What’s the deal with video games and art? Why are they looked down upon in relation to other art forms such as cinema, literature, theatre and music? Primarily, video games threaten established disciplines; they represent the so-called lethargic mind-set of kids these days, and the kids of yesterday. There is a historically based stigma with video games; that they are the pastime of lazy teenagers.
First, we must at least attempt to define what art actually is. It is a contested issue to say the least, with opinions differing from person to person. As a starting point, paradoxically, by way of defining what it is not; I would say that is simply too troublesome to say X is art and Y isn’t. Within one discipline (such as film) what does it mean to say that things like Eraserhead or 2001: A Space Odyssey are both art and, say, Transformers isn’t. Yes, the former two provide more intellectual stimulation and the latter, for all its many problems, is still expressive of something (that something is simple but there nonetheless). To say that only intellectually stimulating films, or ones that push the boundaries of narrative, or explores deep and troubling themes are art and anything that does not fit that description is not. Transformers may be called a piece of popcorn entertainment but that doesn’t invalidate it from being art. Being an artistic medium requires taking the good, the bad and the ugly.
Inter-disciplinary comparisons are even more ridiculous than this. If we take the stance that music is art and video games are not then are we not implying that Justin Bieber, Rebecca Black or the thirty second clips I record on my phone of me playing my guitar are more artful than The Last of Us or Bioshock for example? That’s just plain silly of course. The question shouldn’t be “are video games art?” it should be rephrased as “Is this game good art?”
For me art is about the context in which it is presented and consumed as well as being expressive of something other than its functionality. Essentially, art is the product or creativity. More or less anyway. The Oxford English Dictionary says that art is “Works produced by human creative skill and imagination:”
Secondly, we must also ask: What is a game? You might think that this is a simple enough question that can be answered in a satisfactory way by giving examples. After the first few, one would hopefully realise that the “definition” for games is flexible at best. If I were asked to answer (It’s my blog, I do the asking!) then I would say that the question is wrong and misleading. Talk about a straw man. The question mainly serves to propagate a split within the gaming community. Pretty much anything can be a game. The Extra Credits video below explains this question in great detail. Although I still feel ambivalent about the term “interactive experience”, it just sounds…hokey. I’ll forgive them though. As a side note, ignore their awful alignment with “gamification” (hint: it is bullshit)
Games are a tricky art form because technology is a hugely important aspect (and perhaps the most important). In so much as the industry pushes the technological aspects of a game far more than a film does. While a small step in narrative terms, Avatar was a leap for technology and the use of CG in films but even that emphasised the content of the story in its trailers and press stuff.
For some, a game is little more than a technological exercise rather than an expressive piece of art. Games and gamers fight accusations that their medium is empty and purely commercial, though they do it on the wrong grounds. Games seem to be mostly compared to films as a medium. Most, if not all, AAA games present themselves as cinematic experiences. This, in my eyes, attempts to directly compete with films, rather than play to their own strengths. A story in a game may be as engaging as a film, but when the story is emphasised and expense is taken on the gameplay side, it will fall flat on its face. A game has to justify itself as a game, and not as a film.
The best games are defined by their harmonious relationship between form and content. The main thing that struck me about Half-Life 2 was its then unique approach to storytelling. It takes a good amount of time until you get weapons, and arguably “get to the gameplay” so the first, say, 10-15 minutes are dedicated to immersing the player into the environment and using gameplay to tell the story. The exploration of the train station and the streets of City 17 give you loads of little details that make up a larger picture. Details of the story are not thrown in your face in a big exposition dump (which is what less talented video game designers would do). Players organically feel their way through the story. This is something that films cannot accomplish, the interactivity is the key. Although this brings into question the notion of authorship in games, if interactivity is the key, then are the creators of the game authors of it, or are the players themselves the authors? I will address this later.
Not all games are story driven, and nor should they be. Some games rely on the player to construct their own narratives within a given set of tools. This is more prevalent in Role Playing Games such as Skyrim, if you look at it and its mods, you can see that there are heaps of “immersion” mods that make the game more challenging while also adding a semblance to reality. The primary effect of this is to “immerse” players into the experience and allow them to make more customisable stories for their characters. This is also true for unmodded gameplay. Another, possibly more potent example is The Sims. They are entirely devoid of story lines and clear objectives and depend on the player making up their own. It simply gives you the tools and how much a player invests is proportional to its “enjoyment” levels. An effect, nay, a purpose like this is unachievable in film, but a video game finds itself in a predicament. It is something that is expressive, but can also utilise a players expressive faculties in order to elevate itself.
Even further down the rabbit hole, as we are seeing with an increasing market for indie games and developers, is a game like Gone Home. Gameplay is almost non-existent, but the minimal interactivity is what defines it. It has a very good story and uses the medium of video games to explore this story best, explore being the operative word; you get out of it what you put into it.
What I consider to be the pinnacle of games (OPINION ALERT) is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and its sequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Both push what a cinematic game is to the absolute limit, MGS2 is a postmodern meditation on the role of new technologies like the internet, free will and determinism and the control of information; while at the same time being a meditation on the nature of games and how much agency does a player have in a game. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
In this interesting video (Game Show is almost always interesting) Jamen argues that Dark Souls realises the potential of video games with respect to how they create narratives. Instead of un-interactive, immersion breaking cut scenes, the story and how much a player gets out of it is defined by their interaction with the game and how often they inspect items and whatnot.
If postmodernism has taught us anything, then it is to be incredulous towards meta-narratives and to stop worrying and love the ‘low’ art. I would like to draw my argument away from aspects present in games themselves and look at the structures they are made in.
Did you notice something I did earlier? I referred to makers of video games as designers, thus retracting any notions of artistry and replacing it with machine like imagery. One problem that film faced when it was becoming popular was very much the same as games are facing now. They were seen as industrial productions, churned out to turn a profit and merely to entertain. What changed this was Andre Bazin’s auter theory, a mostly disregarded theory which states the director of a film is the creative voice behind everything, that every detail and nuance of the film is down to the director. This put film in line with art forms like painting and literature, both of which have a clear, singular crystalline visionary at the helm. Who would deny that a writer such as Ernest Hemingway was not the sole creative vision behind his books? If films had a creative force behind it, then we as audiences and critics can find and imbue meaning into them, thus transforming them into art. To wit: A multiplicity of creators and voices can cloud our critical judgment.
Games must attempt to overcome this chasm that lay before them. Some games do have directors, but we still do not think of them as visionaries brought into off the market to make something they want to make. They appear to be ‘owned’ by the games companies and they usually stay there and make multiple games with that company. The effect of this is that we as consumers do not know of a single mind that created a game, but rather, we recognise companies more easily.
Think about it, we have Valve fanboys/girls, Bioware fanboys/girls but with film, we don’t have Paramount fanboys/girls or Fox fanboys/girls. When we criticise games, for being technically or narratively inept, we usually direct criticism at the games company itself, rather than honing in on any individual(s).
So to fix this whole debacle, games must just attribute all the creativity of a game to one person? Well…not so much, and we can thank the deconstructuralists for that. Essays like Roland Barthes ‘Death of The Author’ are so embedded in our consciousness and our collective understanding of art, they seem the norm. In a ‘postmodern’ world, it isn’t that simple. Deconstructuralists essentially dismantled the auter theory as being reductive nonsense, but nonetheless as admittedly rather snobby critics, we still refer to films as property of a director and their mind. We say Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, rather than attributing them to their respective screenwriters, actors, producers, cinematographers etc.
This outdated mode of thinking is still present however. In this article the writer claims “The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.”
Apart from fundamentally disagreeing with the idea that ‘there is no artist’ we m
Established art forms and schools of thought will always be trepidatious when confronted with something new. It happened with expressionism, it happened with modernism, it happened with postmodernism, hell, to go back even further; it even happened with the rise of the novel. Originally, the novel was seen as pure entertainment (sound familiar?).
Thanks to postmodernism and its many strands of thought, rapid democratisation in the arts has led to an amazing diversity of content. Comics, once considered the pastime of children, are fast becoming recognised as a serious form of art. Not many people would contend that surely? This democratisation inevitably spreads to video games and as I see it everything is up for grabs.