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Thinking Thursday: What Makes Games Unique?

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By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Flickr user Patrick Hoesly)

Quite recently I was posed a question I had trouble immediately answering. A good friend asked me, "What is unique to video games? What do we get artistically form them that we can't get from painting, movies, or music? What makes games special?"

I really had to sit down and think about this question. I many ways, video games are the vast sum of artistic expression. They are cinematic, visual, stylistic, and musical. The talent pool is tremendous. Games require actors, artists, composers, programmers, writers, animators, developers, producers, and so much more. Every artistic medium that has come before games has had a remarkable impact on what we play today.

So is this blending what makes them unique? Well yes, and no. The blending of mediums could be said for movies and animation as well. The true uniqueness of video games derives from the interactive elements.

The beauty of a game over other elements, is in giving agency to the audience. The hallmark of a fantastic movie is in showing, not telling. The hallmark of a fantastic video game is doing, not showing. Some of the most advanced, and in many ways, most emotionally impactful games on the market these days allow us, as players, the ability to change the environment of the games.

LA Noire, and the Mass Effect franchise very directly added the human element to the games, allowing us agency for the stories themselves. EVE Online has a massive, real-time economy individual players can affect. The uniqueness comes from the idea that many people can play these games, and each will walk away with a different experience.

The idea of having different experiences is something the medium is starting to embrace more an more. An average person can sit down and experience music, or books, or movies, and they are technically sharing the same experience and forming individual opinions from them. With games, though we may be playing by the same rules, and technically playing the same code, we are not always playing the same game.

So how do these different experiences affect the artistic uniqueness of games? They remove the hypothetical. The writers of Extra Credits said it best when they noted one of the toughest moral choices in Mass Effect 2. His experience was with the choice of Legion and what to do with the Geth. Do you destroy the Geth sect who wants to kill your character, or do you plant a virus, effectively brainwashing the fanatic faction of the species into rejoining the majority.

In a book, or a movie, if such a question is asked the hero would make the decision independent of the audience. The scenario would play out, the story would end, and the audience might be left wondering just what they would do if asked this question. In a game, it's a stopping point. The player has to decide: kill or brainwash? The question has been asked, and there are no other options. This isn't hypothetical, anymore. This is a real question with real in-game consequences.

Of course, it could be argued that people who are playing specific roles, or who want to have multiple save files wouldn't be as affected by this question. Certainly, it doesn't have any bearing on real life. However, if you watch that Extra Credits video I linked to, you can easily see this question, and this removal of hypothetical severely impacted James Portnow.

The fact that it was able to have a direct impact and force introspection on at least once person, and I am sure out of many more, shows uniquely what we find in games. The player isn't a passive consumer of the medium, but an active participant who creates his or her own narrative.

Even in games without direct narrative control we can see players creating their own stories. How did you complete a specific level in a game? Was it different from someone else? Do you have a great story from a particular round of multiplayer? These are all narratives created and fostered by games that, in their own way, tell us a little bit about each other. Are you a tank? A healer? Are you the one with the most kills, but also the most deaths? What do these mean about us as individuals?

By recognizing this unique perspective of games, we can help enhance our own experiences. We can learn more about ourselves and our values. Games are a sum of other creative mediums, but so much more. Not every game can, or should, be artistic. That's not the point of this post. Instead, I just want to recognize the incredible possibility and artistic merit of the art we have come to enjoy. Perhaps by focusing, and learning from the most enjoyably unique parts of our medium, we can see and appreciate better games to come.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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