I used to run a semi-regular letter column here on the site, Shout At The Devil. When we got comments under each article I discontinued it – you could Shout at me right there – but when they get shut down I didn’t start it back up, figuring I’d wait for the new redesign, when comments would return. Well, that’s still on the horizon and with my latest Devin’s Advocate about video games as art earning me a bunch of email feedback, I figured I’d resurrect the old lettercol (and what better day to do that?) to give you a sampling of what people are saying. I’ve only chosen the best of the responses, leaving most of the truly mouthbreathing ones in my trash can.

Justin shouts: Hey Devin,

First of all, much love for your Devin’s Advocate postings and all things CHUD. I’ve been visiting the site daily for a few years now, and your work in particular has really broadened my cinematic horizons.

But the main reason I’m writing is to address your most recent entry about “video games as art.” First of all, let me preface my very brief and probably flawed argument by saying that I don’t really care how video games are categorized. However you want to define them, I think we both agree that games aren’t just mindless shoot ‘em ups. I also agree that the vast majority of game writing is terrible. Yes, that includes BioShock and Braid.

However, I have to disagree when it comes to your argument that the games people are propping up as art are just movies with “game” gimmicks attached. Story intensive games may share many elements, but I think that the controlled interactivity is the key ingredient that holds the best games together.

To be clear, I’m not talking about cut scenes or even real-time “conversations” with other characters. Metal Gear Solid may be compatible with the PS3, but there are only a handful of moments of play in between the hours of (dreadful) movies. But when these segments end and you as the player are given choices (even if they’re just of the “shoot this guy or not” variety), I think that’s where the “games as art” folks have a valid argument.

Many games today emphasize “choices,” at least as bullet points on the back of the boxes. But you and I know that behind the scenes, the developer’s hand is guiding players towards some kind of conclusion. Any slight variations on a path will inevitably lead towards a similar outcome. And along the way, the developer is seeking to immerse players in a world, or isolate them, or scare them, or whatever else. The point being that he’s trying to evoke a response from players based on his own creative input and life experiences.

Take your example of Grand Theft Auto IV. In your Advocate, I’m under the impression that the “cinematic” moments for you are the dialogue sequences before each mission, or perhaps even the missions themselves. But for me, just being in that virtual New York was a thrill. I was overseas teaching English at the time of its release, and so when I got my hands on a copy, it was like briefly being back home again. And I think for anyone who has been to NYC, there is a familiarity there that made the game stand out.

But those slow taxi drives through Times Square, or the helicopter tours at night, or even just seeing virtual people interact with each other? For all of GTA’s celebrated “freedom” to do what you want, the developer still has some control over what you see and do. This world is not at all complete in terms of infrastructure and architecture. You can’t go inside buildings or even obey the law. And yet, I found myself forgetting this, at least briefly, because the developers had created such a detailed replica. I forgot about how static so much of that city was partially because of my own expectations, but also because I was too distracted to explore these elements in the first place.

I could point to a handful of other games that display these same qualities – including the game that started all of this, Shadow of the Colussus – for the same reasons. The best examples tend to be structured so that the player is given some degree of freedom to explore the world, but not so much that it’s impossible to manage and guide him or her. I think video games actually do become art once the writers put down their pens and just let players interact with their virtual worlds.

If you managed to make it through this entire incoherent email, hats off to you. Again, I really appreciate all the work you do, and I look forward to more of your columns down the road. And whether or not we agree on this topic, I’m glad that CHUD’s been promoting the MCP stuff too.*

Cheers,
Justin Hemenway

*(Though honestly, I wish Alex had his own site for this stuff. I worry that his work may get overshadowed because CHUD is movie-centric. But you would know what works better than I.)

Devin replies: Your argument seems to be that video games are art because we get to decide how to interact with them. I don’t see how this is any different from any other art. You can hang a painting in any direction, or put it in a dark room and only enjoy the textures. You can watch a movie in slow motion, or reverse, or enjoy it as a series of still frames or as audio. Every art form is interactive, as we, the audience, must interact with it in our own way. I will get something very different out of a book than you will because I interacted with it in my own way.

I agree about Alex – his stuff on the site is absolutely terrific.


Matt shouts: Hey man-

 Was just reading your new article on games as art. (and real quick before I get into this I want you to know that I have _mad_ respect for your writing…I think you have a voice and I send a lot of very smart and film savvy people your way to read your stuff)

 a couple real quick notes before I move on:

-I’m _not_assuming by “not art” you mean “not good”
-Also, and just for the record, a Shadow Of The Colossus movie sounds like a terrible idea and games as movies is a discussion I have zero interest in. I love film tremendously and I love the potential games have but have no desire _at all_ for them to cross over. I just wanted to get that sorted….I have no fanboy desire to see a game as a movie (or comics or anything else for that matter)

 So, moving on to the discussion:

  I’m still not sure what it is that makes games different from any other communication medium that can have artistic merit (books, movies, music etc) and have an effect on culture (unless you just mean that there are a lot of really bad and embarrassing videgames, in which you would be right but that doesn’t invalidate an entire medium and to be fair, that seems to really be your argument). Can you tell me why they are different? (And for the record, my vague definition of “art” when I use the term I simply mean just that: Communication…with an intent) They are all communication mediums no? They all have intent and use various types of languages (visual dynamics, audio dynamics, words etc) to provoke or kindle a response in it’s participant correct? I feel like your argument could absolutely be used against film in the early early days when they were novelty toys. Especially if you consider the idea that stage plays were in a way the precursor to what films became and there was much controversy about the validity of the medium as well as the differences in the two ( The “A film isn’t just a stage play with a camera in front of it” debate which is analogous to games having an interactive component…a common bullet point for why games are different than linear narrative…i.e. one of the hottest topics )

 Also, you should use better examples. The one’s you are using thus far fall too easily into the category of  Toys/commerce. (rock band and puzzle quest for instance) and make your argument too pre-loaded to justify your conclusion.


 By the way, Ebert tried this same argument before and I’m still not sure I get it. I feel like since you have a firm grasp of cinema you are assuming that means that you have a firm grasp of the language of interactive mediums and they aren’t the same thing. I’d love to see an approach where you take some games that have higher artistic merit and approach it from an angle where you try to argue that there is no _potential_ for games as art. I’d also be interested in your breakdown of what YOU THINK the language of interactive mediums really is (like human machine interaction and the pshycology behind it) so that your argument seems more informed. Your conclusion is too easy to come to with the infancy of the medium and wonky examples. Again, it’s like saying Sandman could never happen if all  you have to go on is Archie comics or Lil’ Abner. I want to say, though, that I totally agree with you that most of what is out there is garbage and it’s hard to make a good case. But there are cases, and I feel they are very strong. Make more of an effort to find examples that challenge your theory and your argument will have more validity.

 Mark my words man, games _will_ be what movies were to the 20th century :) It will take many many years for them to get there..probably not even in my lifetime. The people who work in this industry (the good ones, anyway) realize this and realize where we are going when this format grows up and work very very hard to push things forward every little way they can.  This medium takes every element of every previously accepted art form and put it all together with new 21st century ideas and technology. That’s really important to remember. It’s just waay to young and caught up with it’s own cliche’s.

Devin replies: I don’t know what to say. I made the points in the editorial. Games are either not art because they are games or they art but not really games. That’s my argument.

People keep bringing up the early days of cinema, but cinema got disrespected because it was seen as a low form for low class people. That was a value judgment on cinema, not a categorization judgment, which is what I’m trying to do. What people were slinging at cinema in the day is totally different from saying ‘Games and Art Are Not The Same Thing.’


Sean shouts: Hey Devin,

Been reading the site for years and have always been a fan of your writing. Even if I don’t always agree I can always understand where you are coming from.

About your editorial on video games as art today. Welcome to Ebert versus video game players from about a year ago. Ebert said the exact same thing and got a slew of emails about it that didn’t sway him one bit.

I think the whole problem with this debate is something you bring up in the first couple paragraphs of your editorial. Art is not easy to define. What is art to one person is absolutely nothing to someone else.I can remember being at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and seeing an exhibit that literally had a shovel leaning up against a wall. I really wish I could remember the name of the artist or the exhibit, but I do remember it based on the fact I couldn’t believe someone thought that was art. Now, just because it’s in the most prestigious gallery in Canada, does it count as art? Does the director of the gallery decide that for the world? Or is the whole point of art galleries to have people come through and decide for themselves what is or is not art?

I think the one thing that you elude to but never fully admit in your article is that there are a lot of good artists working on video games. Which is certainly true especially now with how much work it takes to create a truly beautiful game on a next-gen system. It’s also why you can buy ‘Art of’ books on video games that shows off all the great pre-production stuff that goes into making a game. But I will agree with you that just because a bunch of great art is produced doesn’t mean the final game itself should be classified as art. Same goes for film though. I’ve seen gorgeous pre-production art for truly shit movies.

Onto actual game experiences. I have been playing a game called ‘Dead Space’. I have no idea if you have played this game or not. It is a great game. Gorgeous graphics, amazing sound, and most importantly, fun gameplay. Now, I clearly recognize that the narrative is a blatant rip off from a million different sci-fi horror flicks in the past. However, when I play this game late at night with the lights off it does actually freak me out a bit, and I get the same emotional reactions I would get from a good horror movie. Does the fact I am having a visceral response from a game make it art?

The original ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ had a great story. Probably the best star wars story since the original trilogy. When certain characters got killed off in the story because of my actions I actually cared. Which was pretty shocking to me because it hadn’t happened to me in a video game before and I have been playing them for 20 years. Does that make it art?

I guess this is basically my long-winded way of saying, ‘Maybe?’. I’m definitely on the fence about whether a video game can be defined as art or not. But that is just my opinion, and I think that is the real point. Art itself is too broad a term to definitively say one way or another whether video games are truly art just yet. The fact that so many people are so vocal about believing it is art though, is a keen indication to me that a video game will achieve ‘Art’ status in the near future.

Anyway, it’s a fun debate regardless! Keep up the good work Devin!

Adios,

Sean

Devin replies: You having a reaction to something doesn’t make it art. You would have had the same reaction to a haunted house as you did to Dead Space, and haunted houses aren’t art (although you could argue they’re a subset of the art of theater, just as I’ve argued that some video games are a subset of the art of cinema. But you wouldn’t say that haunted houses are an art unto themselves).

Your first paragraph contains a lot of what I’ve seen in other letters, although usually ones that are much less intelligently put together. There’s an anger out there that white paint on a canvas is art but Halo isn’t. This, to me, reads as one part ignorance of art (my guess is that most of the people who want video games as art have no actual interest in art and rarely go to art galleries/shows) and one part desire for validation.

Kevin shouts: OK, so I read your Devin’s Advocate. This flawed explanation is a million time better than just poking fun at people who find meaning in an experience like Braid, Shadow of the Colossus or Flower. I agree that a lot of games shouldn’t qualify as “Art” (since you’re stuck on  this capital A thing). I would argue though that the intent of Call of
Duty or Left 4 Dead isn’t to be art, but to emulate cinema, as you rightly said. I would argue that there are games, though seldom, where the intent is an artistic one, where the sum is something more than its parts. Shadow of the Colossus may or may not be that. Flower definitely is, in fact an interview with the games designer was on Studio 360 a few weeks ago (a radio program on the arts from Chicago’s WNYC). Maybe you’ve heard of one artists version of World Trade Center vs. Space Invaders. It’s the classic game, but you fend off the invaders as they are blowing wholes in a 8 bit model of the World Trade Center Towers. A simple concept, but one with depth. This isn’t an example of trying to emulate cinema, in this instance (as well as Flower, and arguably Shadow of the Colossus) it’s the interactive playing element that has the artistic value. Do you get this? This isn’t 10 year olds whining that Halo is the Mona Lisa. This is people who believe that there is a new medium for expression. Cinema is art because of editing? Fine. So is an edited piece for the local news art if it is edited? Of course not. Is a documentary by Herzog art? Of course it is. Don’t you get it? It has nothing to do with editing or how, or what. It’s in the why that makes it art. It’s in the intent of its’ creator. I don’t expect too much from you… but I mean, don’t you see this? It is so obvious. Do some research. Either shut your trap when it comes to art and new media, or go and actually experience some of the games whose creators intent was to create art. Not Rock Band and Puzzle Quest. So no, this has nothing to do with justifying a hobby. I don’t need to justify playing Call of Duty 4. I do it because it is fun, not because I think it’s Art with your capital A. The intent was not to create Art. Games used to be children’s past times, but people are taking it seriously now. It was the same at the advent of cinema. Grow up. It’s a medium, get used to it.

Devin replies: Besides being almost impossible to read (paragraphs, please!), this letter exemplifies the people who frankly Do Not Get It. Kevin compares film editing with the editing of text; this indicates that Kevin is not intellectually able to understand what’s going on in this discussion. Also, I like the idea that shooting aliens that are blowing up the World Trade Center has ‘depth.’ If you don’t understand the difference between text editing and film editing (and there’s a huge, vast difference), you probably don’t know what depth is either.


Matthew shouts: I don’t really have an opinion either way, as long as the game is enjoyable I don’t care what the call it.  You article did get me thinking though, couldn’t the “art” part of video games be the coding element?  A painter uses paint, a photographer uses cameras, a video game programmer uses c++? There’s definitely a skill to programming, coming up with a precise bit of code to create something can be just as complex as brush strokes…anyway, It’s just a thought..and not exactly thoroughly thought out that at that. 

keep up the good work on the site,

Matthew

Devin replies: Because coding is the tool, not the outcome. Cameras aren’t photography and paint isn’t a painting. A brick isn’t a house. Hell, the script to a play isn’t theater (but it is literature).

Andrew shouts: Devin –

I wanted to write in response to your article re: Games as Art.  There are a couple things I want to respond to here …

First:
“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.” 

This point I find somewhat curious – it seems that say here “games are just rules” but then repeatedly later in the article you highlight all of the aspects of games that are NOT rules, the cinematic elements for example.  If games were just rules, would they/could they have cinematic elements to them?  But, that is neither here nor there, let’s operate under the assumption that games are just a collection of rules.

Per Wikipedia (clearly, the most reliable source of information anyplace in the world), “Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” 

and ….

Per Dictionary.com, Art is “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”


What I find important here, specifically about the Wikipedia definition is that it specifically calls out the “Process.”  Evening using your idea that games are just rules (I think Ian Bogost of Persuasive games would like that definition — check out his book “Persuasive Games.”).  According to Dictionary.com, we have process defined as, “a systematic series of actions directed to some end.”  If a game is not a series of action direct towards an end, I’m not entirely sure what actually is then. 

So, going with a game is a process, and a process can be art according to the aesthetic qualities contained as part of the process, I think that games are art, but art of a different stride.  It’s not storytelling, but it contains aspects of storytelling.  It’s not drawing/painting/animation, but it requires aspects of those.  It’s not cinema, but it uses cinema.  Gaming is essentially a Frankenstein of previously established concepts of art, drawn together to something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Do games fit the traditional idea of art?  I don’t really think they do, but I do think that they help redefine what is considered art.  The understanding that while a game is at its heart, a collection of rules that guide the player, realizing that the sum of it’s parts make it something greater than just a collection of a rules is important.

Similarly, when thinking about any other genre of art, you find the same “rules” guiding the “player/observer” through the art, those less explicitly, but often no less effective.  Painting, for example follows the tenets of color theory.  Animation mimics the rules of physics, or deliberately breaks by them but gives the player/observer a point of reference.  This art must always be referential to something the player/observer can identify with, and they must interact in a way that the player/observer can relate to and expect.  The framework of those expectation are what creates the implicit rules within art. 

The rules of a video game are much the same – the experience must be referential, things behave in a way that we’ve come to expect or make a deliberate effort to step outside the bounds of those expectations.  Those rules are the same rules the govern the rest of art and the rest of communication, just expressed in a different form.  Namely, a coding language. 

That would be why I think your argument is somewhat flawed and that games in fact can (and should) be considered works of art. 

Thanks for your time
Andrew McAdams

Devin replies: This is the most common reply I got. There’s a lot of people who feel that an amorphous statement like ‘more than the sum of its parts’ is enough to make a case, and I frankly don’t think it is. Even if elements of the aggregated arts that make up a video game are art, those elements are the art, not the game. The visual design, the narrative, the music are art. The structure holding them together isn’t. Just throwing a whole bunch of art on my bed doesn’t make my bed art.

By the way, I don’t have a lot of time for dictionary definitions of art. They’re useless in a debate like this, because they serve only to give a baseline understanding of the word, free of all context. As I said in my original editorial, defining art is a fool’s errand at the best of times.


Randy shouts: Dear Mr. Faraci,

I was directed to your article on the games-as-art debate by gamepolitics.com, so you might guess on which side of the fence I sit. I know you’ve heard many responses on this, but the question of what constitutes art is an important one for me, so I feel the need to weigh in.

I actually agree with almost the entirety of your article.  Even your definition of art is very close to the one I use (although I would argue the “purposefully”, as I think something could be interpreted as art even if it wasn’t intended that way, but that is an unrelated argument).

There is only one paragraph where I disagree.  You state that “a game is simply a series of rules that the players follow.”  That’s fine; it’s basically what defines games.  But you then claim that “Those rules are not intended to communicate ideas or feelings, but simply to facilitate play.”  Here, I think you jump too quickly to conclusion.  This may be true of chess, or baseball, or even many of the games (video or otherwise) that exist today, but it need not be true for every one of them.  You also add that, “If rules themselves were art, the US Congress would be the most prolific artists of our time.”  This I find untrue, as the existence of non-art rules does not necessitate that all rules are non-art in the same way that the existence of this email does not necessitate that all words are non-art, or the existence of technical drawings does not necessitate that all drawings are non-art.

I feel that rules can be used to communicate ideas and feelings very effectively.  If no one has already, I would like to direct you to the experimental game “The Marriage” (http://www.rodvik.com/rodgames/marriage.html).  This game was created to communicate its creator’s views on marriage.  He deliberately avoided making use of imagery or sound to aid that communication, relying solely on the interpretation of the game’s rules.  Apparently this communication was effective enough for his wife to become mad at him over it.  A more mainstream example could be “Shadow of the Colossus”, where the rules, in conjunction with image and sound, communicate a feeling of frailty and weakness.  When the rules dictate that you lose your grip and are thrown across a field, you can feel that helplessness.

Admittedly, there are few games that even try to use their rules to communicate complex ideas, but I believe that it is entirely possible. And I care that this view is shared because, if enough other people see that possibility, more truly artistic games will result.  As pretentious artist type, I would really like to see that.

Anyways, there’s another rant on your pile.  I hope it wasn’t too tedious for you.

Randy Heydon

Devin replies: How come some rules be art and others not? All paintings are art, no matter how good or bad, so who decides which rules are art? And if rules are art, aren’t they just a subset of literature? Mind you, I still think saying rules are art is absurd. But I do think what you’re confusing here is the idea that a toilet used in an art installation is art while all other toilets are not. A set of rules used in an art project may be art, but all rules are not. It isn’t the rules that are art, it’s the presentation and context that makes them art (this, by the way, is where a lot of the people who say ‘Everything is art’ get hung up. Everything can be made into art. It doesn’t start that way).

Joseph shouts: maybe this wont be read because you’ve gotten too much shit for this already. i’m not trying to give you shit for it and dont have time for an impassioned argument so here are my points.

1. personally i never cared about video games being art until i engaged with liberals/conservatives who went way out of their way to characterize video games non-art. so for me the issue is not about validating how i spend my time, but about placing a game designer’s decision to produce a sequence of zombie-killing encounters in the same speech-protected realm as a movie director’s decision to produce a zombie-killing scene.

2. if you want to define art as something “purposefully created or presented with the intention of communicating an idea or feeling” (which I wouldn’t but that’s not the issue) i really find it hard to believe that a video game isn’t just that. when those dogs jumped through the window in the first Resident Evil and scared the fuck out of me, it was because someone intentionally produced the game that way. now playing the game isn’t an art, just like looking at a painting isn’t an art in the sense we are using it here.

3. i suppose your way out of this is to reduce a game to its rules. but if you reduce an art form into its elements you’ll see that they are never in themselves art. if you break a painting into the paint, canvas, brush, etc. not a single one of them is art. it is the purposeful combination of these elements with the aim of communicating an idea/feeling (again just using this notion of art) that makes it an art. similarly, it is not the rules of the game, graphics, sounds, cut scenes, etc that make a video game an art but the fact that someone sat down and attempting to combine all this shit in a way that would make me scared, happy, or whatever.

Devin replies: I got a lot of variations on #1 and I’m kind of baffled. Video games don’t have to be art to be protected by the First Amendment, for starters. In a follow-up email Joseph made the argument that obscenity isn’t covered but… only the arts can be obscene. Math can’t be obscene. Neither can food or drink (although they can be used in obscene art). In fact, every obscenity case in this nation boils down to obscenity in the arts; photography, literature, graphic arts, etc. Putting video games in the art category certainly does it no favors when it comes to obscenity.

Another correspondant, Liam Arbetman, says that not all speech is protected and uses commercial speech as an example. A kind of daft example, I think, since I can’t imagine how video games can fall under existing definitions of commercial speech, which is speech being used to motivate a transaction. Commercial speech is limited to protect you from false advertising, etc.

#2: Yes, which is why I have said that some narrative video games seem to fall under the subset of cinema. Resident Evil particularly feels like a movie with a shitty gimmick – button mashing – laid over it.

#3: You’re confusing art with the tools that create art. You’re right in that a canvas is not a painting. So what does that have to do with rules not being art?