Posted by: Chris | April 28, 2010

An Apologetic of Sorts

Kellee [sic] Santiago gave a TED talk defending the notion of games as art.  The major thrust of her argument is, as basically all these things argue, games are nowhere near the quality of other mature artforms (“chicken scratch” she says) but they are fumbling and groping towards something artistic.  Roger Ebert, regular critic of such things, very thoroughly takes down(1) her approach to that common argument and I found myself regularly agreeing with his points.  However, I as much as I agree with Ebert’s criticisms, I still could not bring myself to agree with his ultimate conclusions about the poverty of the “games as art” train of thought and the impossibility of actualizing the various hopes that various designers have for the future of the medium.

First, I think it should be again noted that Mrs. Santiago was speaking to a TED audience composed of computer science and business types, and thus the forum can probably account for some of the business speak she uses and the slide that Ebert indicts at the end of his piece (as well as some of her hyperbole and overenthusiastic prognostication, the essential elements of any TED talk).  Even Santiago in her rebuttal admits as much.

However, her audience and their loathsome preferences cannot excuse much of the substance of the talk.  To me, the biggest problems stem from her attempts to define “art” and to use this definition to distinguish video games from more analog games like chess or football.  Borrowing and paraphrasing Wikipedia’s definition, she defines art as “communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging,” an approach that somehow manages to be both too broad and too specific to contain what we would normally assume as “art.”  Anything that includes a news broadcast but neglects many a famous statue or painting is pretty much a wrong definition.  Ebert rightfully argues against this logic along similar lines and pivots off the failure of this definition to classify all games (computer or otherwise) as simply systems of rules, points, and objectives.

And to an extent he is right.  But the deeper problem here is that video games as a clade cannot be or not be art.  To borrow a phrase from Adam Serwer, both Ebert and Santiago mistake the medium for the content.  As Chris Suellentrop noted last year, the word “video games” encompasses a medium, a mode of interacting with entertainment, and a fairly diverse one at that.  In a sense, it is like television, which will include anything from The Wire to Monday Night Football or the Home Shopping Network.  Some of the output gropes toward something resembling an established artform.  Often, though, it does not aspire to be more than a sport or a diversion or a storefront or a game.  To consider television as a whole, much like considering video games as a whole, for this question would be fairly ridiculous.

Thus the Penny Arcade rejoinder (probably the most common argument put out in Kellee’s defense) which points to the quantity and quality of artwork included in all games; arguing that the visual splendor of the images on the screen makes a game artistic, cannot hold water.  As Anthony Burch explains:

There have been, however, a few instances of confusion regarding what is so artistic about games. If I say, “games are an art form,” and you say, “yeah — just look at how beautiful Okami is!,” then we’re not talking about the same thing … Okami is a visually beautiful game, yes, but its graphics have nothing — I repeat, nothing — to do with its belonging to an artistically unique medium. Making things look pretty is not a game-specific skill. The art style certainly has an impact on one’s enjoyment of the game, and it’s almost definitely one of the first things that pop into my head when I think about Okami, but I would no more point to Okami‘s beautiful watercolor graphics to exemplify gaming’s artfulness than I would present the cover art for Abbey Road to show how uniquely artistic music can be.

Further, this rationale cannot be used to distinguish video games from say chess or Axis and Allies, which contain exquisitely carved pieces and strikingly designed gameboards; all the work of artists just as legitimate as the 3d animators in the gaming industry.  But the beauty of these elements are superfluous to what makes chess chess and a video game a video game; they certainly enhance the experience (and factor into the artistry of a video game), but they are fundamentally non-essential.

Santiago takes a similarly undifferentiated approach to the medium, setting the bar at simply conveying ideas engagingly, without reference to how or what or why.  This lets in, to refer back to the TV example, basically every program on air, from news and game shows to dramas and comedies, which seems patently absurd.  If you wanted to be meta, you could even note that her TED talk, which “communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging,” could itself be considered art by her definition.  More importantly, with respect to video games, it allows in virtual all of the medium’s output, even things like Civilization or Madden that have more in common with the games she opens up disparaging as not art, all while ignoring the key strengths and differentiating features of the medium.

I personally cannot fathom delimiting “art” myself, especially given my utter ignorance and disinterest in the larger question.  However, as Adam Serwer suggests, I do think one can clearly separate a certain set of games from the rest of the medium (and from the clade of all games broadly construded) and place them amongst a larger set of works that spans different mediums based on one element: narrative.  The single-player narrative game has all the elements of a novel or film: characters, plots, settings, themes, etc.  These are all often enhanced by usage of techniques specific to the medium (in this case, with elements like choice, interactivity, exploration, or atmosphere), again not unlike in novels or film.  These games also give wide leverage to the designers to impose authorial control and winnow the experiences available to the player, which was Ebert’s original objection to the “games as art” business.  Further, the same processes for critiquing a work of narrative art can be transposed readily from one medium to the next, making it quite easy to establish guidelines for judging the artistic merits, if they even obtain, for any individual narrative game. 

Now, none of this is to say that any individual game out or on the horizon is comparable to most novels or films just yet.  Designers are still figuring out how to properly port over the universal elements of narrative into an interactive setting and still experimenting with the unique elements of video games (all while trying to produce profitable products of course).  I think this is what Santiago was going for with the “chicken scratch” business (though, like the Penny Arcade, she uses the language of visual art rather than narrative art).  Film went through a similar period in the first two or three decades of the twenty-first century, where filmmakers experimented with camera angles, montages and the frequency of cuts, framing, along with the traditional elements of narrative, to create stories and convey meaning.  Further complicating things at the present, many games have a significant amount of cinematic narrative elements, often to make up for how rudimentary our current understanding is of how interactivity and story-telling or character development combine.  It is hard to tell how to deal with these (admittedly increasingly rare) crutch-devises, though I am again inclined to agree with Anthony Burch’s assessment of cinematics:

This is why I’m also hesitant to hold up JRPGs as examples of artistic greatness, at least in the way that I’ve seen them championed by a fair number of people. Final Fantasy VI may have a cool story, yes, but is it delivered in a way specific to the medium? Or is it conveyed through long dialogue scenes and noninteractive cut scenes? I’m not trying to make some sort of qualitative statement about how good or bad JRPG plots generally are, but it’s worth noting that game narratives, at least as conveyed through many, many games across many, many genres, aren’t particularly unique to our chosen medium. Though you wouldn’t be able to experience the fun of leveling up and finding items (activities that are unique to gaming, and are thus worthy of recognition), a FFVI miniseries would be just as effective at delivering narrative as its source material.

This said, I do not think that the narrative aspect of games is the end all and be all of the artistic merits of games, just like it is not for written language or television or film.  But going beyond the obvious narrative art, things become much harder to identify, articulate, and judge.  For example, take Super Mario Galaxy, ostensibly a narrative game, but whose narrative elements are fairly superfluous to what one would consider the artistry the game exudes.  If it were shorn of its narrative elements and instead presented as a random collection of levels (much like earlier Mario games, I might add), its quality would only be diminished marginally.  The game toys with the various intrinsic elements of gaming to convey not ideas but a collection of almost indescribable and bubbly emotions.  It fiddles with simply the building blocks of most games, staying thoroughly sub-thematic and sub-narrative.  In a sense, it could be best analogized to lyric poetry in both its minimalism and solely emotional appeals.  However, the further we tread from the framework of a narrative, the murkier the waters become, so I cannot expound further beyond noting that some element of sub-narrative artistry is achievable in the medium.

This brings me, in a round about way, to the other issue where I found myself agreeing with Ebert on Santiago’s talk: she gave fairly weak examples of “games as art” (and could not defend them properly). It strikes me that Santiago is the kind of person Jim Sterling explicitly addresses in these posts, and this bleeds into her choice of examples.  She presents, in order: a bizarre, experimental speech-controlled game unplayable outside of the developers studio (and, if I may judge a book by its cover, looks to be both unenjoyable and thoroughly uninsightful);  Braid, which both MM and I found underwhelming but others routinely praise; and finally, in a tremendous display of modesty, her own creation Flower, which she pitches as if she has no connection to it at all.(2)  All three are independent games (so, contra, Ebert, they didn’t have budgets anywhere near the size of early movies) that are intentionally vague so as to seem meaningful and are too self-satisfied whenever they do manage to crest to a point to be terribly insightful.  Flower, for example, has aspirations toward investigating the balance between urban sprawl and the conservation of the natural world.  However, the game is far too vague (by Santiago’s own admission) and instead settles for fairly insipid and generic “green” themes, which solely fulfill the creator’s desire to “say something” without actually giving the player anything of use.  Ebert seems to notice these elements without having much experience with any of the examples and rightly criticizes all three games on both their vagueness and their shallowness.(3)

The other problem with these examples is that they really don’t fit into the narrative framework we discussed earlier, which represents the clearest path to producing thematic content in games and distinguishing certain video games from other computer and actual games which have only pretensions toward sport/play.  Instead, the three examples she chose all reside in the nebulous area just past Super Mario Galaxy, where the narratives are either non-existant or incidental and the games seek a more emotional, rather than rational response.  Only Braid makes any attempt at a narrative, but its intentional vagueness prevents from developing too much along those lines.  Much of the discussion around Braid centered around what exactly the plot was, which is not the ideal aspiration for your typical narrative work (though as a someone who loved I am the Cheese, I suspect I could find that interesting every now and then).  Further, Braid tells much of its plot through muddled and overly florid texts that begin each world, which, in addition to being needlessly user-unfriendly, does not make good use of the elements of the medium to convey narrative.  It would be as if George Lucas broke up most of Star Wars into those lengthy bits of scrolling prose, interrupting things every now and then with film of dogfights and lightsaber duels and then telling the viewer to figure things out from there on their own.  It is simply not good game design and I have no idea why Santiago highlighted this bit especially for special mention in her talk.(4)

Thus, despite agreeing with Ebert’s criticisms of Santiago’s presentation, I cannot follow him all the way to his extreme conclusions.  The problems he rightly notes are specific to Santiago’s approach not the whole medium.  When one consider’s the storytelling potential (and actualization) that the modern single-player narrative game displays, it seems obvious that these games at least group with novels, film or theatre instead of majong, football, and chess.

But why should we care about which group certain games are in? Why does it matter if games can have artistic merit or that people recognize them when they do?  Ebert suggests that his antagonists in these series of discussions seek the legitimacy that being deemed “art” can bestow on their preferred pastime.  As with most of his article, I think that this is certainly true, but it remains a peripheral concern.  I think the more important factor motivating proponents of “games as art” is an internal one: they truly enjoy thematically rich narratives in other mediums and see the potential for their growth in this still nascent one.  Thus, they arguing in favor of this approach to games to coax developers to continue to experiment with the medium and to persuade consumers to continue to support games that take chances and reach for something more than just a diversion.  They critique games from this perspective to build a broader understanding of how the various elements a developer has at his disposal interact with the player and each other.  They catalog the strengths and limitations of the medium so designers know where to concentrate their efforts and they highlight effective techniques so that others in the future can easily bandwagon onto the successes of their predecessors.  Without this discussion, without people arguing for games as art, the medium will stagnate.  The developers will settle into their ruts, the consumer will be satiated (but never satisfied), and those who enjoyed narrative art elsewhere and saw its potential here as well may never see their hopes actualized.

And its working.  As time moves on, the quality, the artistry, and the ambition of new games only increases.  Next batch of releases continually outperforms the current set and more and more new titles break into the echelons of “best ever.”  Developers continue to experiment and learn and consumers continue to seek more thematically or emotionally satisfying works.  For now, the future is brighter for this medium than for any other, and its a shame Roger Ebert will miss out on what’s to come.

(1) A note: this site now overloads IE for me.  I think it has too many imbeds plus too many comments on one page plus my computer being what it is.  Thus, some of my Ebert stuff is from memory.

(2) To be fair, she does mention the name of the studio that developed it, so attentive audience members might remember from her introduction that she co-founded thatgamecompany and put two and two together.  However, Roger Ebert fails to make that deductive leap and I suspect it would be too much to ask most audience members to do the same.

(3) I would be remiss if I did not point out that others find Flower and Braid at least (that Waco game seems fairly irredeemable) to be the best examples of the indie game bunch and to have found the correct balance between their pretensions toward thematic heft and providing a novel and enjoyable experience to the player.  However, for the purposes of the talk, including either game (and especially both games) as examples of artistically satisfying experiences, when they are both experimental endeavors that emanate from an approach to gaming with sizable theoretical problems seems to me to have been misguided.

(4) In fact, another problem with Santiago’s examples is that she presents them quite poorly, lingering too long on elements that have little bearing on their artistic merit and never really getting to how the games accomplish the things she says they do.

(5) I also question how trustworthy Ebert’s insight would be on this larger question.  He hasn’t actually touched a video game before, which he strangely seems to regard as a benefit rather than a detriment in this discussion, and thus remains intentionally ignorant of the facts of the matter.

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Responses

  1. […] Modesty and the Truth One of the things that (reflexively) irked me most about Santiago’s talk was her blatant engagement in self-praise.  The standard operating procedure when giving a […]

  2. […] Games and Art, again There’s been ongoing discussion on this blog (1)(2)(3)(4)(5) and elsewhere (6)(7)(8) about the “are videogames art” question. I think I just […]

  3. […] to focus on some worthwhile titles: he avoids games that are too obscure and one-dimensional (like Kellee Santiago’s list) while managing to pick ones sufficiently riddled with promise and problems.  Certainly something […]

  4. […] is something about the viscerality of games which few other media can replicate.  I have tried to put my finger on in, with minimal luck, but it is certainly tied into the idea of resonance that Tom Bissel […]


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