Bioshock Infinite releases next Tuesday, March 26. A highly anticipated prequel to one of the most widely acclaimed video games in history, the title stands poised to awe not only with inspiring visuals and thrilling gameplay, but with a controversial critique of American Exceptionalism.
Film critic Roger Ebert earned the ire of gamers a few years ago when he ruled declaratively that video games can never be art. Emerging from the resulting swarm of agitated youth, Ebert later relented slightly, if only to admit that he really ought to experience video games before banishing them from the realm of artistic consideration.
An intriguing debate regarding what makes a thing art is woven through both of Ebert’s pieces linked above. However, the argument may be moot. It seems fair to say that when a craft begins to express complex ideas regarding the human condition, when it begins to stimulate thought and debate on matters of genuine import in the real world, when it can affect how you think about issues and what you believe about your world, it achieves the status of art.
By that standard, the video game industry has produced a bounty of artistic titles amidst a sea of thoughtless cookie-cutter fare. Of course, this makes video games no different than any creative medium. There exist far more vulgar scratches on bathroom stalls than masterpieces hung in museums, far more trashy romance novels than genuine epics, and certainly more popcorn flicks and action movies than truly inspirational films.
Like any medium, games can evoke powerful emotions and make compelling philosophical statements. The element of interactivity can heighten such moments beyond the experience of a novel, painting, or film. No longer a mere observer, what happens in a game happens to you. The world of the game and the characters which inhabit it change, live, and die according to the choices you make.
The inherent power of the medium proves all the more reason to treat it seriously as an influential artistic form. Therefore, as Bioshock Infinite makes its case against the notion of American Exceptionalism, we do well to pay attention and respond.