Want to get hundreds upon hundreds of replies on Twitter and Facebook? Simply make the statement that video games are not art. It happened to me today.
It’s a touchy subject, apparently. And, I think an interesting one. Arguing this on Twitter, 140 characters at a time, is pointless, so this editorial is an attempt to lay out some of the thoughts I have on the subject. I’ll try not to get too wonky, but this is a wonky matter.
First and foremost: when we’re talking about whether something is art or not we’re not talking about whether it’s good or not. That’s really integral to understand right up front. In fact, I’m going to repeat that and bold it right here:
When we’re talking about whether something is art or not we’re not talking about whether it’s good or not.
Once more, with feeling:
When we’re talking about whether something is art or not we’re not talking about whether it’s good or not.
This is not about value judgments. While I personally do not believe any game has risen to the level of ‘high art’ (which is where we start making value judgments), that’s irrelevant to most of this discussion
With that out of the way (when we’re talking about whether something is art or not we’re not talking about whether it’s good or not), I guess we have to begin with discussing what art is. There are some people – almost always the people on the ‘video games are art’ side of the coin – who say anything is art. They’re right and they’re wrong. Anything can be used as art, but that doesn’t mean anything is art. Andy Warhol painted Campbell soup cans, but that doesn’t mean Campbell soup cans are art, any more than all those apples you’ve seen in still lifes are art. And Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - a 14 foot tiger shark hanging in a tank of formaldehyde – doesn’t mean tiger sharks are art. This is an incredibly important point to make because with this point we can say A video game is art without allowing the statement ‘video games are art.’ An artist can use a video game the same way he may use a toilet, as part of an installation. The object is not the art, the way the object is presented, the presentation, etc, is what makes the art. Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus feels like it belongs in that category of an object that can be presented as art.
But we still haven’t defined art. And honestly, we’re not going to do so here. It’s been something people have been arguing about for the last hundred or so years, and it’s further tangled up in a web of semantics – when I say there’s an art to opening my front door that has a sticky lock, I don’t literally mean it’s an art form, for example. That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. I do think it’s important to have some definition of art, simply because the idea that anything is art is so reductive that it renders art utterly without meaning. Sure, we can satirically say that the way I flung my jacket over a chair is ‘art,’ but if we accept that, then art has no meaning. I suspect there are some people who find this idea comfortable; these are people who might feel threatened by art because it’s something they believe is out of their experience and understanding. I reject this concept, though – it’s too Special Olympics for my taste. Not everyone is a winner, and not everything is art.
So what’s art? Let’s say it’s something purposefully created or presented with the intention of communicating an idea or feeling. That’s really broad, probably broader than I actually feel comfortable with, but it’ll do for the purposes of this piece. It’s also value neutral, which is very important. The thing doesn’t have to be created or presented well in order to be art, just purposefully.
Well gosh, you say. I can make video games fit in that definition. Not so fast, hoss.
With that definition I believe we can say games are not art. They may be artistic – having beauty, or carrying subtextual meaning (you can see sports as metaphors for many things) – and they may be used as art objects – an exquisitely hand painted Monopoly board, for instance – but games are not art. The carved chess pieces are art, the actual playing of the game of chess is not (although, and this is really only going to serve to confuse the matter, but I have to be fair, a film of that chess game would be). The moves of a baseball pitcher as recreated by a dancer are art; on the mound they’re simply artful. But in the end a game is simply a series of rules that the players follow. Those rules are not intended to communicate ideas or feelings, but simply to facilitate play. If rules themselves were art, the US Congress would be the most prolific artists of our time.
But you’ll point out that there is more to video games than just the game. The game aspect is simply one portion. There’s music. There’s a visual arts aspect. There’s animation. There’s voice acting. There’s a narrative. And you’re right! The music in a video game – even the cheesiest 8 bit stuff – is art. As are the visual design elements. Even the terrible voice acting is acting, and even the most miserable dialog is writing. But just putting all of these arts together does not create more art. I can throw an arts festival that has painters and musicians and dancers and a theater troupe, but that doesn’t mean festivals are art. Just that the festival aggregates all of these arts.
This is where you get a little cross. Movies are the same thing, you say. It’s photography and music and acting and writing mixed together. Close! Cinema is an art form in and of itself not because it’s an aggregation of other art forms but because it brings something special to the table: editing. I don’t have the time or inclination to get into why editing in film is so unique, so this Wikipedia page is a good place for you to go if you want to know more about this. Suffice it to say that editing is unique to cinema (and don’t get semantic with me and say there are editors that work on books), and that means anything that uses edited together images – cartoons, television shows, commercials – fall under the bailiwick of cinema. It’s the same way that everything from noh to mime to improv to staged readings fall under theater.
This is the point where someone says ‘Hey, Narrative Game X does ALL of the things that movies do, including have editing in the cut scenes. Thus Narrative Game X is art!’ This is where we get into a pretty weird area. See, I’ll agree with you, sort of. What I’ll say, though is that Narrative Game X is… a movie. A movie with a gimmick, in that you have to push buttons to keep the story going, but in the end it’s a movie nonetheless. I told you it got weird.
See, Narrative Game X does in fact fulfill all of the most basic requirements of being a movie, and then it has some extra junk on top of it. But that extra junk is just window dressing. I think this may send some video game people into a fit, but it’s the truth. If I show you a movie and turn it off as the third act is beginning and tell you that you must go on a scavenger hunt to find the pieces needed to access the last act, it’s still a movie. It’s a movie that’s been annoyingly interrupted, but that’s still a movie.
You’re going to counter that it isn’t the same thing because the video game is interactive. The way you solve the scavenger hunt will change the third act that you’ll watch. Of course if I sent you on a scavenger hunt that gave you the option to see one of the four endings of Clue, it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Clue‘s still a movie (and I’m not missing the irony that it’s a movie based on a game, by the way). If I watch a movie on DVD that includes deleted scenes or alternate takes via branching technology – ie, I can choose at any moment what take to see, or whether to continue with the original cut or to have a deleted scene reinserted into the narrative – that’s interactivity as well. And it’s still a movie.
In fact, interactivity is pretty old in the arts. I’d imagine live musical performances over the centuries have been influenced by the interaction with the audience. Improv groups will ask audiences to shout out things that will be incorporated into skits. I’d actually argue that this is much more interactive than any video game outside of Second Life (and I’m not even sure if anybody wants that defined as a video game. More on that in a moment). Even in a so-called sandbox game my options for interaction are limited by the programming, giving me only a finite series of options, just like the finite endings of Clue.
It’s weird to say that Narrative Game X is a movie, but that seems to be what games are trying to do anyway – get more cinematic. Instead of finding their own language, narrative video games seem to be trying to emulate cinema. But not all video games are narrative. So what the hell is a video game anyway? I have a crossword puzzle app on my iPhone, and a sudoku app as well. Are they games? Yes, of course. And they’re video games because they’re games presented in an electronic format. Are they art? They may be artful in design, but is sudoku art? Ever? How about Tetris? Or Rock Band? Or Geometry Wars Evolved? All of these games have artful design, but are they art?
Again, they will each contain elements of the arts. The visual arts are represented, as are the musical arts. But what is it that makes these games their own art form? As far as I can tell they’re just really pretty, really well done games. And that’s not a value judgment. Each of the games cited has cost me hours of time, hours I have loved giving up. I’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on Rock Band alone.
It’s possible somebody out there is going to come at me with a blazing explanation for why sudoku is an art form, but I think it’s just a puzzle, no matter how well presented. Although speaking of presentation, it could be presented in an installation of some type as an objet d’art, but I’m just confusing the issue again (and it’s already a confusing issue).
I think where we stand right now is that almost all narrative games are forms of movies. I’d argue they’re bastard forms of movies, laden with gimmicks, but that’s a value judgment. Should Narrative Game X reach the level of ‘high art,’ it’s doing so as a movie, not as a game. The more purely a game a video game is – ie, where the game elements are the whole point, not the key to unlocking further narrative; you solve the sudoku to solve the sudoku, not to find out who killed the sudoku’s mother – the less it is a bastard movie and the less it is art. But the less purely a game it is, the less it’s really a video game and just a kind of movie that requires your interaction to watch. A Choose Your Own Adventure book, at the end of the day, remains a book, not a game.
Now, I’m a lifelong video game player, but it’s possible that I’ve missed something truly unique about video games in all those hours spent playing them. It’s not immersiveness – books are way more immersive than any game, which is actually an incredibly distancing activity (you’re doing physical actions that have no relationship to the physical actions your avatar is taking. Rock Band and Guitar Hero are among the exceptions). It’s not animation. Someone on Twitter suggested it was AI, but I’d rather join John Connor in the resistance before I agree that AI is ‘art.’ I don’t even know how that’s possible to argue, in fact. Anyway, I may be missing some element of video games that are wholly unique to video games (and that must be present in all video games. A security camera feed on its own isn’t cinema, for instance), and I would like to hear it from you. But in the end the argument comes down to two things for me:
Are games art? The answer I have for that is no.
Are narrative games actually subsets of cinema with a gimmick layer of ‘game’ as opposed to games with a gimmick layer of cinema? The answer I have for that is yes, in the same way infomercials and music videos are.
That second point is not perfect. It might really piss off some cinema purists, for one thing. It’s still being pretty big tent about what cinema is, while remaining
comfortably small tent about allowing games into the arts. And it’s worth noting that narrative is not at all needed for something to be cinema, we just tend to like narrative cinema more than any other kind. And then there’s a gray zone when we’re talking about narrative games. For instance, while Call of Duty or Left 4 Dead could probably be argued as technically narrative games, I believe that they’re more straight game games with a cinematic, narrative sheen. They’re like the Game of Life – there’s sort of a narrative there but it’s dressing for the mechanics of game play, which is what is really important. In the end, instead of telling a story (which again, is not a prerequisite for cinema), they’re a series of scenarios that allow the use of gameplay mechanics. Further, is there a narrative game that uses no editing at all – no flashbacks, no cut scenes, no load screens that divide areas, nothing? There’s a larger semantic argument here about editing and cinema, one that I’m not really prepared to address. This semantic argument brings us to the question ‘Are long take movies (real or faked) still cinema? Ie, is Russian Ark cinema despite a lack of conventional editing as we understand it?’ There’s a possibe argument that even in first person, loading screen free video games the editing is taking place around you at all times, thus making it truly live up to its name of the invisible art.
It is important for me to finally interject my value judgment here on narrative games as cinema. I think they’re all various levels of bad art. I’ve never played a video game that was as good as even a mediocre movie, or a fairly readable book. The next level of argument, should one take my suggestion that narrative cinematic games are just a bastard form of cinema, is that one of them is high art. Art with a big A. The examples I’ve seen given – BioShock, Braid, etc – seem to me like holding up a Danielle Steele book as the paragon of literature. These may be pretty, possibly even involving, but they’re all essentially stupid (and using Braid because of its art design and classical sounding music is like holding up a romance novel because of its gothic title lettering). I don’t think there’s been a narrative game that’s exceeded the level of depth and emotion that you get in an average Nic Cage science fiction thriller, for instance. Even the deepest are shallow, feature paper thin characters, uninvolving storylines and often rotten dialogue. I’ll be honest: in my opinion the last few Grand Theft Auto games are the ones that come closest to be decent cinema.
There are people who get really upset about the idea that video games are not art. Furious, in fact. And I suspect that the reason is because there’s a need to validate one’s hobbies. It’s why comic book readers always try to convince you this one comic book is so much better than what you think a comic book is, for instance. I don’t fully understand this. I like lots of things that I don’t need validated. I watch tons of truly awful, creepy and gross exploitation films and while I may want to celebrate them, I’ve never really tried to argue for them as anything but awful, creepy and gross. For the people so hung up on getting video games recognized as art, I have to ask: why? Why does it matter to you that your hobby is validated in that way? If you’re having fun, isn’t that enough.
If you catch me on Xbox Live (I’m Devin Wolfking) you’ll see me deeply enthralled in such non-art as Rock Band and Puzzle Quest. And I’ll be unapologetically loving every moment.
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