Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 Fight Club, which went on to become a popular film, is not only a best selling novel but a relevant deconstruction of the social emasculation of modern male culture. Radiohead's 1998 OK Computer which went on to award winning commercial success in the US and UK is also a unique and creative exploration of sound and atmosphere that has been recognized as one of the best albums of all time and compared to The Beatles. Meaningful and popular are not necessarily the antonyms often suggested by cynics of modern entertainment; it's just not the status quo. Nor should it be.
Outstanding creative works that are both popular and significant are, at this very moment, being produced; work imbued with meaning that stir the imagination while proving profitable still exist in all forms or artistic expression. All forms, that is, with the possible exception of video games, which is seen by many to not have produced a quintessential or meaningful work that transcends to some nebulous higher tier of quality.
It's become, I realize, something of a cliché to ask where is The Godfather, Romeo and Juliet or Citizen Kane of video games. It's the kind of whiny intellectualism that fails to simply be satisfied with the endless entertainment provided by our games, and is probably like wondering when roller coasters will become educational. Mostly, I'm like the average gamer and don't worry much anymore about when Half-Life will both involve the offing of headcrabs while driving me to deeper contemplative states on the human condition. I'm relatively content now to accept that Picard soliloquies to Data about being human will be far deeper explorations of metaphysical concepts than pretty much any video game.
Except Ken Levine in his comments in our Bioshock preview earlier this week, damn that man, has got me curious again with his talk of Objectivism and Ayn Rand. That's daring stuff to be talking about when trying to sell a video game. While he's certainly pragmatic about having to hide the philosophical stuff behind the "kick ass shooter", it's obviously on the man's mind. But, the more I think about it, the more I believe that, begging Levine's pardon, the reason we don't see video games with meaningful resonance, whatever that exactly means, is that for all practical purposes it can't be done.
There will never be a Citizen Kane, or Atlas Shrugged for that matter, of video gaming.
The mischaracterization of the tech entertainment industry as an under-sexed club of comic-book loving, man-boy nerds is as flawed as any stereotype. Looking around our own population here in this quiet corner we are a cross-section of society representing a variety of stages of life and sophistications. The industry, both its consumers and professionals, has amassed as talented and intelligent people in positions of power as film, publishing or television. So, there's simply no lack of creative or practical resources to have met the goal of creating a truly meaningful piece of art in game form, if such a beast is assumed to be possible.
There are smart people working hard to make exactly the games that are meant to have meaning, and time and again they seem thwarted not by lack of effort or talent, but apparently by the medium itself. If Ken Levine's Bioshock does not turn out to offer deep meditations on mankind as he seems to hope, I don't think the reason will be for lack of ability. The fault is not with the creator but the creation.
The structure of narrative in gaming itself is a big problem. So called meaningful works of art, particularly those like games that involve a story, usually measure progress not by an accumulation of accoutrements, be they weapons, powers, levels or stats, as games so often do. Growth in narrative can be married to loss, hopelessness and self-realization, where even the best games are about overcoming discreet goals to forward a story. It's not that video games couldn't do this as well. It's that we wouldn't want them to. Gamers, as a rule, don't like to have to lose in order to win, and this begins what could otherwise be a long discussion on why interactivity is less empathic than passivity.
It's counter-intuitive. One might expect that by investing a player into the part of the hero, the player would identify with that character and be more invested in the role. But my own highly unscientific and logically porous observation is that, instead, gamers become selfish about the character, infuse the game with their own frustrations that tend to make us mad rather than contemplative when disaster strikes. Loss and struggle are much easier to bear when we are passively sympathetic rather than actively involved. This is probably why people are a lot more likely to seek out meaning about the human condition by watching a fictional character experience true suffering rather than having to endure it ourselves.
So, when people talk about trying to move these common notions of artistic meaning onto gaming it feels artificial. Meaningful art takes many forms, and there's no question that from a perspective of pure aesthetics gaming has achieved numerous successes. Just not the same kinds as cinema, literature or music. When we ask where is the Citizen Kane of gaming, we are not asking about quality of product, but we seem to be asking when gaming will teach us something larger about our society, our philosophy, our mortality and ourselves.
In some ways, we already have that. Maybe it's just that we don't like what we see, don't care for the meaning of the dystopian futures we keep crafting to shoot aliens in, don't like the image in the mirror that violent video games show us, don't want to see that Civilization itself is bound up in the war, deceit and greed exemplified by the game of the same name. What we seem to really want is something that is both profound but more importantly affirming, the Picard nonsense about the value of humanity for humanity's sake. And, when our books and movies describe the failures of the human condition our refuge is in the passivity and inevitability of the narrative. Video gaming makes it personal. What gaming does that books, movies, music and no other form of art can is steal the certainty of fate. It puts free will back in our own hands, and like life itself sets us goals that we either achieve or fail.
If books and movies are a glimpse into broad statements about other people, video games are a mirror.
And, that has value too. Either way, I've stopped looking for Citizen Game, and while I look forward to Levine's Bioshock and its brave attempt to explore Objectivism, mostly I'm just in it for the kick ass shooter. What I've learned about myself is that I don't ride the rollercoaster for deep meditations on life.