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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