Oh look, it’s someone else trying to take part in the “Are video games art?” debate. I know this subject gets talked about a lot at the moment so I will try and stay away from ground that has already been tackled. I will not be trying to answer if games are art or not, whether they can be art, what games prove or disprove this or any similar topics. Today, for the sake of argument, I want to discuss something that separates our industry from some more commonly recognised art forms and what problems it poses for games as art. The problem, as you may have already worked out from the title of this piece, is the (traditionally) five year console refresh cycle.
You all know how it goes, for as long as we have had home consoles gamers have been focused on the future. We want the newest tech, games that push the envelope as far as possible and this often requires the industry to adopt the newest technology. Unlike PC’s which can be upgraded as and when new technology becomes available, home consoles need completely replacing every 5 or so years if you want to keep playing new games. This is something unique to video games that brings up some interesting issues for us to tackle.
Firstly, games become obsolete far more quickly than any other comparable form of art. Assuming we only think about examples of art that you are not already an established long time fan of (in an attempt to remove any bias that nostalgia may bring to the table), video games do not age as well as music, books, paintings or films. While I could go back today and read a novel from the early 1900′s today on a subject that interests me and it would still read as well as a book on the subject made today. If I play a video game made 30 years ago that I don’t have a nostalgic connection to, I doubt it will have stood the test of time nearly as well as the book. I might even just go back 5 or 10 years and find that a critically acclaimed game from the time is near unplayable today. Ours is the only industry that has a notable jump in the available tools and final experience every 5 or so years and that can really cause a jarring effect that stops our greatest achievements as an industry from surviving the test of time.
Another effect is that having such short creative cycles means developers spend a good chunk of a systems life chasing to reach the top end of its graphical abilities. Pushing the limits of a system is very costly and as such makes doing so a high risk investment. The high risk nature if this reduces the developers ability to take artistic risks with their games, and slows the artistic growth of the medium. This is not a problem for other types of artist as their mediums are much more gradual in the way they advance. You can enter at a low level and gently build up your level of investment before keeping up with advancements as they come little by little. You don’t have to keep playing catch up with the top end of the scale.
The constantly updating technology of the industry also increases the barrier for entry for the medium. While as an author you can just buy a computer with a word processor and you are finished, or a band can buy a recording deck and some mics and is ready to record, games developers have to learn to develop games, then within 5 years all of your technology and all of the skills you have learnt start to become obsolete. This makes it much harder for someone starting out to create something that while not perfect, pushes artistic boundaries.
In summary, whether you think games are art or not, I hope you will agree that the five year console cycle at the very least makes seeing games as an art form a little more difficult. It prevents games from having lasting artistic merit, it reduces the risks taken and creates a higher barrier for entry. While there are games that are not effected by this, I think that once the uncanny valley is crossed and gaming hardware improvement slows it should be much more common for games to be considered art.
What do you think? Are games already art? Can they be art when they become obsolete so quickly? IS there something bigger preventing them becoming art? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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