“Rich? Yes. Handsome? Undoubtedly. Art? Erm…Look! A shiny thing!!!”

Just back from a brief paternity hiatus and what better time to take on an incident from Twitter that happened over a month ago? In Twitter land this is something like 65 million years ago, which makes me like a less charitable, less wealthy and less impressive Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park. And while there may not be any mind-blowing dinosaur factoids in the article below, I can still do a better Scottish accent. So suck it, Lord Attenborough.

The never-ending ‘video games as art’ debate reared its ugly and boring head recently (ahem) when Roger Ebert took to Twitter and said that they weren’t. Someone who liked them then said that they were. Someone else agreed and then Ebert said that he didn’t know and everyone took a deep breath and went back to wondering which of the trending celebrities had just died (or is that just me?) and re-tweeting 140 characters of the kind of life-affirming twaddle that should reasonably contradict sitting in front of a computer, re-tweeting life-affirming twaddle.

My own take is that art has somehow moved beyond its common definition to now basically mean a collection of useless and worthless crap that only becomes expensive when you combine the magic ingredients. Kind of like a Voltron sculpt made from dogshit that magically transforms into a platinum robot when you finish sculpting the 12th set of lion’s teeth. Or something. A bed by itself is worth exactly what someone would pay for a bed, but once Tracy Emin pays someone to wank on it, it’s worth a trillion pounds – and not because man-sap has suddenly become a precious commodity. At least as long as The Handmaid’s Tale remains a work of fiction or until Octomom reveals the secret process for turning said ingredient into a fortune.

But something is only worth what people will pay for it. So while a rich idiot may spend a fortune on a piece of crap (Voltron shape, optional), there will always be a richer idiot to sell it to. It’s like Liam Neeson said in The Phantom Menace: “There’s always a bigger fish (richer dickhead)”. Though I personally get more day-to-day usage from “Let’s get out of here before more droids (dickheads) show up.”

But I digress.

You don’t need to re-mortgage your house or sell your collection of Beatles masters to afford a video game, unless you’re one of those people who buys sealed NES carts of games that weren’t good enough to mass-produce in the first place. And if you are such a wealthy proponent of staring into the electronic middle-distance, I’m sure there’s better ways to kill the time until your cloned dinosaur eggs hatch than reading this nonsense.

Video games are art and you don’t need someone to wank over a copy of Fifa 10 to increase its artistic value (Which is a shame, because I’m sure Tiger Woods would be more than happy to oblige his EA Sports brethren). But that’s not to say that there aren’t steps that developers can take to elevate the very best video games into art.  Take Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game I recently replayed due to a perfect storm of the annual summer games drought and baby related wallet chastening.

Arkham Asylum is masterfully directed, with incredible voice work (as far as video games go) and art direction. But it’s only on the second play-through that I truly appreciated this thanks mainly to my first go being dominated by the gaming trope that’s harder to kill than the theoretical lovechild of Jason Voorhees and the Queen Mother: the collectible item.

Ever since Pac-man chomped his way through a series of scenarios involving cherries, ghosts and pills, game designers have been obsessed with players collecting things. Pac-man is absolved of blame however, as his very existence is determined by his ability to collect random crap. Plus he had a wife and child to support, and I’m sure we’ve all done far worse for our loved ones.

Super Mario is another one who’s beyond reproach. While it appears he went to the Mushroom Kingdom to woo the Princess, he seemed to spend most of the time exterminating wildlife and stealing coins. But can we really blame him? Obviously the plumbing wasn’t really working out and how else could he afford to keep his brother in green dungarees? It’s not as though they’re part of the Blue Harbour collection at M&S (Though I’m approximately 8 years away from confirming that).

So while Mario may have been the original cyber-criminal, his hand was forced, again, by the demands of his family. Batman on the other hand is different; he doesn’t have a family, so the fact that he spends a large part of Arkham Asylum crawling round darkened ventilation shafts looking for glowing question marks and chattering teeth, when he should be stopping the Joker, makes him irresponsible, if not a complete tosser. It also takes the player out of the experience, which is probably the worst crime on display, in a game about super criminals, set in a prison.

But whatever Arkham Asylum’s collectibles take away from the narrative experience they’re still one of the more seamless examples of collectibles in video gaming. I’ve spent countless hours exploring every nook and cranny of a generic futuristic warehouse looking for Wolverine’s socks or a piece of concept art that has no value whatsoever, even within a fictional world with no established laws of commerce.

Perhaps that says more about my virtual obsessive nature, but if video game designers are all about being inclusive with video games, allowing old people (the Wii), young people (Modern Warfare 2) and sexual deviants (Second Life) to have fun then is it too much to ask that they make similar concessions for those with electronic OCD?

If a protagonist’s journey could be stopped every few minutes while they chased after some glowing crap in their peripheral vision, and such actions did not compromise a project’s artistic worth, then you’d probably see Brian Sewell tackle Avatar instead of the Turner Prize in his next investigative documentary. Therefore losing video game collectibles would not only help cure mentally defunct paddle-monkeys like myself, but it might also help to elevate video games into a legitimate art form.

Then again, if we had to queue up at an abandoned power station to have a go at Ico because Charles Saatchi had bought all the remaining copies, perhaps we’re better off where we are. Maybe Roger Ebert’s opinions on video games are irrelevant? Perhaps this article has been an equal waste of time? Though conversely, this may also mean that spending hours of real time chasing virtual collectibles isn’t as worthless as I thought all those paragraphs ago. And in that case, I’m cured. Huzzah!

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