Games can be art, and we should not discourage that

You probably already know about the recent “controversy” that’s arisen alongside That Dragon, Cancer, but if not, here’s the tl;dr: It’s an artsy game about the parents of a cancer-stricken kid and their struggles to deal with his eventual death.

The gameplay consists mainly of exploring environments and reading/listening to bits of dialogue about the awful experience, and it’s not what you’d call a pick-me-up, for sure.

But, once again, in what’s become sadly predictable at this point, the “it’s not a game” crowd have come out in full force on the Steam forums. Others have issue with the subject matter itself.

A game about cancer is "ridiculous."

Both of these counter-stances on the game reveal a single and somewhat worryingly conservative attitude towards computer/video games as a medium: That they are merely playthings. That we* play games because we want to be entertained and challenged — and nothing more.

This argument has befallen many an artform. The same has been said of comic books, rock music, photography, even motion pictures. By this argument, there is apparently some unspoken standard that we hold art to that some forms of media are just not “good enough” to attain.

It’s an age-old discussion that has befallen many forms of expression, and time and time again attitudes have shown to change and incorporate hitherto “unsuitable” forms of medium as art.

Penny Arcade drew this comic 16 years ago. Think about that for a second.
Penny Arcade drew this comic 16 years ago. Think about that for a second.

You don’t even have to agree that That Dragon, Cancer is art. Certainly not all games are “art,” just as not all books, movies, plays, comics, photos or paintings are necessarily art. And the discussion of “what is art?” is as old as the human race itself, and it’s really beside the point, so I’m not going to get into it here.

Let me restate that, ‘cos it’s important: It’s not my point of this rant whether or not this game — or other quote-unquote “non-games” like Gone Home, The Beginner’s Guide, — qualify as “art.”

The point is that we shouldn’t discourage games from trying to be art; or, at least, try to challenge the perception of games as mere playthings. We should celebrate the evolution of the medium as a vehicle for storytelling, just as we have already celebrated its merits as a medium that encourages friendly competition, hand-eye-coordination, the fun of challenge and accomplishment, and whatever else games do well.

Saying that games do not have the same right to explore certain topics that other forms of media has is to seriously undermine the potential that the medium has.

The medium is maturing, whether you like it or not. It’s sad that so many “gamers” aren’t. But, if history is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before we look back on this debacle and think, “How backwards we were back then.”

* The definition of “we” is supposedly an all-encompassing definition of everyone who has ever played a computer/video game. Which in my mind goes to show the amazing amount of disconnect from the world that seems to afflict propagators of this argument.

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