Why Video Games Aren't Art (At Least Not All of Them)

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Bethesda Software


If video game fans have any designs on getting their hobby into a museum, with the argument that video games are art, they would be wise to check the Internet connection in the exhibition hall.

This week sees the highly anticipated Fallout: New Vegas unload on Xbox 360s, PlayStation 3s, and PCs worldwide. As in other Fallout video games, players land in a massive, post-nuclear American town with endless quests, hundreds of characters to talk to, and moral choices that define the path. In an era of go-anywhere, do-anything video games, the Fallout series has proven the smartest of the genre.


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Trouble is, New Vegas is a bit off in the head. The reviews are in, and most agree that the game is loaded with glitches and crashes. A popular fan video shows a head-spinning bug in the opening scene, prompting a reddit.com user to call it "Fear and Loathing in New Vegas."

Yesterday, its makers announced "patches/updates" to fix the glitches that will be downloadable "as quickly as possible."

Last month, world-domination sim Civilization V launched on PCs with a similar wave of hype, targeting the series' loyal, nerdy following. But fans balked, as did renowned game critic Tom Chick, over the game's obvious bugs and not-so-obvious "intelligence" issues. Computer armies make stupidly mad dashes to their bitter end. In-game attempts at diplomacy, a series cornerstone, tend to end with caveman-like rebuttals.

In response, last week, its makers announced patches and fixes that will be downloadable in the near future.

On the surface, this isn't special stuff for modern video games. Patches and fixes have just about become the norm, whether to add new content or to fine-tune balance issues in versus games.

But this modern circle of gaming life—this expectation of a little fix, man—has turned reviews of games like Fallout: New Vegas and Civilization V into wishlists. Promotional dialogue, even.

"[Civilization V] is a disappointment that needs a lot more work before it earns its place as the successor to Civilization IV," Chick concluded, as if to goad the developer into doing his bidding—and to goad fans into waiting to buy the game when, not if, the fixes come down the pipeline.

Film critics didn't plead with Scorcese after Gangs of New York underwhelmed. And music writers didn't send remix requests to The Flaming Lips upon hearing the sprawling, overwhelming album Embryonic. People will complain and disagree with a release, but that's an issue of "bad art" vs. "good art." The issue of games as art goes one further than that, thanks to the expectation of an endpoint—a vision mulled over and finetuned until, hopefully, complete.

I don't mean to demean the artistic potential of video games. As Super Mario Bros. celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, the classic game remains a document of the emotion and delight only a game can conjure, as much with mechanics as with looks. But what would Super Mario Bros. be if it had been "fixed"—if its "minus world" had been patched, among other glitches? Those weird corners of the game are a crucial part of its charm (and were left in the game when it was re-released in the '90s for other systems).

I'll certainly continue downloading patches and fixes to make my games more enjoyable. On some occasions, they create an ecosystem of changes and updates that could be called artistic—a mass of activity molded by both its makers and audience into unexpected shapes (in particular, the years-old Team Fortress 2 has been updated over 120 times to great effect). But in terms of buggy, incomplete games reaching the marketplace, the hobby is doing great damage to itself. When video games depend on patches, they lose all artistic potential and become broken advertisements for their future selves.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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