A peculiar phenomenon of American culture is the way we often ignore our own history, even as it unfolds in front of us. It is often left to foreign scholars and historians to celebrate the significance of our great artists. Our understanding and appreciation of filmmakers like Buster Keaton and John Ford was greatly enhanced by French critics in the 1950s and 60s who in many ways exhumed the reputations of these great masters.
Likewise, we owe a great debt to Thames Television for its seminal 1980 documentary "Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film," the only comprehensive documentary of its kind, and a just-in-time recording of first-hand accounts from Lilian Gish, Hal Roach, Yakima Canutt, and dozens of other now departed figures from the silent era.
As we continue to wrangle over "games as art" and bicker over ratings systems and console war supremacy, others are moving forward, affording video games cultural status worthy of recognition on par with film, television and other popular media. In particular, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) decided several years ago that video games should be seen as its "third arm," equal in stature to film and television:
The video game has rapidly become one of the most exciting and engaging moving image art forms and BAFTA has long-recognised the medium's potential to inspire, educate and entertain. Since 2003, the British Academy Video Games Awards have provided an international stage to celebrate the creative endeavour of the industry’s many talented individuals.
Certainly, video games are awarded in America by reputable organizations like D.I.C.E., but such industry events pale in comparison to the cultural stature of BAFTA. The reality is that when most Americans hear "video game awards," they think Spike TV. Google those three words and see for yourself. We are worlds away from a broad cultural recognition of video games in this country if we must rely on Spike TV as the arbiter of taste and achievement.
Likewise in our mainstream major media, stalwart publications like the New York Times decree video games not quite ready for primetime, while its UK equivalent The Guardian editorializes on the senseless omission of the medium among the other recognized arts:
Here at the Guardian there are apparently only seven forms of arts and entertainment. Art itself, television, books, theatre, film, music and even the little old radio get a mention. There they are, at the top of your screen, the limit of our cultural world catalogued succinctly.
To adults who play sophisticated games regularly (such as those over at the Guardian's Gamesblog) it is an old contention that video games can be art, and tell a story in a way nothing else can. To everyone else, it seems madness to think those digitised and extra gory versions of Rambo IV could ever do anything subtle. OK, so there is a mountain of idiotic guff made into video games and most are the top sellers. But are the book charts any different?
The editorial goes on to suggest that we needn't wait for someday. We are producing and have produced valuable and subtle works of art in the form of video games:
...For games that don't have a weapon in sight we look to the early work of Lucasarts. The name is right: it remains the most genuinely artistic accomplishment in the Lucas empire. Tim Schafer produced for them time-travelling B-movie parody and surreal history lesson Day of the Tentacle, biker comedy Full Throttle and, greatest of all, Grim Fandango. Fandango was stunningly beautiful, taking the calaca style figures of the Mexican Day of the Dead and telling a four-year tale of the afterlife in which you get to play the grim reaper. More importantly, it was wonderfully, tightly and wittily written.
For a different, albeit more pessimistic (realistic?) take on this issue, I recommend Steve Gaynor's essay "Wager" on his blog Fullbright. I don't fully agree with him on this one, but it's a well-reasoned piece by one of the most incisive games writers around, and well worth a look.
You can read the entire Guardian editorial here. Hail Britannia!