Are Games Art? Wii, I Mean, Oui!

The issue of whether videogames can be considered art is a recurring one whenever gamers gather. Esquire‘s Chuck Klosterman has reignited the discussion this summer with a provocative discussion of why video games have attracted so few serious critics:

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it’s consumer advice; it tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful. It’s expository information. As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I’m starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games…

Let’s suspend for a moment the question of whether he’s right about this: there is an emerging academic field of games studies; there are a growing number of serious books which discuss the aesthetics of video and computer games (maybe this is a good place for me to plug an excellent recent book by Nic Kellman); there are some pretty good discussions of the art of game design at Gamasutra and some good game criticism at Game Critics; and ahem, Kurt Squire and I write a regularly monthly column over at Computer Games Magazine (which as far as I can see nobody out there reads.)

Given all of that, I suspect Klosterman is still correct that games have produced many more great artists so far than great critics and nobody speaks with the authority of a Lester Bangs or a Pauline Kael about this medium.


Kael (in film) and Bangs (in music) were critics who could identify important new artists and trends. A significant number of people would give these emerging artists a chance on the basis of their critical endorsement. Kael and Bangs were thus able to provide some minimal support for experimentation and innovation. Right now, given all of the market forces that are crushing innovation in the games industry, we need every counter pressure we can find to promote diversity and experimentation.

The Interactivity Issue

Kosterman goes on to discuss why games may be harder for critics to discuss than other media, which for him has to do with the interactive and largely unpredictable nature of this medium:

Look at it this way: Near the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara asks Rhett Butler what she’s supposed to do with the rest of her life, and he says that (frankly) he doesn’t give a damn. Now, the meaning of those lines can be interpreted in many ways. However, what if that dialogue happened only sometimes? What if this scene played out differently for every person who watched Gone with the Wind? What if Rhett occasionally changed his mind, walked back into the house, and said, “Just kidding, baby”? What if Scarlett suddenly murdered Rhett for acting too cavalier? What if the conversation were sometimes interrupted by a bear attack? And what if all these alternative realities were dictated by the audience itself? If Gone with the Wind ended differently every time it was experienced, it would change the way critics viewed its message. The question would not be “What does this mean?” The question would be “What could this mean?”

This harkens back to some controversial comments which the film critic Roger Ebert made about games a little over a year ago:

..I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Let’s ignore for the moment the high/low art assumptions underlying Ebert’s claims that if games are not art, then they are simply a “loss of those precious hours.” We are back in some pretty old territory here: art is about meaning and meaning comes from what the artist puts into the work that later gets recovered by the alert and knowledgeable reader. To continue with the example above, not everyone gets out of Gone with the Wind what Margaret Mitchell put there but we never doubt that she had something she wanted to say about what happened to the south following the Civil War or what made Rhett Butler a better man, even if he was less of a gentleman, than Ashley Wilkes.

We could see art in very different terms as evocative or provocative – that is, as setting into motion a play with possibilities, as encouraging the reader to create their own stories and project their own meanings onto the rich materials on offer. Art is measured not in terms of what it means to the artist but instead what it means to the reader. Or the artist can be seen as making a statement in a different way than in traditional art. Janet Murray’s book, Hamlet on the Holodeck suggests a notion of procedural authorship: in interactive media, authorship involves creating code which sets parameters for our experiences and defines their underlying logic rather than producing texts which make certain statements. There are more than one way to think about art, artists, and readers, yet the debate about video games as art always seems to want to pull back to theories of art that have been dismissed and abandoned elsewhere in criticism.

A New Critical Language?

I stumbled into an interesting discussion of the Klosterman essay over at Easily Distracted where Timothy Burke offers some other arguments for thinking that interactivity per se is at the heart of an art of video game design and should be the central focus of game criticism, even though it can be challenging to describe the aesthetic quality of different modes of interaction:

When you strip away the experience of play, not just how sound and image come together, but the interactivity that defines the medium, a lot of the greatest video games (great both in the sense of being pleasurable to play and in their aesthetic achievement) can sound, well, stupid. Plot and narrative matter in games, meaning matters in games … but games are less reducible to plot, to narrative, or even to meaning than films or novels.

Burke discusses the challenges a critic would face writing about some of the most interesting and important games on the market today. He has this to say about Katamari Damacy:

It’s the game you’d give to someone who had never played a game. It’s also one of the hardest games I can think of to describe, particularly in a way that captures its charm and makes clear why it’s one of the greatest examples of the medium to date.

Let’s agree that we do not yet have a very good vocabulary for discussing the ‘gameness’ of games and that’s why we get bogged down into endless debates about whether meaning comes from the story or from the game play mechanics. We neither have a technical language for discussing the particulars of games with any accuracy (see the discussion that follows Burke’s original post about whether Grand Theft Auto is ‘open-ended’ and what we mean by ‘open-endedness’) nor do we have an expressive language that evokes the experience of game play in ways that conveys its pleasures to people who have not yet played a particular title.

So Who Cares?

Given these problems, you might well ask whether the question of the artistic status of games is really that important. When folks line up at the EB for this month’s hot new release, do they really care whether they are buying art or just a “kickass “game (a technical term)? I explore this question in some depth in an interview posted at GameSetWatch , but let me cut to the heart of the issue here:

The debate about whether games are art matters on several levels. First, it matters on the level of public policy. I recently was in a debate with a state legislator who wanted to restrict access to M rated titles because he felt violent games led to real world violence. I argued otherwise. His response was to say that his view should dominate either way. “If I’m right, then I’ve protected kids from the threat of youth violence. If you’re right, all I’ve done is insured some kids spend more time playing outside. No harm either way.” For this argument to hold, we have to assume that games have no positive cultural contributions to make, that they are commodities, like cigarettes, and not artworks. Try to imagine someone making a similar claim about books or cinema at this point. So, the fight to see games as art is a fight to protect games from censorship and mindless regulation.

It is also a fight to help game designers gain greater creative freedom from the marketing forces in their own companies, to gain a toehold for innovation within games. Players don’t have to care about whether games are art if they don’t care that every new game looks just like the games that were produced and sold to them last year….It doesn’t matter whether there are games in the Museum of Modern Art. It does matter whether the best game designers are given enough room to push the limits of games as a medium and whether or not there are people out there who are willing to support risk-taking and experimentation within the medium.

(An aside about this interview: Adrian Hon, a key player in the Alternate Reality Games movement, takes me to task for some of my comments about ARGs in this interview over on his blog. Frankly, rereading that passage, I think I muddled much of what I wanted to say about ARGS. He’s right. I’m wrong. Sorry.)

And Then Came the Wii…

Let me suggest another reason why it matters: the launch of the Wii offers a new opportunity for games to reinvent themselves, for us to see entirely new genres of game play experience emerge, and for games to attract new kinds of consumers who have been uninterested in the medium previously. The core question is whether the games industry and the games consumer is prepared to explore the range of possibilities opened up by this new piece of hardware or whether the hardware will quickly be subordinated to existing genre formulas because that’s what designers know how to do and that’s what consumers already think that they want. There was a good discussion over at IGN about how the release of the Wii is inspiring new thoughts about the games medium.

As my comments in that story suggest, I am pretty excited about the Wii as a spanner in the works of the current commercial mindset but change isn’t going to happen without a fight. The easiest thing imaginable would be for the marketing department to get conservative about what they think will sell, for game reviewers to get conservative because the new games don’t look like what they’ve seen before, and for gamers to get conservative because they don’t know how to play these new kinds of games. For Wii’s full impact to be felt, there has to be support for experimentation, diversity, and innovation within games and that brings us back to where we started — the need for serious game critics.

I am indebt to CMS graduate students Alec Austin and Ivan Askwith for information included in this post.

Comments

  1. Steven Davis says:

    First, I, for one, do read your columns at Computer Games Magazine.

    Second, if you, and the rest of the computer games industry admitted to being part of the ancient and rather noble world history of Games, you would find more analysis and critcism from which to work. Interactivity is as important in Senet and Chess as it is in Resident Evil 4. And, I would argue, computer game developers have a lot to learn from board and card game developers.

    Music was, once upon a time, an interactive medium. All of the 4-hand piano arrangements of classical works, folk songs , and dances… were all “interactive” entertainment.. and all older than books and film.

    Until music and dance becaume media principally experienced by a passive audience, they probably did resist formal critical analysis.

    Games are an ancient interactive entertainment medium, like folk music and dance. They are thousands of years old, not thirty. And, seen in this light, merit much more respect. After all, the Waltz was considered subversive because men and women danced together individually, not in an organized group – interactive entertainment controversy is nothing new.

  2. Hugh says:

    Great post. Thanks.

    I find your comments about computer games (or games in general) needing to be considered “art” for it to be demostrated that they have “positive cultural contributions to make,” interesting.

    Clearly the contribution of value to our culture is not limited to art. Football (American or otherwise) is not art – in fact, it’s a game. But it is very hard to question the value that children or indeed grown people playing sport adds to our culture.

    Going for a long walk isn’t art, either. But it’s clearly valuable. Running a popular meeting point, a bar or a cafe, isn’t art, but it has considerable value to society. Hell, running a garbage disposal firm isn’t art, but I’d rather Edinburgh City Council didn’t close their binmen down on that basis.

    Even if, say, World of Warcraft isn’t art, that doesn’t mean it’s not of value. In fact, it’s entirely possible to argue that its artistic merit is in fact entirely irrelevant to its value to society. John Carey’s “What Good Are The Arts” provides a compelling disection of the common belief that the arts are somehow inherently “improving”. I wouldn’t argue that the “art” in World of Warcraft is the reason that kids should be allowed to play it – I’d argue that learning team skills, discipline, perseverance, problem-solving skills and simple escapism are all reasons to play it.

    (Or, to defend Grand Theft Auto – there’s considerable academic evidence that it is actually healthy and positive for kids to engage in pseudo-violent play, quite apart from the catharsis argument. No-one’s claiming that the kid running around the football field shouting “Bang! You’re dead!” is creating art, but that’s still no reason to assume that play has no value.)

    One thing that’s interesting here is that games are clearly a form of expression – “speech”, indeed – but that doesn’t necessarily translate to our conception of art, which is generally considered, at the moment, to be a one-way expression mediated by the author. As I understand it, the US constitution protects freedom of speech, not freedom of art – it is just that in the past 100 years or so, many things considered speech have also been considered art.

    It’s also worth noting that whilst our culture generally considers art to be defined by passive consumption, there’s plenty of precdent for art to be interactive. Theatre, for example, is highly dependent on the audience for its content, as actors “play” to the crowd. With no crowd and no crowd reaction, there is no theatre. That’s even more true in improvised theatre. Architecture by definition is the crafting of an interactive artform, yet no-one doubts it is art.

    Possibly some of the resistance to the concept of a game as art comes from the fact that the creation of art is considered in the Western world to be a work of specialised artisans, rather than something which is part of everyday life? Once again, John Carey points out that that’s an anomaly of the last few hundred years – art evolved in humankind as a form of play, and indeed several languages do not have seperate words for the two activities.

    Our culture, of course, has devauled play, as Pat Kane points out in “The Play Ethic”. Perhaps this is part of the resistance that computer games find when they try to define themselves as art?

    (Apologies for the long post there, and if I’m saying things which are blatantly obvious!)

  3. Jim says:

    Let’s agree that we do not yet have a very good vocabulary for discussing the ‘gameness’ of games and that’s why we get bogged down into endless debates about whether meaning comes from the story or from the game play mechanics.

    You might want to take a look at the Game Ontology Project (www.gameontology.org), an open-wiki invitation to help work on what is effectively a language and vocabulary to talk about games. The folks who started the project (including Michael Mateas and Janet Murray) have a few articles out which bear reading.

  4. Luke says:

    I also lament the lack of a Bazin/Scaruffi (okay, Kael/Bangs) for videogames.

    Though its tempting to focus game criticism on those elements we’re used to critiquing in other arts (music, narrative, frame composition, etc.), I also believe that interactivity is the primary art of videogames. However, like, film, videogames have the power to bend nearly all other arts to its aesthetic goals. In this sense, videogames may have the highest artistic potential yet, just as opera did in the 17th century, or film in the 20th century.

    But I do think that videogames as art are pretty primitive. We’re at “The Great Train Robbery” or “The Birth of a Nation”, not “Citizen Kane” or “À bout de souffle”. It’s been said that art is a conversation between the artist and the critic, and we may not have serious artistic games until we have serious artistic game criticism. Or do you think we already have videogames to compare to the best of Stravinsky, Klimt, Kafka, or Tarkovsky?

  5. ZB says:

    Video games can be books.

    Video games can be film.

    Video games can be theater/opera.

    They can be all of these at once.

    Video games connect directly (almost literally, through the controller) with the audience in a way that all passive forms of art (painting, film, music, reading etc..) can not.

    Art takes us away from every-day life.

    Art does not end with the artist(s).

    If one does not think that video games are/can be art, then one knows nothing of video games.

    Ebert is a boob.

    [Silent Hill 2 FTW!]

    [see also Killer 7]

    [NTM the Metal Gear Solid series]

  6. Chris Harwood says:

    I don’t think the “interactivity” of games prohibits intelligent criticism. (Part of the reason is that I don’t think interaction is completely unique to games, but rather a universal feature of the arts. But I don’t really have time to get into that now.) Even with the narrative flexibility almost inherent to games, there is still room to convey meaning and a unique aesthetic. Without such, games would be indistinguishable from one another. Different responses to player input convey different messages–even what types of input are allowed has a significant impact on the feel of a game. Quick example: Imagine how different it would feel to play Half-Life if it had used traditional cutscenes. The entire game takes on a slightly new tone, and the player does not identify with Freeman in the same way. This is not a trivial distinction; maintaining first-person perspective makes the game more about player experience and less about player voyeurism.

    I suspect the lack of criticism comes more from player culture than from anything inherent to the medium. We (gamers) are traditionally like punks or Dillan-era folkies: egotistically self-assured, purists resistant to change, and fiercely exclusionary (with the resultant clique formation). I think we are moving away from this, but I don’t think we are away quite yet. So most criticism takes the form of fanboy and fangirl flame wars, but some of us will gravitate toward intelligent analysis (and reliable analysts) once such criticism has an outlet.

    Speaking of, I think G. Christopher Williams over at Popmatters.com does criticism in the manner you describe. (Full disclosure: he is a former prof. of mine.) Some posts are obviously more critically oriented then others, and there is no way to tell which he wrote besides clicking the link for each multimedia review. His are listed on his CV, though.

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  8. Jay Hamman says:

    “So, the fight to see games as art is a fight to protect games from censorship and mindless regulation.”

    So, let me see if I correctly understand your “argument”. Critics are attacking games under the assumption that games have value X. If games can be argued to not have value X then those critics will argue that games have value N. Values of X or N lead to games being censored. But if games can be argued to have value A then game cannot be censored for having value X and cannot be said to have value N. Right?

    So, as you said, “the fight to see games as art is a fight to protect games from censorship and mindless regulation.” We have to argue that games have value A lest games be censored.

    But does not the statement of your reason for arguing so passionately for games being art detract from your argument? It is obvious that games need to be seen as art so that they can be protected from censorship, given that those are your words. But would it not be better to simply look at a game objectively to see if it is artwork?

    But that is the catch isn’t it? One cannot objectively identify anything as art. My roommate in college was an art major and we spent many nights arguing just this fact. We both agreed that the art world has reached the point where one can piss on a log and call it art given the seemingly non-existent criteria for what, if anything, counts as art.

    So, you have a Ph. D. Why can you not see how silly the argument is? You are advocating that games have value A so that you can attach the rights and benefits of value A to games. But the passion and fervor with which you make your argument blinds you from the obvious truth that Big Mutha Truckers is not, in fact, art. Games (capital G) are not art. That is not to say that they are not good art, but rather they are not art at all.

    I heart video games. My time is spent either working, trying to get into grad school, or playing video games. I do not want games to be censored or banned but I also do not want to prevent this censoring or banning by silly arguments. I would rather show the degree to which the criticisms are audaciously wrong and make the supporters of such arguments look foolish rather than sully my own character by defending an equally silly belief that games are art.

  9. Gabriel de Urioste says:

    I believe this documentary has a similar, yet less elaborate, point of view on video games as a form art.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTkYGvJ5qGA