Posted by: maroonmaurader | May 6, 2010

Video 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 tagged all the relevant links if you want to review the history of the discussion as it has gone on this blog at least. Anyhow, it seems like a good time to weigh in with a full post of my own.

A lot of the “debate” is either confusion or squabbling over what precisely is being debated. It seems clear to me that Ebert, in his argument, is starting from a different conception of a video game from those who disagree with him.

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

Now my experience is that the term video game, at least amongst people who play what they call video games, is not this restricting – a video game need not necessarily be a game, nor need it necessarily be video (it could e.g. be a text adventure a la Zork). On the other hand, when I look at “video games” which get widespread notice, popular recognition, etc. I note that they generally are in fact video and games; further the name itself certainly suggests this. So I think this is an understandable bit of confusion. Even those who assert video games are not art generally agree that, under this more loose definition, there are things which are art (Façade is probably the clearest example of this I can raise; while the quality is questionable, the artistic nature is not). The debate over whether to call things like that “interactive drama” or “video games” isn’t one I find terribly interesting, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The second area in which I think the art and not-art camps talk past each other has to do with what being art means. I’ll toss out a few quotes here to summarize discussion so far… as Chris summarized the pro-art argument,

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.

Anthony Burch has put the opposition to this fairly clearly.

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.

captainfalcon raised objection to that argument.

The physics (a video game’s analog of board game rules) and objectives are obviously essential. But so, too, are the graphics and music (both of which can have a direct bearing on how the game is played: by distracting, obscuring, etc.), and, as you point, the game narrative. (Would Bioshock be the same game if it didn’t have the same back story? Is some dark, moody alter-Super Mario Galaxy an instance of Super Mario Galaxy? Doubtful.)

I would actually go even further. Consider a finely carved chair. Were I to see a chair with beautiful engravings all along the outside of the armrests and down the back, I would consider the chair to be a work of art. The engravings have nothing to do with it being a chair, and you might even use the chair in a dark room without ever even realizing the engravings were there. This does not deny the chair artistic status, so it seems clear to me that even superfluous artistic elements can transform something into art. Chris objected to this claim by citing Axis and Allies’ exquisitely carved pieces and board. I assert that while those look pretty, there’s no soul. They aren’t artistic; they just look nice. Were they to actually be artistic pieces and board, I would have no problem declaring that particular set of Axis and Allies to be art – while denying that status to other sets of A&A with less-inspiring accoutrements.

There is a little water in Chris and Burch’s objections, in that this means that a peripheral element of an item cannot make that class of item into art. I would be just as incorrect to declare that chairs are art as I would be to declare that no individual chairs are art. However, here CF’s counterpoint takes full force – the video, music, narrative, et alia of a video game are not peripheral to that game, so granting artistic status to one copy of a game on those terms must mean granting it to all copies of that game.

This (finally) brings me to the area I think really has promises for actual investigation and discussion. Can game mechanics themselves be artistic? Because if so, there is the potential to create a type of art which cannot be created in any other medium, and this is the question that’s getting Burch, Santiago, and a lot of other pro-art enthusiasts worked up. It’s also what I believe Chris was instinctively feeling was the real debate when he posted his apologetic, as many of his comments about how a video game could be art focus on this exact area.

This is what Santiago was really talking about in her TED talk – she didn’t choose games based on visual, auditory, or narrative artistic quality; she didn’t choose “games” which were really an odd form of street theater; she chose games where the mechanics were unusual, and deliberately chosen to set mood, prompt patterns of thought, convey ideas, etc. etc. This is also, in a slightly less conscious way, part of what was essential to Super Mario Galaxy creating the “collection of almost indescribable and bubbly emotions” Chris referred to as leaning towards the artistic – the game mechanics and controls were well selected to help encourage a certain frame of mind in the player (not that I’m asserting the mechanics and controls by themselves were sufficient – but they were certainly necessary). And here, somewhat to my surprise, I find myself leaning towards agreement with Santiago’s speech. The mechanics in Flower may be one of the most crude attempts at Art seen in a long time, but I can’t help but feel there is a smidgen of it buried in there somewhere.

“If someone runs after your car, screaming and waving his arms, you know something significant is intended, even if you can’t hear a word he’s saying.” – Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Shadow)

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Responses

  1. “Were I to see a chair with beautiful engravings all along the outside of the armrests and down the back, I would consider the chair to be a work of art. The engravings have nothing to do with it being a chair, and you might even use the chair in a dark room without ever even realizing the engravings were there. This does not deny the chair artistic status, so it seems clear to me that even superfluous artistic elements can transform something into art.”

    What I’d say in this case is that this particular engraved chair is a work of art. But chairs aren’t works of art. (Analogy: this particular chess-set is a work of art but chess isn’t a work of art.)

    I don’t think the same works with video games. This particular version of Bioshock is a work of art, but Bioshock isn’t a work of art. (If you could say this, then we’d need some revisionary account of Bioshock, on which it is e.g. just the physics and objectives.)

    Update: I agree wholeheartedly that (a) video game mechanics can be artistic, (b) this is not obvious until you think about it but (c) it is a useful thing to bear in mind. (a)-(c), of course, make it an excellent point (see page 25).


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