This episode was well done overall– the atmosphere was almost palpable, the action was exciting, we’re left with some intriguing questions about the characters. and so on and so forth. I have a fundamental problem with the Gun Gale Online setting though, and it’s kind of a deal-breaker.
Think about it: in the SAO continuity, in the post-“death game” world, there are a nigh-infinite numbers of MMORPGs people can play. These games have magic, fantastic creatures, beautiful scenery of the kind that it’s very difficult, if not impossible to find in real life, and even amazing features like fully-VR flight. I don’t understand why, when presented with this buffet of scrumtious RPG delicacies, people would choose to play GGO: the game where you get to experience what it was like to be fighting insurgents in Fallujah circa 2007. It’s just a dank, depressing setting, and I don’t know why anyone would spend time there if they didn’t have to.
I guess it comes down to the allure of playing around with guns for people who never get to play around with guns; after all, I was already bored of hanging around the rifle range by the time I was 14. Nevertheless, whatever the reason, I just don’t see the appeal.
LLENN’s winning strategy is to be so much shorter than everybody else that they’re usually not aiming down far enough to hit her. I wonder if this is going to keep working as she gets more notoriety in game? You’d think eventually, GGO players would just be like “when in doubt, aim waaay down.”
And yet, despite my lack of interest in the game world, there are things that make me want to keep watching. It looks like LLENN’s player, Karen (woo, that’s my name!) has a very different lifestyle than you would expect of a hardcore PVP MMO player, and I’m interested to learn more about her. Plus, I have no idea why LLENN and her teammate were competing as a duo when everyone else in the Squad Jam seemed to be in groups of six, and that’s intriguing. Then there’s LLENN’s super-speed, which, according to the reaction of the other characters, isn’t a normal thing in GGO and may be the result of some secret behind the LLENN avatar that she might not want her fellow gamers to know about.
It’s just, if they were going to make an SAO spinoff with this much potential, why did it have to be centered on Gun Gale Online? What’s wrong with Alfheim? I like Alfheim. You can tell Alfheim is better than GGO, because Sinon was huge into GGO, then she was invited to play ALO and was like “it’s been real, fellas” and booked out of there. Trust Sinon, she is a smart young lady.
Oh well. Looks like I’m interested enough to keep watching this show, at least for now, but whether or not I do anymore pontificating about it on this blog probably depends on how they develop Karen, more so than LLENN. Maybe it’s just narcissism on my part, but I’m really curious to learn more about her, and if her real life is interesting, that might cancel out my general antipathy towards the setting.
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for why video games can’t or shouldn’t be art. These are only the arguments I’ve personally encountered, so I could be missing a lot here. Feel free to provide other arguments in the comments (either in the spirit of “This is why your whole series of blog posts is wrong,” or “This is what my idiot cousin from Philly says,” either is fine with me.)
Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They Are Items of Consumer Electronics and Must Be Judged on That Level
This is, by far, the most sensible argument against games being art, and the one that’s creating a lot of friction among gamers right now. We’re dealing with clashing paradigms that don’t play nicely together.
An example: You can look at the Mona Lisa for a couple of seconds, and unless you’re a real art buff, at that point you’re done with it. Still, despite the short engagement time, that image will probably be ingrained within your mind for the rest of your life, you’ll see references to the Mona Lisa for the rest of your life, and the painting’s value is considered priceless, beyond rubies. If you only engaged with a $60 game for a few seconds, when you were expecting 20-60 hours of gameplay (or even several hundred hours, if you just bought an in-depth SRPG like Disgaea), you just got ripped off.
In theory, someone could make a game that was five seconds long and have it be priceless, but due to the differences between the visual arts and interactive media, that’s highly unlikely. This whole idea of judging something based on how much time it occupies relative to it’s price is something that doesn’t gel well with art appreciation as a concept. No one ever goes to a museum and complains that the exhibit sucked because they only stood in front of each painting for a moment.*
And yet, other mediums have been dealing with this for years, and that somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being art. Films are judged in part by how they use their runtime, and whether they’re an entertaining or informative use of 2 or so hours; a film that seemingly wastes 2 hours of your time is considered a rip-off. However, just because films can be judged in this manner, and are judged that way more often than not, no one then counters that cinema can’t be art. It’s simply different ways of judging the same thing; you can judge film as a consumer product, but that’s not the only viewpoint there is. If this works for film, why shouldn’t it work for games?
One thing fairly specific to games that I don’t believe applies elsewhere is the fact that a game has to be a functioning piece of software. If the X button is jump, the character better jump 100% of the time, not 75%, and the graphics better not bug out every time you enter a new room. A game could have the most brilliant artistic ideas imaginable, but if the controls don’t work, it fails as a piece of consumer electronics, and therefore as a game.
There’s some wiggle-room here; some games with slightly wonky controls and bug issues are often given a partial pass if the content they feature is otherwise high-quality. But in general, a game has to work as software first.
The problem is people think that a game can fail as software, but then use “art” as an excuse to completely avoid responsibility for its failures. “Oh the game is buggy as hell, but what a wonderfully nuanced look at a romance between two one-armed seamstresses in the 1730s!”
And you know what? That happens (not the seamstresses game, although now I’d kind of like to see something like that). Games can fail either in controls or amount of content and use art as an excuse. Sure, it’s a five-minute long walking simulator that costs $60, but dammit, it’s art! You can’t put a price on art!
Actually, you can, and being classified as art isn’t some magical Get Out of Jail Free Card that makes everything okay. Because you see, bad art exists. If your five-minute long walking simulator isn’t interesting to play and is overpriced, it’s still art; it’s just bad, terrible art that isn’t of much consequence.
Basically, once you accept the premise that art can be bad, you lose the problem with art becoming a failsafe justification for anything. An “art game” can be artistic and also bad, and the idea that priceless art only requires a few seconds of active engagement simply does not apply if the art in question is not good. You can judge games as consumer electronics, and you can judge them as art, but if it fails on the first level, chances are it’s going to fail on the second level too, because the medium is the message. If something has great artistic value in regard to music and visuals or whatnot but fails as a piece of interactive media, chances are it shouldn’t have been made as a piece of interactive media.
2, Video Games Can’t Be Art For STRUCTURAL REASONS Having To Do With Authorial Intent
I first read this in a newspaper, in a film critic’s column. It was a small, regional paper, so it wasn’t like this was coming from a famous critic whose name would mean anything to you. The argument was basically that film directors make choices, these choices create certain responses in the audience, and within these choices we find the art of cinema. In video games, people make their own choices, so games aren’t art; they are simply entertainment.
Okay, so…where do we even start with this? It’s contingent on the idea that game creators don’t make choices. Like, someone just starts making a game, throws the telephone-book sized design document out a 100-story window, and says “let’s do whatever, no big.” I could say that this might be true if you’re just screwing around in RPG Maker, but I have screwed around in RPG Maker a lot, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true even then. This argument is just complete, utter nonsense.
The problem is that it uses intelligent-sounding terms like “structural” and “authorial intent,” so people still get snowed by it. I find most of the ‘intellectual’ arguments against games being art are all very much like this; they might sound logical at first, but they make less and less sense the more you think about them.
3. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They’re Addictive
Video games can be very addictive, but if you don’t think reading good books can be addictive too, man have I got a nice bridge to sell you. It’s not exactly the same thing; games tend to create more of a dopamine rush than reading does, making them more addictive for many people. But so what?
Video game addiction can be a real problem, and it’s something we’re going to have to grapple with more and more as virtual worlds become more important in our lives. But it’s irrelevant to the question we’re trying to answer.
4. Roger Ebert/Hideo Kojima/Insert Famous Person said that Games are Not Art
I have a lot of respect for late Roger Ebert, and many people doing media criticism today could learn a lot from him. That said, his medium was film, not games, and he freely admitted that he didn’t play games or know much about them. You can have all the respect in the world for Ebert as a film critic without thinking that his opinions on all other media were equally valuable.
Hideo Kojima though…man, that kind of gets me. I mean, the only excuse for most of Metal Gear Solid 2 is art; if you’ve played it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So I don’t really understand where Kojima’s coming from there, but what’s more important is, no one person– no matter how famous, no matter how talented– is qualified to be the sole arbiter of what is and is not art.**
5. “I Don’t Need Games to Be Art.”
I’ve heard this one from several people lately, and I think I know what they mean, but the logic has already struck me as a little odd. I mean, I don’t NEED for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to be art either; some snooty agency could put out an international bulletin, “Starry Night NO LONGER ART!” and it wouldn’t cause me to think that my needs had been compromised; my needs are pretty irrelevant to the whole situation.
What people mean when they say this, I think, is “I don’t need the intellectual validation of games being considered art; it’s okay with me if games are just entertainment.” This viewpoint depends on believing in the art/entertainment divide, and I already explained in Part 1 why I don’t buy that. So in essence, while I think I know what people mean when they say this and I see the validity of those feelings, the reasoning itself is irrelevant to the question. You might as well say “I don’t need Nutella to be a sandwich topping,” or “I don’t need Die Hard to be a Christmas Movie,” (yeah, I went there.)
Sometimes people say this because they find the whole debate tedious as hell and want to move on, and given how these discussions tend to go on social media, I can’t say I blame them. But the debate doesn’t stop existing just because you happen to be tired of it, you know?
6. Games Can’t Be Art Because [Insert Bad Game] Exists
“LOL, you think games are art? Look at this screenshot from Custer’s Revenge, and try to say that with a straight face. Oh and Superman 64 LMFAO CHECKMATE.”
As we’ve already covered, bad art exists. I would bet money that right now, there are at least 10 nearly-blank canvasses hanging in museums all over the world, with one tiny dot of black paint the only point of interest. And the titles are something like “The Overpowering Oppression of Whiteness,” or “White Supremacy, Visualized,” or even “Unbearable Loneliness No. 8.” Chances are, if you’ve ever been to an art museum even once, you have seen this sort of thing. Lots of it.
This is terribly lazy, cynical art, but it doesn’t invalidate painting, or the visual arts more generally, as an art form. It may lead you to wonder about the motives of some museum curators, but that’s a different problem.
————————————————————————————-After going through it all, the only genuine area of concern we seem to have is the one about the expectations for consumer electronics and the expectations for art being different things at this point in time; that is changing, however. Every other argument against games being art seems to depend on some kind of false technicality, an appeal to authority, or pretending that bad art is something that doesn’t exist. I don’t see how you can be a logical person and find any of these arguments convincing.
And yet, after all this, I’m not entirely without sympathy for those who don’t want Tetris included in the hypothetical World Pantheon of Art. There’s something special, something refined about sitting down with a 19th-century novel that I don’t get from a JRPG, no matter how good the game is. There is something special about the texture of paint on canvas, the sound that comes out of a beautiful brass instrument, the mesmerizing nature of classic film. These are all special things.
I think people are afraid that if we allow games to be classified as art, we are somehow making all of the above less important, less special. And if you’re worried about that, games qualifying as art can seem extremely threatening. But we have to face facts; there is no good reason why games aren’t art, and if that makes us have to reconsider the value of other art forms and how they stack up against the interactive version of themselves, then that’s a challenge we’re going to have to grapple with whether we want to or not. Right now, I think a lot of people are running away from that challenge, and we can’t afford to anymore.
*This does somewhat work with music, because if you went to a concert and it was only five minutes long, you’d probably feel pretty cheated. That doesn’t mean the one song that the orchestra played during that five minutes wasn’t priceless, though.
**Well except for me, obviously. I wrote these blog posts and everything.
To illustrate how the viewer always customizes the experience of art, let’s turn away from videogames for a moment and look to something that is clearly “Art with a capital A,” painting. There’s a Kandinsky painting called Inner Simmering that I have a special connection with. I don’t know what Kandinsky intended with the painting; if I ever read any sort of commentary on it, I’ve long since forgotten. However, for me the painting is about the turbulent feelings of going from childhood to adulthood.
When I was 11, my mother took me to the Guggenheim Museum to see a Kandinsky exhibit. I was tremendously excited to be going to a museum and not a “kids” museum; a serious art museum for sophisticated, cultured adults. Inner Simmering was the painting that stuck in my mind; I felt like I was “simmering,” boiling over with excitement at taking the train, then the bus, then going to the museum, then going to a trendy cafe for lunch, all being treated like an adult and seemingly being initiated into this beautiful adult world of symposiums and garden parties. But I was also still a child, and I was a little afraid, worried the wonderful day would somehow fall apart, and my mother would lose me somewhere. Maybe I’d get lost in the city and end up begging in Central Park, or run over by an angry cab driver; there were dangers everywhere. My stomach wouldn’t stop churning.
Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t look at an image of that painting without thinking of the “simmering” feeling I had that day, the day when I felt my childhood and my adulthood bumping into each other in the pit of my stomach. This feeling was probably not what Kandinsky intended, but I think most appreciators of art would agree that my personal interpretation is a valid one; that, without getting into a tiresome “Death of the Author” debate, it’s widely recognized that the viewer’s experience of every work of art is customized to their own experience; not by choice, but by necessity. I can never be in Vassily Kandinsky’s head, only my own.
Returning to games now, I have the same kind of customized experiences. Tomb Raider was about the fantasy of overcoming my own natural timidity and going out to explore the world, maybe not ancient tombs but, say, hiking on a local trail without fear. Parasite Eve was about a fantasy version of Manhattan, a Manhattan that, while being full of monsters, was mostly devoid of people, meaning I could explore at my own pace; something I’ve never felt able to do when I’ve actually been in real-life Manhattan (and to this day, I feel far more at home in PE’s horrifying version of Manhattan than I do in any of the actual locations featured in the game, despite having visited many of them several times.) Final Fantasy VII was about…Final Fantasy VII was about a lot of things, and I don’t want to go on for 30,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that.
I’m pretty sure Vagrant Story was somehow about sex, but I’m still figuring that one out; yes, Ashley’s famous pants played a role there, but that was only part of it. .hack was about trying to figure out why imaginary items in imaginary worlds were so important to me, among other things, and I still haven’t cracked that one; I keep replaying the .hack quadrilogy once every couple of years, hoping to figure it out. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into World of Warcraft is because I’m still waiting for the simulated MMO of .hack to reveal whether or not I should care about real MMOs or not.
I think everyone has these kinds of personal experiences of games; they may not all be as elemental as my association with Inner Simmering, or even Parasite Eve, but they’re still there. However, this is where we get into how videogames differ from other media; because while we all perceive a painting differently, we’re all still standing there in front of the canvas, or the browser; our “participation” as it were, is all in our heads. In videogames our different experiences are acted out, sometimes in relatively simple ways (ex. taking a different route in a platformer), and sometimes in more complex ones, like purposely playing the game “wrong” to create a different experience. In games, the cooperative nature of art– something that has always existed– can be taken to the next level.
My Affair With Yuna
Time for a confession: while I’ve never recorded myself doing Super Mario Speed runs or tried to beat Resident Evil in under 2 hours with only the knife, I am a challenge gamer at heart. In fact, I am the originator of the Final Fantasy X Yuna-Only No-Summoning Challenge.
*Pause for most people to go “the hell’s that?” while everyone who’s actually played FFX winces in terrible, sympathetic pain.*
For a while after FFX came out, people were making up all kinds of difficult challenges for the game, like the No Sphere Grid Challenge and the Tidus-Only Challenge. This sort of thing is pretty common among Final Fantasy fans in general, but it seemed like this trend was reaching its peak around the time X came out. While eventually every character had their own solo challenge, for years, Yuna was left out. Yuna was considered a bad character to try to solo with, because the whole premise of the game was that she was too weak to survive without protection. Yet, if you allowed her to summon her Aeons, then she became the most powerful character in the game*, completely destroying the “challenge” element of a solo run. The conventional wisdom was that a solo run that allowed summoning was too easy (and given the length of the summoning animations, too tedious anyway), while prohibiting summoning made it impossible.
Sometime in 2006, during a cold Albany winter (which was probably more relevant to all of this than you might think), I had a dangerous thought: What if a No-Summoning run with Yuna wasn’t impossible, only extremely difficult? I had to find out.
People on Gamefaqs were skeptical. How will you get past this boss, they asked, how will you survive this section where the enemies can kill poor little Yuna in one hit? And yet, I always found a way. I discovered that if you were willing to spend enough time leveling up Yuna by herself, you could pretty much brute-force your way through the entire game. Between farming for rare offensive weapon drops and power-leveling to get Yuna a support spell she wouldn’t normally learn until the end of the game, it all became possible. Check out this FAQ for more details; the user named Crystal Bangle is me.
What this meant, practically, was that I spent dozens of hours in front of the TV, staring at Yuna’s back. It was a time in my life when I needed a distraction, and did I ever find one. It was also a time when I felt very alone; I had moved to Albany after college with high hopes of building a new life for myself there, only for my few preexisting relationships to sour, while I was stuck in a dead-end job where I never met anyone. It felt appropriate to have Yuna’s companions run like cowards and leave her alone to face the monsters; it felt right for her to be all alone, hour after hour.
Even though I knew I was intentionally playing the game wrong, doing something players weren’t supposed to do, it still colored my perception of the game’s story. When the characters would talk about their duty as Guardians to protect Yuna, I found myself thinking. “What are you talking about? You guys haven’t done SHIT to protect Yuna, she’s all alone! Shut up Auron, even though you’re hot.”
What I essentially did was made another game within the larger game of FFX; a game where instead of being treated as a precious resource who was to be protected at all costs, Yuna was cast aside and had to fend for herself. While I’ve played through the storyline of FFX normally a few times, I can’t think of the game now without thinking of this “alternate” game, where all of Yuna’s companions abandoned her every single battle; hundreds, probably thousands of times over the course of the game.
To this day, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I proved that a challenge that people assumed impossible was not, and that’s kind of cool. On the other hand, I projected my problems onto this game, and spent dozens of hours staring at Yuna’s back when I could have been doing something to actively fix my problems. Maybe in a way I was addressing my problems, and I needed to do something like the Yuna No-Summoning Challenge to process what was even happening to me, but that’s an area of inquiry that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.
My torrid affair with Yuna was the only time I did a “challenge” with very specific parameters, but I’ve still spent plenty of time making games-within-games, albeit in a less anal manner. I’ve played the quest mode in Ehrgeiz as a religious zealot, using the game’s obtuse (and usually ignored) religion system to power up my weapons and steamroll through the game. I’ve played Vagrant Story while only using certain weapons, or certain spells. I’ve played Parasite Eve with a kind of God Eater Aya, using odd exploits in the game to power up the character far beyond what’s necessary to complete it. I’ve played X-Men Legends in an effort to experience the kinds of team-ups I wanted to see happen in the comics, but never did.**
Even when I’m playing the game the “normal” way, I still have certain quirks that usually customize my playthrough to a certain extent. Since I like exploring mechanics and hate replaying boss fights, I’m usually stupidly overleveled in any game with a leveling system. I also hoard items like a Doomsday prepper, regardless of whether or not I actually need them. I enjoy picking my favorite characters and giving them “Most Favorite Character” status: giving them all the best weapons and armor and stat boosts, while their teammates lag behind. This is especially satisfying to do when my MFC is technically one of the weaker ones, and I make her into an insane powerhouse for no earthly reason.
To return to my earlier point, I think having these kinds of customized gaming experiences are very much like my special meeting-of-the-minds with Kandinsky. I know I’m looking at the game in perhaps a different way than was strictly intended, yet looking at it in more than one way makes my personal connection that much more powerful. However, in traditional art, the personal experience is expressed as a kind of declaration: “To me, this painting is about ____”. In video games, it’s more of a dialogue with the game’s creators. Why did you make this character do this, when she could have done that? Why are you trying to encourage me to fight this boss now, when I still have imaginary crops to grow? Why are you trying to sell me on the power of friendship, when I feel more alone than I’ve ever been?
Let’s Play (Another Version of) This: Gaming As Performance Art
I didn’t record my YONS challenge; it was still hard to record gameplay at that time, and to be fair, it wouldn’t have made for very interesting viewing anyway. But the growing popularity of Let’s Plays adds several more dimensions to this idea that we create customized narratives and experiences within games. With an LP you can:
A) broadcast your customized narrative, so other people get the benefit of seeing the game through your eyes
B)Turn your gaming experience into a kind of performance art, using custom images, songs, and even roleplaying to add an element of improv theater to your gaming.
C)Turn your gaming experience into a communal experience of performance art, with viewers sharing their own custom art, songs and roleplaying.
Obviously I find the artistic possibilities of Let’s Plays and other performative gaming events to be fascinating, but let’s not ignore the obvious; a lot of LPs, perhaps most, are not worth watching. Most are riddled with lines like “I thought there was a health potion over here in this corner, oh wait it’s a green herb,” stuff about the logistics of playing that doesn’t add much to the experience. In a lot of cases the only reason to watch an LP is either because you’re such a huge fan of the game that you’ll watch any content related to it, or you’re stuck somewhere in your own first playthrough and are trying to figure out where you need to go next.
Sometimes though…sometimes people hit it out of the park. Take this Animal Crossing Screenshot LP, where someone turned a seemingly innocuous children’s game into a harrowing tale of psychological horror. Some LP’s can become hilarious screwball comedies, others can introduce a level of poignancy that wasn’t in the original game, particularly when the player shares a personal story that resonates with the games themes. I don’t know if I would consider Let’s Playing an art form– it’s more a weird, bastard child of several art forms, including theater and graphic novels– but to deny that there’s at least an element of art to a good LP seems quite ignorant to me.
Not only that, but the community that can build around an LP– suggesting strategies, coming up with character names, drawing LP-specific fanart, or just making funny quips at the right time– is also a creative entity. It’s art spiraling out and creating more and more art, as art in general tends to do, but this time, maybe even more so.
LPing may not be the most fascinating thing in the world, but let me put it this way; if there aren’t at least 20 Master’s Theses being written about LPing in Media Studies departments all over the world, right this second, then I no longer have any hope for academia. Because you can scoff if you want, but this is the future of art; not all art, certainly, and not all the time, but some art. Maybe even Art with a Capital A.
In the third and final article of this series, we’ll look at some of the arguments against games being art and why they’re all shallow and dumb break them down a little bit.
*I’m a big FFX fan so OF COURSE I know that the most powerful character in the game is actually Wakka once you get Attack Reels, don’t send me hatemail. Or, do send me hatemail, that sounds interesting, just not about Wakka.
**Just FYI, Jean Grey is stupidly overpowered in the original X-Men Legends. I mean, canonically, she should be, but what’s kind of funny is I think it might have been accidental.
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.
Warning: This post is going to devote a lot of time to analyzing a theory about Final Fantasy VIII, a game that is now 17 years old, in incredible detail. This is probably going to seem pointless and obsessive, because it is pointless and obsessive, but I’m going ahead with it anyway for two reasons:
I love Final Fantasy VIII. Always have, always will.
The way said theory is typically discussed in FF fandom is to me indicative of a larger issue within the gaming community, which is that– despite the leaps and bounds the medium has made in garnering critical attention– most gamers still have no use for anything that resembles literary criticism. I think that’s a bit of a shame.
One night, my water broke while I was watching my husband play Disgaea 5. At the time, he was playing a map that involved killing dozens of versions of the same character, Asagi, in order to level up his units. I don’t know what Ms. Asagi could have possibly done to deserve this, but apparently killing her indefinitely is the best way to level up your characters in Disgaea 5, until they have stats higher than the number of protons in the universe. I can’t be sure, because while I had my own save in D5 as well, I was not yet up to the Asagi-genocide portion.
We do this a lot lately. I sit on the couch and sip tea while Wilson plays through games, and only if I really like them do I bother to do an entire playthrough myself. Maybe this makes me less of a gamer, but it’s a pretty relaxing way to spend the odd weeknight. Besides, this way I get to make snide comments about the game without being distracted by the chore of actually having to play it. Wilson is kind enough to pretend my contributions are witty; this may be why I am currently having his children. Continue reading On Disgaea and Giving Birth→
Confession Time: This installment is late because I changed gears. Originally, I wanted to do an overview of the current academic research regarding gender in video games, but it didn’t work out. Many of the papers are stuck behind academic paywalls I don’t have access to (which I should have surmised, but was in denial about), and the few papers openly available on the internet…are kind of awful? I can’t say so with authority, since I’m not any kind of an expert on social science research, but it seems like there are gaping flaws in the methodology of these studies that even a newbie can see: suspiciously small sample sizes, strongly opinionated language in the abstract that makes it seem like the conclusions were chosen before the study was even started, etc.
That said, there could be great research about gender as portrayed in video games out there, somewhere; I’m just not currently in a position to find it. However, for someone currently involved in academic research who has access to all these scholarly databases, I think this presents an intriguing area for study; look at all the papers on this topic, and see which ones pass muster as proper research, and which are fluff designed to bolster specific preconceived ideas. Once again, I can only speculate, but I would bet money that a lot of these studies will turn out to be light and inconsequential as a feather.*
So instead of delving into academic research, which I’m clearly ill-equipped to do, I’m going to try something else: talk about how we can analyze video games as though we were doing it from scratch. Before any serious data collection about gender representation can be done, I think there are some very basic questions that need to be addressed, yet are rarely mentioned.
When I wrote my “journalist’s take” on GamerGate a month or so back, my main point was that many games writers for sites like Kotaku and Polygon are just plain bad at their jobs; I didn’t think they were necessarily unethical, no matter what many gamers were saying. Since then, lots of new information has come to light and I’ve changed my mind about that: many of these people are seriously unethical. In a way, it’s not even their fault, since they’ve apparently never been held to journalistic standards before and thus don’t really understand what they’re doing wrong, but going into that is probably best saved for another day. Continue reading Do Video Game Reviews Matter?→
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about how we need to have a discussion about gender in gaming:* how men and women are portrayed, and why that might matter. It’s a nice idea, but frankly, I haven’t been seeing much discussion; I’ve been seeing multiple opposing camps that talk past each other (when not going for each other’s throats outright). Maybe I’ve just been hanging out in all the wrong places online, but if thoughtful, meaningful discussion on this topic is taking place, I haven’t been lucky enough to run across it.**
So my plan here, with this series of posts, is to attempt to have that discussion…or at least a small part of it. I don’t want it to be adversarial; there’s no “versus” anywhere. For what it’s worth, I’m also coming into it with an open mind, because I have to; I honestly don’t know yet the full extent of the differences between male and female portrayals in games as a whole, why those differences exist, how much they matter (and to whom), and what any of this means, if anything, the moment we turn off the game. One of my hopes in writing this is that I can puzzle out answers to some of those questions for myself. Continue reading Gender in Gaming 1: What Do We Want to See?→