Film critic Roger Ebert says that video games are not art. A movie, he says, involves "total authorial control": filmmakers tell their stories, and we in the audience follow their leads. But in a video game, the audience are the storytellers to a large extent. So how can there be a cohesive vision of anything?
The question of whether video games are art is a controversial one, but I think that they definitely do have stories and themes—they just express those things differently than movies do. (And movies, I'm sure Mr. Ebert would agree, express them differently than books. Movies won't put the story on hold while we step into a character's head; and no film of The Aeneid could capture the rhythm or beauty of Vergil's language).
So, do video games "represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic," as Ebert argues? I don't think so. While "civilized" and "cultured" are the kinds of words that mean whatever their users want them to mean ("We are cultured and civilized and you are not," America's "founding fathers" told the native Americans centuries ago), "empathetic" has a pretty clear definition. And I do think that games teach us empathy. In fact, I think they do it better than movies or books do, because we are so involved, personally and physically, with their stories.
Take Ben's Game. The game's creator, Ben Duskin, designed it when he was nine years old and his leukemia was in remission. Ben wanted to make a game that would help kids with cancer and, with the help of LucasArts's senior software engineer Eric Johnston and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, he created something that's fun, free, and available to just about everybody.
If you're looking for a plot in Ben's Game, the sort of three-pronged narrative you were taught to identify in English class, you won't find one. Players take on rogue cancer cells and are armed with a variety of weapons. The cancer cells spawn continually from a large, silly-looking boss that the hero must destroy before moving on. These bosses each represent a side-effect of cancer treatment—Fever, Barf, Colds, Rash, Chicken Pox, Hair Loss and Bleeding—and beating one gives us a shield against that side-effect.
Our hero "Ben" has no backstory (in fact, players can change his appearance and name if they want), but I didn't need one. Ben's Game melds its gameplay and its themes so seamlessly that I empathized with the hero—or rather, became him—right away. That is the power of video games: they turn us so completely, so intimately, into other people. We move, see, and think from the perspective of our avatars. Instead of feeling with them, we feel as them, and Ben's Game cleverly takes advantage of our empathy.
Like many video games, Ben's Game has lots of power-ups. But these power-ups are also tie in to the game's cancer-killing: we get health from the hospital, ammunition from the pharmacy, and attitude from home. We can access these places in every level, as many times as we like. Some people might think that going for health again and again makes the game too easy, but these power-ups are about more than just getting us through the game. They are part of what Ben wants us to learn from it.
Skateboarding around a circular room and shooting cells with my crossbow, I learned that it's perfectly natural for me to get hurt. There are so many cells that spawn so quickly that there is no way for me to finish a level unscathed. But when I did, there was always somwhere I could go for help—and it didn't matter if I'd gone there thirty seconds before. Unlike other games where players must earn any assistance they get are out of luck if they need more, there is always help available to us in Ben's Game at any time. We don't have to "deserve" assistance: we just ask for it.
And, often, it was in my best interests to take a little damage. "Attitude" is depleted by running into electrically-charged barriers. But these barriers bounced me off them like a pinball, and boinging around was sometimes the best way to move through a level. In the game, imperfection is absolutely necessary for one's well-being. Sometimes having a "bad" attitude is the best way to tackle a problem.
I learned these lessons through my own trial and error, without an auteur telling me what to think. And I've also taken them deeply to heart, since I actually had to work to discover them. They might be ineffectual in a book or movie (a Lifetime original movie, for instance) because "authorial control" could easily make them sound preachy or high-handed.Of course, such themes could be handled just as badly in a different game. But Ben knows better than to take this project too seriously—games are about having fun, and he makes sure players have lots of it. In fact, I had so much fun with Ben's Game that I wish it were a lot longer. Maybe Ben and Eric will make Ben's Second Game. Or maybe I'll just have to wait ten years for Ben to get his B.S. in game design.