Sturgeon!

I was recently asked about the Brian Moriarty lecture on Roger Ebert’s famous declaration on video games’s’s status as art. (It’s a neat little essay, check it out.)

It seems obvious to me that video games *ARE* art and the argument that they aren’t strikes me as similar to arguments that Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings aren’t art or that Picasso’s Dora Maar, Sitting isn’t art. Or that Karen Finley smearing herself with chocolate and talking about her childhood isn’t art. But me saying “the burden of proof is on you, dude!” isn’t really that useful given my readership of seven (of which he is *NOT* one) and also given the fact that he’s more or less retracted his statements and has more or less promised to never, never ever talk about this stuff ever again.

So I’ll lay out the case and, hopefully, make it as obvious for you as it is for me.

When we talk about “art”, there are any of a dozen things that come to mind. Painting is probably the first thing, but there is also sculpture, and poetry, and storytelling, and acting, and dance, and we can probably go so far as to include stuff like foodcrafting. I’m sure that all of us are cool with something as different as dance and a cubist still life painting of a bowl of grapes both falling under the umbrella of “art”, right?

Well, here in town, there’s a Fine Arts Center that has a section off to the side of “interactive art”. You know, for the kids you dragged to the Fine Art Center. It includes a bunch of sculptures that are *INTENDED* to be stroked, poked, prodded, felt, twiddled, and otherwise touched. Feel the negative space of a cube with a sphere slice carved out of the side. Turn a weathervane. Put your fingers in the eye of a carved stone Kokopelli.

We have no problem grasping that a good story told well can be art. Look at, oh, Citizen Kane. Or Huck Finn. Or an audio book of _The Island of the Day Before_ read by Tim Curry. Art? Of course!

Well, a video game is a mashup of such ingredients. A story well-told (if we’re lucky) that we interact with and, here’s the kicker, even cause to progress through our interactions. The game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a story told in retrospect by the main character/narrator to a woman he’s attempting to woo (and is full of delightful little moments where we see the character die and then hear the narrator say “that’s not what happened…” before we restart at the save point to try again). The Bioware games are stories of grand fantasy where worlds (or galaxies!) are saved. Instead of the person sitting and absorbing the art passively, like in a movie or (audio)book, the person actually has to move the story along him or herself… in the case of many RPGs, even the endings can be modified by the choices the player makes. This is art that is modified by the audience and tailor made for each viewer according to the whim of each viewer. (I want to play a good guy vs. I want to play a bad guy.)

Now, it’s true, that many (if not most (if not 90 percent of)) video games are crap. To compare the Godfather Part II to Ninjabread Man (I ain’t gonna link it) is, indeed, a comparison that makes Ninjabread Man look very bad indeed. It’s also possible to compare such things as Knights of the Old Republic to Clint Howard’s Ice Cream Man.

It’s cool to prefer scupture to poetry, or books to dance, or music to movies. Hey, we’ve all got our own inclinations. That’s cool.

But to say that this, or that, or video games cannot be art? That’s obviously wrong. Not even “are not” but “cannot be” art? That’s so wrong that even the person most famous for saying it has retracted it.

What’s interesting is the aesthetics that allow us to say “this is crap” or “this is good” or even “this is so good that the preponderance of people who engage with it will walk away embiggened”. But that’s another essay…

Jaybird

Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

17 Comments

  1. I’d say the Myst series of games qualifies as art. I found them truly beautiful, often deeply moving. Not to everyone’s tastes, to be sure, but very much to mine.

    • Yeah, Myst would definitely qualify… original artwork, original music… and telling a narrative that was haunting. I still remember being creeped out by the guy in the… was it the red book? Asking “who are you?” in his movie.

      Great opening.

  2. I’d be curious to hear what you think of this talk by Brandon Boyer. He’s setting indie games in opposition to studio games (is that what we call them? What do we call them? Games Which Are Supposed to Make Money?), which seems to clash with your sensibilities, but beyond that he’s making an emotional case for games as art and game designers as artists .(Which are two separated cases to be made? I don’t know.)

  3. I was actually mostly interested in the delineation of art from Art (as opposed to what Moriarty posited as kitsch). With a different approach to Art, the argument may completely fall apart. If you subscribe to the theory that all art is propoganda, surely a case can be made that surely plenty of video games qualify.

    I think the arguments here so far don’t address that issue, or what is maybe Moriarty’s most challenging question – if Chess and Go aren’t Art, why would any video games be? Why even ask the question?

    For myself, somewhere around 1999 or so, enjoyment of games started to shift dramatically and I started to drift away from enjoying narrative games and started to prefer games as games.

    I can’t put my finger on the exact moment, but I remember being put off by the gaming world’s obsession with how great Metal Gear Solid was and the “controversy” over whether it or The Ocarina of Time was the Greatest Video Game of All Time (or at least 1998).
    Now, MGS was a nice game, but it was not a giant leap forward in gaming as a narrative medium, it was not a fantastic story or a work of Art. It was not less linear than every other narrative-structured game you could play, what choices you had were to sneak by a guard to get to the next door, snap his neck and then go to the next door or rush in and shoot all the guards and get to the next door and a new set of choices that were completely independent of whatever choices you’d made before.

    At the same time, Counter-Strike was just out in beta as a Half-Life mod. Instead of online multi-player as a Darwinian game of skill rewarding the best aim and fastest reflexes, you had what was becoming a proto-sport. A game with teams and scoring that required tactics and strategy beyond the pure skill of coordinating the crosshair with a mouse click. There was no pretense of a story, just endless repetition of conflict and resolution but one where each iteration was different, dependent on what each of the 10-20 players were doing.

    Since then, I have put thousands of hours into games that are more like Counter-Strike and less and less every year into ones more like MGS. The idea of games as Art has turned me off for the most part. As much as Fallout, Arcanum Neverwinter Nights and Morrowind expanded the possibilities of the structure of a game’s plot, to me they were still not great stories. They don’t move me at all (though many of them are a lot of fun). They’re just Rube Goldberg contraptions where we push a button here and there and see the neat stuff unfold. The more complex narratives are just more complicated machines. Meanwhile, non-narrative games have gone a different direction.

    On the other hand, games as games are very interesting. Not as art, but as a sort of game/sport hybrid for those of us that weren’t all that great at them – a challenge for mental and physical skills. You’ve got the thrill of a close game, elation at winning and agony in defeat.

    I think it’s in down this trail that video games will have their biggest cultural impact in the long run – growing into the cultural space of sports – rather than narrative media. It’s a long way away from being that way in the mainstream cultural mindset right now, but I think it will happen as we start to recognize that the most-played games are the ones that have lasting value in online multiplayer (think Halo, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, etc).

    • Great point. Does it matter if games are art? It seems more useful to say that games are as worthwhile and interesting a cultural product as art or cinema or sports, while being something hard to shoehorn in to an existing category of cultural production.

    • But the idea of games as Art rather than as art strikes me as something a lot more societal than anything I’ve ever experienced personally.

      Hell, Art is something that I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve only experienced art.

      I’m not saying that the emperor is naked, mind. I’m just saying that it seems like a lot of us are waiting for someone like Roger Ebert to tell us how awesome the outfit is too.

      Capital-A Art is a matter of consensus.
      Lower-case-a art is a matter of taste.

      But, again, I analogize playing video games to sorting m&ms. The soothing of the nerves, the quieting of the voices, the making everything else okay stuff that people tell me that “Art” does for them? That’s what video games do for me.

      And when I encounter folks who seriously need some voices quieted, it always makes me sad when, say, Arkanoid doesn’t work.

      That’s my best shot.

  4. Just wanted to say “thanks” for introducing us to the Moriarty lecture, which was worth every minute I spent reading it.

      • Hey, Steve. Thank you for the link.

        My problem with “Art” is that there are people out there who are more moved by that “Friday” song than by, say, “Ode to Joy”.

        The same is true for any number of ghastly comparisons I could make.

        I can’t help but wonder if “Art” is what people eventually like when they’ve grown out of the stuff they grew out of out of after they grew out of the stuff they grew out of (this continues for a while) the stuff they liked the first time they really, really noticed.

        I also wonder at the extent that immersion biases the person who consumes X or more of the art in question…

    • I saw it on Sully and thought of Jaybird. . . so the circle of blogging rolls on and on . . .

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