The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

If we can assume that the fantasy trope of mystical female other in bondage gear is popular among men, perhaps we can likewise assume that the fantasy trope often referred to as Draco in Leather Pants is popular among women. According to this trope, a man with a complicated past, equally complicated motivations, and a markedly antisocial streak has a heart of gold somewhere deep inside – especially if he’s handsome. The character Balthier from Final Fantasy XII meets all of these conditions; and, judging from the amount of fan fiction and fan art that has been created in his honor, female fans of the game love him.

It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that Balthier’s design and characterization both contain just as many fetish elements as Fran’s. After all, the male characters in the Final Fantasy series are subject to the same narrative tropes as the female characters. If Rydia is wedged into the role of spell caster by virtue of her gender, then Cecil is similarly cast into the role of the dark/white knight by virtue of his own gender. Moreover, if Rydia is sexually attractive to men, Cecil is perhaps even more attractive according to non-heteronormative female standards of male beauty (which include delicate features and long, willowy limbs). This is fantasy, and we want our characters to be attractive, and interesting, and suitably epic. There is no rule, after all, that says fantasy has to be any less subject to the confines of narrative tropes than, say, interwar French existentialist fiction.

If everyone in the Final Fantasy games is fetishized, and if everyone is subject to gendered tropes, however, can the series really be called “feminist”? Through my discussion of Rydia, Aeris, and Fran, I have attempted to prove that each successive game in the Final Fantasy series has become less sexist and phallocentric. I posited at the beginning of this essay that a “feminist” work contains “strong” (by which I mean “multi-dimensional” and “featured prominently”) female characters who are not villainized. By this standard of judgment, the games in the Final Fantasy series are indeed feminist works. Even though the player-protagonist is often male, this character is usually subordinate to the narrative importance of a central female character. Even though the story of this female character is seen through the eyes of a male character, it is her story that is being told, and the male player-protagonist is just along for the ride. While the player controls the gameplay, the actions of the female protagonist advance the plot and open more of the game’s world.

Although we could once safely assume that the gamer behind the player-protagonist was male, this is no longer the case; he is now just as likely to be controlled by a woman. The player-protagonist may have his own story, but he is also the eyes through which the player looks and the hands and feet by which the player explores and manipulates the world. Such a direct player identification thus makes his identity somewhat less than stable, along with his gender and sexual orientation. The player-protagonist is arguably little more than a cipher in many situations (such as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, who is never addressed or referred to by name, lest the player’s identification with him be impeded), and the true spotlight shines on the female protagonists of the series, such as Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna, and Ashe.

Perhaps, because these female characters were created by development teams consisting primarily of men, they can never be considered “pure” feminist role models, but there is another side to the equation – the female (and male!) fans of the series who have been inspired by these characters and have interpreted them in ways that may differ wildly from the original intentions of their creators. As I have argued elsewhere, a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player. These personal fantasies can then be reinforced and expanded upon when introduced into larger communities of gamers. Player reception is engaged in a feedback loop with Square-Enix, which has used the enormous revenue it has earned from the Final Fantasy franchise in order to develop games that will better appeal to its fans, both new and old. The strong female characters of the series have resulted in a large and vocal female following, which has in turn resulted in Final Fantasy XIII, a title that has been celebrated as a truly feminist video game. As gaming technology becomes more sophisticated, and as the narrative mechanisms of role playing games become more innovative and complex, I am looking forward to meeting the female characters in the future of Final Fantasy.

I cannot claim to have the final word on Final Fantasy, or on the topic of video games, role playing, and gender. Allow me to therefore cite my sources and inspirations, both online and in print.

The absolute best pieces of writing on Final Fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure of reading are collected under the title The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy. Each of these essays is quite long, but each is beautifully written and provides all of the background information I have omitted, which is presented in a humorous and highly intelligent tone. The online video game “magazine” The Escapist recently posted a video essay called True Female Characters, which is a bit superficial in terms of analysis but makes some good points and provides several examples of female characters in video games who are prime examples of sexist stereotypes. A short, journalistic article called Getting the Girl offers an interesting counterpoint to this discussion in the light it sheds on female game developers and the market pressures they face when designing female characters. The website The Mary Sue has a number of interesting pieces on women and geek culture, including statistics relating to female gamers.

If you’re interested in other aspects of the Final Fantasy series as viewed from a “scholarly” analytical perspective, there is an essay in Mechademia 4: War/Time titled “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” This essay is somewhat crippled by the word count imposed by the journal, but it contains an interesting argument relating to how the narrative structure of the game may relate to Japan’s experience of modernity. There are also several interesting and tangentially related articles in an academic journal called Games and Culture, including an essay on ethics in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, as well as an interesting piece on fantasy races in MMO-RPGs.

On a broader level, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture” (found in the collection Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field) is an excellent discussion of cross-gender character identification in a Japanese context. All four chapters of Tania Modleski’s short but brilliant Loving with a Vengeance discuss the romance tropes surrounding male characters and might be useful for a sustained inquiry into why a character like Balthier (or Sephiroth) is so popular with female fans. Finally, while I was writing this essay, I was addicted to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney, which opens by making a strong case for why we should continue to analyze popular culture and then goes on to provide an fantastic model of how to do so.

All of the games and characters I have discussed, as well as (almost) all of the images I have borrowed, belong to Square-Enix. Square-Enix, I love you. Please don’t sue me.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four