VeteranGamers is pleased to welcome a new author, Surface_Lizard, onto the site. He’s written for several print video game magazines, and we look forward to publishing more of his work.
In 2006, esteemed American media critic Roger Ebert set alight the blue touch paper of controversy by claiming that games could never be considered as art. The internet raged like a supernova with raving fanboy delirium, that was as much bile and suspect grammar as it was insightful comment and observation on the ‘games as art’ debate. As a child, I always picked my scabs, and never learned the lesson to leave well enough alone. In a similar fashion, let us once again drag the dead horse into the yard and give it another flogging. Artistically. [Ed. note: This topic also appears in VeteranGamers Podcast Episode 29.]
Good morning, class. The question for discussion today: are games a form of art? Can they ever be deemed so? Do games qualify by the depth of the experience, by the interaction and reaction to the player? Are we instead simply doomed to evangelise what is a childish digital pastime, which will never amount to more than base sensations, headshots and accurate breast wobble physics?
Andy Warhol can paint Campbell’s soup cans in ghastly hues, and this is considered ‘art’. A yellow circle with a triangle shaped ‘mouth’ navigates a neon maze, pursued by meandering ghosts. Is this art? A corpulent, moustachioed plumber in red dungarees explores a surreal galaxy where standard laws of physics do not apply, headbutting floating yellow squares from which coins and mushrooms miraculously emerge. Is this art? John Marston stands on a desolate prairie, and stares into the dead night, the sky a dust scattering of vibrant stars over the dying American west. Is this art?
Games do not stagnate. This is a progressive medium, as the marketing sound and fury of every hardware iteration and generation screams at us. Like the shark, the industry must stay in motion or perish. In just three decades, we have moved from the flickering minimalism of Pong to the wilderness majesty of Red Dead Redemption, or the intensity of a battleground in Modern Warfare 2. And, depressingly, Pony Friends 2 for the Wii.
It is all too easy to draw trite comparisons to film, or literature, to wax about the Ayn Rand allusions of BioShock, or the tortured, polarised sense of morality of Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2. There is nothing to be gained from drawing a generic list of comparisons, and then congratulate ourselves that we have somehow proven our point. The real issue is far deeper. Mariana Trench deep. Here we hit a brick faster than a Formula 1 car with sabotaged brakes.
What is art?
The philosophy of aesthetics has been in debate for over two millennia, and a million people would give a million answers, all of them technically ‘right’. Absurd and audacious it might be to try to define art, but without a stab in the dark, we have no basis to progress. End of feature. Toddle off and look at some lolcats.
Still here? Greek philosopher and dramatist Seneca claimed that all art was an imitation of nature. W Somerset Maugham claimed it to be the refuge of the ingenious to escape from the tediousness of life. Art has no boundaries. Yet it has been widely claimed that games are not art, so there have obviously been boundaries placed to exclude games in the first place. Some game developers have claimed their work as valid forms of art. Others, such as, shockingly, Hideo Kojima, have claimed that games are not a valid form of art. By way of a loose definition, wizard’s sleeve loose, let us agree with the gospel of Surface_Lizard, that art is the expression of creativity through a produced medium that inspires response and reflection. Depressingly, by this definition, Hi-De-Hi can be considered art, and Noel Edmonds can be considered an artist. Sorry about that.
Perhaps the pertinent question should be whether we should even care if games are a valid form of art. Citizen Kane remains a sublime film without any such tags; similarly for The Sphinx, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and Beethoven’s symphonies. Will Halo: Reach cease development, or the eternal appeal of Tetris wane because posturing poseur critics have not deemed it a form of art? Of course not. Games are judged as much by their capacity to engage, entertain and enthral as any other criteria. A Modern Warfare 2 prestige or the sense of freedom in Super Mario Galaxy 2 are superb, no matter how we struggle to define them.
The question gains importance, however, when you consider that, to a greater or lesser degree, it is inextricably linked to the future of the industry, the perception of it and even the kinds of games that are developed. As with any industry, hardware and software manufacturers have to turn a profit; for every beautiful Limbo, there will be ten times the amount of banal film licences and shoddy party games for the Wii. The very fact that the risible game Babysitting Party exists for that system rather hinders the cause. It would be like having Timmy Mallet pop up in the middle of Donnie Darko and start babbling in his usually demented manner. The very fact that the ‘games as art’ question pops up with the regularity of Katie Price, desperate for attention, shows that our industry is evolving and self-reflecting.
Why Just Games?
Perhaps the grand hypocrisy is that other forms of media and entertainment are widely considered as forms of art. Few would argue that literature, theatre or film have no artistic merit. Yet, when these were new forms of media, they went through exactly the same transition of being widely disregarded as games are now experiencing. Pop music was considered uncultured and subversive in the ‘50s. Film was once seen as a dumbshow fad for those too lazy to read. Literature and the printed word were once deemed only fit for the educated elite. In context, gaming is a new medium. It was only truly thrust into what could be considered the mainstream or the mass-market with Sony’s artfully marketed PlayStation, and again with Nintendo’s family-friendly arm-flailing success, the Wii. Gaming is quite a chimera, being defined as hobby, career, competitive sport, obsession and social activity, to name a few, of which ‘art form’ is one further disputed definition.
The perception of games, gamers and gaming culture is central to the question of games ever being considered an art form. Much as we try and deny it, the wider opinion is, incorrectly, of games as a fad for children, or a youth-corrupting nest of violence and virtual pornography — as the hilarity of the Cooper Lawrence Mass Effect ‘graphic sex scene’ controversy reminds us. The Daily Mail is only ever a breath away from launching yet another ‘shocked and disgusted’ diatribe about games and gaming, yet never takes the time to praise the brilliance of Ico. The very word ‘game’ has connotations of empty frivolity, and completely misses the richness and rewards of, say, the emotional drama and sense of character in a title such as Heavy Rain. Tales of obese children, and American parents allowing their babies to starve to death as they play World of Warcraft hardly elevate the status of games to the ‘intellectual’ level art is widely said to inhabit.
Art is an expression. Games are an expression. Both are interpreted. Both elicit an opinion. Few could deny that, on a conceptual level, the boundaries between games and other forms of art are suitably blurred and merged. In terms of basic content, a game has little variance when compared to a work of visual art, piece of music, novel or film, as it contains some, if not all, of those things that are considered ‘artistic’. One argument alluded to above is that games are created as much for a market, demographic and profitability as they are any degree of artistic expression, or conceptual boundary-pushing. FIFA 11 will be vomited out with annual regularity because it sells, not because it is a study in motion, or a stylised representation of football stadia. When you consider, however, that Van Gogh and Picasso used to paint as much to sell their work and pay the rent as create something of artistic value, the argument tends to pratfall like a catwalk model in two-foot heels. Just because a game is made with an eye to sell, and to maximise revenue, it does not logically follow that it is a simple ‘product’, and of no value as a piece of art.
The waters get even muddier …
In part 2, Surface_Lizard covers beauty, purpose and interaction, whilst pathetically attempting to sound intelligent.
(Pic from dvice.)