Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Video Games Are Not Art

Roger Ebert has a fine piece on the subject, part retraction, part withholding of judgment. I think he is right, but does not give good reasons. Partly, he still speaks with the same grammar of 'experience' that the proponents of video games employ. Partly, as he makes abundantly clear, he probably does not care to think the subject through completely at his age; a true critic, he knows intuitively what is art, and does not really see the need to explain it. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

I. The pleasure of games is libidinous, erotic: games function because of our desire to win and to have more. The pleasure we derive from the things normally considered art (music, drama, sculpture, poetry, etc.) is not derived from desire; we desire the pleasure, but the pleasure itself does not lie in the desiring. The basic aesthetic parameter of a game is determined by our desire to win it, or, in the case of something like World of Warcraft, to possess more and more of it. It is very plainly an erotic aesthetic; the pleasure derives from the state of desire, and often diminishes when there is no more to desire: hence the complaint with games that are too short. Yet the pleasure we derive from art is pleasure in the presence of the beautiful. When Mozart gives us a development section like that in the 40th Symphony’s first movement, it functions for the audience (those experiencing it) because they are able to hear the beauty of it; a person with no taste, but definition, will get nothing from Mozart. A game of Halo, on the other hand, functions well when the players (those experiencing it) want to win; if they aren’t trying to win, it becomes a joke. In fact, when players aren’t playing to win, the effect can often be similar to that of absurdist and avant-garde art, in which the artist is not trying to be beautiful. The pleasure we take from games is more like the pleasure we take in debating politics or being hopelessly in love than it is like the pleasure we take in a painting of Titian’s or a play by Shakespeare. One should also note that this erotic pleasure is also the principle artlessness of many contemporary manifestations of the traditional arts, such as mystery novels (or any “page-turner”). Catharsis is not unrelated to consummation, and anything, mystery novel, game, or unrequited love, whose pleasure derives from a sustained desire and diminishes with the attainment of that desire, is something of an altogether different sort than tragedy or marriage, in which the pleasure derives from consummation, achievement, and wholeness.

II. The presence of other arts in the game does not make the game art. Because a game like Grand Theft Auto contains a narrative which some find appealing, or because any number of games present the eye with striking images, does not make the games art. Take, for example, an edition of Paradise Lost with the Gustave Dore illustrations. We would say the book Paradise Lost is a work of art, and we would say the illustrations by Dore are works of art (and that their whole, as a set of illustrations, is a work of art), we would say that the edition of Milton was a fine book. But we would not call Paradise Lost a fine book because it contained (in this instance) illustrations by Gustave Dore. We would probably rather have a Paradise Lost with Gustave Dore illustrations than the standard Penguin paperback—but then again, we would sometimes derive greater pleasure form Milton by having the notes in the Penguin than the illustrations of Dore. Likewise, one enjoys chess when played with plastic pieces, but more when played with fine ivory pieces; yet chess is not a good game because of the fine ivory pieces.

III. Games believe in free will, art believes in fate. This is perhaps the only really good point Ebert makes, that there is something about the inevitability of art that gives it its power. This is of course related to the types of pleasures they give us, as discussed above, but it is also the key element in their ability to teach about life. A game has great difficulty teaching about life because there is no stability to it. If I set out to teach that 2+2=4, but it turns out than my students can learn just as easily from my lesson that 2+4=2, they will learn very little math. Now a game may teach practical lessons (a math game for children, for example, would not let you go on to the next level without showing that you know that 2+2=4 and not 2+4=2) but they cannot teach moral, spiritual, or philosophical lessons, because games teach on the basis of “this works,” not on the basis of “this is fitting.” I may learn some military strategy through playing Starcraft, but I would not learn how to inspire loyalty in my soldiers, or for that matter how to take prisoners or treat them in a civilized manner, although these things are just as important, if not more important, to the proper and fitting conduct of war. Yet if I read the Iliad or the Aeneid I will learn about all these things. I can also learn form them how to lose my wife or husband; can something that teaches you how to win possibly offer anything like the ghost of Creusa or Hector and Andromache upon the walls of Troy?

IV. Video Games do not establish the identity of a cultural elite. Before Romantic theorists of art (and their Renaissance predecessors), things like painting and sculpture, music, and poetry were not generally grouped together. Painting and sculpture were the realm of artisans, music was a branch of mathematics, and poetry was merely a special form of writing. All of these, however, were joined together in their functions of expressing the beautiful and in establishing both elite culture and the elevation of that elite over the rest of the populace. The way people speak and the sorts of things they read is still a good indication of class, and literature is an implementation of this. Likewise think of common people attending High Mass in a Gothic Cathedral, circa, let us say, 1450. The beauty of the architecture, stained-glass windows, paintings and sculptures all around them, as well as the singing of the cathedral choir serve to emphasize that they are in the presence of something much more important and powerful than they. Games are inescapably democratic on a number of levels. Most important, however, is the fact that the enjoyment of a game depends on equality. Games are unfair and unenjoyable if one player simply much better than all the others, and single-player games which are either too easy or too hard are equally bad games. Games (and this of course applies beyond videogames) employ handicaps and difficulty levels to enable players of different skill levels to compete together enjoyably. The relation to democratic endeavors such as the welfare state and affirmative action is almost too obvious; capitalism is, after all, a wagering game. There is no sense in which the people attending that High Mass needed to be balanced equally before they could enjoy the beauty of the music and the architecture; some would get much more than others, many would get nothing at all, but all would be experiencing the art. The fact that an ignorant peasant cannot understand the Latin, or really get the symbolism of the cathedral’s architectural design would not prevent the educated man from taking his pleasure in those things. But if we sit down to play Madden Football and you beat me 72-0, I doubt either one of us will take much pleasure. Likewise, an educated man’s ability to enjoy art sets him apart and above the vulgar and tasteless masses, but a pimpled teenager’s superior skill at Video Games rather notoriously gets him nowhere in life.


Jesse said...

III - Some games do believe in free will, namely sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, but many more do not. Some games give you a lot of free will, like Mass Effect, where you can tackle the missions and objectives in any order you like, and even neglect some. Others, like Mario, give you almost no freedom - you can chose when to jump and whether to walk forward or backward, but your freedom is an illusion, taking you along a set path. Now, even that small amount of freedom might be too much for you, but a well written dialogue is the same, it gives the illusion that the reader is able to see every counter argument and even feel that he is able to have his objections disproven. That still is not the same, but it is similar. Ultimately, if you reject even the free-will of a platformer (like Mario or Braid), then I will concede this point (since free-will is part of no other art).

However, I will remind you that the Iliad and Aeneid do not teach military leadership. Plato clearly tells us this in The Republic. And though he may be wrong saying that poetry is useless, he is correct in saying that it does not teach actually teach practical skills.

IV - I would agree that as a whole, video games do not establish a cultural elite. But no artform does entirely. You say "Likewise, an educated man’s ability to enjoy art sets him apart and above the vulgar and tasteless masses, but a pimpled teenager’s superior skill at Video Games rather notoriously gets him nowhere in life." Did the vulgar masses not enjoy Mozart, Wagner, or Mahler? Did the proletariate of Moscow not enjoy operas and ballets and theatre in the 1930s? Now, certainly, they enjoyed it on a different level than the cultural elite, but all groups can enjoy them. What you should be saying is that how they are enjoyed is different. And, I doubt that Will Coon and I enjoyed Braid on the same level as Soulja Boy, who was mezmerized by the sound effects and ability to reverse time while drunk and/or high.

My overarching objection - Throughout your blog post, most of the games you pick out would not be considered art by most. Few, if any, would consider Madden, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, or Halo to be art. Personally, I would not consider GTA to be art either. It seems like you are conflating the argument "Video games can be art" with "All video games are art." It is just as assinine to say that all video games are art as it is to say that all of anything is art. My objection is to your saying that it is impossible for any video game to be art. I hope you'll reply to my attacks against your argument.


Jesse said...

I will level my attacks on your statements in as orderly a fashion as humanly possible.

Opening remarks - At what point did Roger Ebert become a true critic? Not only am I asking this question overall, but also with regards to when in his career of being a critic did he become able to intuitively identify art? When the Graduate came out, Ebert loved it, now he realizes that it is vastly overrated and not at all much of a film. Is he correct in both cases - that it was art only during a certain time, and that its quality as "art" has diminished? The reason I bring this up, is merely to point out his inability to accurately intuite art.

I - The pleasure of some games is what you say - an "erotic" pleasure. However, all games are not. World of Warcraft might be, and any competitive gaming might be, but when I play The Legend of Zelda or a Final Fantasy game, I have little to no desire to horde resources or to "win," but to complete the story. Now, it would be a lie to say that I do not derive pleasure out of completing each part of the game, but I'm not sure that that does not make it art. I derive pleasure from each of Petrarch's witicisms that is not philosophical, but almost comical while reading his Letters or Invectives, but it remains artistic, despite also, at times throughout, descending to baser pleasures.

II - The way you talk about how Dore's illustrations with Milton's poem is accurate, they are art separately. However, this is not an apt analogy - Milton's poems existed without the illustrations, they are a completely separate creation, the two were created and have always existed separate. A more apt analogy would be to cinema - can you separate the script of a film, the sounds of a film, and the images of a film and say that each is art? Of course not, and the same is the case for a video game - you cannot separate the narrative or images from the entire experience. It is a unified whole that cannot be separated.

Charles Augustine Rivera said...


I suppose I may admit my statement about Roger Ebert's status as a critic might perhaps be hyperbole; he is certainly not a critic of the same caliber as Johnson or Adorno. My point was that he acted here confidently on his intuition, and thus truly played the of the connoisseur, the critic.

As to your objections to my main points, I respond thusly:

I. I was perhaps not clear enough on precisely what I meant by a 'libidinous' or 'erotic' pleasure. I do not mean a sexual pleasure, of course, or even necessarily a base pleasure; the place of true eros in Plato's philosophy, for example, is not that of a base emotion, since it does have the beautiful for its object. My point is also first of all one of taxonomy, not of judgment (the judgment is only secondary), and from the perspective of taxonomy, it ought to weigh heavily that the pleasure we derive from games is of a very different sort than the pleasure we derive from 'the arts.' By labeling the pleasure of games an 'erotic' or 'libidinous' pleasure I meant only this, that the pleasure derives from desiring to have something. Your example of Zelda or Final Fantasy evinces precisely this sort of pleasure, the desire to get through to the end of the story, to find out what happens; games of that sort are perhaps in this way closer to a mystery novel than a game of chess, but they nonetheless are very much examples of an 'erotic' or 'libidinous' pleasure, that is, a pleasure based in desire. The pleasure of the arts, on the other hand, is a pleasure that enjoys the possession of something or the presence of it, the sort of pleasure you have aptly identified in the reading of Petrarch.

II. The case of cinema is certainly more complicated than the case of an illustrated Milton, but the same principle holds. However, it should be noted that we find a film deficient, for example, if it is 'all visuals,' or if it is too obviously a 'filmed play.' There are elements of a great many of the arts in film, but it also possesses elements unique to itself, most notably montage, editing. Editing, by which I mean the effect of varying and combining images and sound, gives us a pleasure of possession, just as the traditional 'arts' do; our pleasure does not derive from wanting to possess some later scene in the film, but from the way the current scene is accomplished. More to the point, however, although different arts are present in cinema, they are utilized in the form of the peculiarly cinematic, just as the design of a set, though it may itself be art or architecture, is utilized in the form of the peculiarly theatrical. In video games (or board games) we might say the same thing, but the animations of a video game are utilized in the form of a game's peculiar aesthetics, which, as I have show above, are founded upon desire and not possession, and are thus dissimilar from the arts. Take the example of a chair (perhaps Mr. Potter's chair in It's a Wonderful Life) which has animal carvings on it. Does the chair cease to become a piece of furniture and become a work of art because of these ornaments. No, because they are elements which, utilized in another way, set in another context, might be art, but which, carved onto a chair are ornaments to the function of a chair and not the function of an art.

Charles Augustine Rivera said...

III. I would indeed reject even the minimal free will of something like Mario, because there is still the possibility, even the certainty, that it will be different every time. Unless you possess a defective copy, whenever you read 'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,' the sonnet will consist of the same words in the same order. Now, the objection might be that, just as you may pronounce the words of the sonnet differently each time, so you may play games differently each time. However, the difference is this. If, as Mario, I decide to fall into the hole instead of jumping over it, the game comes to an abrupt halt; if, on the other hand, I decide to pronounce 'When to' as a definite trochee, the poem goes on just the same as if I pronounced it as a slightly forced iamb. If, by reading line 2 a certain way, I could cause a heretofore unseen couplet to appear between lines 8 and 9, the sonnet would be like a game (it would also cease to be a sonnet).

I will confess that asserting that either Starcraft or Homeric epic has much to teach us about conducting warfare is a bit of a stretch. The point is that, whatever little bits they do teach us, the game teaches nothing about the character of a general, only about his actions, while the poems can teach about character and actions.

IV. I think my own remarks on this point are probably a little confused. On the one hand, my point is that the social function of the arts to promote cultural elites is not a function that video games perform. My other point, which is perhaps less related than it first appeared to me, is that games require parity among the players to be best enjoyed, while an ignorant proletarian and a musician might both have attended your Soviet ballet without the proletarian particularly affecting the musician's pleasure. Also, the middle part of this century seems to me a special case in the history of the arts when it comes to the masses and high art. As to Mozart, Wagner, and Mahler, I am relatively certain that the masses did not, in fact, enjoy them. The well-to-do and the aristocracy, yes, but the masses, no. Someone working most of their waking hours in a Viennese factory would not have been going out to hear a Mahler symphony, or an opera he conducted.

I will admit my exposure to more 'artistic' games may be limited, but I have certainly played good games. Mario 64, for example, is very pleasant and elegantly put together, a fine game--but it is not art. It is something I would enjoy expending leisure on, but it is not art. And I think it is fair to speak of all of a certain thing being art. For example, the music of Ives is art, even if it is perhaps the worst sort of art one could make. Likewise something like Braid might be a great game, but that does not make it art, anymore than Bismarck's diplomatic efforts should be considered art because they were great statesmanship.

Jesse said...

III - I do not think that your analysis of free will is completely correct. Yes, you can fall down the hole in a Mario game and then there will be an abrupt halt where a better gamer might not encounter the same halt. But by the same token, I occasionally mispronounce a line of Milton, go back, and reread it correctly. That is, in essence, what you do when playing a Mario game - you make a mistake, go back, and instantly correct it. But a more apt comparison might be to a play or opera. Every staging of the opera, just like every play-through of a game, will be different - but only in a slight way, and certainly not in a way that makes each performance not art. By the same token, I can play a game twice, and the game will progress in a different manner, but only in a slight and insignificant way that does not effect the overall experience of the game.

IV - I was wrong with my statements about the proletariat and Mozart, Wagner, and Mahler. I should have said bourgeoisie, but the point remains the same, a late nineteenth century capitalist might have been the cultural elite (due to his dominance over cultural), but was not the same intellectual that I think you had in mind, and I doubt that most appreciated what they heard on the same level that you or I might. But on to your point of parity - as I said, I do not think that parity is required. Soulja Boy can get drunk and play a game for the sake of sound effects and the ability to laugh at the characters' outfit, while I can play it for a much different experience - but we can both enjoy it. (The reason I mention Soulja Boy again is because he has a YouTube video of himself playing Braid where he acts like a complete ass and essentially says that his enjoyment of the game is limited to the main character's outfit and the sound effects of the game). If that is not an indication that different people can enjoy a game on different levels, the same way the Moscow worker likes the pretty sounds and ballerinas and the artist enjoys the aesthetics of the entire ballet, then I do not know what else is.

It's fair enough that your exposure is limited at best, but my point was more that you were picking out some of the worst possible games (though ones that supported you points well). However, I do not think that you can talk of all of a certain thing being art. I think that painting can be art, but I refuse to admit that Cy Twombly's creations are art. Moreover, I think if you include things like certain instillations (a form of sculpture?) or modern and post-modern painting in the category of art, then I think you would be hard pressed to say that video games are not, especially since they break some of the rules you have listed here as what stops video games from being art.

(This might be a double, if it is, I apologize)

Jesse said...


I must confess that my attack on Ebert was only an attack on him, not on your point on the critic as a whole, and we can leave that there. Now, on to the meat of it.

I - I do not think that just because a thing has these libidinous pleasures that are similar to a mystery novel does not mean that it cannot be art. If that is the only pleasure that the work is delivering, then yes, I would agree with you. But while one is watching Citizen Kane, they feel this desire. Not to find out what Rosebud is, but to continually find out more about Kane, to know why he did what he did and how he ended the way he did. But does this mean that Citizen Kane is not an artist movie, just because it uses these libidinous pleasures as a tool to pull the viewer along? Does Socrates not do the same thing as he talks in The Republic - make us want to hear what comes next in his city? Most good works of art have use this libidinous pleasure as a tool to force the reader along, while also imparting philosophical bits of wisdom. The only real difference is that video games are more open about it.

II - I must confess that you somewhat confuse me here. It seems to me, however, that these separate forms of art together are only problematic in that they feed into libidinous pleasures, which I have addressed above. If that is the case, then I suppose I do understand you, and this point can be left alone. But, if I am misunderstanding you, please, try to help me understand.

Jesse said...

This is more of an aside than actually part of this overall debate, but I feel that it bears stating. In point II, you talk about the fact that Milton's epic is art regardless of whether it has Gustave Dore's illustrations, and that the illustrations are art without being accompanied by the verse. At first I agreed, but now, I am not so sure.

Take Schubert's Winterreise, for instance. The piano music and the notes for the vocals are art and the poems of Wilhelm Müller are art, but they are inseperable in the form of Winterreise. I could not listen to a piano and a voice hitting all those notes without the actual words and consider it a complete work - the song cycle is only complete with those words.

And on another level, what are we to do with opera? Is the libretto art without the music and vice versa? In most cases they were written separately and in most cases the music can stand alone. However, would a staging of Don Giovanni without Mozart's music, with only Lorenzo Da Ponte's words, be at all satisfying? Not at all. (Granted, this is more extreme and far-fetched than the Schubert/Müller example, but I think it bears some thought.)

And as such, I do not think that this principle, which might hold for Dore and Milton, is a universal one.

Will said...

I'd like to step in, if I may.
Your first three points are not current - they do not reflect the reality of the "art game" as it exists. There is, in fact, a notable movement to subvert what you call the "erotic" aspect of gaming (some 'game-makers' even reject the label of 'game' entirely), as well as to teach or explore concepts that go beyond task competence. The teaching ability of such games is even enhanced by the organic feedback they can provide, and need not lose 'stability' for it.
As for the fourth point, if I understand it properly, it seems to be an indictment of our society and the role of art in general.
While the 'art game' is certainly not meant to appeal to a wide audience, it does not tap in to an existing artistic elite. Within the context of this age and this medium, what it does is to be expected - it exists for the artists and their sympathizers, for now.