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Wednesday
Jan262011

In All the Wrong Places: A Response to n+1

Last year, n+1 took a look at the entirety of video games and appeared to conclude that while games were indeed something, they were probably not art. Tom Bissell wrote a letter in response that the magazine ran on its website, but that was as far as things got. This was a little surprising to me, since as snooty as n+1 appeared to be, especially in their first few paragraphs, the article did represent the most serious challenge to games-as-art of which I am aware, at least that is Internet-linkable and written by someone who has actually played at least one game.

Of course, everyone reading this probably knows that in the past I’ve said what I think of this whole “debate” in a flip way. And while I believe that initial response still applies, I’ve come to believe I might as well get serious about the topic, too. I couldn’t help but continue to mull it over as I continued to develop, play and think about games, and (as I recently stated) if I’m thinking about something I may as well be writing about it, too. So while I may or may not get into a real theory of games-as-art and what that means later, right now I just want to respond to n+1.

* * *

The article, “Cave Painting,” begins by noting that video games “are the latest cultural form to benefit from the collapse of the old and now embarrassing categories of high-, low-, and middlebrow.” It’s barely the second paragraph and we encounter a sentence that feels like a coded way to re-confirm that games are, indeed, lowbrow. This is qualified by saying the old “brow” system has collapsed, yet it’s obviously still being wielded in this article. (I could aside here by saying that video games are indeed for the most part still very lowbrow– still, any serious investigation that feels the need to reconfirm lowbrow-ness at the very beginning of the examination indicates to me that the verdict has been rendered long before the trial ever took place.)

“A next level of respectability,” they continue, “required infiltrating academia.” Note where the n+1 editors place the action: it is video games that have the agency here, hungering after relevancy, actively “infiltrating” academia, as opposed to the other way to look at it– that academics study the world around them, of which video games are a growing portion. The second sentence, “The easiest way was to go through the perpetually crisis-ridden, terminally confused literature departments” implies a kind of desperation on the part of schools of letters, that only “crisis-ridden” and “terminally confused” departments would even think to study games, and even then only because it was “the easiest” way for video games to crash the party.

The same paragraph notes that the New York Times reviews video games now. But how strange– even with our New York Times coverage and our half-dozen scholarly books, “a certain outsider sense of grievance […] still prevails among gamers,” they say, which is true and is an unhealthy attitude that we should abandon. Go figure, though: the n+1 editors have just spent the first few paragraphs of their article very clearly looking down upon games, then they say it seems like the game people feel as though they are still looked down upon. I wonder why.

* * *

Soon we come to the first real and most important problem that n+1 editors raise with games as art: that “beauty and goal-oriented participation work against one another.” As the article has it, “the beauty of an image within a story depends on its place within an irreversible narrative.” This is a point that seems to come up often in skeptical thought on games as a form of art (it is more or less same one that a certain populist movie critic with no direct knowledge of games raised when he said that “interactivity” was what prevented games from moving “beyond craftsmanship”). 

I have no schooling in formal aesthetics (at least that I can remember), but I feel okay with accepting that “the beauty of an image within a story depends on its place within an irreversible narrative”. However, how this applies or is even relevant to games escapes me. First of all, while the beauty of an image within a story may indeed depend upon its irreversibility, why is that the only kind of beauty that games can be allowed to produce in order to gain the status of art? In other words, why are games being evaluated upon their ability to create “the beauty of an image within a story” and not beauty qua beauty? Some theorists argue that games in their purest form have no story at all, so how they might be usefully evaluated with the tools of the narrative in that case is very much unclear to me.

We proceed to a concrete example:

“…toward the end of Lolita, Humbert Humbert hears the cries of children playing (non-video) games outdoors. A nice sound no matter what, some would say. But the beauty is changed if you find yourself thinking, as Humbert does, ‘The hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.’ The contemporary video game, no matter how technologically perfect, has no capacity for the beauty that comes from the unrebootable.”

The argument, therefore, is that games break linear narrative (and are therefore not tragedy, and are therefore not art) because you can “reboot” them: you can try again until you get it right, go back to previous saves, take back a move. You can cheat such that no hardship ever stands in the protagonist’s way. And there can be no tragedy if you can reset the timeline and change the canonical version of what has happened.

Let’s think about this for a second. Consider the relationship between events in a fictional world and events as they occur to us in real life. Things that have occurred in games have already happened to us, even if we go back to a save and “fix” the problem in the game. Doing this may reset the timeline in the game, but in no way resets our human experience of the game because we can remember vividly (as n+1 does) those strategic missteps, the moment those carefully wrought defenses buckled and collapsed. Any time travel inside a fiction eventually comes up against the fact that our world is the one with the truly irreversible timeline.

In fact, sometimes the outcomes we try our best to escape are more memorable and more meaningful than the happy endings we eventually reached. A character that we liked who died a horrible death because of a failure on our own part can sting in a different but potentially equal way to the death of a character in a novel. In the novel we already know there was no other choice in the single narrative; in the game we chide ourselves and say “what could we have done differently?” And in rewinding time to save the character we find that his or her death still exists– only outside of the conventional narrative, like a fevered nightmare from which we are relieved to awaken.

Such alternate, imagined futures are not invalidated by the resetting of the game’s timeline. We know that it happened in some sense. Our reactions and feelings, if strong, linger. And those timelines can be effective even if they are not played out at all: a designer of Planescape: Torment once told me that simply the knowledge that there were other, horrible, tragic possibilities out there in the world of the game was enough to create a certain effect upon players, even if they never actually experienced those possibilities directly. What other medium could so surely create the dread of what could have come to pass?

Finally, note the qualification in our example: that the real beauty of the passage arises “if [emphasis mine] you find yourself thinking, as Humbert does…” which seems intended to allow for the fact that even linear, novelistic experience is basically subjective. Personally, I extract no particular transcendent beauty from this exact passage. Even if those words were so powerful upon you that you thought to make them an example of something that the entirety of video games was unable to achieve, I would say that much of the judgement comes down to the way you think of that particular passage of Nabokov’s. It is much more likely to be the n+1 editors’ subjective experience of those words that have lent them their power than it is an inherent shortcoming on the part of a wholly different medium.

And, given that these kinds of things are subjective, a refusal to allow for the possibility that a different yet equally compelling kind of aesthetic experience could arise from something that was not linear in nature seems shortsighted. We have an example from Lolita where a certain moment depends upon everything that has come before it in order to work. But that is in no way a proof that demonstrates linearity is a required component to create art. Not having encountered a specimen oneself does not mean that the thing does not exist. As Nassim Taleb likes to say, there was simply no such thing as a black swan until the moment when somebody found one.

* * *

The second problem that n+1 raises is the one of interest, relying on Kant to suggest that some kind of inescapable attention-grabbiness present in games compromise the ability of a mind to appreciate them as work of art. In Kant’s idea, “disinterestedness was the hallmark of aesthetic experience.” And this is a problem because “the experience of playing games is nothing if not interested, the desire to win being almost the definition of an ‘interest.’” Video games thus negate their ability to be judged aesthetically at all because they cannot be evaluated from the distance necessary for critical thought.

I find all of this quite unrelated to reality. Because I seem to possess the apparently unimaginable ability to play a game and not be interested in winning it. I do it all the time in the course of my work– in order to evaluate the progress of my own game, or to to look at how another title implemented a certain technique, or to see what the fuss was about this or that big release. I often play observant only of the game’s mechanics or how it solved certain aesthetic problems or how its technical design dovetails with its creative design.

So while n+1’s editors may have gotten too caught up in winning their samurai-themed strategy game, everyone else does not necessarily respond same way. To state that it is impossible to play a game without being interested in winning it is to overlook a large range of the experiences that games regularly provide to multitudes of people. You can approach a game with detached curiosity. You can play a game and never forget, even for a second, that the game is not real and that you are sitting on your couch in your apartment and are not a minor daimyo in feudal Japan.

A person who plays a video game is not a prisoner in the allegory of the cave, believing unconditionally that the shadows in front of him or her are the truth. Players remain aware on some level that they are in a game, no matter how immersive it is– just as actors when they inhabit their roles find the stage and the theatre fading away but never completely disappearing. Even if some of them do get a little carried away, I feel compelled to point out that people got carried away about high art, too, back in better days when that sort of thing mattered.

To assume that nobody can experience games in a detached way isn’t enough for the editors, however; we must now characterize that lack of detachment in terms of a gross generalization of the entirety of the world’s culture. “The post-’60s culture consumer no longer wants to be a passive spectator or a mere appreciator […] like an insulted gentleman, the public now demands satisfaction from its art. We want to be the ones doing it– whatever it is.”

The very desire to want to be included as an interactive agent of change is implied to be a change, a decay from those bygone days when “the public” was more yielding, content to passively receive art from above. But this inevitable rise of mass participation idea is one of those Big Trend narratives too often perpetuated by the likes of corporations and consultants espousing “the iPod generation” and “the YouTube era” for me to really believe, and it surprises me that these esteemed cultural critics seem to buy into it so readily.

But they go on, ever more hyperbolic: “Behind every gamer’s love of the game lurks a hideous primal scene: watching other children at play.” Jealously, they say– it is our jealousy that drives us to play games, for we rue the idea that True Artists in some made-up past had complete control of their works that audiences gladly prostrated themselves to receive. The desire to meddle, to change, to play with, is the gamer’s Alberich-like negation of the artist as a god-like creator with a cry of “if I can’t have it, I’ll destroy it.”

Isn’t this a bit much? To me, this oversimplified take on cultural history isn’t just trite, it feels genuinely played out. The tidal wave of people who must modify and remix and participate does not seem to have really changed the fundamental model of the long-standing artist-audience relationship, which in reality has always hovered somewhere between the extremes of total singular authorship and total crowd-steered chaos. Perhaps I have simply sat in too many meetings where some executive or other has promised that User-Generated Content (UGC for short) would magically save their balance sheets to be able to take this as some kind of serious movement about which I should honestly be concerned.

* * *

By the way– saying that games are not art because they are too interesting is a bizarre argument no matter how you look at it.

* * *

Related to the concept of interest is the question of who you are when you play a game. n+1 says that “video games encourage you to identify rather than sympathize— That’s me! you say, not I feel for him.” Which, as Bissell noted, is wrongheaded because the ability to inhabit another’s shoes is the very mechanism of sympathy. To see events from another person’s point of view is how we can sympathize with his or her plight even if we are not in that situation ourselves. The hard line between the two phrases, “that’s me,” and “I feel for him” is, in my mind, totally artificial: they are more like different ways of saying the same thing than anything that evinces some vast difference between games and other media.

I will call the ecstasy of games what Tom Bissell described as “a strange sympathetic process for which there is, as of now, no good name,” using the word in the sense of being outside oneself. The ecstasy of games was captured by Bissell when he concluded his chapter on Grand Theft Auto IV in Extra Lives by saying that “Niko and I had been through a lot together.”

Look at this sentence closely, because it is important: Bissell does not identify himself as Niko Bellic, the main character of the game, whom he controlled for hundreds of hours. What he had done was pilot Niko through Niko’s story– a story partly dictated by the writers of the game, and partly improvised and interpreted by Tom Bissell, who was alternately attracted to and repulsed by the things Niko would do. He was inhabiting, role-playing, and authoring all at once. These senses were not split apart from each other and cleaved into dry categories, but stacked on top of each other, mixed up and messed into a stew of compelling experience. As he says in his letter: “when we play video games, we are not in the audience. We are, rather, on stage.”

Indicting games by the emotional response they can or cannot create leads to other problems, too. “I feel for him” is not always some kind of prerequisite for art. It is possible, even common, to feel for a character in a work of medium that is not considered art at all. While browsing the Internet you might happen across an animated .gif of a man taking a hit to the testes and doubling over in pain. What male has not instinctively winced and sucked in the air through his teeth at such a sight? We can feel for this man, we can sympathize with his pain. But that would not seem to affect such an animation’s status in relation to art.

Or take crying: people cry all the time at overly sentimental stories because they feel for the characters in them. Maudlin romances and soppy ballads regularly earn a great volume of tears but no particular admiration from the gatekeepers of art. In other words, the inducement of crying does not equal art, it does not lead to art, and the pursuit of crying in pursuit of art is as misguided as measuring a film by its box-office receipts. “Where’s the game that will make me cry”– a phrase bandied around in the game industry as a shorthand for these kinds of problems– is the wrong question, no matter who asks it.

* * *

Much of the consternation about games and art seems to arise from the application of a critical apparatus from some different medium– literary or filmic– and finding games disqualified to be considered at all. The n+1 editors point out that Kant’s definition of art, when applied to video games, does not seem qualify them. Permit me for a moment to be the crazy guy in the back of the classroom who may or may not be enrolled: would it not be reasonable to assume that Kant was probably not thinking about video games at all when he was writing about the topics of art and aesthetics in the 1780s? And therefore would it not be reasonable to assume that in order to apply the Critiques to the kinds of things we have today may not be as simple as quoting a couple lines here and there and then saying “nope, doesn’t fit”?

Let’s look across the gulf to the other of the Two Cultures for a moment. When astronomers discover a new kind of object in space, we hear about the physicists who must re-write their models in order to explain why it is there. Note that in science, the model is checked against and informed by what is observed to exist. On this shore, however, the approach seems to work backwards: a new kind of thing has appeared which does not fit the current model: therefore, it is not the model that needs revision, but the thing itself that must somehow change or evolve in order to meet some ancient criteria that was once set out to deal with something else but which some of us believe to be related to this new thing in front of us.

Perhaps it is video games’ unique blessing and curse to fall in that crevasse between art and science– bridging them yet found lacking by the extremists of both sides. Ignorance of the concept of scientific rigor must be why n+1 can confidently say things like “there is no game, at least not yet, in which you accomplish the mission only to learn you’ve been torturing an innocent man,” while completely ignoring as major an example as Shadow of the Colossus. It must be a lack of knowledge of games that leads the editors to state “it doesn’t matter how beautiful your city, or character, or civilization is, so long as it dominates,” failing to acknowledge that big and famous games like LittleBigPlanet or Animal Crossing or even the gigantic, many-tentacled The Sims franchise have nothing at all to do with this take on life. “Conquer, overpopulate, overpollute, or the computer will do this to you!” they shout hysterically, oblivious to the plethora of conspicuous counterexamples.

* * *

The n+1 editors begin drawing to their conclusion on a strange note: with a claim that “for the best writers on games, games are not art and don’t need to be”. I would love to have seen at least one or two names listed in that sentence, because I cannot really think of any really good writer on games for whom games are clearly “not art and don’t need to be” (unless they really mean only in that fustily narrow Kantian sense– in which case, sure). I look at my own list of writers that I admire who write about video games, and I think most do believe that games are at least some kind of art.

Even then, regardless of whether they are or they aren’t, the idea that games need to be art, in that imperative sense, is much more important, I think. Video games need to be art in the same way that, for a certain type of aesthetic warrior, everything needs to be art. Because when you really think about it, what other meaningful choice is there?

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Reader Comments (21)

Outstanding article. Simply outstanding. This is probably the most well thought-out piece that I've seen on the "games as art" subject, which I says a lot.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhero

I was going to write something clever, but I think instead I'll just say that this was exceptionally well-reasoned.

On this shore, however, the approach seems to work backwards: a new kind of thing has appeared which does not fit the current model: therefore, it is not the model that needs revision, but the thing itself that must somehow change or evolve in order to meet some ancient criteria that was once set out to deal with something else but which some of us believe to be related to this new thing in front of us."

I'm sure the fine folks at N+1 would agree that this is totally art.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKirk

Count me among the gamers and writers who are unconvinced that video games need to be art. I follow most of the popular game writing on the subject and it generally suffers from n+1's outsider sense of grievance. It is difficult to make a coherent argument when the first several paragraphs of every article on the subject fall in the "you hurt my feelings" genre.

There are other meaningful choices for video games! Leisure and play are both full of meaning.

If we insist that video games are art but chose to ignore the established definitions (i.e. Kant, et al) then we have to clearly articulate why. And that position has to be defensible in a forum other than our own. McCloud's "Understanding Comics" did this for comics, providing the articulation that comic book geeks had known for years.

At this point interactivity seems to be the linchpin to the art argument. And if there is someone out there to articulate how that interactivity *becomes* art it might be Tom Bissel

Best regards,

Shannon

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Barrett

We talk about video games in which "winning" is not a primary concern. Certainly, you've enumerated a lot of other reasons for playing games, but to put it simply: I play games for the experience of playing, not for the satisfaction of winning.

You make an interesting point about Kant talking about art without considering an art form that didn't exist at his time, but considering what I said in the paragraph above, video games don't necessarily fit certain definitions of the word 'game', either. Virtually no-one's arguing whether games are games, though, because we've all agreed that the definition of the word 'game' has expanded to include this type of thing.

It seems a bit strange to apply a definition of 'art' that doesn't fit games, and then conclude that games are not art, but then, equally, to apply a definition of 'game' that doesn't fit video games, and then pretend that it does.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAllan

Good stuff M. Burns! I hadn't seen that n+1 piece before, but reading it just before this, it's pretty obvious minds were made up from the outset. There seemed an unfair amount of cherry-picking and buttressing of some pretty flimsy contentions. Heh, it's almost derogatory at times.

What's interesting is other disciplines have weathered similar criticism. The one I always think of is landscape architecture. Specifically, Frederick Law Olmsted (designed Central Park, Biltmore, the grounds of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, etc.) fought hard with his contemporaries to have landscape architecture recognized alongside (building) architecture and other fine arts. The objection to its artistic merits were strikingly similar to games- because they were only partially crafted and the rest was left to sun, rain and nature, it lacked the aesthetic gravity of works produced wholly by an artist.

Not too dissimilar to saying games aren't art because the presence of a player compromises the work, eh? 120 years later, the same songs are still being sung.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNels Anderson

All I can say is, "Hear, hear!"

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Beckers

Damn you for so completely out writing and -thinking me on this topic, you glorious son of a bitch, you.

January 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bissell

Thank you.

January 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Hannum

I feel it's important here to qualify why games need to be defined as art at all.

The problem as I see it is that there's not enough interest in titles that work on multiple levels for publishers to even consider devoting large budgets to them. This is understandable. Publishers are after all concerned with the business side of things, and it's to be expected that they would follow the audience with regards to most things.

However, if games were to be labelled as 'art', no matter how arbitrarily, then surely more people interested in 'art' would enter into this medium, hence creating this demand, which in turn would surely result in more sophisticated titles being released, with bigger budgets, and more thought put into them.

January 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJon Porter

If we insist that video games are art but chose to ignore the established definitions (i.e. Kant, et al) then we have to clearly articulate why. And that position has to be defensible in a forum other than our own.
~ Shannon Bissel

No! You are using the "you have to play by their rules" logic, which is simply wrong-headed.

All new art forms seem to suffer at the hands of philosophers and similar tastemakers -- the gatekeepers of what is to be deemed important. By saying that an artist must convince these people of how wrong they are, you further enshrine these gatekeepers as the principle power holders.

(Let's leave aside the problem that demanding a painter justify his painting as art is considered rude. Artists are not, by and large philosophers; nevertheless, they can create art without defending it. But let's not dwell on this part of the problem for the moment.)

The bigger issue is that these gatekeepers of "important culture" do not have any obligation to bow to logic, and they do not seem to do so.

It was simply not POSSIBLE for comic artists to out-debate the loud voices of gatekeepers in the 1950s, because nobody would listen. It was certainly attempted before Scott McCloud. Why did they fail? Nobody was willing to listen. It was too easy to make comics a bogeyman, and there was too much value in doing so.

Similarly, at this time, the cultural gatekeepers (the ones game developers care about) simply will not accept that video games are art. We've said our piece already. The rebuttals are nonsensical -- certainly I have yet to read anything even approaching a consistent rebuttal of why games aren't art. We can continue to be right, while the gatekeepers continue to be wrong. Art will continue to be made regardless.

This entire argument is important only because being called "art" by the gatekeepers of "high-brow culture" has real value. That's what this is about. Artists have special privileges and protections -- the sort of things that comic books didn't have for decades, and which hurt them quite a lot, artistically. This is the only reason I concern myself with what 70-year old non-gamers think of games: they have very real power over something they do not understand or appreciate.

But I refuse to accept that it's our fault because we aren't clever enough or articulate enough with our arguments. Video game creators are the victims here. You are crying "stop letting them abuse you" as if to say that it is up to the victim to end abuse. Video game creators are not the ones with the power to change these minds. Demanding that they do so is wrong-headed and abusive in itself.

But video-game creators' arguments are changing minds... just not the ones we want to change. In the end, I guess that is all that matters. The gatekeepers will become old and lose power and the new generation will accept the realities of the thing. Apparently it has always been so. Comics didn't become legitimate because Scott McCloud argued better than anyone else. They did it by persisting, as a cultural keystone with artistic value, for long enough that new philosophers simply could not keep ignoring them.

In the end, I don't think a definition of art has ever had any value -- it's just a tool used by people with power to justify their instincts. One of my professors showed us a pile of dog shit and insisted it was art because of what we read into it. Another insisted comics were not art because... well I don't even want to bother. The point is that no strong definition of art has ever been uniformly applied.

Art is art because the culture accepts it as art; the "gatekeepers" ultimately must just play along, defining things in order to maintain their roles. More than anything else, games are art because the culture says they are. You can change your definition to fit, or you can become obsolete.

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric Heimburg

N+1 used a metaphor that undermined its point: That of the Chinese Gold Farmer. Gold Farmers approach games in an artless manner, using repetition to make a profit. We consider the complexities of the games, distracting ourselves from the graphics, and the sounds, and focusing on the action, and exploration.

Levels of art---lowbrow, middlebrow, highbrow, and highestbrow--are essential to the nature of video games. Art is anything that is produced through a great deal of effort, and which provides, either, an emotional reaction, a message, or the justification for thought, and contemplation. We begin with the low art: Dan Brown, and David Foster Wallace probably spend many hours working on their stories, and, though they are awful writers, that effort makes their work a sort of art. Generic shooters, casual games, rhythm games, and button mashing games fall into this category.

Next, we have the middlebrow: Great works that are well-designed, somewhat complex, occasionally providing messages, but not with the complexity, or subtlety of the highest forms of art. Terry Pratchett, Arthur C. Clarke, and James Patterson are good examples. Here, we have games like Bioshock, Deadly Creatures, Metal Gear, Call of Juarez: Bound in Bound, and many platformers from throughout the history of the medium.

Now, we move on to the highbrow: Not the epitome, but complex, able to spread messages, make its audience think, and sophisticated. Steinbeck, Mary Shelley, and the majority of John Updike's work far into this category. Nintendo's work, most of Capcom's work, Beyond Good and Evil, No More Heroes, Doom can be placed in this category.

Last, we have the apotheosis: Works that explain complex ideas in very subtle ways, forcing the audience to think deeply, and contemplate the subtleties. Crime and Punishment, Ulysses, A Month of Sundays, The Canterbury Tales, the Metamorphosis, and, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare fall into this section. Most of the games that fall here are independent games: Half Quake, I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream, I Fell in Love with the Majesty of Colors, and--by far the best--Passage, which I think belongs in a museum.

"'Obdurate Hater of Rhythm Games,'" you might ask, "why, if the highest level of games is so small; the majority of that level is produced by a few independent developers; and the worst games sell more than most of the others, should I consider games to be art?" This is true of every medium, as the best creators tend to be few, the public loves accessible bullshit as opposed to complex ideas that require thought. Dan Brown sells millions more than any of the higher-level works. Writers mostly work independently, and, bar some publishers' demands, they have very few restrictions on their content. Most programmers work for large corporations that are afraid to take chances, or offend their customers, so their abilities are limited. I suspect that we would see more art if programmers were more free.

I very much disliked the n+1 article. The invocation of Kant is largely annoying and a fustian attempt to give a sense of authority to what is a pretty uniformed argument. If you actually read the Critique of Judgment the account of beauty and sublime are so particular, outmoded, and contradictory, it makes it largely irrelevant for a discussion of art as we now come to understand it. For Kant, beauty is an almost hypothetical condition, and if you take his argument to logical extremes, it becomes impossible for humans to achieve. Frankly the comparison is absurd.
It is a typical logical trick: establish your own (arbitrary) conditions and then criticise something for not living up to them.

I find it ironic that Lolita is used as an argument in favour of Kant, when it decidedly does not fit the criteria for Kantian beauty. In fact, I've seen Nabokov used in critical arguments as an example of Kantian sublime- its practical opposite.

Ask any modern aesthetic philosopher what they think of the question "but is it art?" and wait for them to tell you to go back to the 60s when that question might have been relevant.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Roper

We begin with the low art: Dan Brown, and David Foster Wallace probably spend many hours working on their stories, and, though they are awful writers, that effort makes their work a sort of art....
.......and, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare fall into this section.

-"'Obdurate Hater of Rhythm Games,'"

What????

How on earth do you categorise David Foster Wallace with Dan Brown? I know they once enrolled in the same writing class, but they are complete opposites. Even if you don't particularly care for Wallace, it seems downright insulting to compare what many believe to be the greatest novelist of the 21st century to what many call the worst. Not to mention comparing a writer whose slavish obsession with linguistic perfection drove him to suicide to someone who can't be bothered to correct the numerous grammatical errors in his first page.

And Chaucer above Shakespeare?

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRRoper

Hey Eric - it was a simple typo but let me clarify - my last name is not Bissel. I have no relation to Tom Bissel.

I've linked to an actual response to the article above and it may clarify my possition. But to address a few of your points directly - the only rules I'm supposing gamemakers need to play by is being able to articulate what it is they're doing.

In any sort of debate you cannot just ignore your opponent. You need to understand their case so you can effectively refute it. If you want to challenge preconceived notiions it helps if you at least understand those notions. Knowing your enemy, etc etc.

As you pointed out often gamemakers have little background in philospohy and art history. Music and art critisism is often very helpful in this regard as it is often artists themselves who don't know exactly what it is they're making. Or why they're making it. They know it's art, and they no it's important but they don't have the language to actually articulate. This is where sympathetic critics like Tom Bissel help because they take the meaningful discussion to those gatekeepers. And if you didn't care about what those gatekeepers think you wouldn't write about it.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Barrett

I have not read Immanuel Kant--although I plan to do so after reading some other stories, as his ideas sound interesting--but I know he believed that the inherent morality of an idea could be determined.based on what would occur if the idea were universally accepted. What would happen if either side of the argument was so popular?

Say that the vast majority accepts games as art, rather than mere entertainment. Neophobes view games not as new, scary threats to their stagnant lives, but as parts of an ancient tradition. Games are not rated based on arbitrary ages, as most people are not paranoid about the effects of art on children. Guys who cling to their hatred of games are seen as crude, joyless, unsophisticated idiots who refuse to accept the importance of change. Classic designers like Shigeru Miyamito, Warren Spector, etc. are treated as artistes, and given all the freedom they need to produce great works. Violence declines rapidly, at least if the statistics are consistent. (http://youthviolence.edschool.virginia.edu/violence-in-schools/national-statistics.html, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/hmrt.cfm, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/homage.cfm, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/firearmnonfatalrt.cfm)

Assume that the vast majority feels that games are empty, evil things with no message. Games are offered no protection, because no one considers them to be worthy of rights. Censors quickly destroy them, as the general consensus is that games are dangerous, pointless, and worthless. Every technology that follows is heavily censored, as it is looked upon with the same derision as video games. People, lacking this outlet through which they would normally express their aggressions, act out in reality, and the crime rate surges, consistent with the statistics above this paragraph. Our civil rights, safety, entertainment, and self-ecpression are severely limited.

Thanks, "RRoper" for missing the point of my comment because I disagree with you. I insist that David Foster Wallace's rambling, inane descriptions are horrible writing, and bear no resemblance to anything that would be expected of a good story.

Are video-games not forms of art due to the Kantian view that art is spectator-ship whose distance becomes a rift torn from over 'there' to come 'here' (Hiedeggerian) via sympathy?

If this is the case then can I perhaps conclude crudely that sporting events are performances of art due to the fanatic nature of some fans who give such sympathy to a team or team-member/s on whatever team in whatever sport?

No. why not? Is it not performance? Is there not a sense of sympathy that causes the difference to become a rift and therefore appreciated i.e. sympathized? Yes so what makes sporting events and to a larger extent video-games not art?

Interpretation. This so obvious and deliberately so vague as to being overlooked due to the fear of being over-abused. IMO art is frozen-momentum that is unique and is displayed to an audience that not merely acknowledges it as such but appreciates it as such. Those who dictate this with the most force is the 'Ijma' of the intelligentsia of academia. The intelligentsia can acknowledge video-games as 'art' but unless and until they appreciate it as art it will remain 'art'. The high-brow sets the public standards 'for' not 'of' or even 'to' the rest.

Though because of the interpretive definition that I have set for myself above I view all art as a becoming and a going a living that is both a birthing and a dying. Art remains art as long as it resonates with the beholder it is subjective and the more interpretive a piece or performance of art becomes the stronger its life and the more defensive a need of criticism to convince it is or is not art the more it is loosing its life.

Note I do not view this in terms of 'value' but in terms of 'life' a 'value' is at the time set it may lose 'value' or it main gain value but it is set even when settling such as in the stock-market. Life has many aspects as does monetary value and most lives are viewed as 'worthy' or 'unworthy' due to earnings and the like with this one simple but major difference, uniqueness. this is what separates truly 'living' art from merely 'valuable' art. All 'living' art has value to someone but not all 'valuable' art has 'life', life must be given via appreciation not by mere acknowledgment.


The life of art due to technology's leaps and bounds is becoming shorter and shorter, dimer and dimer to the point I fear that art will eventually become like a spark struck by flint on stone.

The easier a viewer is given access to a work of art that is unique and thoughtful the more mundane becomes the unique form of art and the lively interpretive rots over to the critical i.e. the interpretation is viewed more and more as a critique for or against the art than simply an act of aestheticism that gives rise for the intelligence wanting and freely giving interpretation not needing or feeding or poisoning an interjected interpretation in to the work of art.

This then is the paradox we give life to art via viewing nourishment/meaning via interpreting which like anything else when given in over abundance sickens and eventually kills it accidental or intentional.

Video-games due to their participatory need and fact can save them from being 'killed' as art has been being killed. Though developers IMO are trying to make games more and more like movies and therefore more and more like 'art' this is dangerous because it saturates the market with games that are viewed to be played out to be 'beaten' i.e. 'won' while the gamer slavishly waits for the next great participatory performance. Graphics and to a much greater extent story-line and dialog throughout make games good but what makes games great is exploration and the over coming of obstacles. Though making games where one has missed something even after 'beating' where one has to figure out something are not very marketable, not very profitable. This is laughable and completely unforeseeable to many I am sure but if game development keeps up with this view of games as works as 'art' the quicker the game will die but is this not what they want a product with a shelf-life as short as possible with something better, brighter and presumably bigger than the last shinning over the horizon?

Final 'ridiculous' prophetic thought:

The technology of the entertainment systems due to their rapid pace of development will issue in a golden age that will brighten our 'world' but darken ourselves. The virtual will become more important than the actual than the real our time more spent in gaming no longer viewed as playing but as 'living' all of our satisfactions and needs and desires will be fulfilled. Virtual court cases will at first be held and felt needed because a player as a character as an avatar raped or murdered a fictitious character/s; one will be unable to distinguish between the intelligence of an actual or artificial character. Though the systems of law, trials, judges, lawyers, cases and statutes will be thrown out the virtual window and a draft of depravity will be felt throughout until it becomes the norm. We will live forever due to medical-technology, be protected forever from 'rude' interruptions such as asteroids, earthquakes, floods etc. due to defensive technology and we will be forever entertained via entertainment technology we will be gods with out purpose without telos seeking meaning when we no longer can because we have cut off our human nature and needs and fears but not and never our wants to become the gods we have so desired and now so loath trapped in a system that presents no challenges no wants.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam

You're once again reconfirmed why this is now my favorite video game blog with this post. Excellent.

This is despite the fact that I have very little interest in the debate over games-as-art. Your post on games-as-ert effectively largely summed up my feelings on the subject.

So, while you've nailed N+1 to the wall on their own grounds, I think your argument doesn't actually address what drives "art" status in real life.

It's demographics, not rational argument, that will settle the games-as-art debate.

Art is a class-distinguishing tool. Put it in the same category as accent and clothing choice - different types of art are ways that social groups reinforce ingroup status and keep out the outsiders. In this way, each group may consider itself above the others by considering its art as the 'best' type, by their own self-serving standards. Hence rappers and classical musicians will each tell you that their music is the only 'real music'. In Kant's time, one of the ways the aristocrats fancied themselves better than the proles was by being the only ones allowed and capable of appreciating their art. Divisions between different types of art (high, low, and so on) are a function of the social class system in which the art exists.

What matters most is not any particular quality of the art works themselves, but who is consuming them. When the people who control the ivory tower are game lovers, games will be high art, and not before.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTynan Sylvester

When this phenomena of video-games-as-art occurs on a multifaceted whole it will appear as real and as natural as language within the group/s. This sense of security will begin to feel unsafe to those of the intelligentsia whose 'life' or rather existence as intelligentsia depends on movement, movement of mind or thought and consumption of the same to the point that their publications of their philosophies and findings of fact subtlety infused in to mainstream media and thus public-sphere will be 'welcomed' to the privacy of our own minds which being occupied either with agreement or refutation of 'their' philosophies and findings of fact change the course of our cognition indefinitely until it becomes the norm and they at the risk of obliteration repeat the process.


I have stated above in my earlier fragmentary post of my fragmentary view of video-games as not art. As art requiring appreciation on top of acknowledgment and as art as frozen-momentum that begets 'naturally' within the mind of the beholder the want to freely express or attempt to an intelligent interpretation. This IMO is what separates art from the merely 'beautiful' which gives way to expression that is too enamored to allow interpretation, though the beautiful if not forgotten usually dies into art as art and when this dying occurs the interpretive stirs in its embryonic form as the poetic which as the poetic preserves the beautiful in art as art.

Video-games and their developers are very creative very artistic though they are not artists and their games are not works of art in my view and many works of what even many consider high-brow is not art at least not originally though it may like the beautiful become art and not simply artistic. The artist is compelled to the art to manifest, here art is God artist prophet commanded by an unseen and even more unknown source that begins to formulate said manifestation in mind and due to the ephemeral nature and fear of the ephemeral with in the mind the manifest is made, placed here upon the earth, in view the artist becomes viewer relieved for the time being perhaps forever as artist. This is now near impossible to realize and even more so in the entertainment arena which like any arena is a competitive crowd pleasing arena.

The 'artist' now knows why the art was made to please and to be viewed by all. The art as video-game becomes mere instrument of amusement for it is dictated primarily by market trends as is so much else, the mysterious which we can only hope and assume exists and has made itself manifest in works of art by artists will return and perhaps return in the venue and guise as a video-game and we will know this when the artist/s along with us asks 'why?' not knowing the origin of influence unable to recall let alone remember the inspiration and freely giving intelligent interpretation until perhaps an accidental conflagration of the cognitive burns to create something entirely new dictated by the same mysterious origin of true cause as the former.
Only by dying into the creative and not into the critical upon the balance of the interpretive will art live and continue to live always at risk of a permanent death.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam

@Obdurate Hater

"I insist that David Foster Wallace's rambling, inane descriptions are horrible writing, and bear no resemblance to anything that would be expected of a good story."

Let me insist that if this is your view of Wallace's work, you're doing it wrong. This isn't charming contrarianism, but a complete misunderstanding of Wallace's intent and goals. His work is all about upending what "would be expected of a good story," to show that we can't go about reading stories as simply and naively as we once did. And most writers and critics would agree that he succeeded pretty stupendously at that. You're welcome to not like his stuff, of course, and say it doesn't speak to you, but to call him a horrible writer and lump him in with Dan Brown suggests that the only lowbrow around here is yours.

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bissell

About the argument that games cannot be art because they aren't fully formed by the creator:

maybe the proponents of that argument should consider that games become art not by act of their creation (development), but by act of their performing, i.e. they become art when they are played, with the "artist" being a combination of both the developer and the player. It's actually similar to theater play. A written stageplay per se isn't art yet either by itself - the actor on stage performs it into a piece of performance art. This is very comparable to games.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Chiu

This is a fantastic piece.

My own perspective is that art is a relationship, not a thing. Art happens, between the thing and the individual. Look at it that way and you come back to a much less syntactically tortured result, which is asking 'can this thing (=book, film, buildling, game) create art-feeling?'.

But I completely agree with Tynan Sylvester that the root of much of this argument is social exclusion.

Plus, to be fair, most games are really crappy art.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersebmojo
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