Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Games Are Art

I've been meaning to start this blog for at least a year now, and Roger Ebert has finally given me the impetus to get going.

Oh, Roger Ebert. You are such an intelligent, well-spoken, and well-educated man; why must you be so stubborn and blind about this?

For starters: if
Flower isn't art, then neither is "This is Just to Say," to pick an easy poem. Flower is visual, interactive poetry -- it's program music with PS3 graphics and a controller attached.

A series of other thoughts I had, upon which I will likely expand in later posts:
  • Not all art is narrative art. Humans are, at our core, storytellers. But anyone who has seriously studied film (Ebert) will have studied non-narrative film. We also have countless examples of non-narrative static visual arts, accepted into the canon of Western art. You may not like everything at MoMA, but it's generally considered art.

  • The correlation to that is, we tend to create our own narratives. Players bring narrative to their gaming experience -- whether it's Tetris or Dragon Age: Origins -- the same way that a viewer standing in front of a Picasso or a reader parsing beat poetry does. We create our gaming stories as either the primary or secondary narrative of our gaming experience. "And then I totally did _______," is as much a story to the player as, "And then his father came back from the dead, and..."

  • Available graphics no more exclude games as art than the available cameras of the 1920s exclude those films as art. We value cave paintings; we value ancient Greek murals; we value Monet. We value A Trip to the Moon; we value Avatar (more on that one later). And 8-bit graphics never stopped me from loving Guybrush Threepwood. The nearest easy analogy is animated films: we consider both Snow White and Wall-E to be examples of the art.

  • We accept that film is not monolithic. I don't know anyone who would consider Transformers 2 to be high art; but similarly, I don't know anyone who would consider The Godfather or Citizen Kane to be anything but. Star Wars has a place of honor in the film canon, but surely we wouldn't put Manos: The Hands of Fate there. We have similar divisions (if fairly arbitrary) for literature, television, visual arts, and print media: Thriller may be art, in a way Britney Spears may not be. Why should gaming, a scant 30 years into its history, be more monolithic?

  • Gaming is barely 30 years into its history. How can a film critic as highly trained as Roger Ebert not remember that film itself was disregarded -- "can never be art" -- decades into its existence? Even after it surged in popularity, even after it became something everyone saw... the genre films of what we consider Hollywood's Golden Age weren't "art" until they were 20 years old or more. Perspective! The first wave of directors who were actually taught "film is art" in film schools were notorious for how they revolutionized the art and changed the industry, when they came into their own in the 1970s. Surely the 30-year-old gamers born at the dawn of our digital entertainment era, just now fully coming into their careers, can bring some of those changes as well? To say nothing of their children, in another three decades.

  • Gaming has developed an avant-garde. I forget which of my film professors delivered the lecture, but I remember one of them speaking to the point that the film industry needed the 1960s and 1970s to happen. The advent of independent film and the rise of the avant-garde fed ideas back into film-making that created new approaches, and diversified ways of telling stories. Early film (pre-1920) was mainly all avant-garde in this sense, because the "right" ways hadn't been codified, and the technology was still new. Well, that's where gaming's been: the 1980s were that early, pre-codification period. The 1990s saw the broadening of available home consoles, and the explosion of PC ownership, and created clearly defined gaming genres and acceptable parameters. The early 2000s, with the creation of $60 million AAA titles, raised the bar to entry -- but the networking era (XBox Live, PSN, WiiWare, etc.) has created a distribution venue for smaller, quirkier, independent, or avant-garde games.


And finally, two remaining points: we've seen Avatar and Heavy Rain come out within a few months of each other. The former was a mega-popular film that seemed cribbed directly from gaming, both in content and in technical construction. The latter was a very popular video game that seemed cribbed directly from cinema, both in content and in aesthetic. Like it or not, the two fields are merging.

The last point is the hardest to wrangle, because film students (and presumably students of the other arts) have been discussing it for as long as their programs have existed. Does viewer participation create, enhance, or lessen art? We encourage film students to be active viewers, rather than passive; sometimes, however, we demand they leave their personal baggage at the door. Sometimes, we believe that only the producer has the power of creation, and sometimes we believe that art is contained in what the viewer brings to it.

There's a lot to discuss. That's why there's going to be a whole blog to do it in... Cheers.

12 comments:

  1. I wrote about this a few years ago, with the caveat that I'm as much an ignoramus about the subject as Ebert is.

    I certainly don't want to argue, as Ebert seems to do, that video games are somehow less legitimate of an activity than watching a movie or reading a book. But I still am not convinced they are an art form, even though many of them obviously have artistic components to them. The fact that I am not convinced doesn't mean I am opposed to the idea. I'm just skeptical, and willing to be convinced in the future.

    If video games are art, or are reaching that point, you have to admit that it is unprecedented. Granted, there's a long history of people denigrating art forms that later come to be appreciated, whether they be sitcoms, comic books, or graffiti. But none of those are actual games. There may be limited types of audience participation (for example, laughter from a live audience), but it is hard to think of a major, enduring art form where viewer participation is not just peripheral, but central to how the work is experienced.

    There's no question in my mind that video games are blurring that line. But it seems to me that the more interaction there is, the less emphasis there is on the creator of the work. Instead, the emphasis falls on the player, and the choices he or she makes. While this doesn't take away the chance for a video game to have strong narratives, it does limit it to some extent.

    I went into more detail about how I suspect interaction dilutes the strength of narrative in my blog entry from a few years ago. You can read it if you like.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @ Kylopod:

    If video games are art, or are reaching that point, you have to admit that it is unprecedented. ... but it is hard to think of a major, enduring art form where viewer participation is not just peripheral, but central to how the work is experienced.

    I'll agree, actually. Aside from religious performances / rituals around the world, it *is* hard to think of an art where active viewer participation is central.

    So far we address gaming as an A to B narrative format with an essentially pre-determined ending, the same way we address books and movies. And most gaming fits that mold. But some of it is starting not to -- an old friend of mine has been going on and on about Dwarf Fortress recently, for just that reason.

    You raise an interesting set of points, though. I'll have to address them in other posts. ;) And thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  3. (stalking you from tnc's blog)

    I'll agree, actually. Aside from religious performances / rituals around the world, it *is* hard to think of an art where active viewer participation is central.

    two comments:

    first, i think i take issue with ebert's assertion that things like cathedrals or tribal dances are, in fact, art because they reflect the work of individuals. he says:

    "Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."

    besides the fact that this is a straw-man argument--who ever said that cathedrals and dances weren't largely the vision of individuals?--i think there's a crucial point that ebert misses. art is not art because of its vision alone, but because of its execution as well. you can ask me to play tchaikovsky all you want, but i guarantee that what you'll hear isn't artistic. similarly, the design of a cathedral isn't art--the cathedral itself, constructed, is art. there's no divorcing the vision from the expression of it.

    in that light, the idea that the participation of others in the expression of an creative vision somehow disqualifies the result from being art is, at best, too narrow.

    the reason i bring this up is because, while i agree in some ways with kylopod's assertion that the depth of narrative in a game can be limited by its dependence on some sort of participation by the gamer, i don't think it necessarily limits the game's narrative or artistic potential.


    the second comment i want to make is this, after which i will go take a shower to wash the postmodern off of me:

    the idea of "viewer participation" as somehow derailing to the intent of the creator gets into some complicated questions about art. if a work of art is the expression of some individual creative vision, then only that individual at the moment of the work's creation can see it in its context. after that, even the creator him/herself is viewing, or experiencing, the creation through a perspective that interprets or translates it into a different contextual frame.

    viewer participation, in that sense, is an intrinsic part of every art form. i would argue that every act of viewing art is, in fact, an exchange between the creative work and the viewer.

    this is different, i know, from a player actually being actively involved in shaping the story of a game, but i think that if we get too hung up on the original intent of the creator, we will find ourselves debilitated by an inability to attain objectivity. it might be better to consider the player less like an audience member, and more like the first violinist, though even that analogy is limiting.

    the question that needs to be asked about video games, then, is not whether you can make a work of art that depends on a player's interaction with it, but rather how exactly do you craft a work that takes advantage of that type of variation and individuality in its execution of the artistic vision.

    ReplyDelete
  4. viewer participation, in that sense, is an intrinsic part of every art form. i would argue that every act of viewing art is, in fact, an exchange between the creative work and the viewer.

    This is exactly what I was going to say. All art is interactive, because each viewer, reader, listener has their own individual brain that fires its own individual .... brain... firey... things across its synapses and forms individual thoughts, experiences, and reactions. Moving my fingers across keypads and forming new pathways in my brain are both physical responses. You just can't see one of them.

    Also, I've heard mixed things on the success of Heavy Rain as a game (i.e. people I know have said it's a bit boring). For me, the most traditionally artistic game I've ever played has definitely been Bioshock (and Bioshock 2). But I can list off a whole bunch of games I'd immediately think of as artistic (from Seventh Guest to Fallout 3 to Sonic the Hedgehog) for a variety of reasons I feel firmly capable of defending.

    There's a game that's come out on the iPhone called The Bank Job (or something) that's an interactive movie. It looks absolutely uninteresting to me. Not because I want my games and my movies to stay separate, but because it doesn't look like it's done well. I want more than an interactive movie from a game, I want a gaming experience that is immersive. We've talked about this before.

    Right, so. In conclusion: I conclude!

    ReplyDelete
  5. viewer participation, in that sense, is an intrinsic part of every art form. i would argue that every act of viewing art is, in fact, an exchange between the creative work and the viewer.

    This is exactly what I was going to say. All art is interactive, because each viewer, reader, listener has their own individual brain that fires its own individual .... brain... firey... things across its synapses and forms individual thoughts, experiences, and reactions. Moving my fingers across keypads and forming new pathways in my brain are both physical responses. You just can't see one of them.

    Also, I've heard mixed things on the success of Heavy Rain as a game (i.e. people I know have said it's a bit boring). For me, the most traditionally artistic game I've ever played has definitely been Bioshock (and Bioshock 2). But I can list off a whole bunch of games I'd immediately think of as artistic (from Seventh Guest to Fallout 3 to Sonic the Hedgehog) for a variety of reasons I feel firmly capable of defending.

    There's a game that's come out on the iPhone called The Bank Job (or something) that's an interactive movie. It looks absolutely uninteresting to me. Not because I want my games and my movies to stay separate, but because it doesn't look like it's done well. I want more than an interactive movie from a game, I want a gaming experience that is immersive. We've talked about this before.

    Right, so. In conclusion: I conclude!

    ReplyDelete
  6. (stalking you from tnc's blog)

    I'll agree, actually. Aside from religious performances / rituals around the world, it *is* hard to think of an art where active viewer participation is central.

    two comments:

    first, i think i take issue with ebert's assertion that things like cathedrals or tribal dances are, in fact, art because they reflect the work of individuals. he says:

    "Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."

    besides the fact that this is a straw-man argument--who ever said that cathedrals and dances weren't largely the vision of individuals?--i think there's a crucial point that ebert misses. art is not art because of its vision alone, but because of its execution as well. you can ask me to play tchaikovsky all you want, but i guarantee that what you'll hear isn't artistic. similarly, the design of a cathedral isn't art--the cathedral itself, constructed, is art. there's no divorcing the vision from the expression of it.

    in that light, the idea that the participation of others in the expression of an creative vision somehow disqualifies the result from being art is, at best, too narrow.

    the reason i bring this up is because, while i agree in some ways with kylopod's assertion that the depth of narrative in a game can be limited by its dependence on some sort of participation by the gamer, i don't think it necessarily limits the game's narrative or artistic potential.


    the second comment i want to make is this, after which i will go take a shower to wash the postmodern off of me:

    the idea of "viewer participation" as somehow derailing to the intent of the creator gets into some complicated questions about art. if a work of art is the expression of some individual creative vision, then only that individual at the moment of the work's creation can see it in its context. after that, even the creator him/herself is viewing, or experiencing, the creation through a perspective that interprets or translates it into a different contextual frame.

    viewer participation, in that sense, is an intrinsic part of every art form. i would argue that every act of viewing art is, in fact, an exchange between the creative work and the viewer.

    this is different, i know, from a player actually being actively involved in shaping the story of a game, but i think that if we get too hung up on the original intent of the creator, we will find ourselves debilitated by an inability to attain objectivity. it might be better to consider the player less like an audience member, and more like the first violinist, though even that analogy is limiting.

    the question that needs to be asked about video games, then, is not whether you can make a work of art that depends on a player's interaction with it, but rather how exactly do you craft a work that takes advantage of that type of variation and individuality in its execution of the artistic vision.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @ Kylopod:

    If video games are art, or are reaching that point, you have to admit that it is unprecedented. ... but it is hard to think of a major, enduring art form where viewer participation is not just peripheral, but central to how the work is experienced.

    I'll agree, actually. Aside from religious performances / rituals around the world, it *is* hard to think of an art where active viewer participation is central.

    So far we address gaming as an A to B narrative format with an essentially pre-determined ending, the same way we address books and movies. And most gaming fits that mold. But some of it is starting not to -- an old friend of mine has been going on and on about Dwarf Fortress recently, for just that reason.

    You raise an interesting set of points, though. I'll have to address them in other posts. ;) And thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I wrote about this a few years ago, with the caveat that I'm as much an ignoramus about the subject as Ebert is.

    I certainly don't want to argue, as Ebert seems to do, that video games are somehow less legitimate of an activity than watching a movie or reading a book. But I still am not convinced they are an art form, even though many of them obviously have artistic components to them. The fact that I am not convinced doesn't mean I am opposed to the idea. I'm just skeptical, and willing to be convinced in the future.

    If video games are art, or are reaching that point, you have to admit that it is unprecedented. Granted, there's a long history of people denigrating art forms that later come to be appreciated, whether they be sitcoms, comic books, or graffiti. But none of those are actual games. There may be limited types of audience participation (for example, laughter from a live audience), but it is hard to think of a major, enduring art form where viewer participation is not just peripheral, but central to how the work is experienced.

    There's no question in my mind that video games are blurring that line. But it seems to me that the more interaction there is, the less emphasis there is on the creator of the work. Instead, the emphasis falls on the player, and the choices he or she makes. While this doesn't take away the chance for a video game to have strong narratives, it does limit it to some extent.

    I went into more detail about how I suspect interaction dilutes the strength of narrative in my blog entry from a few years ago. You can read it if you like.

    ReplyDelete
  9. (stalking you from tnc's blog)

    I'll agree, actually. Aside from religious performances / rituals around the world, it *is* hard to think of an art where active viewer participation is central.

    two comments:

    first, i think i take issue with ebert's assertion that things like cathedrals or tribal dances are, in fact, art because they reflect the work of individuals. he says:

    "Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."

    besides the fact that this is a straw-man argument--who ever said that cathedrals and dances weren't largely the vision of individuals?--i think there's a crucial point that ebert misses. art is not art because of its vision alone, but because of its execution as well. you can ask me to play tchaikovsky all you want, but i guarantee that what you'll hear isn't artistic. similarly, the design of a cathedral isn't art--the cathedral itself, constructed, is art. there's no divorcing the vision from the expression of it.

    in that light, the idea that the participation of others in the expression of an creative vision somehow disqualifies the result from being art is, at best, too narrow.

    the reason i bring this up is because, while i agree in some ways with kylopod's assertion that the depth of narrative in a game can be limited by its dependence on some sort of participation by the gamer, i don't think it necessarily limits the game's narrative or artistic potential.


    the second comment i want to make is this, after which i will go take a shower to wash the postmodern off of me:

    the idea of "viewer participation" as somehow derailing to the intent of the creator gets into some complicated questions about art. if a work of art is the expression of some individual creative vision, then only that individual at the moment of the work's creation can see it in its context. after that, even the creator him/herself is viewing, or experiencing, the creation through a perspective that interprets or translates it into a different contextual frame.

    viewer participation, in that sense, is an intrinsic part of every art form. i would argue that every act of viewing art is, in fact, an exchange between the creative work and the viewer.

    this is different, i know, from a player actually being actively involved in shaping the story of a game, but i think that if we get too hung up on the original intent of the creator, we will find ourselves debilitated by an inability to attain objectivity. it might be better to consider the player less like an audience member, and more like the first violinist, though even that analogy is limiting.

    the question that needs to be asked about video games, then, is not whether you can make a work of art that depends on a player's interaction with it, but rather how exactly do you craft a work that takes advantage of that type of variation and individuality in its execution of the artistic vision.

    ReplyDelete
  10. viewer participation, in that sense, is an intrinsic part of every art form. i would argue that every act of viewing art is, in fact, an exchange between the creative work and the viewer.

    This is exactly what I was going to say. All art is interactive, because each viewer, reader, listener has their own individual brain that fires its own individual .... brain... firey... things across its synapses and forms individual thoughts, experiences, and reactions. Moving my fingers across keypads and forming new pathways in my brain are both physical responses. You just can't see one of them.

    Also, I've heard mixed things on the success of Heavy Rain as a game (i.e. people I know have said it's a bit boring). For me, the most traditionally artistic game I've ever played has definitely been Bioshock (and Bioshock 2). But I can list off a whole bunch of games I'd immediately think of as artistic (from Seventh Guest to Fallout 3 to Sonic the Hedgehog) for a variety of reasons I feel firmly capable of defending.

    There's a game that's come out on the iPhone called The Bank Job (or something) that's an interactive movie. It looks absolutely uninteresting to me. Not because I want my games and my movies to stay separate, but because it doesn't look like it's done well. I want more than an interactive movie from a game, I want a gaming experience that is immersive. We've talked about this before.

    Right, so. In conclusion: I conclude!

    ReplyDelete
  11. @ Kylopod:

    If video games are art, or are reaching that point, you have to admit that it is unprecedented. ... but it is hard to think of a major, enduring art form where viewer participation is not just peripheral, but central to how the work is experienced.

    I'll agree, actually. Aside from religious performances / rituals around the world, it *is* hard to think of an art where active viewer participation is central.

    So far we address gaming as an A to B narrative format with an essentially pre-determined ending, the same way we address books and movies. And most gaming fits that mold. But some of it is starting not to -- an old friend of mine has been going on and on about Dwarf Fortress recently, for just that reason.

    You raise an interesting set of points, though. I'll have to address them in other posts. ;) And thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I wrote about this a few years ago, with the caveat that I'm as much an ignoramus about the subject as Ebert is.

    I certainly don't want to argue, as Ebert seems to do, that video games are somehow less legitimate of an activity than watching a movie or reading a book. But I still am not convinced they are an art form, even though many of them obviously have artistic components to them. The fact that I am not convinced doesn't mean I am opposed to the idea. I'm just skeptical, and willing to be convinced in the future.

    If video games are art, or are reaching that point, you have to admit that it is unprecedented. Granted, there's a long history of people denigrating art forms that later come to be appreciated, whether they be sitcoms, comic books, or graffiti. But none of those are actual games. There may be limited types of audience participation (for example, laughter from a live audience), but it is hard to think of a major, enduring art form where viewer participation is not just peripheral, but central to how the work is experienced.

    There's no question in my mind that video games are blurring that line. But it seems to me that the more interaction there is, the less emphasis there is on the creator of the work. Instead, the emphasis falls on the player, and the choices he or she makes. While this doesn't take away the chance for a video game to have strong narratives, it does limit it to some extent.

    I went into more detail about how I suspect interaction dilutes the strength of narrative in my blog entry from a few years ago. You can read it if you like.

    ReplyDelete