On the possibility of video games being regarded as art

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“Rather than trying to figure out how games can become more like art, we should do the opposite. We should be desperately trying to rescue them from becoming art, delaying their installment [sic] into the hallowed halls of art […] If we love games, let us do everything possible from entombing them in that final resting place, that cemetery of dead culture that we call art.” Eric Zimmerman, Polygon, September 10 2014

This blog post is really going to be a lot of things. In-part a rebuttal to Mr. Zimmerman, in part a defence of the late Roger Ebert’s opinion on the matter, and in part an analysis of what games need to do to reach ‘the hallowed halls of art’.

Before anything else, I think it’s a fool’s errand to try and even debate anything about this topic without first defining a few words. Let’s start with the well-trodden attempt to define the word ‘Art’ itself. While there are quite a few scholarly opinions on the matter (and some of the reasoning makes way into my personal definition), I have yet come up with my own way to define art based on my personal opinions of what I regard as art.

As such, I find that Art has to be the exchange of an:

  • Iterative – without building on previous assumptions, attempts at solutions, knowledge or forms of communication, art cannot be original enough to be its own identity –
  • Inquisitive – this is where the thoughtfulness of the work comes in, as the work has to explore an aspect of human experience from a given perspective and with a defined question to be asked about the topic; this has to rely on iteration to empathize with the recipient’s pre-established opinions and cognition to establish a conversation with them –
  • Representative – it’s not enough that the artwork ask its question, it must be able to present the problem in a novel way that can help provide an answer and this is where the skill of the artist in their medium comes in. The artist must pick and use the method of delivery in such a way that it is characteristic of the solution to connect the audience to the message contained within, be it a painting, book, piece, sculpture or poem –
  • and Reformative – the artwork must change or set a trend for the topic it picked or the medium it utilized such that it is recognized as having effected real-world change; this is why not every production from a certain medium can be regarded as art, and why some works of art weren’t regarded as such by contemporaries of their release –

idea (having a message or parts of is important), from a party whose sole intent was to deliver said idea to a specific audience (whether it be an audience of just one – the artist – or a community built around the medium, as criticism of the entire industry’s work).

Fountain by Duchamp has been lauded through the years as being a perfect work of art, and it fulfills all of the requirements I’ve laid out here. It is iterative as its placement and submission to a museum gallery builds on the respect pieces found in museums or pieces produced by critically acclaimed artists are expected to have, it is inquisitive as it questions the value of materials and tools that go into creating art and whether or not the art-world was too reliant on being too self-interested, it is representative as it provides an immediate example in its presentation of a message carried in a urinal (ahem), and it was reformative, with its effects being seen today in many of the works in the avant-garde movement.

I believe the limitations that exist with my definition are negligible. For example, I don’t find decorative art transcendent enough to be reformative, nor some branches of poetry inquisitive enough to engage a reader’s/listener’s empathy, nor some music (a lot of music) representative or iterative enough to be art. There are famous works of art that aren’t inquisitive by my definition, because they only exist to be exemplary works of art or showmanship, but I’d say that in those rare cases their cultural impact far outweighed their value as an exploratory piece.

My definition does come with a couple of advantages, as well. For example, it reflects directly the process of creating art where an artist has to pick a subject, a method for representing that subject and the resonance of their work may make the piece successful. Additionally, it provides me with a way to include historically significant games of chess to be regarded as art, for example, and it also allows me to directly see where art fits in our grander social context.

Over the past few years, especially as I’ve met more and more art historians, I’ve likened their approach and conclusions more to a science than any other discipline of the arts. From studies on contemporary anti-homophobic middle-eastern works of art, to studies on inuit-art’s mockery of colonials’ sexuality, the entire discipline exists to find messages, connections and the very inquisitive nature of the art it studies. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and in fact the greatest works of art are both informed by their contemporary society and fed back an important piece of the discussion to the conversation. See, for example, ballet, a whole art-form that evolved specifically for this very purpose!

Now, I’d like to suggest something radical. I’d like to suggest that any piece of almost-art that isn’t inquisitive. Any piece of almost-art that isn’t representative. Any piece of almost-art that isn’t reformative. Any piece of almost-art that isn’t iterative. Any piece of almost-art that wasn’t produced with the express intent of carrying a message to an audience. Or even any combination of these. I’d like to suggest that every single one of these, throughout history, be referred to as Entertainment Media. Because really, even though these pieces carry immense value in them, and could have strokes of genius that transcend the sum of their parts, a failure in any of the stated categories, to a lot of people I feel, would make it an enjoyable, worthwhile attention-catching work, but unworthy of the title of art. Alternately, I’d like to define Appreciation as the recognition or assimilation of the new limits of a product or medium in any of the categories listed above.

Taken together, these definitions help me appreciate entertainment media today for the value they do provide, because yes, even Transformers: Age of Extinction had two cuts of absolutely transcendent cinematography, and yes a fart joke on your favourite television series was funny, without holding them to absurd standards I can and should only expect from the most perfect works produced in any given medium or platform. Breaking down the value we get out of our entertainment by the same metrics we measure the worth or success of our most valued productions makes sense.

And here is when we finally arrive at the limitations of video games as a medium (today!). Video games, by nature, offer a player-enabled narrative. This is not so different from other media in a way, in that the audience can choose to disengage from the work at any given time, but is also starkly different from other media given that the way the player interacts with a game affects the flow of the narrative. The order of the missions can change a player’s mood or abilities allowing them to interact with the game differently. This isn’t different from how a book-reader might quick-recap something that happened earlier in the book (see: Watchmen uses this to its advantage), but it is different in that often due to player agency, critical moments in a game may not necessarily follow one another because the player may get lost, or the player may decide they are too underpowered to continue their crawl through the storyline, or the player may even simply, out of dumb luck, run into critical story elements when they really shouldn’t (see: L.A. Noire). When the player agency is taken away so that these moments may have more resonance, for example in cut-scenes, the developers effectively set aside video-gaming as a medium, and fail to engage its particular advantages to deliver the message.

In addition, because players are given choices (regardless of what Bioshock has taught us), and often even choices in endings, players have differing levels of empathy to a particular situation (regardless of what The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite have taught us), the vast majority of games thus have a critical handicap in delivering any messages contained within: timing. Movies can time their exposition and framing such that particular emotions are chained one after another. Music does the same with different time signatures and progressions. An art exhibit’s layout is carefully chosen for the same. But there simply is no reliable way to do this in a video-game when players of different skill-levels, emotional-levels, and logical-reasoning abilities process the narrative at different rates. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that with no set definitive narrative arc for many games, no worthwhile message can be contained (Spec Ops: The Line bucks this caveat, but more on that later) because the developer has no true control over which ending the player will choose first and therefore the effect of their message can be diluted significantly.

Another limitation is that typically by the time the game unfolds in earnest, the player has learned the rules of the universe they exist within, and have been acclimated and understand that the world they are part in revolves around them. This disconnects the players from any sudden, unexpected conclusions to narrative arcs they may be a part of and further actively drives them away from any sense of identity that they might be asked to enable. Stoner by the talented John Williams, a literary masterpiece only recently making its way around literary circles provides catharsis from its almost claustrophobic setting by constantly reminding its reader of the ability of love to allow people to comfortably accept a life of mediocrity. But in a video game, where we are guaranteed a set playtime, and alternative endings, how narrow of a feeling can the writers really focus on?

Combined with the timing problem mentioned above, this has harrowing repercussions for humour in video games, as essentially no video-games are able to pull it off successfully. One of my favourite examples of humour in video-games comes for Shin Megami Tensei IV where the player learns that after being transported from one magical land to hellish slums that the locals call the destination ‘Tokyo’. This was presented to the player in plain-text during a cutscene, again! A scripted moment to ensure perfect timing. Likewise, Tiny Tina, arguably the funniest character you’ll meet in Borderlands 2 has her best moments scripted during cut-scenes where the juxtaposition of her zany character with the limitations of processor timing and cut-scene transitions make for immense comic relief. But even though cut-scenes are characteristic of video games, they are not characteristic of video gameplay.

Finally, games don’t have an established language for delivery. Movies can break the fourth wall by having a character look directly out of the screen, books can invoke paranoia by weaving a complex narrative and every established medium has a given set of elements that can be organized and reorganized to achieve different effects depending on the artist’s vision. However, gaming does not. Each game is required to be mechanically salient from all the others by reviewers and gamers alike, losing for the medium what can be a very solid foundation for subversion of expectations. Without the ability to assess or analyze a predicted set of expectations that gamers pick up a game with, developers and writers will never be able to be inquisitive of the world around gaming in a way that can be resonant with the majority of their audience.

As long as developers are unable to incorporate the basics of humour seamlessly into an experience (and they won’t be for a while, see Extra Credit’s fantastic analysis on why not), or control the timing or narrative a player experiences meticulously, the vast range of human emotion, the fundamental requirements for us to empathize and appreciate the nuances and complexities that other art-forms can present us will continue to be missing, and video gaming as a platform will be unable to form the kind of commentary required to carry ideas or topical explorations. But, all this analysis is for naught if we can’t zero in on where games have been successful and the messages they can carry! In no particular order, I’ll quickly analyze where the games most referred to as ‘art’ stand when it comes to comparing them to accepted forms of art:

Journey: This game almost has it all. It is inquisitive, as it asks how valuable a journey can be to a player in a game. It is reformative, as it has set precedent for low-fi multiplayer communication, as well as setting the bar for a narrative-driven story devoid of any conversation. It is iterative, as it incorporates the accomplishments of Ico and Flower before it to highlight the importance of gaming experience. However, it was not even in the least bit representative. The mechanics the game provided the player with were not key to the delivery of the message within. In fact, WALL-E carried a similar message and then some more with almost the exact same setting, and a lot of Journey‘s most important moments are carried by their visual splendour or acoustic accompaniment, but are completely devoid of mechanic ingenuity – the kind that if the player discovers in secret they would feel more powerful for having and would accept that their Journey really did matter.

Spec Ops: The Line: This really does play out like an interactive version of Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness, but where it falls short is in the fact that it failed to be both representative and reformative. Mechanically the slog through the heart of Dubai was emotionally taxing and thematically required for the player to question their motivations in playing shooters. The game was inquisitive enough to directly question the player’s sanity and the player’s limits of acceptance when given all the agency they want. However, the game only poses questions without producing an answer for what way shooters should play-out, or even if they should. In other media, art that criticizes a culture of violence does so in direct promotion of peaceful alternatives. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t question the nature of violence, but it questions the nature of violence in video games, a small difference, but one significant enough to leave its central questions posed without answer!

The Cosmology of Kyoto: This game also gets very close to checking the whole board off. It is representative since its central mechanics produce a sense of hopelessness and monotony. It’s reformative as it introduced games to a whole new ability to provide players with a truly horrifying narrative of suffering (with games today like Papers, Please finally catching on to how to replicate the magic), it is iterative as it built on the themes of adventure games from its decade to provide a new experience, but it does not even get close to checking off whether it asks any questions or not. The only purpose for the game to exist wasn’t to analyze the nature of suffering, it was to historically explore a time-point in video-game form, a fact mechanically backed up by the plethora of guides included within it. As such, the game neither asks any important questions of its audience, nor answers them.

And I could go on and on. Flower fails to be reformative. Ico fails to be representative (it plays out like a regular companion-based RPG). Portal fails to be inquisitive. Braid fails to be coherent in general. Bioshock fails to be representative in its ending (at no point during the game did I feel like I was limited).

The problem with video-games is that the set of properties required to align for all five of the check-marks I find are necessary for a work to be art is that we are not yet at a stage in gaming’s life where we can both be inquisitive and representative. To truly explore the depths of any given question, a game needs to mechanically provide the player with pieces of the answer throughout the game (not all at once, Bioshock Infinite), but that comes with the expense of giving the player more agency, and the developer less ability to control the timing, themes and design language the game adopts, a direct anti-thesis to what a writer must try to achieve to have a piece of art in their hands.

The question was never ‘can games be art?’ They will. I disagree with Ebert when he says Georges Méliès’s work was art. It wasn’t inquisitive enough. And I disagree with him when he says games will never be art. We are currently in the beginning hours of realizing the true potential of gaming. But until developers are allowed to establish a universal language for game delivery, until they figure out the perfect balance between open and closed worlds and until our production abilities allow us to create pure unadulterated moments of random chance for humour, games will continue to be entertainment media.

And until a game finally transcends its medium’s limitations and becomes art, all the social commentary that can be carried and delivered by games will stay undelivered. All the empathetic resolutions that people can finally understand will remain unrevealed. And all the other forms of art we have will continue to attempt to answer questions that I know gaming is much better suited to tackle. Soon, hopefully. In our lifetimes, even?

So to bring this back full circle to the Polygon post that started it all and inverting the five points made there into a more cohesive, traditional argument: Art can be everything, and so we better figure out how to make art out of video games. To get there we need to understand that art isn’t about the object or medium, and the few games that have gotten close to being art understood that, but muddled the message or execution they should have gotten through. Art isn’t curated by a bunch of gatekeepers, it’s something everyone can engage in and appreciate and a more universal appeal is required of games before the medium can mature as an art-form. This won’t happen unless gaming gets a cohesive grammar that people can actually work with to produce subversion, humor and expected emotional outcomes, at which point games can become masterpieces of meaning, because the minute something becomes lauded as art it means it has gifted something back to the world, and don’t we all wish for our favorite entertainment medium to be able to do that with us some day?

This has been … a post.

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