This is an interesting topic that I feel doesn’t really get its due. People argue about it a lot, but what they mostly seem to argue about are issues regarding accountability and pretentiousness, and not the very nature of art and whether or not that can change. I want to attempt to get to the heart of the matter, with the caveat that any question about art can go off in a lot of different directions, some of which may not seem relevant.
I should probably start out by saying that I’m conflicted on the existence of a division between art and “entertainment.” Some people answer this question, not just about games but with any medium, with the statement that something can be art, but it isn’t necessarily art just by virtue of belonging to a particular medium. For example, Schindler’s List is an example of the art of cinema; the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest is not. This is a useful way of framing things, because it allows for a pretty broad view of what art is without seemingly cheapening the very idea of art by including any piece of nonsense that just happens to be recorded on paper or film. The reason why I can’t quite buy this is because sometimes, works of supposedly derivative, cheap entertainment have more meaning to me (and are therefore more artfully done, in my view), then so-called artistic productions, meaning I would be a hypocrite to say I really believed in the art/entertainment distinction. I kind of wish I could, because it has a lot of advantages, but that’s just not how I see it.
Okay, disclaimers out of the way, is a video game art or not? Well, you’ve got a bunch of concept artists creating visuals for the game, sometimes making beautiful watercolor paintings of the characters and settings, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got musicians writing scores for the game, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got writers writing scripts for the games’ story, which is a little harder to justify as art (since a lot of people have a low opinion of games writers, and not for nothing), but nevertheless, fiction writing in general is art. That doesn’t seem to be in dispute.
So in order for a game not to be art, you would need for all of these different artistic elements to be combined, at which point they somehow magically cancel each other out and the finished product is not art. Despite the watercolor paintings, despite the musical scores, despite the character writing, despite the cinematography, they are not art. Art +Art +Art +Art= NOT ART.
Does this make sense to anyone? Because I’ve never seen the logic of it myself. I guess people use the entertainment/art workaround to say that in the case of games, Art +Art +Art= Entertainment, but as stated above I’m not comfortable with that distinction. So, just based on very simple logic, it seems clear that games are art. However, that covers the act of making the game: the game was made by different kinds of artists, who expressed their feelings within the game to some extent. Fair enough, not too controversial. However, is there art to playing the game? Are you experiencing art when you level up in an RPG, or are you just like a digital hamster on a wheel, finding a pleasant (if somewhat numbing) way to pass the time? This is where things start to get interesting for me.
The Art of Item Farming
I picked an image from Atelier Rorona as the header for this post for several reasons. One, I think it’s a good game and I had a lot of fun playing it, and two, I think it provides a good illustration of the problem we have if we just glibly say “Games are art, dammit,” and leave it at that.
The Atelier games have pretty, detailed character images, soothing music that makes you long to explore the world, and well-realized characters that all have their own struggles and quirks. The quality of the art that goes into it– drawing, scoring, writing– is always solid, if not exceptional. It seems like a no-brainer that Atelier contains lots of art, and therefore is art, but what are you actually doing when you play the game? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re hoarding tons of imaginary items, in the hopes of making better imaginary items, in hopes of accessing the area where you can get the very BEST imaginary items, at which point you will no longer need any of them, because you already beat the main game 50 hours ago.
Is that really the food-for-the-soul that art is supposed to be? Is waiting for a rare drop– a kind of playing chicken with a soulless random number generator that seems to be unique to video games– really an enriching experience, something that makes you question your perspective, your entire reality? Does it make you feel and think the way art is supposed to?
Well, from experience I can tell you that hunting rare drops does make you wonder “Why am I fighting this monster for the 500th time to get the rare wand it’s probably never going to drop? What am I doing with my life? WHAT IS MY LIFE EVEN????” so, err, I guess if you want to be strict about it, even the most banal parts of video games are thought-provoking; it’s just that the one thought they usually provoke is that you were stupid to get so obsessed with the damned game in the first place. But, beyond provoking that particular line of internal questioning, does often tedious gameplay qualify as art?
I’m still working this out. To return to Atelier, the game has definitely made me feel things; I am slightly in love with Sterk, Rorona’s gruff but caring protector. I felt pride when I got good scores on my alchemy tests, an almost parental sort of pride that I was turning Rorona into a skilled alchemist. I’ve related to some of the characters stories, which made me experience certain emotions, albeit not super-strong emotions; Atelier isn’t a dramatic type of game, but you don’t have to break down in tears for something to have touched you emotionally, right? So, I feel safe calling at least part of the experience art.
However, the time I spend hoarding items, grinding, and experimenting with the crafting system– sometimes spending hours to accomplish something of no more significance than adding a few points to the stats of one imaginary sword– is that art? If it’s not, does that mean that the experience of Atelier Rorona is only intermittently art? So I’m consuming art during the story sequences, or when a particularly nice track of music plays, but not during the bulk of the experience, which is the play itself?
The idea of intermittent art probably sounds weird, but I think it’s one possible way of viewing the experience of video games. The alternate way is to include the entire thing as art– even those hours of seemingly pointless item farming. This may seem like a stretch, but bear with me here: after all, what disqualifies this experience from being art, exactly? It’s tedious, but as tedious as making it all the way through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Doubtful. Don’t get me wrong, Proust’s saga is a work of genius and all, but anyone who’s read it and claims never to have been even a little bit bored or annoyed is a liar, full stop. The operas that make up Wagner’s famed Ring Cycle take about 17 hours altogether; riveting for some true opera fans, but stultifying for others. And in the visual arts, well…just imagine looking at a whole exhibit full of Jackson Pollocks. The first one is kind of cool, but by piece number 5, you’re left with nothing left to keep you occupied than try to spot the cigarette butts still sticking out of the paint.
So clearly tedium isn’t a disqualification, in and of itself. However, with Proust and Wagner and Jackson Pollock, at least they created things that meant something, right? Sure they could be tedious to consume at times, but in the service of a noble goal. On the other hand, plugging away at video games is completely and utterly pointless, and therefore, not art, right?
Except…what is the point of a narrative where a man recounts his boring childhood in ridiculous detail and never amounts to much of anything? What’s the point of slapping some paint on canvas and putting it on the wall? I’m tempted to say “What’s the point of a Wagner opera?” only I’m afraid music fanatics would hunt me down and shoot me*, so let’s just say that everything that Wagner created is an end in and of itself.
Seriously though, of what practical use is a lot of art? In the pre-photography age, portrait painting at least qualified as a form of documentation, but that hasn’t been necessary for a long time. The only use for a lot of art, maybe most art, is “I enjoy it,” or “It makes me feel something,” and so on. Those are justifications that can apply to video games too. What’s the difference?
This is where I fully expect to lose people. “Okay, so maybe most art has little practical use, but still, there’s a huge difference between looking at a Rembrandt and grinding for a rare item in Final Fantasy! What the hell are you even saying?”
I admit, I’m not entirely sure yet. But it seems like the tedium of most gameplay is rejected as art not because it’s practically useless (which most art is anyway), but because supposedly it doesn’t make you feel and grow and change. If you spend an hour looking at a great painting versus an hour playing a game, in the first instance you have presumably thought various deep thoughts and in some sense, enriched yourself; in the second instance, you have only passed time with an activity.
Is that really true though? Are we all effectively brain-dead when we play games, and when we stop playing, it’s as though we’ve awakened from sleep? I don’t think so. I know I’ve had thoughts and feelings while doing tedious tasks in games; sometimes, I think it’s because of the tedium that I have deeper thoughts– the front of my mind is occupied with game mechanics, while I’m contemplating something a lot more important in the background.
To bring it all together, if the defining difference between art and not-art is that art enriches as well as occupies you, who decides what counts as enrichment? And if you honestly feel more from playing a certain game than you do from looking at a certain painting– even if the gameplay is derivative and repetitive– is that a flaw in you? Or a flaw in our conception of how art is supposed to work?
Nostalgia for Terrible Controls
Another problem with trying to excise the gameplay from the definition of art, while allowing other elements to remain art, is that gameplay can enhance other artistic elements. For example, the early Resident Evil games were notorious for their sluggish “tank” controls; it was hard to get your character to go anywhere fast, which was a problem when surrounded by ravenous zombies. Some consider the controls to be a shortcoming of what was otherwise a good horror series, but personally, I think they were an integral part of the experience.
Traditionally, zombies are slow enemies. The pitiable regular enemies in RE moved at a snail’s pace; if your character was nimble, how would they even catch you, let alone hurt you? The controls, along with the claustrophobic way the environments were designed, were what allowed the game to feature challenge. More importantly, the controls intensified the feeling of helplessness and despair that the game was trying to evoke. Have you ever had a dream where something terrifying was after you, but your legs felt like lead and you couldn’t move? That’s what the RE controls were like. This is a case where mechanics interfaced and contributed to narrative intent. If the mechanics are playing a role in the narrative, aren’t they part of the entire emotional package, otherwise known as art?
Things have changed in regard to game controls. In the ’90s, while people certainly complained about controls, there seemed to be a certain allowance for games having idiosyncratic control schemes that took a while to master. Currently, if a game’s controls aren’t immediately intuitive to the majority of players, that seems to be considered a flaw. So if anything, it seems like controls being reflective of narrative is something that’s becoming LESS important over time, but nevertheless, it’s still a phenomenon worth considering.
Also, don’t get me wrong: a lot of people hated the RE controls with good reason. Making the controls sluggish as a way to control the game experience was not necessarily the best way to create a certain mood; nevertheless, it worked, at least for some players. Another seminal game where the controls were integral to the experience was Tomb Raider; how did we know that Lara was cold, aloof, stand-offish? For one thing, because no matter how you fiddled with the controls, you could never get her to turn around and look at you.**
So if we want to separate game mechanics from the more obviously art-qualifying parts of video games, like story and visual design and music, we would have to discount the way that the controls and general gameplay can interact with those artistic elements. Which they do, always and constantly, in every single game.
So, yeah…being able to make a clean separation between game mechanics and other game content would give us a clear line of demarcation. Unfortunately, in order to divide games into parts that are art versus not-art, you would have to ignore how all the different parts of games play off and resonate with each other, and who wants to do that? No one who cares about video games, that’s for sure.
So far, we’ve looked at the creation of games and the consumption of them as two different elements; in the next part, we’ll go into how a big part of art is creating your own experience of it, and how that applies to video games.
*I’ve read that Wagner always ranks really high whenever anyone does a ‘Best Composers of All Time’ list, and music lovers seem to be quite enamored with him. Saying that Wagner’s work is “pointless” may be grounds for war among chamber orchestra members, and I never pick fights with people holding brass instruments.
**This is an oversimplification: You could see Lara’s face in the early Tomb Raiders, but usually, only if you backed her into a wall…which, err, is not as bad as it sounds. Still, most of the time you only saw Lara’s back.