So this blogging software was starting to bring me down... so I've moved! New blog is at www.pdyxs.org (I moved the old posts and comments over for a smooth transition)
So this blogging software was starting to bring me down... so I've moved! New blog is at www.pdyxs.org (I moved the old posts and comments over for a smooth transition)
This continues a previous post, which can be found here.
So here we are again, looking at that seemingly immortal question ‘Are Games Art’. Following on from last time, I want to first explore the notion of art and some different notions of what it is, before categorising games as either being art or not.
But first, a little detour:
Part 4: Fun and Games
So there’s a movement that says that the question of whether games are art or not is an invalid one, and that instead, we should focus on making games fun.
This is a semi-valid point, in that it portrays the point of games that take after the board game side of the family. Board games are not designed as art, but as a way of having fun, and there’s nothing wrong with a game that does the same.
I do think, however, that it is wrong to say that all games should simply be fun: as a very broad medium, games can do whatever the hell we want them to. We’re pretty good at making games fun, and we shouldn’t abandon this pursuit. But at the moment, the majority of games only do this, which is an imbalance in the medium.
This points to the way that we make games at the moment, which is that we care about gameplay first before trying to wrap our ideas around gameplay (when we have ideas…), rather than the other way round.
At the end of the day, I think it’s important that games are engaging, in the way that all media should be engaging. Fun is optional, yet is currently the biggest aspect in the games industry.
Part 5: What is Art
This is a question that delves into philosophy and a huge debate that I can’t hope to end here. Yet whether games are art depends a lot on what this thing we call art actually is. In order to reach some sort of useful conclusion, I’m going to look at some of the broad criteria and ideas that can be used to determine whether something is art, which I can then compare to the medium of games. I’m not going to look into High Art, Low Art or other types of art that have been named, as that’s going down a rabbit hole that we might never emerge from (in other words, that’s a subject for another article).
1. Art is pretty
This is fairly self-explanatory. It says that art should have some elegance or beauty inherent in it, and that this aesthetic beauty is all that matters. The ideas of the piece etc. are not really important.
This is an important attribute, without which a lot of work might not be acknowledged as art (a pretty painting of a scene, created in an unoriginal style with no point but the pure beauty of the scene itself, for instance). Some would argue that this is all that is necessary for something to be art.
2. Art has cultural significance
Others would not, and might even say that a random pretty painting was not art at all. These people place cultural significance as the most important aspect of an artwork. If the piece doesn’t say something about society and/or the human condition, then it isn’t art.
Note that this definition could reach to include things such as xkcd webcomics, which might not be classed as aesthetically pleasing (I’d actually argue that the stick figure style of xkcd is its own brand of aesthetics in its simplicity, but I’m sure that not everyone shares this view). Often this criteria is combined with the first in varying measures.
3. ‘This be art’
This is more of an interesting aside rather than a criterion in itself. Often, by labelling something as art, it becomes art. Mavelich’s black square is artistically interesting because he calls it art. More prevalently, much of Andy Warhol’s art is made up of items that are usually not perceived as art, but which become art because Warhol says they are, thus prompting the question ‘is this art?’. Even more interesting is how Warhol’s insistence that his artworks are shallow and without deeper meaning created a deeper meaning in the works.
This type of art illuminates another property of art as a whole: its value can be completely dependant on the context it is created. Mavelich and Warhol’s work can seem arbitrary and uninteresting in today’s context, but once you’ve looked at the context that created it and the ideas the works convey, they become compelling and interesting.
Part 6: Why do we care about art?
This is an important question, whose answer has the potential to put the entire games as art debate into context.
The reasons we care are numerous: artistic work is often immortalised; artistic work can gather funding from government agencies; artistic work has greater monetary value; and artistic work is evaluated and then driven forward by critics and academia to produce more varied artistic work.
The first of these is rather moot: whether or not a work is immortalised is dependant on whether future generations feel that it is art, not whether we think it is right now. Sure, current debates could sway the issue, but as time passes, more objective viewpoints will prevail.
The issue of funding is more interesting, as some, but not all governments have already implemented this for games (I guess this shows the divide in this issue, and a big impact that one side or the other ‘winning’ could have in the immediate future).
The monetary value issue is problematic, with games having similar issues to the film industry: it’s so easy to duplicate them, that each unit has a smaller value. The true monetary value in games as art is in the potential for broader markets, along with the possibility for patronage in one form or another (see the government funding issue).
This final point is important in the development of the medium: the deeper the artistic content of games, the deeper that other artists and critics will delve into the possibilities of the medium, which leads to deeper games etc. Without an initial depth of ideas, however, games will fail to attract this criticism (it’s hard to do deep critique in a shallow medium without sounding constantly negative about the medium). The question then becomes: are developers doing enough?
Part 7: A Question of Boards
As games are derivatives of both board games and film, we must ask whether each of these are art forms before we question the medium of games themselves. Films are pretty universally considered an artform, but are board games?
When I say board games, I want to specify the rules of a board game rather than the design of the board itself (so a specific chess board can definitely be artistic and can draw on the ideas of the rules of chess, but are the rules themselves an artwork?).
From an aesthetic point of view, the rules of a board game are nebulous at best. Personally, I feel that there can definitely be an aesthetic quality, or elegance, to a set of rules, in a similar way that there can be an elegance or beauty to a mathematical proof. Yet mathematical proofs are not generally considered artworks (though mathematics has in past times been considered as a part of the arts).
From a cultural value viewpoint, there is definite room for artistic value. Interestingly, I cannot think of a board game that has been created with this in mind (I wouldn’t be surprised if one exists though – if you know one, please let me know). Here, the idea of ‘intended cultural value’ as opposed to ‘observed cultural value’ is important: we can observe the cultural value of castles in medieval times, but this does not make them art, as they were created for defence rather than a cultural purpose. This, of course, shaped the culture of the time drastically, which is incredibly interesting to explore, but still doesn’t make the castle art. Similarly, we cannot call the internet, facebook or Counterstrike art based on their cultural impact and the unforseen community interactions they have created (though calling Counterstrike art for other reasons is allowed).
So based on this, board games have the potential for art in the realm of cultural significance, though their aesthetic merit is debateable. As a medium, this doesn’t definitively state whether board games are art. If you believe that cultural significance is paramount in the definition of art, I think you would have to consider the board game an artform, without many (or any) examples of artworks within it. On the aesthetic side, all bets are off.
Part 8: The Big Question
And now we come to the big question: Are Games Art?
From an aesthetic point of view, there is no question that the elements of games have aesthetic qualities. The models and worlds that are created usually have at least some (and often abound in) aesthetic value. Often the non-gameplay elements have a combined aesthetic value which combines to form the story. And the gameplay itself can be seen to have aesthetic value (or not) in a similar way to board games.
If we look at games in terms of cultural value, a similar picture appears. The gameplay aspects, like in board games, have the potential for artistic value. The non-gameplay elements have cultural value in the stories they tell and what they can say about society.
Viewed in this way, we can certainly look at games as a gallery, a collection of different artistic pieces (in gameplay, music, art, or other forms) that may have a single theme.
So the question becomes, at what point does a collection of art become a piece of art in itself? To answer this question, we turn to the idea of the montage, as defined by Eisenstein: the juxtaposition of conflicting techniques used to create new ideas.
So can games use montage between their gameplay elements and non-gameplay elements? In short, yes they can. Portal and Braid both demonstrate this wonderfully: Portal through its use of gameplay mode; and Braid through its actual game mechanics.
And this is the answer our question: games as a whole can have cultural value, and they can have aesthetic value. Therefore games must be art.
This begs new, more interesting questions: do games, in the main, utilise this gameplay/non-gameplay montage; and what is its importance?
Part 9: The importance of gameplay/non-gameplay montage
As discussed previously, games don’t need to have cultural (or even aesthetic) significance to be good games, but they do need to have this significance to be good art.
I would argue that this gameplay/non-gameplay montage is paramount: without it, the gameplay and non-gameplay aspects of a game begin to create divergent ideas, each of which dilutes the strength of the other.
To illustrate, I’ll take some inspiration from Warhol and build a little thought experiment around the most basic of games.
Think of a film you feel has great artistic value. Now imagine a game which simply consists of a movie player which plays this film as long as the player presses a certain button.
Now the first question you’re probably thinking: is this really a game? The gameplay itself certainly isn’t fun, and probably not engaging. But these are not hallmarks of all games, just those of good games (and no-one is claiming this would be a good game).
The gameplay exists (holding onto a button) and ensures an interaction between the player and the game. The gameplay is important in allowing the story and game to progress – without interaction, the game grinds to a halt. By these definitions, this is a game.
Would the game be as fulfilling an artistic experience as the film on its own (ignoring, of course, the “it’s art because it says something about art” argument)? Of course not. That’s because the gameplay idea doesn’t have anything to do with the non-gameplay idea. If the non-gameplay idea is good enough, you’ll want to complete the gameplay because you’ll be engaged, but the non-gameplay aspect would work better in the film medium rather than the games medium.
Now this is an extreme case, and most games do integrate their gameplay with their non-gameplay aspects at least nominally (usually, the story is about war or conflict and the game is about fighting and killing). But these are superficial connections which don’t create any deeper sense of montage: the question is, do games create any deeper connections?
Part 10: What we do now
Happily, the answer is yes. As mentioned above, Portal and Braid both accomplish this feat. Portal is particularly important in its density of ideas: the gameplay mode parallels its ideas so well that we never feel too distanced from the deeper meaning.
I would argue that Braid, while brilliant, is less successful at this task. Throughout the game, there are longer stretches of time when a player is solely focused on the gameplay of Braid, trying to solve a puzzle without thought to the deeper mystery. Yet the ending possibly fixes this, as the mode of thought used during this puzzle-solving period becomes incredibly important in itself.
The only other mainstream game which I have played (Mass Effect is on my computer but won’t start for some reason…) that effectively utilises this form of montage is Bioshock. Bioshock’s montage, however, occurs at a single point in the story around the middle, which diminishes its conclusion as being a summative or overarching idea. It’s no deny that it’s a brilliant idea that questions the very nature of how we play games, but it is overruled by a superficial good-vs-evil scenario that fails to resonate at anywhere near the same level (by the way, this is also an example of gameplay/non-gameplay montage, but it is a fairly weak example of it).
Interestingly, there are a number of small, intriguing flash games that do an amazing job at connecting their gameplay and non-gameplay aspects. Every Day the Same Dream and Immortall are both really good examples of this. I’ve also heard of a game called “Permanent Death” which is a fascinating study on how we view death (surprise surprise) in games (I actually can’t find it, if anyone does, please link me). I won’t go into specifics here, as I’d like to review some of these separately, but I think you’ll see what I mean if you play them.
This demonstrates two important points: firstly, it’s an encouraging sign that people are starting to create games with interwoven gameplay and storytelling; and secondly, that the way we choose to make games is a larger barrier than technology in this field. This second point is really important – it’s very easy to think that we could create more interwoven games with technology that can generate narratives etc, and possibly we can, but a lot of these ideas and techniques can be explored with very low-level technologies.
Part 11: Some Conclusions
Firstly, yes, games are art (does this mean I avoid the lynching?).
Secondly, games are an imbalanced medium, highly skewed towards gameplay and specific genres. These approaches are not wrong, but they should not be the only mechanisms for development used.
Thirdly, games can be incredibly artistic both aesthetically and culturally, while also being engaging, without requiring ridiculous technologies.
Finally, while it’s important that people recognise that games are art, it’s more important that developers recognise it, and create games with artistic intentions in mind.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this romp through the realm of games, art and intrigue (possibly without the intrigue). Please let me know what you think – this article and the ideas contained within only came about through lots of discussions with people about these issues, and I’d love to explore them more.
As a final hurrah for this mammoth of an article, here's a picture of the quarter of my whiteboard-wall that has been dedicated to it.
So I was Kick-Ass today, and apart from being a fantastic movie, it somewhat reminded me of GTA. Both texts have obscenity as a core ingredient of their make-up, and both have the potential to make a point about obscenity in their respective mediums.
Warning - Kick-Ass spoilers ahead
Let's start with Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass scrutinises the Superhero genre, how we are fine with our superheroes doing obscene things (swearing, killing, etc.) and how we expose children to such obscenity. By making Mindy an 11-year old who has lost her childhood by being inundated with these experiences, we are shown what such exposure can take away from us. Juxtaposed to Dave's self-proclaimed naivety, we are jolted into Mindy's all too real loss - while losing her mother was a product of the evil of society, losing both her father and her childhood are placed squarely on the superhero life. In this unreal world, her current state of being feels more real than most in this genre.
Now to GTA, which has been critiqued as 'using satire and irony' to be 'stimulating and thought provoking' (in this case, for the expansion pack Vice City). Now I have to admit to never having played Vice City, though I have played quite a few other GTA games, so please correct me if I've missed something. GTA is unquestionably obscene in its depiction of its world, and like Kick-Ass, it is also undoubtedly over the top in its obscenity. It lets you mow down pedestrians like there's no tomorrow, and fights usually end up in multiple counts of death.
I think there is a case for saying that this is ironic, and can cause one to reflect upon how we view violence and what effect it has on us (after a while of killing cartoony people, you might think 'woah, what if this was real' in a Keanu Reeves accent). There is also room for saying that there is an air of self-parody inherent in GTA's make-up. But as a text, I don't feel that GTA could ever stand up to scrutiny in the same way that kick-ass can.
The reason for this is consequences. Kick-ass' obscenity works, because behind all of it, we are keenly aware at all times that this is just a little girl. We are actually offended by what is happening while being delighted by the awesome special effects and the killing of bad guys, an antithesis we are forced to take on board and think about. GTA has no such consequences, past possibly getting caught by the cops (which is seen more as a lack of skill in avoiding them than as a consequence for doing something wrong). And even if the cops catching you meant something, it lacks the personal component of seeing what happens on an individual scale.
Now at this stage, we have to point at technology a bit, because getting level of emotional nuance is incredibly hard in a game (and arguably impossible). Yet with a little bit of creativity we can get around this: what if at the end of every mission, you were given a score sheet with a body count, complete with how many orphans, widows, widowers etc. had been created thanks to your actions? Presented in the same manner that scores are usually portrayed, this would certainly give some sort of emotion to the situation with the same ironic twist that GTA is known for.
Now doing this sort of thing would have made GTA a very different game, and possibly one that was less fun to play (in fact, it may have needed to be much shorter to work as a piece, which then would completely retard its saleability in the marketplace). But it does demonstrate the difference between the game and film industries in their willingness to make meaningful self-commentary on the medium. And at a time when games are crying out to be taken as seriously as films or other pieces of art, it has to give us pause as to whether we are holding them to the same level of scrutiny.