The art of the game: asking the right questions
This past Thursday (November 9) the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced its acquisition of fourteen video games to begin a collection for an exhibit in the museum. Naturally, this news brought again to the fore the discussion of video games and their collective place in the artistic spectrum, and the debate that seemed to have quieted for a while started to creep back into the blogosphere. For my part, though, I’m just a little weary of the whole issue. It’s not that I think the debate is altogether pointless; it is, however, misguided.
Ever since Roger Ebert made the claim that video games “can never be art,” the debate has raged across online forums and news sites as fans put forward numerous titles as evidence for gaming’s place in the artistic pantheon. The surge of articles was almost overwhelming, and they ranged in tone from politely apologetic to intensely inflammatory. While I was first taken in by the fire of the debate and I felt the need to defend the new medium against the luddite onslaught, I grew tired of the whole crazy cartoon. It has become, quite frankly, a belabored point.
I had an inkling of where the discussion would lead. When people began to lambast Ebert with emails, tweets, and comments, he revised his statement by saying that video games are not an art form yet. What followed was more of the same, sometimes heated arguments sometimes dismissive remarks. Gaming websites and magazines wrote articles that preached to the choir, arguing, of course, in favor of games’ artistic value, and, for my part, my interest in the whole circus waned. Indeed, I found the whole situation troubling not only because the arguments for or against the concept of video games as art is so tiresome, but also because the question at its center is reductive and small. The flaws inherent to it should set off alarm bells for anyone interested in discussing the matter for one glaring reason: the question of what games are takes away from what games do.
Defining a particular work as “art” is a tricky exercise and one that only becomes much more complex when considering an entire medium. This problem only became more apparent as I combed through article after article that posited video games as an art form without providing a solid, working definition of the term, and therein lies my greatest issue with the whole debate. The storied history of art and art criticism boasts some of the most inspiring cultural dialogues from Plato’s Phaedrus to T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Artistic values change dynamically, from the rigidity of 18th century Neo-Classicism to the fragmentary openness of Postmodernism, all the while fostering complex discourse networks among critics and artists alike.
Arguing that games are indeed art necessitates familiarity with both art history and art criticism in order to ground one’s position in the larger cultural consideration of what art means. Otherwise, the entire debate becomes an exercise in vague ontology. Unfortunately, the latter seems to be at the heart of the issue. I’ve never followed a critical controversy that splits people into such clearer “us” and “them” camps, and I find it disheartening that so many see the argument in terms of exclusion or inclusion–and neither the twain shall meet. The most common of these arguments lack fortitude, and each side has its own reductive problems.
Naysayers touting the commercial goals and collaborative teamwork inherent to the gaming industry as evidence against its artistic status neglect the fact that the “starving artist” archetype was an invention of the Romantic period in the early 19th century and that novels and films are all collaborative efforts from writers and publishers, directors and actors, among numerous others. Just as problematic are those on the opposite side who posit games as art because, well, what else can they be? This stance of art-by-default is about as convincing and hollow as the “art is what you make it” type of reasoning in that it lacks depth and complexity, carrying the same dismissive tone as those who look down on games from their ivory towers and high-backed leather chairs.
Granted, these are just a few examples of the type of discussion glimpsed on journalism sites and discussion boards, but they share a commonality in a way that hinders rather than facilitates the dialogue by taking focus away from how games and art function. Simply stating that something is or isn’t art and leaving the discussion at that offers no chance for engagement or intellectual stimulation. It’s a conversational dead end. The truth of the matter is that people should stop speaking in such broad terms of why video games are a form of art and instead discuss with greater complexity what they do–or more importantly how they mean.
Let’s take for instance one of my favorite games of this year: thatgamecompany’s Journey. There’s nothing remarkable here in terms of narrative. a nameless figure travels across the desert to an illuminated mountain peak, and though the visuals are beautiful, they add to the atmosphere rather than provide the most important important element of the work. It is only in evaluating the game as a game that we can see Journey‘s artistic vision, understanding the ways it subverts adventure game paradigms. Its focus on simply moving to a single point calls direct attention to not only the core concept at the heart of game design (i.e. moving a character to a point in digital space), but also the motifs that persist in myths throughout human history. The game’s title, then, is a commentary that all games are imitations of a greater (almost Platonic) form of the quest that makes its way into every adventure game.
It makes meaningful the most minimal of experiences by letting the player explore a vast desert of ruined temples and rolling dunes. Journey asks the player to consider that all game spaces are digital deserts with glimmers of civilization, to which we attach meaning rather than having it explained to us. The multiplayer aspect works in this way as well when the player encounters nameless figures controlled by other people. Communication only occurs via movement and brief chirps from each player because chat is disabled. The game, through its mechanics, asks if we can really have anything other than fleeting moments with the people we encounter in digital environments, seeing not a real person but his/her representation in the form of a figure made of pixels. Much like the game worlds we traverse, these relationships are inherently hollow, but through play, we invest them with meaning.
Journey is, of course not like most games, but its position as an “artistic” game in a sea of artistic mediocrity should in no way be particularly damning when considering the gaming as an artistic tradition. Like any other art form, it has its gutters and peaks. The medium that gave us Apocalypse Now also gave us Battlefield Earth. The novel has Moby Dick and it has Twilight. Hell, Jewel made a collection of God-awful poetry, that long-standing tradition reserved for the greatest of artists. Nevermind the fact that some of the greatest works of art (James Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita, for example) thrive on the tension that exists between considered “high” and “low” art forms. Perhaps the sameness found in most modern military shooters make them seem like the movies Michael Bay never made, but rather than dismissing them as “not art,” it is more useful and rewarding to use these distinctions to foster critical dialogue about how they fit (or don’t fit) into gaming as an artistic medium.
So are games art? My answer is a resounding “yes.” However “high” or “low” they may be perceived, video games are indeed a form of art, but I say this with careful consideration and warranted hesitation because that fact remains that this classification is, ultimately, meaningless. For games to grow artistically, we must stop asking this loaded, reductive question and instead focus on what games do. The more intelligently and critically we talk about video games, the greater understanding we will have of the medium as an art form that means actively and dynamically. Naming games as “art” and leaving the conversation imposes a hypostatic label on a dynamic medium. Art should not simply be. Art should mean. It should challenge, engage, move, terrify, change. Games offer these experiences already; it’s time we started discussing them like they do.