For the past few years, there has been a lot of debate over whether video games qualify as “art.” It’s a debate that I prefer to avoid, because I don’t need my entertainment to be validated as “art” in order to enjoy it. That being said, there’s a sort of sneering, condescending dismissal from some members of the “games aren’t art” crowd, who write video games off as mere “electronic toys.” That dismissal has always bothered me, and for a long time I attributed my feelings to the suggestion that some of my favourite pieces of entertainment were just playthings.
Recently, though, after finishing several narrative-heavy games (namely BioShock Infinite and Assassin’s Creed II1), I began playing Scribblenauts Unlimited. The aim of the game is to solve very basic puzzles by means of typing the names of objects and watching them appear on screen. For example, to heal a scared, injured child, one might create a “funny doctor,” but one could also conceivably use a “small bandage.” The interesting thing about this mechanic is that it accepts pretty much any combination of adjectives and nouns. So, if you want, you can create a “rabid radioactive taco” and watch as it goes around biting and infecting every living thing. After a while, I realized I was spending just as much time unleashing these monstrous creations as I was actually progressing in the game. I was playing and enjoying Scribblenauts, but I wasn’t really engaging with it on a narrative or artistic level.
That got me thinking: some games are toys, at least some of the time. Maybe not all games all of the time, which is what bothers me about some of the arguments from the “games aren’t art” crowd, but I can’t deny that a lot of video games have toy-like properties. And that’s not a bad thing. Being a toy doesn’t preclude something from also being art. For example, there are a lot of antique dolls that are now museum pieces. Besides, like I said, I don’t need my entertainment to be validated as “art” in order to enjoy it. Come to think of it, I treat a lot of video games as toys. Half the time, when I fire up Worms 2, I do it just to turn the weapons up to max and watch computer players blow the crap out of each other.
It’s not just me, though. Think of the track editor in RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, for example. How much time did you spend in there trying to see just how many loops you could fit into a single coaster? Or how about any of the Grand Theft Auto games? Seeing how long you can last at the maximum wanted level is a common fun experience in any GTA game. Heck, sometimes, in San Andreas, my friends and I used to spawn tanks with cheat codes and just go around running over everything. Or to bring it back to the simulation genre, how much time did you spend actually building cities in SimCity 2000 versus unleashing disasters on them? Here’s a hint: if you spent more time on the former, you were playing it wrong.
A lot of sandbox-style games are created with the intent of being used as toys, and to recoil at the suggestion that video games can be toys is to deny that simple pleasure. In any case, at the end of the day, “toy” is just a label. However you choose to amuse yourself is up to you.
1 Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m way behind the times when it comes to AssCreed games. I have no intention of catching up, though. I get only mild enjoyment out of them, so I prefer to wait until a year or so after release and nab them at a discount. ^