Videogames and the Art of Storytelling

Posted by on Oct 14, 2010 in Advertising, Art | No Comments

Annual video game sales are now regularly exceed Hollywood box office receipts. Video games are becoming the dominate popular art form of our era, but they are still largely a misunderstood medium. Video games were once played only by children, teens and nerds and there has been very little appreciation by their creators or their users that video games were a truly art. But even as a handful of game designers try to make a true art form out of video games, the convergence between advertising and gameplay will work against them. Video games, whether art or not, are becoming a powerful and diverse force in the media industries.

One of the reasons it’s been hard for video games to gain respect is that video games often communicate their messages through gameplay rather than storytelling. Stories and game play are both crucial to the human experience because they are both mechanisms with which children learn about the world. Storytelling has been at the center of all creative arts for centuries. Literature began with dramatic poetry and storytelling has been an important part of literature, theater, and even painting and photography ever since.

Burger King Video Game

Traditional bias is probably the biggest reason why creatives tend to favor storytelling over game play as a communication technique, but it’s time for creative people to recognize the legitimacy of games (There’s a great post on W/K London’s blog that makes this point for advertising professionals). CP+B was one of the first advertising agencies to recognize the power games had by creating a Burger King game for the XBox. The children who grow up playing the burger king game will probably experience more video games than movies, and will probably view gameplay as a natural and possibly even more effective communication technique than traditional storytelling.

Video games have been incorporating storytelling in some form for many years. Some have been successful, but overall, gameplay is the most effective construction for game design: “the medium is the message.” Under close examination though, the gameplay vs. storytelling divide falls apart. Gameplay is just a non-linear and experiential form of storytelling. The biggest problem standing in the way of the video game’s ascendence into an accepted art form isn’t that gameplay falls short as a technique. It’s that nobody has completely figured it out how to master the video game form–yet. This is one of the central points in Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. He critiques the cultural value and the storytelling aspects of the video games throughout their history and he shows that video games are indeed evolving into an art form, but there is still a long way to go. The writing within video games is still often sub-par. Bissell interviews game industry veterans and most have high expectations for video games, they continue to provide an opportunity to communicate in totally new ways.

But even as the traditional game industry is becoming more influential, the game industry itself is being transformed by the convergence of advertising, social media and games. Social games like Farmville combine online games with marketing and advertising. Farmville is built upon an online business opportunity that is an answer to psychological questions nobody else was asking, who would have thought that people would pay money to show up their friends in an online game? It’s amazing too that people would be willing to complete surveys and sign up for credit cards for points in a video game. Games are becoming a part of reality, a part of everyday life. Jesse Schell explains how he sees the convergence between games and reality and how it will evolve in the future. His talk is a plea to professional game designers to get involved in making these games better. With more than 80 million Farmville players game designers have a stage that is bigger than ever before, now is the time to make art out of video games.

Leave a Reply