Are video games art?

Are video games art?

I pondered this idea a few days ago while playing the newest gamer sensation, "Call of Duty: Black Ops," at a friend's house.

It's a wonder I could formulate such a question at the time, considering my brain had settled into a prevegetative state after hours of gripping a Playstation 3 controller and staring passively at millions of muzzle flashes strobing across a high-definition television.

Black Ops is the latest in a series of hyper-violent war games under the Call of Duty banner. The game allows you to see through the eyes of a Cold War special agent whose orders are cold and brutal as history itself: Stop the spread of Communism. At all costs.

Black Ops has you working with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the early '60s to stop Communist regimes from gaining a foothold in places such as Cuba, Laos and, ultimately, Vietnam. Your goal is to seek and destroy Communist heavy hitters all over the globe, using a vast array of weaponry at your disposal.

The game's view of history is paranoid and simplistic, but, damn, it's a lot of fun.

Video games and I go way back, but my relationship with them has run hot and cold over the years. At best, I'm a sporadic gamer; at worst I've become obsessed with Final Fantasy games that have drained days from my life.

Gaming once was simple. You slipped in a cartridge and when you grew tired of watching Mario jump around on some trippy mushroom people, you switched off the console and continued on with your life.

(At some point, a geek sadist thought it would be fun and funny to show you the hours you logged into a game once you finished the final stage. I remember conquering one Playstation game only to have my celebration cut short when my game time was flashed on the scene during the closing credits.

Ninety-six hours. I had given days to a plastic disc spinning in a plastic box pieced together by children in some country I'd probably never heard of and surely would never visit. It was one of those moments in which I had to go get a cool glass of water and take a minute to reflect on the direction my life had taken.

Where had it all gone wrong?)

Now the hard numbers don't even matter. Where once there were strict boundaries — games had beginnings, middles and ends — there are now open-world scenarios built on endless replay-ability.

Black Ops has a structured plot that progresses as you move through the levels, finally reaching the primary objective after leaving a mountain of dead behind you.

However, the true value of new games are the Internet death battles you can engage in once the main plot, if you so choose to follow it, is over.

In games such as Black Ops, you band together with friends or complete strangers from across the world and do battle in burned-out war zones, dodging lead and dealing it out with extreme prejudice.

There is no plot or character development, just survivors and the dead. But none of that means much, because once you are stitched from neck to groin by a Famas assault rifle, you just press a button and wait 10 seconds until you are reborn on the battlefield, ready once again to join the fray.

Black Ops is the hot game for this holiday season. Gamer dorks lined up in the streets outside Walmarts across America on the night it was released. Nine-year-olds are threatening to commit seppuku should their parents not slip it under the Christmas tree this year.

When I was in early grade school, one of our writing assignments during the holidays was to compose a letter to Santa Claus letting him know what we wanted for Christmas. We mostly asked for Star Wars junk, footballs, Air Jordan shoes, etc.

I'd be curious to see how some random little boy who desperately wants something as seethingly violent and intense as Black Ops would word his letter. I imagine it would go something like this:

Dear Santa,

I woke again this morning to dreams of napalm and burning villages on the horizon. Christmas is still a few weeks away, but it feels like an eternity. I've been such a good boy this year and feel that I deserve to be duly rewarded.

Santa, I want so much to lay waste to third-world leftist filth that I'm having trouble paying attention in school. I keep thinking of how amazing it will feel to run through the streets of Havana with a Spas-12 in my hands, choking the streets with the bodies of Commie scum.

I hope I'm on your good list, Santa. If not, then you better watch your back, fat man. You've been warned.

Yours,

Jimmy

Black Ops aspires to Dr. Strangelove-like Cold War satire, with images of JFK and Nixon glad-handing other military industrial complex goons of the era. It has a truly funny take on the beginnings of Vietnam, as one character takes a page from Dennis Hopper's character from "Apocalypse Now" in his bizarre ramblings.

But is Black Ops art? It's clever at times and does have some inspired plot twists, but in the end it really is just people running around blowing things up.

If anything, it represents the first fitful steps to video games evolving into something beyond button-mashing escapism. What the end result will be is anybody's guess.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.