Can Video Games Be “As Glorious as Chartres Cathedral”?

Chartres and World of Warcraft (image from author)

In the Guardian, Sam Leith writes an essay on the online multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, comparing the free experience of wandering through the game’s created universe to “a medieval cathedral, and a magnificent one: it is the Chartres of the video-game world.” Video games are often compared to narrative movies, controlled trips through a written plots. But Leith turns that on its head, suggesting instead that games are better characterized by the slow structural growth of a building.

In video games like World of Warcraft, the plot really does matter the least in terms of the experience of the gamer. Rather than a constricted path through conflict and resolution, WoW is about making use of the game’s environs to create a player-made story. How video games and architectural are similar is in their open-endedness, their ability to act as spaces rather than stories in themselves. Architecture is a space where physical moments happen and where people interact; video games are digital spaces that create an arena in which to act.

“Cathedrals don’t really have narratives,” Leith writes, “but they do have a mythos — a system of stories — behind them.” Likewise, games are based on layer upon layer of fictional myths. As the world of online video games grows larger and the video game worlds grow their own histories, these mythologies, like organized religions, gain their own weight and significance. On Kommons, writer Cody Brown asked Leith if video games could actually take on some of the ethical issues and emotional satisfactions of true religion. Leith answers that he’s doubtful anyone could find real religious experience within a video game, but I would argue that it is, or will be, possible to experience the same sense of awe at a “holy” space.

Steven Poole at Edge responds to Leith’s article, arguing that video games are far from the quality of a cathedral:

But isn’t it rather a crucial difference that cathedrals were beautiful and WoW is a lurid, sub-Tolkien ‘fantasy’ world, daubed in the aesthetics of arrested adolescence?

Poole argues that far from presenting a “pinnacle of western culture,” World of Warcraft is still amateur hour, too obsessed with an immature sense of fantasy to pretend to universality. But isn’t the possibility that video games could reach that level of artistic accomplishment exciting? Instead of creating more narrative, video games create new worlds and spaces that I think have the potential to become our greatest works of art.

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