Video Games, Counterpoint: A Purpose Forgotten

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Scream by Edvard Munch, “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, Saving Private Ryan written by Robert Rodat and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Starving Child And Vulture” by Kevin Carter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, Michelangelo’s David, and Hamlet by William Shakespeare are a small representation of the vast and infinitely deep culture of the world. Thousands, even millions of people look at these masterpieces that date back hundreds of years and consider them some of the most quintessential artistic creations in the history of the world. This is all art. Question: are there any video games that you can think of that society would deem worthy of the same praise and love? While avid gamers might say The Last of Us, Pong, or Super Mario Bros., society would probably shake its disappointed head at us and call us fools for considering these to be anywhere near the caliber of some of the greatest paintings, photos, sculptures, movies, music, and literature of all time. While it’s easy to blame this on how young the gaming industry is, I believe this issue takes us deeper into the purpose of the industry and why games are created. I invite you to join me patiently as we examine the industry in a profound and philosophical way. At the end of the day, art is art. Whether it’s a video game, a song, or a 500-year-old sculpture, all of it shares space under the one umbrella that is art. In other words, commonalities exist between these creations, and these shared attributes bind them together until the end of time. However, there are two that catch the attention of every person to lay their eyes and/or ears upon them.


Now, what could The Scream have in common with Saving Private Ryan that could be so important? Well, what’s beautiful about The Scream? Visual artists always look to paint a picture of the world we live in. As boring as that sounds, this leads to tremendous interpretations of where, how, and why we live. This work by Edvard Munch depicts a screaming figure on a walkway overlooking a fjord in Oslo, Norway with two people in the background. The two people are supposedly Munch and a friend on the walk that inspired the painting. Munch claims that the sky was the color of blood and that nature screamed at him as he fell to anxiety. This scream and anxiety are mirrored by the figure painted by Munch. The Scream symbolizes humanity’s nerves and anxieties that force us to experience the world in a terrifying light.


The Scream by Edvard Munch


This level of symbolism eludes Saving Private Ryan, mostly because the movie is meant to be in your face and gruesome from the get go, all the way to the very last detail. Spielberg and Rodat knew you couldn’t water down arguably the most frighteningly realistic war film ever produced; it’s here where the movie tugs at the hearts… no, the souls of the people watching. It uses this to tell a bloody story of heroism, loss, and, most importantly, thankfulness. The message behind the movie comes in clear through the entrails of the people on the beach at Normandy. The blood spilled on that beach in 1944 belonged to men with families, hopes, and dreams, and it will forever be washed up in the ever-turning tides of the Pacific. We were meant to see that film and be reminded of the gift that is today. We should treat every day like a wonderful gift handed to us by those around us, because that’s what it is.


Now, let’s take a sidetrack and look at the ten best-selling games of all time:

  1. Tetris
  2. Minecraft
  3. Grand Theft Auto V
  4. Wii Sports
  5. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
  6. Pokémon Red/Green/Blue/Yellow
  7. Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus
  8. Super Mario Bros.
  9. Mario Kart Wii
  10. Wii Sports Resort


Why is Tetris number one? Why is Wii Sports number four? We explored why The Scream and Saving Private Ryan are some of the best artistic works ever created, so what about these games? Let’s look at another list. These are the top ten games of all time according to Metacritic scores (duplicates not included):

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  2. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
  3. Grand Theft Auto IV
  4. SoulCalibur
  5. Super Mario Galaxy
  6. Super Mario Galaxy 2
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Grand Theft Auto V
  9. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  10. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3


This list feels a bit better, but it still falls so short of what we should expect from video games as an art form. I’m curious to know what was so sagacious and scholarly about not just Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, but Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. It’s no crime to enjoy playing a game that doesn’t delve deep into an existential question, but is this really the bar for video games that we’ve set? Is this what we’re considering to be the best of the best, even above games that do question morality like The Last of Us, Mass Effect, and God of War? This brings us finally to the first thing that all of the aforementioned masterpieces have in common: perspective. I’m not talking about first-person versus third-person perspective, but a perspective on life. They ask important questions. How should I be living? What is life about? Why do we act certain ways? Whom should I trust? Why is there suffering? Asking and trying to answer these questions is how we are meant to improve ourselves, so what does it look like when as gamers we pool our resources and time into games like Super Mario Galaxy or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds? This is an unfortunate reality; we blind ourselves to the meaninglessness of the games that we play and look for a quick fix of pleasure instead of trying to lift this crumbling world from the ashes. At its purest definition, this is called ignorance.


The Last of Us Screenshot


However, this isn’t a one-sided issue. Video game companies – for lack of better words – worsen the industry to a great extent. Other than selling us games that mean nothing, they manipulate us into thinking that certain games do have meaning. Let’s look at games like Rocket League, League of Legends, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, and Overwatch. Surely these have meaning. They encourage friendship, teamwork, and cooperation by banding everyone together around a common goal. As you might have guessed, I speak satirically. Do you know what rallies people behind a common goal? The photo “Migrant Mother” and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.


They don’t form together around a singular goal, rather they form people around different goals in culture and society. Crime and Punishment tells a riveting story of love and murder. It dives into the topic of God and His place in society, as well as the dangers of pride. Dostoyevsky strives to bring people together under these philosophies in hopes of creating a world with less evil and more understanding. Dorothea Lange captured a striking photo of a mother in California who was out of work and barely able to provide for her family during the Great Depression. This photo became a call to the world begging for people to have compassion and work together towards a better tomorrow in a time of suffering across many nations.


The competitive games we cherish and spend hundreds of hours mastering aren’t meant to promote teamwork. Don’t let game companies fool you on that. A vast majority of them are rough concepts built around the goal of making money. While we think we’re exercising your teamwork, we’re actually feeding our competitive nature. Companies want us to keep playing their games, so they use our psychological desires to succeed and keep up with the joneses to sell us expansions, cosmetics, and sometimes the game itself. While I should clarify that this certainly does not apply to all competitive games, it certainly exists on a large scale in the industry. The fueling of this competitive side of us (a side that can get extremely aggressive) leads largely to the toxicity in games that everybody loathes. If we’re focusing on togetherness and teamwork, then why do we get people every match calling their teammates’ derogatory names and insulting them profusely?


As the gaming industry has grown and developed, we’ve all somehow lost what it means for something to be an art form. Video games should be about creating a better and brighter world by building everyone up to be the best versions of themselves they can be. Why should literature, paintings, music, films, and sculptures do so, but not video games, especially when video games are the most relevant up-and-coming addition to multimedia? We seem to have forgotten the artistic purpose of video games. Let us all remember once again.

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