Steve Howard has defeated the giant turtle monster demon on three different occasions.
During each 40-hour journey, Howard noted the excellent story, music, and character design in his favorite video game, Chronotrigger for the Super Nintendo. “Everything about the game is amazing,” he said. “Even ten years later.”
To Shawn Rider, a media studies professor at the University at Buffalo, games like Chronotrigger are valuable pieces of literature. Rider, 30, does not fit the stereotypical couch potato mold of a gamer. He will take hours espousing his firm belief that Sonic the Hedgehog is a direct descendant of Pablo Picasso and the modern art movement. Based on his rhetoric, he would seem more at home in a fine arts gallery than a gaming convention.
Rider is the editor of GamesFirst!, an independent, online gaming publication that is run entirely by intellectuals. The website’s list of founders includes a fine arts photographer and a Chaucerian, both of whom have taught at the university level.
As the latest edition of Final Fantasy contains a novel’s worth of readable text, more and more professors like Rider are embracing the academic merit of video game study. Colleges like Southern Methodist University (SMU) have begun to combine computer programming with fine arts to create interdisciplinary video game design degree programs. Scholars across the nation have begun to view video game design as the union of technical knowledge and artistic skill.
According to the SMU program’s website, “institutions of higher learning [are] responding to the needs of industry by collaboratively creating an educational program for digital game development—the art medium of the 21st century.”
Rider has always had a knack for the contemporary. He once wrote a thesis paper on comic book culture, while his classmates were critically analyzing chairs in Shakespearean plays. But in his prime, Sir William packed the Globe Theatre with paying audiences, which parallels the over $10.5 billion Rider said consumers spent on video games in 2005.
“As any product that is put out in the market, and as a cultural object, [video games are] worth devoting some time to their ideological content,” says José Buscaglia, a PhD in comparative literature and professor in the Department of Romances Languages and Literatures at UB.
Rider, the GamesFirst! editor, has a master’s degree in literature as well as a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He is currently working on his master of fine arts thesis, an online role playing game called Hour 720. The project is a digital mix of avant-garde literature and horror movies. Stranded on a zombie-infested island, players are assigned characters based on real world demographics. “The odds of being created as a pilot are very small,” says Rider.
Hour 720 does not feature the highest quality 3D graphics. Instead, the adventure unfolds through text readouts and charts that document the action. Rider admits that while he is not the greatest computer programmer, he believes that storytelling is more important than graphics. “In school, what matters are the ideas,” he says, as opposed to the commercial video game market, which he thinks focuses too heavily on creating the most photorealistic images.
Rider purchased GamesFirst! in 2001, after working at the publication for three years. It was around this time that major publishers like Electronic Arts (EA) began to fund game design degree programs at colleges and universities. EA supports the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Division and other schools exist at Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech.
Rider enjoys SMU’s “art medium” definition of video games. As computer applications, game design will always involve complex math-based programming. But the most popular video games from Super Mario to Chronotrigger to Grand Theft Auto also have creative storylines that facilitate game play.
But others are skeptical of accepting games as art. In a recent article published on GamesFirst!, Rider defended his views against Dr. Ted Rueter, a political science professor at DePauw University who is against the creation of game design courses and degrees.
“Schools of higher learning are simply cashing in on a fad that is destructive to society,” Reuter wrote in an op-ed piece for CollegeNews. He believes that playing violent video games will lead to aggressive behavior and schools like The Guildhall encourage the design of these games. Reuter calls video game design as a major area of study “another sign of the coming of the apocalypse.”
Attorney Jack Thompson has been fighting against game developers since 1999. In a recent interview with CBS news, Thompson said that unlike other forms of controversial media, video games invite players to actively participate in violent acts. “You enter into the violence,” he says. “You become the protagonist.”
Buscaglia says that games should be studied because of their violence. Just as one professor asks why Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, Buscaglia wonders why one would design a game like Doom or Mortal Kombat. “It’s something interesting to look at,” he says. “We are carnivores and predators.”
Still, film critics like Roger Ebert argue that there is something inherently lacking in the gaming experience that prevents games from being more than flashy displays of programming skill.
“Video games by their nature require player choices,” Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “[This] is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which require authorial control.”
However, it is this very interactive nature that many of Rider’s supporters say makes video games a new and growing media for artistic expression.
“Most traditional forms of art are viewed statically while games dynamically allow players to become part of the expression,” writes Chi Kong Lui in his essay, “Are Videogames Art? A Closer Examination of the Controversial Question Facing Videogame Culture.” His sentiments echo the views of many commentators who praise the democratization of style and creative method that have come with the recent iPod-blogger-DIY revolution.
Lui points to examples like the Sim City franchise and certain wrestling games, in which players have the ability to design cities, homes, and even coordinate a character’s outfits with their own style and vision.
“In each of these games,” he writes, “The outcome, whether it’s a spandex-clad masked grappler, metropolis-sized city, or a colorful T-shirt, says something about the individual who created it.” The phenomenon can also be seen in fan-created add-ons to popular commercial games, as in the myriad extra levels and skins created for Doom and the fantastical planes created for Microsoft’s Flight Simulator by designers like Shigeru Tanaka.
Video game developers and players appear to be at a crossroads. The debate has only recently begun as to whether their artistic ambitions are credible and worthy of principled analysis, or if they will continue to be regarded as trivial wastes of time, nothing more than instant entertainment for kids.
The medium certainly has its pioneers. Fan sites and game critics have written extensively about game designers like Hideo Kojira of the Metal Gear Solid series and Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, and the seminal Super Mario Bros., who Lui calls “the Walt Disney of videogames.”
The parallel to the iconic filmmaker is not accidental. Many believe that video games are in an infant stage similar to cinema around the time of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, widely considered the first film to successfully execute the cinema’s ability to tell a story.
“When films were at this stage, it was titillation and violence,” says Rider, referring to early silent films, whose action sequences often featured no more than a train pulling into a station or a gag fight between two gardeners. Film eventually grew into an art form, and most major universities (including UB) offer credible degrees in movie production and criticism.
According to Lui, Griffith’s movie ushered a new era of cinema where audiences began to see films as “a legitimate medium for storytelling,” and, after directors began to experiment with new themes and methods, as a method “for culture and artistic expression.” Whether video games will follow that trend, Lui believes, is up to both gamers and game designers alike.
“First, developers need to stand up as artists and continue to envision and create new possibilities of expression with videogames,” he writes. “Second, gamers need to see videogames as more than time-wasting stress-relieving outlets and appreciate the efforts of revolutionary developers.”
The day when Tokyo becomes as culturally relevant as Cannes may be a long way off, but for now most gamers can rest assured that advocates like Rider and Lui will fight to place Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Miyamoto’s Princess Zelda in the same artistic lineage.
A degree in video games also holds a certain amount of market value. “Not to teach [interactive media] is to turn students away from jobs,” Rider says. But, he adds, college is a place to expand one’s mind, not solely a way to get a job.