The Inspiration for an Art
If you look back at the history of art, you will notice a trend. Throughout history, the art of the people reflected the values that their cultures embraced. The Roman Empire reflected its greatness through its architecture and art. Grand statues paid homage to their gods and their kings, both which brought them glory and honor. Fast forward to the Renaissance, where free expression of art brought about fantastic works by all four of the Ninja Turtles (Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Donato di Niccolò, and Raffaello Sanzio). Each artist drew inspiration from not only their Christian faith but also their culture of progression. Both religion and philosophy played a role in historic works of art.
We are now at the end of 2018, and grand works of art are still being created. Though there are still classic art forms like painting and sculpting representing the craft, new forms of art have also entered the scene. Most will agree (not all) that video games are a new art form. With the blending of both storytelling and animation, video games present a multifaceted way for patrons to not only observe the art but also control it as well. Allowing players to control the art itself presents a new way to engage with people, and offers new avenues for cultural expression.
As a form of art, video games are not exempt from cultural influence. Those very factors that have influenced the art of the past, particularly religion and philosophy, have also influenced the content of video games today. To prove this, we first have to take a little trip over the pond.
From East to West
Let’s start with a question. what is the difference between Western and Eastern cultures? The answer is very simple and creates the unique qualities of the cultures that we know. Society shapes the religions and philosophies of the Western world. In the Eastern world, societies are shaped by their religions and philosophies. What makes Eastern culture so different in Western eyes is that religion and philosophy guide nearly every part of a society’s existence. Everything from the architecture to social taboos is influenced by the traditional beliefs and understandings of the people.
The island of Japan hosts just such a culture. The Japanese people are proud and confident, but they are also reverent and self-controlled. Prior to the creation of video games in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Japan went through a cultural transition. American troops had never actually left Japan after their occupation ended in 1952, and for the next 30 years, they would work closely with each other in trade. This led to an exchange of ideas, and that included the adoption of Western philosophies and religions. Shinto and Buddhism were the main religions of the people for hundreds of years. Slowly, Christianity began to gain popularity during this time. Not only that, American hedonism became more popular as consumerism took hold in place of societal forbearance. Japan was becoming a melting pot of ideas and practices.
Gifts from the East
Japan took the lead in the video game industry in the ’80s and ’90s and created a slew of titles that reflected various traditions. Learning from their trade partners, Japanese developers began catering to Western sensitivities while providing an Eastern product. Such early titles as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog were not focused so much around a story, as Eastern cultural entertainment often was, but rather a goal. These games were simple and fun and gave Western audiences something to achieve without an involved plot.
The Final Fantasy Melting Pot
There are many examples of how Japanese developers connected Western audiences with their culture without them knowing it. However, the Final Fantasy titles were their single best attempts at this. These games introduced Western gamers to a new type of experience that they were only starting to get acquainted with; role-playing games. Tabletop role-playing was still being seen as past time enjoyed by the fickled few, and the developers at Square Soft (later Square Enix) wanted to prove that a good story could change everything. American audiences received the first Final Fantasy game in 1990. It was a cold reception. Americans who were used to their goal-oriented games were put off by the title. That’s when Square rolled up its sleeves.
For the next ten years, the developers over at Square would do something that is uniquely Eastern; they would teach Americans to like RPGs. In 1992, the company made a game just Americans that would teach them the basics of RPGs. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was that game. The game design was simple, and the story was engaging. Then Final Fantasy III (Japanese VI) arrived. This game hooked many fans into the genre and introduced an Eastern game brimming with Western influence. There was a magical war with mechs and spellcasters. It was a very engaging and original storyline. The titles that followed kept to that formula, and the American and European audiences have never turned back.
A Deeper Look at FF Content
A deeper look at the gameplay of the Final Fantasy titles reveals that the developers borrowed from many different schools of thought. In FF VI, during the final battle with Kefka, the music transitions to an excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah, ” and then Kefka is revealed. The picture of the boss parodies the image of God that is painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There are Summons which are based on Hindu, Celtic, Nordic, Scandinavian, and even Arabian mythology. Even some of the names of the characters, like Barrett and Heidegger, are names of actual Western philosophers. The Final Fantasy games tie in every culture and belief to create a series of unique, yet strangely familiar stories.
Improving the Story
As gaming entered into the 21st century, the cultural line within the content became more ambiguous. New generations of home consoles greatly improved the graphics and size of the content within games, and that led to deeper storylines. Within a matter of five years, video games went from being goal driven to being story driven.
The stories themselves were unique to anything found in modern entertainment. The choices of the players can change the stories to fit the personalities of the users. For example, the Grand Theft Auto games allowed players the control to spare innocents or brutally murder them on sight. The choices made by the players would result in prerendered consequences, like having the National Gaurd hunt you down. The freedom of choice reflected something that would eventually become a staple of modern video games and would push philosophy to the forefront of the gaming experience.
The Humanism Connection
For those of you who play video games in 2018, you will notice that many of the titles are based on questions. Questions like “how far should science go before it is wrong,” (Bio Shock) and “what drives a man’s choices?” (Far Cry Series) These questions are not original; people have asked them for hundreds of years. Philosophers used to answer these questions themselves, but now such mediums as books and video games take over the feat.
In Eastern culture, many answers to these questions come from stories and parables. The Western cultures answer them through defined thoughts and logic. Combined, these techniques can make some of the best content for video games around; even from a secular point of view.
Secular humanism is currently a very influential philosophical view represented in modern entertainment. The view states that humans are capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in the divine. Many video game protagonist conquer evil not through magical or divine means, but through wit and pure strength alone. Players can even team up to defeat god-like foes. Even in World of Warcraft lore all of the divine beings have surrendered their power to the mortals who now war with each other. It makes one think, doesn’t it?
There are many beliefs and practices of the people on this planet, and December reminds us of this. From the brightly lit trees of Christmas to the festivals of Omisoka in Japan, this is a time to celebrate our differences. I believe it is also a time to reflect.
When playing the games that we enjoy, we should ask ourselves “why is this happening?” What is motivating the character to do what they do? Why do I care so much for the life of a polygon? All of these questions help us to learn a little more about ourselves, and in the process develop a deeper understanding of those around us.
I myself am an ordained minister who is a fan of philosophy and knowledge (and a writer for DVS Gaming). I may not agree with everything I hear, but I do listen. If we take time and learn from others, no matter their beliefs, or lack thereof, it is amazing what we can come up with. Modern video games are a testament to this and believe me, the best is yet to come.