenon groped at by all sorts of other media, but video games have the advantage requiring reciprocal engagement, unlike a film which will merrily continue without you. And as graphics and other technologies improve, this will only become more significant (NB motion control is a step in the wrong direction). If the novelist’s mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’, game designers can give their players the freedom to discover rather than to be shown.

The Fallout series excels in this with its hauntingly nuanced evocation of a post-apocalyptic America stuck on cultural repeat from the 1950s. Cities shattered by nukes are rebuilt from the rubble with distinctive new landmarks and a whole new mythos. A mythos all the more compelling because you discover it with minimal hand-holding and in (largely) whatever order you like. The profound flexibility of the thing makes this a worthwhile experience that couldn’t be replicated in other media.

Fallout 3’s shattered Washington DC

But for a real tour de force of gaming’s unique possibilities, we need to move backwards in bluntly technological terms, to a game which takes most of its visual cues from old-school Mario. It’s called Braid. A beautiful, time-juggling deconstruction of gaming’s tropes and processes, it is genuinely profound. And all this without speech or use of a third dimension. There’s an inherent uselessness in trying to describe the uniqueness of gaming with a stream of text, but we can get a little closer to full explanation with a video. Take a look:


There’s now a rigorous academic study of games, with journals and everything. Admittedly, it’s in its infancy, and widely scoffed at as not being a real subject, but these knee-jerk prejudices will likely go the same way as the resistances to English Literature, Photography or Film as serious areas of academic endeavour.

So when I sit down with a game it’s because there’s something actually interesting, valuable, maybe even revelatory to be had; rather than just because I want to gratify my pleasure-principle and pwn n00bs. Although I do that too.