Thursday, April 07, 2011

"Are Video Games Art?"


I keep seeing this debate - not only in the film & media blogosphere, but in that too.  Are video games art?  On occasion the defenses of video game art read like uninspired recuperation.  Perhaps even more off-putting are pronouncements from those who would wish to be cultural conservators.  "Video games can not be art, because art is ..." 


Aesthetics is so fragmented and bracketed off in "our culture" that the aesthetic experience itself becomes secondary (at best).  The age of the spectacle is highly aestheticized, no doubt, and aesthetic considerations have cleared out political questions. ... Strangely enough, when it comes to activities and objects meant for leisure, one confronts a range of false moves.  For instance, if one has taste, one is supposed to honor the aesthetic object.  This is on the basis of its aesthetics alone, presumably.  Whether it's a Fritz Lang film from 1953, or Rembrandt painting, or Heian scroll.  Its pleasure is the pleasure of enlightenment, improvement, distinction.  The valorized aesthetic object may bravely emerge from & struggle against something so ghastly as a material, commercial context (ripping free of it like a Little Engine That Could).  But it is never to be equated with same.  In fact the visible traces of efficiency amidst shoestring means is a sign of pride, a sign that some creator has "made do" despite limitations.  But this is not, actually, aesthetic appreciation.  It is in fact the aestheticization of the material contexts from which an object comes


Stephen Dwoskin once wrote - and I'm sure I've already quoted this half a dozen times on this blog - that in a period when so many were torturing themselves with the question, "What is cinema?", Raymond Durgnat would, figuratively speaking, just show up at the movie house and say, "This is!"  I admire the impulse.  A major part of why I admire it is because it does not presume to know.

 

The answer to the question, "Are video games art?" will either remain a deadlock, or the object of video games as art will be recuperated and become common sense to later generations.  But I cannot side with the group who assume the position of aesthetic guardians, contra video games, for the main reason that they seem to possess knowledge of what art - Art? - is and thus can proceed deductively.  Neither, though, am I convinced by the "logic" that states that anything that people enjoy must be acknowledged as art lest the naysayer be elitist.  (This too, if more implicitly, presumes that art - Art? - has a stable definition which can be known ... and its necessary & sufficient conditions can be met through inductive means of popularity and widespread pleasure.)


I don't even play video games.  But I would be most satisfied if this debate were kicked out of the house and people started devoting the same energy to questions like, What's happening in these video games?  What do they provide?





13 comments:

Daniel Kasman said...

Yes yes and yes.

But the "argument" is interesting if it's deflected from "are video games art?" to "what is it that is expressive about video games?" and "how do video games work and how do players work with video games?" Obviously defining the interactivity between a game and a gamer is as impossible as defining it between a film and a viewer, but those (cinematic) questions have produced a wealth of interesting thought on the art of cinema.

Somewhat interesting (by an interesting thinker / producer of video games): http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/08/on-authorship-i.html

As an aside, I'm not sure it's productive to bring out examples like Flower or Shadows or Katamari as examples of game art, as they so flagrantly are "unconventional" and strive for idiosyncratic, "personal" vision and artistry.

Zach Campbell said...

You're probably right about my examples; I almost chose other ones, and the clips I did pick were sort of off-the-cuff. Perhaps I was motivated by the thought that Colossus/Flower examples would be the best choices for anyone who (a) read the post and (b) was still skeptical that video games could be art. Hence the "authored" games. But I didn't think very long about those choices so, again, you're right-on.

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna take the old fogey position here. No doubt, video games are an interesting new mode of experience, but I'd say there are two major obstacles to their being considered as art.

1. As elaborate power fantasies, they are too "close" to agency to generate the aesthetic distance that is one of the chief pleasures of art. That is, you would be penalized in the ludic universe of the game for doing what comes naturally in the world of art; contemplation.

2. Their chief lure is the creation of the "user illusion" of free will in a completely deterministic universe. Their clockmaker ethos of the relatively unsophisticated game engines is opposed to the covenant that the artist enters into with an audience; That isn't to say that the machine couldn't get better at generating an artistic like freedom for both itself and the gamer, but it ain't there yet.

JeanRZEJ said...

If video games are not art, then they are certainly 'art+videogames', and I find the latter marginally better than the former, mostly for the reason that are so nearly identical, so it seems like a question whose answer either way is worth little. Now marriage - that is a term worth defending.

JeanRZEJ said...

To anonymous: I would argue

1. This 'penalization' is, in my mind, highly preferable to the 'impossibility' in the rapid editing of a Hollywood film. That is to say, neither offers pure freedom of choice, both accommodate pure mindlessness, and one allows for contemplation (and it's not the film). Of course, your penalization setup is a matter of spectrum and it is simply a fact that there are some games where 'inactivity' is possible within a game with absolutely no penalty, something which is not possible in any film, so I think the point is wholly invalid.

2. Other forms of art considered are wholly static, so I don't see why the determinism (which is to say impossibility of changing, the stasis) of a video game is any different from any other art. The real difference seems to be that there is a range of perspectives, rather than a single perspective, which can be explored. This is true in sculpture, in installation art, in many other arts as well, so this point, as well, seems to me to be wholly invalid.

Anonymous said...

Jean:

A game that was too sandboxy (just leaving you to wander in the virtual reality) would be a category error, no? And your critique of blockbuster cinema is a little off, surely it's the case that the "charms" of those sorts of films are due to their rather pathetic attempt to challenge/subvert videogame aesthetics rather than do the things that movies can do.

The appeal of video games is that one is constantly modifying the game environment (even just by moving). However, in their DNA, they are metaphysically static in a way that art never is. The correct analogy would be if you could ripple the surface of the solid sculpture, and you believed that you had caused the ripple, when in fact it was just a pre-destined response of the work to your pre-conceived stimulus. What the video game is "selling" is an illusion about your agency-in-the-world.

JeanRZEJ said...

'A game that was too sandboxy (just leaving you to wander in the virtual reality) would be a category error, no?'

I see absolutely no reason why, but I agree that there is a category error in this discussion. If I were to define film in the manner which you seem to define 'video game' then I would probably not be interested in 'film as art', because it would restrict it to exposition and plot. For instance, instead of 'elaborate power fantasy' I would categorize film as 'elaborate passivity fantasy' and be done with it. Fortunately in both cases the art is not the end but a means, and different forms of art have all sorts of different inherent qualities that have their positives and drawbacks and require different approaches.

'And your critique of blockbuster cinema is a little off, surely it's the case that the "charms" of those sorts of films are due to their rather pathetic attempt to challenge/subvert videogame aesthetics rather than do the things that movies can do.'

Blockbuster films existed before sophisticated video games, so if you're implying that blockbuster films are mere subversions of video game aesthetics then I find this ludicrous. My point is this - in terms of viewer interaction with a highly rigid video game (a spectrum, not a necessity of video games) then there is very little difference between a bad blockbuster film and a bad, highly rigid video game. I think they fulfill almost indistinguishable roles in terms of audience interaction, and thus differentiating between them based on content is useful only within the realm of art, not between 'art' and 'something nearly identical to art'.

'The appeal of video games is that one is constantly modifying the game environment (even just by moving). However, in their DNA, they are metaphysically static in a way that art never is. The correct analogy would be if you could ripple the surface of the solid sculpture, and you believed that you had caused the ripple, when in fact it was just a pre-destined response of the work to your pre-conceived stimulus. What the video game is "selling" is an illusion about your agency-in-the-world.'

I've never bought that illusion in a video game in any way that I haven't bought it in any other work of art, and yet I still 'buy' video games in every way that I 'buy' film, so to me the argument holds no weight, and the argument from metaphysics and DNA I find even more opaque. Regardless, this is a silly way to approach art, by identifying differences from existing 'accepted' modes of art and then tearing down those differences. Given that there are an seemingly endless number of possible 'exceptions' that one could construct it's much easier to simply define art and judge whether video games fit. If not, as I said, then I find that definition of 'art' to be useless and I'd never use it. This is not to say that video games and film are the same, but no two forms or works of art are.

Joel said...

There are some games that they are a great expression of art. when you finished the game it left a great feeling with you. I have some examples:
1. World of Goo
2. Limbo
3. Braid
4. Bastion
5. Machinarium

xl pharmacy said...

yes they are! I think we can't ignore that, it's going to be our future and they are doing important efforts to improve their arts, graphics and designs too. I think they are artist. Absolutely.

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