I watched City of God, finally, last week, and it shattered my peace of mind that night. I've avoided seeing certain movies in the past knowing that they would disturb and upset me, but recently I've cued up my Netflix to go back and see the films I've missed, because I decided that it's important to see art that doesn't always make me feel good. Using art as a salve alone is foolish - and a one-dimensional way to experience humanity.
I was talking about the film with friend and fellow-GGA poster Matt, and he noted that videogames have not yet reached that stage of being deliberately disturbing the way that City of God is. If a videogame is no longer fun, we tend to stop playing. How can you make a videogame not "fun" and still compel players to go on?
I think Matt might not be quite correct. I remember playing Manhunt with an unshakeable conviction that the game wanted to disturb me, to take to to places that weren't fun. Of course, it all depends on your definition of "fun" - some people like scary movies, I usually don't. But here was a game that took an extremely creepy premise and played it out to the logical extreme, forcing the player into the uncomfortable role of both victim and murderer.
Yet you could argue that Manhunt used a cheap trick - it set up the situation in order to exploit it for someone's idea of "fun." You could say that the developers did not mean to convey any message beyond entertainment. City of God was entertaining, in the broadest sense of the word, but it was also a portrait of hopelessness and a cycle that trapped its inhabitants; it was also in some ways a social history of gang violence in the slums from the seventies to the eighties. Manhunt does not have enough external references to be about anything other than what it is.
If games are to be taken as art, the next step has to be for some game developers to abandon the concept of "fun" - or at least, to rework it and to challenge it.
Of course, I should mention that videogames already disturb many people - politicians, some parents, Jack Thompson. They would argue, I think, that we've already reached the point where games explore thoroughly unpleasant territory. But most gamers would argue that the exploration still stays in the realm of fun, however it may look to an external observer.
Games that deliberately challenge and provoke and disturb are being made in academic circles, in experimental projects, among the avant-gard. But we are still a long way off from a commercial game like The House of Sand and Fog or Hotel Rwanda, in spite of the fact that both of the themes in those films could be very effectively - and chillingly - explored in an interactive medium. Is it just a matter of time before we see games like those movies? Or is the inherent nature of engaging the player anathema to certain unpleasant, unpalatable themes? Are those themes easier to digest in a more "passive" form?