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.