Sunday, August 24

A visit with my Muse

I have a muse. She's an overweight, chain-smoking, cantankerous bogan who sits in front of the telly in her trackie-dacks and ugh boots channel surfing. She's a lazy old cow too, as you've probably guessed if you read this blog. From time to time she's good to me and warrants a kiss of gratitude. Now if only she'd shave, wax, or Nair® her upper lip. I'm talking about my muse for a reason...

You see on my left there's this horse, lying on the ground, still. It's tongue is hanging out, eyes staring vacantly and it's not breathing. On my right is a riding crop, or bull whip if that's your kink, and it beckons. You know what happens next. I reach for the bullwhip and get cracking.

I firmly belong to the group that believes that video games are not art. I repeat, not art. This group is actually quite large and is composed mainly of individuals who have no idea about either art or video games. Nobodies like me, I suppose. I'm the odd one out in this group as I'm a dedicated gamer who loves video games and proudly declares to all and sundry that I love me some good gaming (phrasing intended). Hence my muse's cameo. One of the questions that comes up in this sort of debate pretty much all of the time is "What is art?". It's a corker isn't it? I love when a discussion about the artistic merits of the medium boil down to semantics. Art is that stuff that hangs on the walls of capital 'G' Galleries (and the small 'g' galleries too), when it's outdoors it's either a sculpture or an "installation". People can perform art but they're not actors. Art can be comics, anime, drawings, paintings and bits of tummy fluff stuck to a wall. It can be made, found and discovered. And sometimes, very rarely, it's a science. Or is science an art? I'm confused!

And let's not forget art's poor cousin crafts!

Right, so now that that is out of the way... Art, yeah it's some pretty fancy stuff. All sorts of somebodies love it and often enough I have no idea why. Art has a special something though, a quality that transcends meaning, definitions and words. It is. Thus I suppose I should claim that video games ARE art because they is! The thing is that I have strong beliefs about what games are and what they could be. Examples of these beliefs are littered throughout the blog and if you're new here I strongly recommend going off to read it - or you could just ignore me and continue - I know what I'd do. Games contain art, but games are more science than art, more craft than art, more tools than creations. I would agree with those who claim that games can look all arty like. Okami by Capcom is an excellent example, Braid and PixelJunk Eden are others. Games can contain considerable music scores that then prompt travelling performances of these austere works. Games may one day contain writing worthy of being called okay, maybe even good, but so far the overall standard of writing in games is shit. So let's just pretend that writing is for books, movies and TV shows and move on.

The ultimate expression of the concept of a game is, in my completely irrelevant opinion, Tetris. It enjoys the status of being "Easy to learn, Hard to master". Clichés exist for a reason you know! And if my muse was half the woman I wish she was then I'd have something better. Tetris is the closest a game has ever come to being "art". The ultimate expression of what a game is, something that can reach anyone, anywhere, anyhow and within a few moments suck away years of their life. Now that's something to be proud of! Yet I don't really see Tetris as art because as you know I believe that in order for something to be meaningful to a society it must have a degree of relevance, of purpose, of bearing a message that both reflects and shapes the society in which it resides. Perhaps we really do live in a society of losers who waste time and will never reach the end. Perhaps not. I've already discussed how I see games and play and which has more meaning.

You see the problem for me is that games offer an opportunity and most developers choose to ignore that opportunity. Instead they seek to emulate other forms of entertainment. They haven't embraced the intrinsic nature of games, and for me, that nature is "tools for play". The games of our childhood are inspired by the pulp action film, that comic we read, the latest pop song, or the stories our parents read to us as we fell asleep. Ultimately though, this form of play is made using our own rules. We can play alone (no comments from the peanut gallery!) We can play with others. We can make up and change the rules of the game as we play in order to refine it. Right now, games are largely the vision of their creator (sans editor) and choose to ignore the primary participant. Me. Or you if you really must play my games. The player. It's akin to a circuit class in a children's playground where the trainer refuses my desperate pleas to have a go on the slippery dip until after I've mastered the monkey bars. I try, but my weak hands, porcine frame, and perspiration borne of excessive effort mean that I fall before reaching the end - time and again. Scuffing my hands and knees, face planting into the gravel, breaking first my collar bone, then my arm and finally my leg. Yet all the while my trainer refuses to share the slippery dip until I reach the last rung.

Games are vehicles for play. The best games are those games that promote play. The best way to promote play is to give the players control over the game. Offering a toolset that is constrained by rules, sure, yet complete enough to allow the player to play. It is when games give the players the tools to create art of their own that games will become what they were always meant to be. And that's not art, but a brush, a canvas, a roll of film, a script and billions of wannabe actors and writers, nobodies. Just. Like. Me.


Daedalist said...

I'm not clear on your definition of "Art". Is the main nature of the thing a one-way transmission of ideas from artist to audience? If so, then I guess I can accept your argument that games are not art.

That being said, something in me disagrees with you. Perhaps games so far have not been art, but I don't see why they could not be. I'm going to have to mull this question over.

nobody said...

I was being deliberately ambiguous. Art is so many different things to so many different people that I was, and still am, very reluctant to pigeonhole it.

Art can be a one-way transmission, or it can be shared. You see my problem, how we can define it? Of course that doesn't really help the debate, I suppose, but I make the distinction that games can contain art, but (if I were to live in a universe of my choosing) are more akin to a vehicle for creative expression.

That something that disagrees with me is a something I'd really like to hear about. I selfishly feel that I can learn something from you should you articulate it.

Little Minstrel said...

You make an argument that I find, at first blush, difficult to counter. Art is what it is to you, just as games and play are; and by golly, you belong to the group that believes that video games are not art. As much as I can understand your points, I cannot agree with them, no matter if the reason is only that I have my own meandering existence from upon which I draw. So, if you would be so kind as to let me have a go with that riding crop. *eg*

Just as there are those who collect art for different reasons, or teach or study art at varying levels of expertise, cannot it be said that there are those who play video games differently? Each requires an individual to approach it, either subconsciously or otherwise, with said individual’s own inclinations.

I guess it falls down to the fact that I do not play games for the reasons that you do. I do not get the same thing out of them. You take an almost dutiful approach to completion by your own means, to grasp an understanding of the tools presented to you, and how best to use them to achieve your goal. Your entertainment, I would say, is derived from that.

This has caused me, while on my seasonal vacation in existentialism, to take a detour and visit the questions you advertised in a previous discussion. I play games for what is presented: the package and its contents. If a game is solely about the mastery of a certain play mechanic, and its presentation conveys that exclusively, I tend to shy away from it. The original Tetris had that affect of me for the longest time (despite its music). Sure, for me, it started with a Princess. But it was in pursuit of said Princess, and within the confines of her kingdom, that my mind frolicked with abandon.

And yet, in regards to the last two paragraphs, I am at once struck with wonder and trepidation to consider games as exclusively as you have. I will need to contemplate this further.

Daedalist said...

I selfishly feel that I can learn something from you should you articulate it.
I followed up my comment with a post on Conjunction. Silly me, I thought that the pingback would show up here ;-)

In essence, I chose to define art and gave KOTOR2 as an example of game as art.

However, it's not fair if I don't argue on your own terms I guess, so here goes...

I accept your assertion that the primary function of games is play; and that play is training, simulation, tools, and preparation. I can't dispute that. It makes sense. But that doesn't mean that the instruction provided can't come about through art. Our greatest works of literature (whether prose, verse, or play) teach our societies something about themselves, and there is no reason that this can't be extended to more interactive media like games.

This can also work into your Holy Grail. In particular, I refer to MMOs. A game could be construed to mechanically enable interactions between characters. This (in my mind) could bring about an actual simulation of a microcosmic society, complete with romance, rivalry, competition and co-operation.

While they could be as banal as sitcoms or melodramatic as soap operas, they would hold a mirror up to our real world and ask us to examine ourselves. Is that not art?

And as for your argument that games can encapsulate artistic components such as aesthetically poignant visuals and sublimely scored music, I don't believe that simply because it is the shrink-wrapping for art, that a game itself cannot be an artform in and of itself.

Anyway, even if I haven't convinced you, thank you for encouraging this nobody to find his voice and say what he believes :)

nobody said...

Little Minstrel, somehow your words make me smile. They have an energy that is warmth and happiness. Funny, huh?

You said;
…[can it not] be said that there are those who play video games differently?

Of course! Everything I write here is an expression of my identity. I will happily take ownership of my feelings, my passions, my dreams, beliefs and values. I will also happily acknowledge that they are not absolute, imperfect and limited to the lens of my experience. I offer these thoughts to the interwebs as a means to learn about myself and others. I pretty much thought that was why people blogged.

All of what you say is valid and true. I welcome your further contemplations because as I said to Daedalist I want to learn from you. I want to learn from any who care to teach me. Although more probably on my own terms than on yours.

nobody said...


I have posted responses to your posts on your blog. Should others wish to read them there's a link to Conjunction on the front page.

In my response you will notice my propensity to ambiguity. I suggest that KotoR 2 is indeed "art" but not for the reasons you say. Although to a large extent I have shot myself in the foot with that post, as it comes to semantics yet again.

Further clarification is required. I also see games as galleries, as spaces in which art can be delivered to the masses, to nobodies. Eternal Sonata is a fantastic example of this sort of thing. It encourages the player to play through the dreams of Chopin as he dies of tuberculosis and teaches the player about the real person Chopin. Providing facts about the person in various ways through play (in between chapter lectures and in game music collection quests). If I understand you correctly this is art. For me, this is a showpiece for art, namely Chopin's musical works (and his life which must be understood to understand context and meaning). The game is not art in and of itself but a vehicle for it.

Furthermore I offer a few pieces by others who are also flogging this horse. This one, this one and the one you've already mentioned on your blog, Leigh Alexander's.

Daedalist said...

The game is not art in and of itself but a vehicle for it.
This sentiment is related to the question of which is art in drama: the play's script, the actor's performance in general, or the performance on a particular night.

Each is a distinct experience, and I would argue that each is a distinct work of art in its own right. Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, and Laurence Olivier all give different performances as Hamlet and I would say that each was a separate work of art. Again distinct from the character as Shakespeare wrote him.

Why then can Eternal Sonata (with its over-long artsy introduction) not be a work of art that utilises the works of Chopin to teach you about the man? This could be done in a biopic film and be considered art, so why not a biopic game?

nobody said...

Your points are well taken.

In some way you are right, which is the art? The script, the set, the performance or the performer. Art is typically a confluence of all of these things, if one or more is not really present in a transcendental sense then it's just a performance. I found this very interesting.

Games are more the theatre (or movie theatre given your second point) for me.

The biopic can certainly be art but not because it's about someone who is arty. Because it transcends itself and elevates its viewer.

I can accept that the possibility for games to do this exists. However, in doing this they become the book, the movie, the musical score, the script, the painting and cease being games. I'll revise my stance should a game of particular merit come into existence that demonstrates that the brush or the frame can be the art.

It's a semantic thing I think. I can see what you mean and see merit in it, is that enough?

Daedalist said...

Semantics is the soul of philosophical discourse ;-)

I definitely take your point as well, and am freely willing to admit that games have not yet reached that transcendent stage you refer to. If one does, it probably won't come from a big publisher.