Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Preserving Video Games as an Art Form

It's-a me, overused "It's-a me" joke!
     Let me begin by stating that, in no way, shape, or form, is this article going to be an attempt to validate or legitimize video games as an artistic medium. Quite frankly, attempting to sway the opinions of those that would detract video games as art is about as useful and fruitful an endeavor as attempting to demolish a brick wall with a sack of feathers; all you ever seem to end up with is a mild, scratchy, irritated feeling as you unintentionally coat yourself in feathers, a bothersome mess
that you'll inevitably have to clean up later, and a thoroughly undemolished brick wall. That said, if you, the reader, are not personally convinced of the artistic merits of video games, I would kindly ask you to do one of two things, either suspend your disbelief for the sake of argument or stop reading here. Obviously, if you are still reading, you have chosen to join me on the "games are art" thought train, were already on the train to begin with, or have decided to ignore my little disclaimer, so let's get on with it.

     Once we start to entertain the notion of video games as art, it inevitably comes to pass that video games be compared to painting, sculpting, literature, music, film, and all other forms of artistic expression, and, in most aspects, video games maintain a unique incongruity with conventional art forms. Paintings, sculptures, poems, films, etc. are all static forms of media. The layers of paint on the canvas, the words on the page, the patterns of light through the film, and so forth are always the same; the differences in perception and creative nuances exist only in the mind of the observer. Video games, on the other hand, are an intrinsically interactive medium. Every play-through is unique, and, to some extent, I believe it is this amorphous quality of video games-- this guided entropy, unique to each player but universally conveying common themes-- that suggests video games as an evolution of art. As the saying goes, art imitates life or, at the very least, the artist's perception of life, and no artistic medium conveys the dynamic, entropic, interpersonally schizophrenic yet common experience of life as well as video games. For the most part, video games have no set running time; they progress at the pace of the player, and many only end when the player decides to stop playing, which, philosophically, may speak to the human compulsion to control fate even in the face of chaos but, more pragmatically, also poses a unique issue in the exhibition of video games as art.

     Historical and contemporary paintings, drawings, and sculptures alike are exhibited to the public at art galleries and art museums; films are showcased at film festivals; music is performed at concerts; and literature has poetry and book readings as its outlets for public appreciation. The appreciation of conventional art has always been a passive endeavor, and, in stark contrast, video games cannot be fully experienced from an observer's perspective. Sans massive multiplayer games, there simply is no outlet for allowing an entire audience to simultaneously share the experience of playing a video game. The closest video gaming has to a physical, public forum dedicated to the celebration of video games as an artistic medium is gaming conventions, and gaming conventions, by virtue of their primary purpose as a corporate selling tool, only offer incomplete gaming experiences at best and do nothing to expose their audience to older games. Conventions are a celebration of next fiscal quarter's profit margins, not of video games as an art form. Nevertheless, I am not necessarily saying that video gaming needs its own means of en masse appreciation. What I am getting at is that, as gaming is a more personalized, more solitary artistic experience, the general public has a great deal of difficulty acknowledging and understanding gaming as art. However, the atypical presentation of video games does bear some similarity to other art if you consider the role of the player as an analogue to that of the performance artist.

      Arguably the artistry in music is principally thanks to the composure itself, the sheet music, tabs, lyrics, or what have you, yet I can't say I know many people who appreciate music by reading compositions. Most people experience music by listening to others perform it, but there is a certain sense of artistic appreciation to be had in performing a musical composition. Moreover, the same artistic resonance in performance applies to the actors in a play and, in my opinion, the players of a video game. In effect, performance is the creation of art through the experience of art-- the transformation of what is ostensibly a completed work into something new through personal interpretation. I would argue that the only clear artistic distinction between playing or singing a song and playing a video game is that video games are much more accessible; video games don't take years of practice and training to understand how to play them. Although, there is a tradeoff between the accessibility of artistic appreciation through performance and the accessibility of the derivative art created by said performance to others. Not many people are going to appreciate your playthrough of Final Fantasy VII as art in comparison to the number of people who appreciate the source material and their personal playthrough as art.

     Regardless of the more conceptual, perceptual similarities and dissimilarities of video games with conventional art forms, a rather disconcerting factual dissimilarity between the two exists, video games are more deeply entrenched in corporate and capitalist interests than virtually any other medium, even more so than films. I fully understand that film has become widely recognized as art, even in spite of the monetary intent of the film industry, and that the present reluctance of the public to acknowledge games as art closely mirrors the past tribulations of film. Unsurprisingly, most people reason that, inevitably, games will gain the same artistic recognition and respect with time, regardless of the distraction of corporate interest. I would respectfully disagree. I have never encountered a movie that only played on a proprietary type of VCR, DVD drive, or blu-ray player, digitally drawn artwork that required specific, paid file imaging software to view, a physical painting with forty percent of the content hidden behind a literal pay wall, sheet music that requires a key code and a product verification email to play, or a book of poetry that must be verified for authenticity by the author once every day, before you are allowed to read it. Regardless of my opinion on the role of DLC, proprietary hardware, DRM, platform exclusives, and internet connectivity dependence in video gaming-- and, make no mistake, I do hate the money-grubbing concepts of DLC and DRM to their very cores-- it is a fairly inarguable point that all of these things make preserving video games for the future a difficult and frustrating proposition at best.

     While the digitization of books, movies, and music has led to some DRM implementation in more classical art forms, digital images, videos, text documents, and music are largely homogenized and standardized in format; any generic media player can open most video and audio files, and the same applies to image viewing software and word processing software. Additionally, more classical forms of media typically have physical, durable analogues that serve as redundancies in the event something were to happen to digital media. In contrast, video games do not have a standardized, cross-platform format, and, for the most part, the only way to preserve games is to either acquire and maintain aging, decaying proprietary hardware or to resort to emulation. It simply isn't a viable option to preserve aging, complex hardware with hundreds of thousands of possible points of failure, and, even if this were a sustainable practice, the means to allow any member of the public to experience historically significant video games would not exist under this paradigm. Also, unlike music, video games cannot solely depend on re-releases to help preserve historical works, as video game re-releases are far more costly, technically difficult to produce, and needlessly proprietary than music re-releases. Furthermore, aside from the obvious copyright issues that it raises, emulation becomes more difficult with each generation of video gaming software.

     Emulation has never been a perfect proposition, and, the more complex the hardware being emulated is, the more prone to runtime errors and game incompatibilities the emulation software will be. The implementation of increasingly convoluted DRM schemes and the fragmentation of games with DLC are only making the issue of preserving current and future generations of games, through emulation or otherwise, all the more problematic. While, currently, the internet's dedicated legions of pirates and hackers continue to miraculously crack virtually every popular game release, regardless of the intricacy of the game's DRM, video game publishers will continue the attempt to make pirates' job and, inadvertently, the job of potentially more well intentioned emulator developers harder. Moreover, it is inevitable that video games will, at some point in the future, transition to being a purely digital medium, and, in spite of some of the benefits of the digital distribution model, if developers persist with increasingly restrictive DRM policies, we risk the possibility of games being lost to time as game data slowly corrupts, due to the short data lifespan of modern, high density HDDs,  or as people simply make room on their hard drives for newer games. Of course, I'm definitely presenting a worst case scenario; I know for a fact that new data storage devices with data lifespans in the vicinity of a million or so years are in the works, and, if DRM policies are toned down, there should be no issue of games disappearing as the publishers drop support for them.

     As much as I despise the anti-consumer policies pervading the modern games industry, I'm not just worried about my games being affordably priced and convenient to use; perhaps it is just the sycophantic retro gamer in me, but  I'm even more worried about the effects of these new digital business tactics on the continued existence of video games of bygone generations. If it were up to me, there would be a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of video games as an art form, but I can't imagine that organization being forced to archive cracked versions of modern games because publishers have transformed their games from works of art to temporary services. A great many game industry leaders claim to be looking out for the future of gaming with their new policies; I would argue that they are looking out for the future of gaming as a business, not as an art form. If video games are indeed an art form, which I wholeheartedly believe, and the game industry wants to have its craft respected as art, game publishers and developers would be wise to start treating their products as such.