Video games are more than just a product of the entertainment industry. They are artistic, political, and religious expressions. For anyone remotely familiar with the medium, this claim is obvious and needs no defense. Whether it is BioShock, the Sims, Farmville, or Castle Wolfenstein, all video games function not merely as an art form, but they are also vehicles for expression. Fans, artists, and scholars alike have used the medium of video games to create commentaries on many aspect of contemporary life.Best viewed in 1080p HD.
I have been playing my way through BioShock: Welcome to Rapture (2008) and enjoying the backdrop of Glided Age architecture, art deco inconography, and the Andrews Sisters in the sound track. Bioshock provides a ironic commentary on libertanianism, Christian fundamentalism, the Enlightenment, and free market economics. It is widely seen as one of the first times a major philosopher (Ayn Rand) was used as an inspiration for a game's storyline and zeitgeist.
BioShock is a fable about the failure of a pro-capitalist philosophy that elevates man over god, the environment, and eventually, man over man. It also involves shooting a mother caring for a (dead) child, and countless other acts of virtual violence that is found in popular first person shooters. BioShock is not a "beat hookers to death with baseball bat" kind of game, but it is certainly mature content.
America's Supreme Court is about to deliver a decision that will either acknowledge the artistic nature of video games or begin a new era of the moralistic repression of art and expression in the United States. Oddly enough, the very country that has been at the forefront of advances in rights for women, blacks, and gays is also one that appears to be constantly on the edge of a return to the darkness of McCarthyism and made-in-America dystopia.
It is doubly ironic that the Supreme Court is faced with deciding the merits of video games as an artistic medium when we find games such as BioShock that act as commentaries on the dangers of economic and religious fascism.
However the Supreme Court decides to treat video games under First Amendment doctrine, it is unlikely that "a law banning violent games would be good policy even if it passed constitutional muster," as was suggested in the New York Times. Unfortunately, both lawyers and judges have demonstrated considerable ignorance concerning the artistic merits of even the most violent video games and tend to have a naive understanding of the very limited effects of media violence on the young.
When Joseph Nye was Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University he made the argument that, for more peace and prosperity for all, the world needs more McDonald's and Disney. Nye's "soft power" thesis proposed that the world would be a better place if America's values spread to the rest of the world. These American values, symbolized by Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse -- fast food, free markets, and corporate entertainment products -- would spread through a globalized free market and conquer the world on behalf of an Empire that is finding the "hard power" of its military to be ever more expensive and ineffective.
Nye's thesis was welcomed by neoconservatives and ridiculed by those with a more nuanced understanding of the post-colonial world system. Nonetheless, intellectuals on both the left and the right recognize that the entertainment system is a significant form of power. Censoring video games, treating them under the law as merely consumer goods, would remove a powerful tool from America's arsenal of cultural weapons. Worse yet, a wrong approach to video games by the Supreme Court would reduce America's ability to understand the internal threats it faces from the more caustic aspects of unrestrained corporate power and rampant individualism.
The world may not need more junk food and ideological amusement parks, but America does need more BioShock.
And now, a bit of video-game artistic expression . . .
And here is a great backgrounder on the current video game case before the Supreme Court.