Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Video Games as Transformative Art

I reviewed a book recently for ACM Computing Reviews entitled Critical Play: Radical Game Design, by Mary Flanagan. It was a fascinating book that brought forth two important points about video games. First, video games can be through of as a form of artistic expression. And, second, as a form of artistic expression, video games can, potentially, be seen as transformative.

Seeing video games as a form of art is not that controversial. The background scenery and characters have graced posters and drawn the attention of graphics artists for years. But, it is much more than that. Consider the following progression... Imagine standing in your favorite art gallery viewing an oil painting of a landscape scene. Next imagine putting characters in that scene and having them work through some sort of archetypal human conflict. Now you have a movie. Next, imagine having that movie be interactive where the viewers actually interact with the characters in the story. Now you have a video game.

Returning to the landscape painting, it can be viewed on several levels. It can just be something nice to look at. It can inspire deeper reflection and aesthetic appreciation. Or, if it touches us deeply enough, it can be transformative. Similarly, a video game can simply be fun to play. If it is more engaging we may learn from it. For example, we might learn how to work in groups, solve problems, develop strategies, or manage resources. If it touches us deeply enough, it may be transformative.

These are compelling ideas and also somewhat problematic. I have been thinking of video games as play, serious play. I was starting to get a net over my ideas in this area. Now, having to consider the role of video games as transformative play has torn a big hole in my net.