Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Videogames are not "art," so stop saying that.


The worst thing is when people talk about how videogames are art, man. I think we can all agree on that. But let's get into it briefly, because I think I have the solution here. First, though, I have to point out that it's pretty weird that people are so fixated on that word. I read a lot of books, and I take literature both seriously and joyously. But boy, I sure never look up from a book and think, oh man! What Great Art this is! I am truly having an Artistic experience! If something particularly strikes me I might think something like, damn. This is a great book, but my mind doesn't immediately go to "ART!" I don't think anyone's does. Well, you say, that's just because book are already considered to be it and so you don't have to say it. Well...maybe? But to me, it looks way more as if you're just super-insecure and you want to believe that your leisure-time activities stand among the pinnacles of human endeavor. I'm just saying.

(I think I can tiptoe around the fact that none of these "videogames are art" people seem to have a coherent definition of "art")

So, I'll concede something right off the bat, which is really the key to the argument: I think that, in some cases, interactivity really can contribute to an aesthetic experience. So, just for the sake of argument, let's concede--although it kind of pains me--that the likes of Gone Home, Small Worlds, and Photopia are Art. But what do all of those have in common? Answer: they all barely qualify as "games." They have the superficial appearance of games: Gone Home makes you wander around like a first-person shooter, Small worlds makes you run and jump like any number of platformers, and in Photopia you enter commands like in a text adventure--but there's no challenge, in the game-y sense: it's next to impossible to get "stuck" in any of them, there are no high scores to shoot for, and none of them have a fail state. Really, they're more like interactive art projects than games. And that's the point: games can't be art because the elements that make a game a game are fundamentally non-artistic.

Imagine, if you will, a graphic adventure: it looks absolutely gorgeous, and it tells a tremendous, profound, life-changing story. Also, ninety percent of it consists of the character moving about, trying to nebulously "use" items with various bits of scenery, and remarking "that doesn't seem to work." Or, imagine a platformer, with gorgeous, profound, &c, and you spend all your time leaping over pits and attempting to stab monsters. For all of their virtues, these games are still games, and I defy you to define gaming mechanics in terms of "art." What's artistic about them is entirely ancillary to the actual game qua game. Seriously, look at these Cracked articles. They all try to do the GAMES ARE ART thing, and they all approach it in the exact same way: look at these things surrounding the gameplay that are artistic! Pwned! Sorry, but no. If a game plays like shit, you're not going to care how "artistic" it is. And you'll be right not to! Because that other stuff isn't the point, as much energy as people expend trying to make like it is.

(Seriously, deconstructing those articles would be a post in itself--people are very confused about this stuff.)

To get a little more specific and personal, look at Mother 3 and--in a similar but more recent vein--Undertale. I love the fucking shit out of both these games. They are absolutely works of genius, with stories that are going to stay with me for a long time. They also both involve random (or close enough) battle, equipment, inventory-dicking-around-with, and in both of them it's possible to get frustrated. Sorry, people--as great as these games are, they're not Art, because that's not what they are. They're games.

It's notable that early games are nothing but game mechanics. Look at Space Invaders or Pacman: it's just game. Here's a challenge; try to rise to it. The "art" consists of bits and bobs that we've bolted to the central gameplay experience as technology advanced to allow for that. And that other stuff is great, but it's all, ultimately, beside the point. A good story (for instance) can make the gameplay itself feel more consequential. But it's still just gameplay. Is participating in a football game art? Playing pinball? Doing a rubik's cube? Even if you put context around them--the football game is between ferocious rivals! The pinball game determines the world champion! It's a magic rubik's cube, and you have to solve it or the universe may end!--I suspect you still would say no. And I would assert that if these things don't qualify as art, videogames likewise don't.

Fuck, man, I like videogames! I love some videogames! Videogames have value! And some of them can be profound! Feel free to write an academic article or three about them! I don't deny that some of them merit it! But I have the funny feeling that these articles are not going to focus on gameplay--which is kind of the point. So please please please stop with the "art" business. You're embarrassing yourself and those around you.

"Oh, great, this asshole has made up a definition of what makes "art" that by definition excludes videogames, and now uses that definition to 'prove' that videogames aren't art! Way to beg the question, you dweeb!"

First, well done on using "beg the question" correctly!  And, I suppose, there's an extent to which you have a point--but I don't really have a definition of "art."  That sounds complicated.  I just have one particular thing which I'm pretty sure doesn't fall under that rubric; that's all.  Games are something you play.  That's why they're called "games."  If you're calling a game Art because it has a great story or atmosphere, you're not defending it as a game. And don't you think that's rather telling? You're all het up about how games are ART DAMMIT, yet you refuse to defend the thing that makes a game a game--the thing you like about it (you do like games because they're games, don't you? Otherwise, what are you doing here?). But if you do want to do that, you're going to have to explain what's "artistic" about dying on a boss sixteen times in a row or banging your head against the wall on a particularly obtuse puzzle for hours on end. If you can't do that, the wise course of action would probably be to stop giving a shit about what mostly-imaginary people think about your entertainment choices, and just have fun.

6 Comments:

Blogger Tavis Post pontificated to the effect that...

Interestingly, I have a friend who argues the aesthetics and gameplay of Super Mario Bros are of a piece (simple, absurd, and surreal). He argues the game is the first masterpiece of the medium, and the first bit of art in it. In his estimation, its greatest stroke is its interactive use of inertia.

It is his position that music, visuals, and especially (to the extent that they fail to affect gameplay) are beside the point.

I am not sure I quite agree with this last point. Presentation, coloration, mood, and so on tend to affect one's experience of anything, including games. Likewise, it seems disengenuous to pretend we can extract the so-called art from the gameplay of videogames which set out to offer an aesthetic experience on par with or of type relevantly similar to recognized forms of art. I don't really believe in the-thing-in-itself, much less a-piece-of-the-thing-in-itself as a discernable or meaningful item unto itself. Parsing such things seems to me, at least, a little difficult.

Aside from the above, I am not sure it is possible to fully or exclusively and finally define 'art' or 'Art'.

There can certainly be art in videogames. Some games are unquestionably artful. There is probably an art to making videogames. There are games (video and otherwise) which may allow varying degrees of challenge and possibly failure or victory, and which center around the creation, rearrangement, or performance of material which is generally defined as art in other circumstances. Games certainly may offer us aesthetic experiences, and non-text-based videogames almost require it. All of which problematizes your initial claim.

But, if some games may be art, this doesn't tell us whether or not videogames are good or worthwhile as some sort of cultural pursuit, on the whole or in general--which is really the point for a lot of people who want to argue that games are art.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Tavis Post pontificated to the effect that...

*and especially story

4:34 AM  
Blogger Pan MiluĊ› pontificated to the effect that...

Some good points.

I can see why a game that has some wonderful visuals can be called art (but more as a expresion "This looks like art" or "this is artsy" but not in a literally way) Also as a writer I consider storytelling art [but more in a sense of "craft"] so I can see why an "Adventure game" can feel like art.
In other words - I can see how elements of a game can be 'art' not the game as a form.

"The Sims" makes you feel like a God that's controlling life, being master of destiny and makes you want to go insane with power etc. but that's another story...

5:12 AM  
Blogger Regular GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

I'm well aware that "I had a genuine aesthetic experience playing this game, so fuck you" seems like an airtight argument. But I always come back around to the same thing: I'm glad you liked the story (say), but if to access the next part of it you had to fling yourself in a chasm a bunch of times until you got the timing just so, the game was really, really working against itself in giving you that experiences. And given that jumping is in fact the GAME part of the game, well...

I will concede, however, that it may be that games are different enough from other media that we lack the critical vocabulary to usefully talk about them, hence all this useless bumbling around. If that's the case, then their advocates would do well to think about developing new ways to think and talk about them--all this trying to force games into preexisting categories (like "art") would be some serious round-peg-square-hold stuff.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Tavis Post pontificated to the effect that...

Frustration is one way of establishing challenge, which can be (but isn't necessarily) a part of gaming. It definitely can work against enjoyment of the game or forestall purported one's attainment art-as-aesthetic-experience (if such there may be), but it needn't. Take 'Super Meat Boy'. Failure is not just part and parcel of the game play, it is also a part of the presentation (which may not be part of the GAME in the game, but that strikes me as a mostly artificial distinction).

5:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Couldn't you then just say that, even if the game itself is not "art," it nonetheless may _contain_ it? For example, if one accepts that paintings can be "art," it seems that some visuals in games may be eligible, even if the game itself isn't. Similarly, the story or the music may have "artistic" merits. In that case it doesn't matter as much whether the game itself is "art."

The problem with the "games are art" thesis is that every other work in every other medium is collectively grouped under the word "art," which makes the comparison uninformative, and also makes it easy to ridicule. Like, I wouldn't compare the story of Suikoden II to The Brothers Karamazov, but I think parts of that story can easily stand up to well-known works in the swords-and-politics genre, like The Three Musketeers. Probably those works are themselves less "artistic" than The Brothers Karamazov, but nonetheless I think that there is still a place in "art" for things like that.

SK

12:31 PM  

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