Games, Art, Rosebud

Sick of this topic yet?

So are developers, but it’s vitally important, and they’re generally the first to admit it. More than just some sort of pretentious merit-badge, the assessment that a game is truly a work of art signifies a sort of coming-of-age milestone for the industry as a whole. Of course, if we could agree on a common definition of art, that would help. Wikipedia isn’t much help here, defining the concept only in terms of the visual arts. With visual art, emotional content is the least common denominator. If a painting has a narrative, it’s minimal, created through the willing participation of the viewer, and serves only as scaffolding for the emotional content. It has to make you feel something because it’s the only clear avenue of communication open to it.

The most common mistake one can make when trying to extrapolate this definition from visual art to other media is to assume that emotional content is the only goal. Lacking words, lacking motion, emotion is the only way in which a painting or sculpture can communicate. Emotion isn’t the sign of art, it’s only one of the colors we paint with. What matters is the communication with the viewer. It needs to communicate something numinous, provide an experience that is distinct, and that’s where it needs to stop. A masterpiece is a refined thing, which contains only the exact necessary components needed to accomplish the communicative goal. The Mona Lisa is not holding a pretty pink bunny, because the bunny is not part of the artistic goal. This is something which the game industry continues to struggle with, as often the view is that if something can be done, it should be.

In 2005, Roger Ebert made the bold claim that video games could never be considered art (which he later amended to “high art”), one of the primary reasons for which was the concept of authorial control. He reemphasized this point in a later online chat.

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

Ebert is a giant, with more talent and experience as a critic than all the world’s gaming journalists combined, but with respect I disagree on this point. No matter how draconian, an author only retains control until the first time a person reads their book or watches their film. A cursory study of semiotics reveals that communication is not a static act. Sender and receiver have to speak the same language, understand the same linguistic shortcuts (cultural slang, intuitive codings, etc.). Basically, the reader has to cooperate w/ the author, by picturing exactly what the author describes, coming to the conclusions the author is drawing up. This is harder than it sounds.

All acts of communication are cooperative: Video games differ only in the degree of control which can be handed to the player. Whether or not a large degree of control should be given depends on the goals of the work.

One of the most distinctive aspects of video games, complicating the definition of art, is its higher degree of interactivity. Because they’re interactive, it’s not enough to ask for a cooperative player. The game has to cooperate with the narrative that the player is weaving with their actions. The codes and overcodes, which is to say, the semantics and subtext of the narrative, have to be flexible in response to player action. This is something new. In literature, it’s certainly possible to create a compelling open text, which, like many classes of visual art, requires the reader to internalize and transform the text into a narrative that is distinctly their own. But in all cases the medium remains static. The way in which my experience of any book differs from you is wholly an internal experience. Interaction occurs in the mind of the reader. Creating an open game has strikingly different implications, juxtaposing the act of consumption and creation. Now, the actual physical experience of the senses, the act of consumption, becomes in part an act of creation. Even in a very simple game, like Super Mario Bros., the input I receive from the game differs from the input you receive, because we make different choices.

>With games, we’re also deeply focused on individual narrative. Because the player has some nominal control over their character, a well-crafted experience can draw the player in to an extent unheard of in other media. In terms of emotional content, this is deeply significant. Any story which happens to the self is inherently more moving than a story which happens to someone else. There’s an innate emotional investment that comes from being the subject (directly or indirectly) of the narrative.

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is often held up as the first film with true artistic merit. For good reason: In Kane, one finds no extraneous parts. Everything contained in the film is in support of the larger narrative and the themes being explored. More than just a good story, Citizen Kane leverages the strengths of its medium to tell a story that would not have been remarkable as a book, could not have been told as a painting, but is fascinating and deeply moving as a film. Kane could never be told in a compelling way in a video game, not because games are inferior, but because the story of Citizen Kane doesn’t fit well with video games’ strengths. A fun, technically masterful game could be crafted from the classic film, but its artistic worth would be lost in a medium best suited for a completely different kind of story.

Over the next several pieces, I’ll be examining 8 games which are often held up as examples of video games as art, and blowing them out of the water. We’ll look at what’s been done right, and why each game falls short of the mark. I’ve organized the games into four classifications which highlight some of the key strengths of the medium. These strengths have to be leveraged with a precision that has been thus far absent if games are to ever have their Citizen Kain. First, games can be immersive, involving the player in a deeply personal tale. They can also be magnanimous in the way by which they cooperate with the player, drawing them in slowly with refined systems of play. They can present a truly subterranean level of depth which is both a complex audiovisual experience, as in film, but which can also be developed more fully, as in a novel. Finally, they can allow for a much more conative experience, allowing the player’s choices to shape the experience into something personal, memorable, and utterly distinct to each player.

At the end of the piece, we’ll take a look at the game which I feel has come closest to being a true example of art. You’ll be surprised when you find out what it is!


~ by Matt Altieri on August 7, 2009.

3 Responses to “Games, Art, Rosebud”

  1. For the context you have laid out, I can’t find argument, and I’m excited to see what you have coming. I feel I have to say something about, “…emotion is the only way in which a painting or sculpture can communicate.”

    I think it’s true if you’re trying to create good art, and your definition of good art is “is able to evoke a response or emotion from anyone.” I see it as a trade-off. By working with emotion, you can elicit reaction from a more universal audience, but you rely heavily on the internal experiences of the viewer to lend message to the piece and to make them more notable. But if you decided to convey a specific message then the more explicit you get with it the more you are limiting the audience that will respond to it, but the more likely they are to receive your message as you intended.

    In either case, I think ‘response’ is a better criteria to use then ’emotion’. Sometimes similar responses are not similar emotions. or maybe the difference lies in what you want to evoke through the work. I could agree with the idea that art is something that evokes, but there are problems with that too. Emotion can be drawn out of people by random occurrences. A sunset, an animal corpse, milk spilled over the stocks page of the news paper. If they happen to happen, are they art? Is it in noticing it (putting art on the viewer) or in pointing it out? Did I just say that unless it’s entirely staged, photography has no artistic value, but only as a means of record keeping?

    So if it’s not art by merit of evoking emotion/response, then it’s something created with the intent of evoking emotion/response. Intent. It’s whether or not the person who made it said it was art or not. Same argument I had last time. That doesn’t take artistic merit away from things, it just means they aren’t art.

    All that said, I’ll definitely be reading along now (as tho I wasn’t before).

  2. You’re probably right. Thank god I’m a games critic and not an art critic! Visual art actually does almost nothing for me; I always just see a picture. The argument that art is something which evokes an emotion is a common one though, and it seems to be derived mostly from the common response to good visual art and music. For any narrative, any act of communication, emotion is one of the most important tools available. It’s probably an over-simplification to say that emotion is the only tool available to visual art.

    I think we’re on the same page vis-a-vis the communication of intent and the importance of response. The broader your audience, the more general your language, the less refined the communication. Perhaps one of the best measures of art, then, is that which communicates with a vibrant, clear voice to a large number of people. That’s a little populist on the surface, but the point is that you managed to deliver the same content to a large number of diverse people with little loss of clarify.

    Wasn’t oration and debate considered an art in ancient Greece?

    Then again, if I set up loud-speakers that proclaim “PIE IS DELICIOUS”, I’ll have met that criterion, but is it art? (Only if the pie is extra tasty.)

  3. The way I see it, is that video games are an entertainment form with the potential to be art. In this respect, they are closer to movies when attempting to define their artistic merit. Not all games could be considered art, but it many games have the potential to be labeled as such. I thought it was interesting how you mentioned that Citizen Kane was considered a masterpiece because it was a narrative experience that could not find a better form of expression than a movie. I think that is an excellent way to help determine which games are truly artistic triumphs. I think there are plenty of games that meet this test and I look forward to seeing if they make your list.
    I agree that the interactive narrative structure in video games does make it hard to accurately define games as art, it also forms the crux of the argument that games should be considered art. A great interactive experience, that features a masterful balance of music, graphics, story and gameplay is what I feel marks a game that is an artistic masterpiece.

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