In recent years, it’s been common to encounter declarations that we inhabit the next great golden age of television. The combination of popularity and artistry exhibited by “The Wire,” “The Sopranos” and “True Detective”—and recent foreign contributions like “Black Mirror” and “Top of the Lake”—suggest that we have left behind the idea that television rots the mind. The New York Times, for instance, recently asked if television series such as these are “the new novels,” while talents like actor Kevin Spacey and director Steven Soderbergh have recognized the programming renaissance in public comments.
Although many resist the idea that such a low and popular medium should be recognized as art, TV has followed a similar trajectory to many of its artistic predecessors. The Greek tragedy, the works of the Renaissance, Elizabethan theater, novels and film were all criticized in their day as lowbrow formats that catered to an unsophisticated audience. “When we look back, we actually discover that...the most exalted, sometimes rarified high culture of the past turns out to have been the pop culture of its day,” explained University of Virginia professor of English Paul Cantor during the final lecture of his 2006 “Commerce and Culture” series for the Mises Institute. Cantor argued that high critics initially lambasted the above art forms as too sexual, violent and unworldly, and it was feared that they might blur the lines between fantasy and reality in the eyes of young viewers. Similar accusations have been leveled at television for decades, and it is no surprise that people now see through them.
The idea that television has artistic merit now has widespread appeal, and one begins to wonder what the next great art form to follow may be. Cantor, for his part, offers a surprising, but perhaps valid, prediction. “Let me go out on a limb and make a prediction,” he says, “and that is that the video game will be the great art form of the 21st century.” At the very least, he is right that video games are frequently characterized as lewd, violent, unworthy of critical attention and somehow prone to destroying the hold on reality of millions of adolescent gamers.
But there are other considerations. Take, for example, the rich artistic environment and theater-based background of the 2009 Halo installment, “Halo 3: ODST,” or, more significantly, 2K Games’ 2007 hit, “Bioshock.” The latter, which was inspired by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, is set in a beautiful underwater world and is accompanied by a moving, dynamic and haunting aural landscape. “Bioshock” achieved fame for the moral choices it foisted upon its players—who can decide either to save or exploit helpless characters—and for a twist ending that borders on meta-analysis of agency and authority in video games themselves. Jack, the main character throughout “Bioshock,” is guided through the game by radio transmissions which hint at the way forward by asking the player to kindly advance to certain locations and perform specific tasks. It is eventually revealed, however, that Jack has been the subject of hypnotic mind-control and the “would you kindly” phrase is a trigger that leaves him no choice but to execute the command that follows. The revelation confronts the gamer with his own demonstrated willingness to follow orders and accesses the same dark reality we find in phenomena like the Milgram Experiment and the Nuremburg Defense.
The most revolutionary aspect of the video game as a medium of expression is that it requires the audience to take a literally active role in advancing the narrative. “Bioshock” found a way to make this fact of the medium an opportunity for philosophical reflection and commentary and took advantage of it to a degree that would make post-modern novelists like David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon proud.
Of course, an active audience comes with disadvantages, too. A consumer who navigates through one of several endings presents an artistically minded designer who is seeking to tell a story with a challenge, and prior workarounds such as “choose-your-own-ending” novels never became anything more than hokey gimmicks. (The fact that Charles Dickens and the producers of Lost introduced and killed off characters and manipulated storylines according to popular opinion, however, does show that audiences have been influencing the outcomes of artistic works for a long time). Ken Levine, the creator of the “Bioshock” franchise, is attempting to deal with this by creating “infinitely replayable” games set in sprawling worlds with diverse opportunities for continuing gameplay. The idea brings to mind the “world-building” appeal of successful fantasy and science fiction like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Game of Thrones,” “Dune,” “The Foundation Series” and “The Hyperion Cantos.” Whether this approach or some other like it succeeds in elevating the video game to the status of high art about a hundred years from now remains to be seen. But given the degree to which video games have fit the “emerging art form” mold so far, I know how I’d place my bet.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Friday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.