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ArtCade Gaming: Part One

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.

Conclusions

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.)

8 comments to ArtCade Gaming: Part One

  • TheDaddy

    Great article,we discussed this topic on the show this week and came to the conclusion, that some games can be judged as art, but in the main, a lot of games are still mediocre and that is the issue.

    So long as the vast majority of games released fall into the franchise, rinse repeat catagory, it will always be difficult for the medium to be taken seriously, but there are glimpses there, we just need developers to take a risk and gamers to buy into it.

    It has been proven already this year that unique games can be successful, Heavy Rain and Limbo cases in point, but Alan Wake didn’t do quite so well, so who knows what the future holds.

    Next time you complain that there isn’t enough interesting games to play, well stop buying Call Of Duty and FIFA every year and there might be a chance that those cool new games will get made.

  • Jack

    Great first article. As for my opinion anyone that say video games aren’t art have probably never played a current game or even a game at all. But that is just my opinion and everyone is entitled to there own. Great work and can’t wait for part two!

  • Ph1ltheee

    Brilliant, thought provoking article. A welcome addition to an already top site.

    As to the topic – Jack’s quite correct. These art ‘critics’ are sometimes so up their own backside, that it makes them uncomfortable to admit that games provide art for the masses.

    In a world where a pile of bricks is considered art, but the entry into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, or the whole of Limbo, is not – then I’ll take games anyday.

  • Surface_Lizard

    I take real exception to these self-promoting, walking egos that consider themselves ‘art critics’ or ‘experts’. There is no criteria for this, so anybody can consider themselves an authority. Modern art is a good example. Modern artists can easily stanhd back and claim that their ‘art’ has no meaning, which itself is the comment. How very post-modern.

    I might defecate into a plastic bag, and see if I can win the Turner Prize, by claiming it a critique of consumerism.

    A game like Okami, which plays with the very concepts and aesthetic of traditional Japanese art, is yet ‘just a game’, and not a piece of interactive art? What absolute Pollocks! (pun of the day for the Lizard!). A screen or a monitor is just as valid as a canvas, in my opinion.

    Hell, look at Banksy. Technically, he is vandalising public property which, last time I checked, is illegal as a public order offence. Yet, he is a hero of guerilla art. I give up…

  • DukeSkath

    Pollocks.. Nice one.

    I suppose I feel the need to play devil’s advocate a little, in part because I like some modern art. I agree that not everything claiming to be art should be accepted as art (and therefore the glib dismissal of video games as art is silly by extension).. But are you claiming, SL, that if something is illegal then it’s not art? Because I’m sure Blu’s work Big Bang Big Boom is illegal “vandalism”, yet I consider it an AMAZING work of art.

  • Surface_Lizard

    Duke -

    Apologies for my vagary! I appreciate Banksy’s work, superb anti-societal commentary via an antisocial medium: the spray can! The point I completely failed to make is that a graffiti creator (who, despite his art, is technically breaking the law) is seen as an artist, whereas a game developer or graphic artist is not.

    It exasperates me that ‘the wider world’ does not see the merit of games as a creative medium, only ‘that airport scene where you kill innocent people’ in Modern Warfare 2.

    Damn you, Daily Mail!

    As an aside, in my magazine days, I was once on page 3 of The Daily Star getting shot in the chest because we mocked up a PlayStation game as a April fool gag. Interesting story, I might make a feature/commentary out of it.

  • DukeSkath

    Yeah, that all makes sense. And yes, you definitely need to write that shooting up, and give us a picture too. (Or a re-enactment on YouTube?)

  • [...] Previously, I snagged myself like a hangnail on the point that games might well never be considered as a legitimate form of art as they are a simple entertainment medium. After all, who will purchase Dead Space 2 or Call of Duty: Black Ops to simply stop and smell the polygonal roses, and wax lyrical about form and substance as a medium for expression? Strategic dismemberment first. Aesthetics second. A game, after all, without a mechanic, becomes a random state of chaos, an environment without context. Maybe even something artistic? [...]

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