Monday, August 7, 2006

A Stupid Commercial?

Esquire recently published an article about the fact that serious criticism on videogames does not exist. No incisive essays, no erudite articles, just "dude, looks like Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast II: Jedi Academy* is gonna be sweet" stuff. As someone with experience reviewing games, I feel I must state the following: videogames are not art. They just ain't.
It takes a lot of artists to make one, and some of them can have truly brilliant imagery, but I have yet to see the game that's art. Artistically presented maybe.

In my (albeit limited) experience, professional criticism often takes one of two forms:

A) The secret decoder ring. "Here's what the artist/author/composer is trying to say, dimwit."

B) The petri dish. "Here are all of the religiosociopoliticaeconoclimatic factors kicking around in the spacetime locale in which the artist/author/composer worked. Put it all together, and how could he not end up writing this? Hmmm, dimwit?"

These approaches require that the author actually be saying something, whether he means to or not. I'm just not seeing it. When I sit around and talk about games, relevance never comes up. This is due mainly to the fact that it's not there.

I mean, come on. Let's give it a try.

"The major statement made by Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 comes to its zenith when the audience unlocks Darth Maul as a playable character. At that precise moment in the play experience, expect to turn to your fellow aficionados and reverently gasp the syllables "skateboarding is totally fucking awesome". "

"In summary, after witnessing the stunning victory of Natalie Cook and Kerri Ann Pottharst at Sydney, Team Ninja's 2001-02 Japan had begun to taste the beauty of the occidental sport of volleyball, which, in combination with the new Xbox's hardware and man's enduring fascination with breasts, made a perfect world in which to develop Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball."


* No really. That's an actual title.


  1. Relevant to what, specifically? Anything so inherently subjective is not easy to broadly dismiss. Your argument is that something is only "art" if the author is making - or perceived to be making - a definite comment on something "relevant," which I think is unfair. I would submit that art can come in the form of pure expression of one's feelings, attitudes, imagination, and so on, and won't always be a commentary on any particular issue. If it has geniune orginality it has autorelevance. By definition, something truly novel will be irrelevant excepting the new relevance that it creates.

    I would argue that many video games are indeed art, because, for example, the occasional game will challenge the traditional pattern enough to reveal genuine creativity on the part of the creator.

    Games can also present artful juxtapositions that exist nowhere else. Example, but not a good one: Italian plumbers in irrational environments.

    Furthermore, games allow for an experience that one might call "artistic" by allowing an independent user to manipulate the variables originated by the creator. This creates a canvas by which an artist can interact with others in rather unique way.

    There is art behind the scenes, as well, as we marry the notion of binary code to an ever more stimulating slate of visual cues.

    And this is beside the point you already make, but dismiss: games contain a significant amount of pure visual artistry. Would a still frame from a well-conceived game hung and framed in a gallery become art?

    Many games are stupid, a lot of them are mindless, but a lot of them are not. I think Esquire's point is that games are reaching a point where the creative process behind them is akin to movies, books, and theatre and so maybe it's time they were more seriously considered.

    However, I think this point is essentially needless because our generation, the original NESers, will soon be the predominant influencers. Our more ingrained acceptance and experience with games will cause a paradigm shift in how society at large perceives (and accepts) them.

    Longest. Comment. Ever.

  2. Yeah...and Jedi Academy RULES!

  3. As much as I hate to go the "that depends on your definition of art" route...

    When I say 'relevance', I mean relevance to the human experience, in particular to the emotional side of it. Remember Physics class? The day when the teacher took two B-flat tuning forks and struck one, to find the other one start to vibrate in kind? Art should do a similar thing. It is a vehicle for the artist to elicit emotion from the audience, to communicate a feeling. Self-expression is only one side of the equation.

    Aside from "wicked rad", "dude, that's badass", "zoicks! scary stuff is scary", and the occasional "flatulance is funny", I'm just not seeing it. The closest I've experienced is the first time you kill a Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus.

    I certainly would not argue that it takes creativity to make a good game, nor that particular elements of a game's presentation (visual art, music) can (do?) achieve the status of art. Creativity alone, though, is not enough, based on the def above.

    So, what would happen if we were to black-box a game? Take away the music and as much of the visual prettiness as possible. Reduce it to just the interface and the interactive parts of the environment. Movement of a body through a space. Could the medium be used to communicate emotion, to make the audience feel the way the creator intends? What critical tools would we use to describe it? From what existing critical bodies would we start? Dance? Fiction? Gymnastics? Physics?

    The best example I can think of is that Cloud game I posted about a while back. Was that art, or just artful? Meaningful, or just novel?

  4. So art cannot, according to your definition, exist in a vacuum. The only meaningful measurement is the degree (0, or 1) of resonance with someone other than the artist? Does this mean that "art" is a transitory description, not describing the work itself but rather its relationship with the current observer? Can the emotional experience of the artist count? And if so, is it only at the moment of creation or does it persist?

    If, "whoa, dude" is in fact the response a game elicits, and that is the intention of the designer, is that not communication of emotion? Do only certain emotions qualify as art-worthy?

    It's not reasonable to pose the challenge you pose, i.e., to strip a game of its musical and visual elements and see what's left. That is the same as someone saying, "Oh yeah? This meal wouldn't be so great if you took out the salt. And the sauces. And the protein. And you served it on a dirty napkin." The game exists as its layering of elements - passive, active, and interactive. That is the essential difference between video games and most other media.

    In terms of the cloud game, let's suppose that the artist intends for the audience to feel, say, blissful detachment. Or curiosity. Doesn't it achieve that in a novel way? Isn't novelty one form of meaningful?

    A fast-paced driving game can make you feel a type of adrenaline rush and high-level excitement that I bet a lot of graphic artists would kill to have you experience. And that's the intention of the artist. So does that make it art?

    I just don't see the difference, other than sifting through the prejudices, of the trepidation one might feel playing a scary thriller game vs. watching a scary thriller movie.

    Maybe it takes a novel type of criticism to describe it well. Perhaps the emergence of the medium cannot be sufficiently critiqued by current methods.

    And aren't you feeling all proud now that you have a post with a long comment discussion.

  5. Wow. Lot's of questions. Here we go.

    #1 - Art cannot exist in a vacuum. If the artist works without attempting to communicate to an audience, it's not art. "None of you would get it because you're not me" is not the statement of an artist. "This is what it's like to be me" is.

    #2 - You've keyed on it exactly. The focus right now is very much on simulation and stimulation. "Here's what it feels like to drive a Ford GT at 120 MPH" is very different from "here's what it feels like to be a human being". An adrenaline rush is not an emotion.

    #3 - I was hoping to dodge the 'novelty is a necessity for art' conversation, but hey. Novelty on it's own is not artistic. Creative, yes. Artistic, no. A new way to write a financial statement may require creative thinking, but the statement is (presumably) not art.

    But is novelty a necessity for art? Is eliciting a true emotion in a new way the real artistic act? I say yes. Copying someone else's painting is not art, nor is a close mimicry of a style. Drawing out the same feeling from the audience with a different painting, or better a new style, is.

    #4 - On horror movies/games. Is this where all the artistic games are? I wouldn't know, as you are aware. If a game can elicit something more than jump-out-and-scare-ya and something-around-here-is-gonna-jump-out-and-scare-me, then I'd consider it. I don't consider jump-out-and-scare-ya movies to be art. Entertainment, yes. Art, no. Again, they get the adrenaline pumping. Now, something that produces genuine, resonating feelings of dread and terror? That's art.

    #5 - I still maintain that it is reasonable to strip a game down to it's basic unique element (interactivity) in order to criticize it. Hence the black-box theater concept. Get rid of the costumes and the set and leave nothing but the art itself. I suggested this kind of treatment in the same spirit as your statement that a new kind of criticism is needed to describe videogames as art. If we can get to the basics of what the medium is, then we can criticize instead of simply review.

    #6 - Pride? Intellectual stimulation, certainly. It takes a lot to elicit an emotion from me.

  6. You say that art cannot exist in a vacuum because the defining characteristic of art is that the artist is communicating an emotional message to the observer.

    My problem with this is that it says that something cannot become art until it is observed. How quantum of you. Furthermore, it also says that something can be simultaneously rendered art and not-art if it is observed at once by the moved and the unmoved. Again, how very advanced. I loves me some quantums.

    This concept creates four categories: art, that which has the potential to be art, that which formerly was art, and that which is not art. None of these categories, moreover, has any objective criteria that can applied outside of the laboratory of third-party observation. I include the "formerly was art" category because I assume that's what it becomes when it is no longer actively creating an emotional response, by your logic. (Does memory impression count?)

    Therefore, is it impossible for an artist to create art, only that which has to potential to be art. This is where I can't abide, because I am quite certain that someone can create items of artistic merit that no one will ever see. You clearly disagree with this statement, and so be it.

    Goose makes an essential and obvious point, that this discussion can only be satisfactorily resolved if everyone can agree on a standard definition of art that is then used as a measure with video games.

    Via, art is defined as:

    - the products of human creativity; works of art collectively
    - the creation of beautiful or significant things
    - a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation
    - photographs or other visual representations in a printed publication)

    I don't think that these definitions go as far as we go, but maybe that's good. The bottom line is that "that which is art" will remain subjective.

    For the record, no, an adrenaline rush is not an emotion, but excitement is. And don't go all "the excitement is just a by-product of the chemical process that occurs as a result of outside stimulation on me," because all emotions are the by-product of a chemical process that occurs as a result of outside stimulation.

  7. I admit that I didn't read everything in this thread yet, but ... I wholeheartedly disagree with the original argument. I agree that currently games are more about stimulation and entertainment, but even in the current climate of console shoot-em-ups, there is still art in the design of gameplay. If a game plays beautifully, that in itself is artistic. You can call it zen or whatever, but I think that's still art. The art of something lies in that thing which defines its brilliance. Now, on the other end of this spectrum, I think in a traditional sense (i.e. the view of art in games compared with the view of art in films) games definitely _used_ to be this way. However, this was at a time in the industry when developers were attempting to immitate motion pictures, or at least create an immersive version of a motion picture. For example, the appeal of x-wing was related directly to the desire of star wars fans to get in the cockpit of an x-wing. Conversely, KOTOR is based in the ambiance of the star wars universe, but has nothing to do with attempting to recreate the feeling of being in a film. It more or less rides the coattails of the film and uses its music and some of its visual design, but there is a subtle and important difference between those two titles. The funny thing about all of this is that before games could possibly hope to provide such an immersive experience their art was found in...gameplay. Just like now.

  8. one other thing : I think you are confusing art with aesthetic. The aesthetic pertains to the feel of something, the way it looks, tastes, sounds....well pretty much any of the senses....the method by which it illicits a response from the senses. Art has to do with the sublime in something--that one thing that makes it genious, brilliant, or any other word you wish to use.

    Art has absolutely no aesthetic definition, and it can be found in any aspect of game development, or really any daily activity for that matter. This relates to peter's description of the manipulation of variables.

  9. One last thing. The definition of art, in my opinion, is best described in the film "The Party" starring Peter Sellers. It is the scene when Peter Seller's character is talking to the western star about the game of pool:

    Peter Sellers: "Tell me what is the name of a game with a multitude of colored balls arranged upon a table like that?"

    Western Star: "It's called pool liitle fellar."

    P.S.: "Poo?"

    W.S.: "No _Poo_l_ with an 'l'."

    P.S.: "It would be silly for the game to be called poo! So, what is the object of this game?"

    W.S.: "To put all the balls in the holes. All except the white one!"

    P.S.: "Ahh! That is the art! The art is to not knock in the white ball! I understand."

    and there you have it.

  10. and I just spent a half hour at work responding to this thread. Good work Alex

  11. In general, games do not provide me with a profound life experience, but then again neither does most "art", nor song. For me that's ok because I wholeheartedly reject that as a condition for something to be considered art. For instance, aside from the entirety of The Vatican City, all of her majesty outside, the artistry within the museums, Basilica, and Sistine Chapel, there are few "fine-paintings" that cause my mouth to gape. (Some Da Vinci, Carravaggio, Botticelli, and Titian in the Uffizi in Florence were gorgeous as well) But, really only the Vatican's art held that tye of sway over me. In terms of song, there are many that stir my emotions, but not many that deeply and profoundly affect my soul. Nevertheless, I still consider those thousands of pieces and songs art.
    Now let's also examine your other contingent for something to be called art, that being the fact that it must apparently speak as to who "we" are. Whether that is based on humankind as a whole, or on an ethno-cultural basis I'm not too sure. Regardless, there is no way that I believe all "art" even comes close to approaching that. Especially in what you consider "fine painting". How many Pollack pieces speak to the human condition or transcend beyond anything but splatterd paint?? Please... Yet they're considered by many to be fine art. Some Picasso pieces may very well accomplish this human interconnectivity, but many more do not. Now let's disregard the genius, famous artists. How many thousands of artists exist that paint or compose, that you and I don't know about, and whose work might be considered blase to us, but could have a strong impact on others? The point is, you cannot possibly use those parameters in a logical, cogent statement that attempts to "define" that which cannot so easily and succinctly be defined. Again I state that art is malleable, and totally subjective, and that's all I have to say about that. So my friend, we must agree to disagree.
    Now in reference to what games have had a profound effect on me? Well, I can tell you that I still smile everytime I hear the original SMB theme, or Zelda theme. That I still develop feelings of anger, frustration, and joy depending on whether or not my army/civilization triumphs in Rome:Total War. I love to see my miner zig-zagging across the map when I play Dig-Dug at Fat Bob's. However, I was enthralled the entire time I found myself playing Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In fact I would say the OoT is probably the best game I've ever played for that reason, and scores of others. So in a very long, drawn-out way, Oot would be my choice.

  12. just a quick response to alex's question about which games we consider to be art...and this isn't part of any argument. :)

    out of this world. it's available for download now as "another world," which was the original title. I consider it art for many reasons, but I'm not going to force them on you. Just download it and see for yourself.

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