Another fruitless discussion about how our class could come together to create a unified, consistent model of video game theory to dissect and analyze video games academically led me to once again think about whether video games should be considered “art.”
During this discussion, someone in the class mentioned architecture and how architectural creations can be respected and admired for their functionality, but also their artistic magnificence. More importantly (at least to artistic critics), this artistic magnificence can be experienced by people in more ways than the obvious witnessing of aesthetic beauty. Architecture can be immersive, immense and inspiring, and ultimately infects the imagination of its inhabitants. (I’m not sure if “inhabitants” is the proper word there, but I was on an alliterative roll. Perhaps visitors or viewers would be better.)
Last term we looked at the concepts of world-renowned architect Peter Eisenman, particularly his “Staten Island Project,” where “Eisenman transforms framing from an ‘objective’ condition of the site into a process encompassing site, space, and body or… from a static, black-boxed technical frame to a dynamic bodily-generated one” (Hansen 209). Mark Hansen argues in his book Bodies in Code that Eisenman manages to design buildings and architectural installations that not only house people and objects in an efficient manner but actually become an almost biological extension of the people within, or at least appear to exist so naturally around the people within that the visitors forget they are in an artificial structure at all.
Oddly enough, I think a good way of explaining the relationship between architecture as art and video games as art can be found in the movie Inception, where the architects in the movie create artificial worlds that are dreamed by targets and infiltrated by others. As Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells Ariadne (Ellen Page), “you create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into the dream and they fill it with their subconscious.” If “subconscious” can also be seen as imagination (which I think it can), this idea of creating an artificial world in which others “buy in” using their imagination is very similar to the way game developers create artificial worlds that gamers explore and with which they interact. “Well dreams… they feel real while we’re in them, right?” asks Cobb. Games today feel real while we’re in them too, do they not? Flight simulations, Call of Duty, Gran Turismo and other games of the sort are highly realistic, and I for one am often guilty of shutting out the “outside,” real world entirely while I fall deeply into such games.
The dreams that are created by the architects in Inception are beautiful, functional worlds that immerse their participants entirely. And, as Cobb says throughout the film, it takes a brilliant architect with imagination and skill to create effective worlds. So too does it take brilliant architects to design game worlds that not only impress gamers with realistic or beautiful aesthetics, but also allow gamers to explore the world and construct a story that is interesting, organic and meaningful. It is likely that game developers see their work as “the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world,” just as Cobb sees dream design. And since the virtual worlds of games are—just like the virtual worlds of dreams in Inception—fictitious, there is no harm in stretching the limits of reality. As Eames (Tom Hardy) says, “mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
Architecture, like painting, literature and music, has been considered a form of art for a very long time. But people have been building huts, houses and temples for thousands of years. Video games do not have the luxury of such a renowned history. Much like the content created for film and television, video games must first earn the respect of critics, scholars and the general public. But because of the deep connection between games and the people who play them, just like the connection between architecture and those who experience it, it is only a matter of time (if that time isn’t already upon us) until the writers, designers and developers of games are seen as artists, and games seen as art.
PS: In 2008, a “Gaming & Architecture” conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden in order to inform architects of the potential opportunities available to them in the gaming industry. It is interesting to see who is involved with such events, and how people within the industry look at the developments therein. Meanwhile, the cross-disciplinary scholarship of architecture and game design continues to grow. If you are interested in learning more, I have added a slideshare I found from Martin Nerurkar’s game architecture blog below, and Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris have published a book titled Game Architecture and Design.