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Online Video Games Emerge as New Art Form

Every so often, we get to witness the birth of a new genre, and it’s rarely pleasant, at least for the older generation. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, and rap were all met with enthusiasm by the young, but not so much by parents and authority figures.

Art — modern art — is often offensive, disruptive, and anti-authoritarian. It only becomes cultured and sedate after it’s been around for a few decades. Rap used to make parents angry with its violence and obscenity — while simultaneously addressing issues of morality, identity, and purpose that were of concern to the young. As the older generation began to take rap seriously, the genre started to lose some of its punch.

Today, as video games are angering parents, the quality of their art, music, and narrative is improving rapidly, and even the violent and explicit material addresses moral and ethical issues.

I would argue that Pong, in all its minimalist glory, was a kind of modern art. And the visions of the future it inspired have given birth to a number of video game genres — the “classic” Pac Man-style games, first-person shooters like Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto, and now fully realized virtual worlds.

The games are starting to get recognition, most of it in the form of cold, hard cash. The gaming industry brings in $45 billion a year. But there’s also official recognition from such organizations as the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. This year, a video game theme song — “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV — won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists.

I predict that this is just the beginning.

Video games are quickly growing richer and more realistic, and in-game characters are becoming more complex.

There’s no reason an in-game character can’t be as fully realized as Tom Sawyer or Sherlock Holmes — with the added dimension of interactivity.

Similarly, video game plots tend to be simplistic and organized around battles, puzzles, or quests, but there’s no reason they can’t be more emotionally sophisticated or include moral dilemmas. Many of today’s top-selling games do just that. For example, Mass Effect 2 not only tracks the morality of player choices, but it also presents some ethical dilemmas, such as a choice between exterminating an enemy or taking away the enemy’s free will.

Two main factors make this progression inevitable.

First, players and creators are getting older, wiser, and more demanding. This happened with comic books and science fiction novels — artists and writers grew in sophistication and experience, and readers grew to expect compelling and meaningful content.

Second, the technology is simultaneously getting more complex and easier to use. Just as hobbyist film cameras and then videotape allowed promising directors to experiment with their craft, open-source or low-cost platforms for virtual world and game development are allowing would-be magnates to create their own games for a fraction of the typical development budget. Meanwhile, technology allows creators to build complicated environments, interactive objects, complex in-world characters, and in-world economies.

Despite the size of the video game industry, we don’t yet have game creators who have become household names as a result of their artistic vision and storytelling abilities. Two exceptions are Civilization’s Sid Meier and Will Wright, who is known for SimCity and The Sims.

As video games mature, we should expect to see more auteur-driven projects — and more recognition of video games as high art.

— Maria Korolov is president of Trombly International, an editorial services company that provides coverage of emerging technologies and markets. She has been a journalist for over 20 years.