Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Video Games are Art

“One obvious difference between Art and Games is that you can win a Game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive Game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a Game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” – Roger Ebert Video Games can never be Art

Roger Ebert is correct. Games are not Art. Roger succinctly defines a Game as containing “rules, points, objectives and an outcome”. They are competitive matches and exist purely for sport. They are entertainment and at times may approach Art as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Walter Payton and other amazing athletes have demonstrated over the years. Some of their acts and the near perfection they achieve can be viewed as “Artistic”, they contain grace, power, evoke emotion, but they do not possess the carnal awe and wonderment Art does for taken out of the competitive context they lose their sense of perfection and feel void of emotion.

“A Game is a structured activity, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from Art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas.” – Wikipedia

By Wikipedia’s definition, for a Video Game to approach Art it must be more concerned with the expression of ideas than a structured activity undertaken for enjoyment. This is the failing of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and many Video Games comprised of a simple series of rules and score. But what of the Video Games that keep no score and have more ideas than rules?

ThatGamecompany’s Flower expresses the value of balance between society and nature. Throughout the experience, the player is not challenged to win, but to comprehend the relationship. The visual narrative that unfolds from city to rural is "an interactive poem exploring the tension between urban and nature". Flower is not a Game, but it is a Video Game.

Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 contains the level “No Russian”, the player must take on the role of a Secret Agent embedded in a terrorist organization. Inside of a Russian airport the player witnesses and can participate in the terrorist act of mowing down defenseless civilians with automatic rifles. The level is trivial in difficulty; the player is not challenged to win, but to think about the moral ambiguity of the scene and possibly their actions. “No Russian” is not a Game, but it is a Video Game.

Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain” is an interactive cinematic experience, it is a movie, it is a Game, it is a challenge to the player’s morality. Skill with a controller can determine an outcome to one situation, a structured activity; morality the outcome of the next, an expression of ideas. It is this seamless integration of Game and Art that truly defines Video Games and presents us with one of the first titles that can truly be considered Art. Previously the connection between Game and Art in Video Games has been limited to the Art being trapped behind a series of Game challenges. Overcome the challenges, be rewarded with the cinematic Art. Heavy Rain allows the player to interpret and shape the Art based on their dexterity and moral principles. Each and every outcome is handcrafted Art, the player stitches together a plot tailored to their existence. Much like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Heavy Rain uses meticulous craftsmanship to capture emotion and instills that in the player. And like every viewer of Seurat, every player leaves with a different understanding based on their own interpretation, judgment and being.

By Roger’s definition, Games are not Art and Video Games are not Games. Much like some films are not Art, some Video Games are just Games, but few through

“the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions” – Wikipedia

Challenge the player as human beings to question themselves, their values, the meaning of everything around them and to find beauty in the arrangement of audio and video assets. I have found that beauty, I have experienced Art in Video Games.

1 comment:

  1. I have read Mr. Ebert's articles, both the current one and the original. At best I find his comments irrelevant. At worst, I find them inflammatory and petty.

    I am not what would be considered a traditionally "artistic" person. I am a computer programmer. I derive pleasure from logic. I find a sense of wonder in math. I enjoy forcing myself to change my frame of reference by constantly learning new concepts or experimenting with puzzles and seemingly insurmountable logical problems. I am constantly seeking refinement by redesigning and re-engineering. I am not "artsy".

    I have nothing against "artistic" people. If you are moved to tears because of a painting or a movie, good for you. If you find a poem or a sculpture has the power to completely and utterly change your outlook on life, good luck with that. If you are completely and utterly changed as a person because of a picture or a dance, I say rock on.

    What Mr. Ebert seems to have forgotten is that I don't care. Mr. Ebert may find the cave paintings in southern France a miracle of stone and charcoal, which is wonderful for him, but I don't care. Monet and Rembrandt may make some people weep as they fall asleep each and every day, and that is great for them, but I don't care. I may find Bioshock a uniquely intriguing game that brings up the very basic philosophical argument about the need for knowledge to be tempered by ethics, but Ebert doesn't care. Nor should he. If the discussion were about what specific pieces of expression counted as art or not, then we can start to care.

    The argument that Mr. Ebert has stated is that video games cannot be art or, more recently, that they will not achieve this lofty goal in our lifetime. This quickly degrades into a debate on specific video games versus specific movies. This mode of argument misses the mark. The hypothesis is that video games cannot be art, that something about this mode of expression can never be as powerful as other forms of expression. This is the fundamental flaw of the argument. Mr. Ebert has forgotten that I don't give a damn about how he feels reading Gone With The Wind or watching The Godfather. These are only individual examples of what can be achieved by a medium. What matters is the fact that these mediums are expressive and that we, as humans, can look beyond the surface of something and find a greater meaning. The same mediums that can be used to express War and Peace, Starry Night, and Pi can be used to explain thermodynamics, provide directions on the construction of a children's toy, and document the mating habits of mollusks. No matter how many examples of the wondrous are provided, a suitably mundane and asinine counter example can always be given and the merits of any specific example can be challenged without end.

    The very power and expressiveness of a medium is being called into question, and that seems just plain silly. There is no litmus test to determine if a medium can express art. There is no yard stick that allows us to measure the limits of expression in any form of communication, computer generated or otherwise. To presume to know these limits because you fail to find a particular expression compelling enough while simultaneously refusing to explore the expression is the same as discounting the natural world's ability to produce strange plants and animals because you don't find your lawn very interesting. This argument proves nothing besides the fact that you are either refusing to look or have not had the opportunity to look.