boojum42 (boojum42) wrote,
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Seven Things Meme: Are videogames art?

Muahaha, you probably forgot this meme even existed! (I did, whoops.) But now I am back on the wagon! I am now presenting the third installment of the seven things meme, in which sandmantv has asked me to comment on:
1. Keeping kosher and the various rules you follow for high holy days. It's cultural effects, why you do it, etc.
(2. Fire.)
3. Standards of beauty.
4. Privacy.
5. Christmas.
6. Are videogames art?
(7. What's your summary of the plot and lore of Warcraft so far.)

Today: Are videogames art?


I have always been pretty bad at defining what is or isn't art. I think there's a sense in which art refers to anything made by humans in a creative fashion for the sake of appealing to the senses (particularly the visual ones), but that probably puts in all sorts of stuff I don't want (hot showers were totally made by humans and appeal to the senses), and also leaves out stuff I do want (stories, for instance). So, shrug. But even if I just say "you know, whatever it is I actually mean by art" then there is a further question of to what extent something has to be, say, original, or thought-provoking, to count as art. But even that doesn't get at it, quite-- definitely even the harshest critics of the idea that videogames are art will still admit that people have made creative innovations in the field since, say, pong.

ANYHOW! Let's just pretend that I came up with a coherent definition, and move on.

Video games definitely contain things that everyone agrees are art (though they may disagree on whether they're, say, Real Art, whatever that is). Video games definitely have visuals, often attractive visuals, and also often have music and other sound, and often have stories, and I think everyone agrees that pictures, music, and stories can be art.

So then you can have two further questions. 1) Do videogames contain pictures, music, or stories that are good enough to count as Art? (assuming some definition of Art that excludes some pictures, music, or stories as too derivative or something to count)

2) Is there anything about the game element itself (as opposed to the music, or FMVs of the characters, or whatever) that counts as art?

My answer to (1) is:
I think the answer is: a lot of video game visuals are attractive, and some are otherwise interesting, and a lot of video game music is emotionally grabbing and/or pretty and/or interesting, and I don't see why, say, Nobuo Uematsu shouldn't count as an artist. Probably most artwork and music in video games is building off of other traditions, but so is most art, generally, so, meh.
As for stories: most video game stories could not, exactly as they are, work well in a movie or graphic novel. As a viewer I would say something like, maybe we don't need to read about Cloud and Tifa fighting the next 50 monsters. Cut to the chase! Similarly, I would want more dialogue, particularly from protagonists. And, often, video game plots have plot holes that I wouldn't tolerate in a book or movie. Why did Aeris die to Sephiroth's sword when on eight previous occasions she was saved by phoenix downs?

BUT. Video games AREN'T books or movies, and so their storytelling is allowed to work differently. Most notably, video game plots are allowed to be patchier or more inconsistent than book or movie plots, due to gameplay necessities. BECAUSE, as a tradeoff for this patchiness, we get GAMEPLAY. And gameplay gives us IMMERSION.

See, this brings me to (2). As thekinginyellow once pointed out to me, the ideal video game wouldn't be, say, Casablanca with occasional interruptions in which the player must play a few rounds of pong in order to get to the next scene. Casablanca may be art, but the pong element wouldn't be adding anything to the overall work. (Pong may or may not be art, but its addition to Casablanca wouldn't lead to a whole that is greater than its parts, just to two activities awkwardly interposed.)

BUT! In a video game, the gameplay relates to the story! At least in a story game, gameplay requires me to identify with a protagonist or protagonists. And this makes me care about the story to, sometimes, a very high degree. When telling the story of a video game, I will often use the first-person to refer to the main character, because, hey! I've been playing that person for hours and hours. Further, when something HAPPENS to a video game character, I will react more strongly because the game has asked me to identify with this person. And the element of immersion will change how I view the plot.

For an example from Kingdom Hearts 2: you start the game playing a boy named Roxas who hangs out with his friends and does odd jobs-- frankly, this intro segment is pretty slow. Eventually, Roxas learns that the town he lives in is basically a VR, and that he himself is, supposedly, an emotionless piece of another boy's soul. He is then forcibly subsumed into this other boy, Sora, who is the protagonist of the rest of the game. To the extent that Roxas and others like him are mentioned in the rest of the game, most of the "good guy" characters treat this as normal and good-- Roxas "wasn't real" and "didn't have feelings". BUT I do not believe these NPCs and here is why. I spent HOURS as Roxas! They weren't terribly entertaining hours but they were there! And, for whatever reason, ROXAS clearly cared about doing odd jobs and winning foam sword tournaments and eating popsicles with his VR friends. When he finds out what is about to happen to him, he smashes up a computer. This is not the act of a person without feelings! I played him for five hours, he is me, dammit, and he is attached to his own existence.
Hmm... I'm not sure if this is an example of a GOOD videogame plot. But it is definitely an example of how gameplay, even mediocre gameplay, increases my appreciation of a story. If I hadn't spent hours being Roxas, I might have been willing to believe those NPCs trying to tell me he has no feelings.* As it is, I find the computer-smashing scene pretty darn poignant.

Also, I guess, there is the further question of whether gameplay itself (independent of story) is art. I think again I will say: sure! There are few things more aesthetically satisfying, in my experience, than creating chains in Pokemon Puzzle League. And this has almost nothing to do with the Pokemon. (Although: Giovanni is clearly the best puzzle master and Nidoking is clearly the best Pokemon, just saying. The world will be his!) And somebody DESIGNED this game (or, well, its predecessor) so as to create this aesthetic satisfaction. Other, more elaborate or strategic games might have a bunch of interlocking pieces all balanced to make a coherent whole that creates an interesting brain exercise for the player. In either case, it seems to me like this should count as art!

But as Art? Meh, I am not convinced I know what that is.


* Well, maybe not. I don't like similar arguments as applied to C-3PO.


All right, so, in conclusion:

1) Video games have stories and pictures and music, which are art. Whether or not they count as "Art" seems like it'd depend on your idiosyncratic preferences, but the same is true for stories, pictures and music anywhere.
2) Video game stories have VALUE ADDED because there is an element of immersion, causing me to identify with the protagonist and adding greatly to my appreciation of whatever happens to him or her.
3) Even aside from stories, video game play is designed to create an interactive aesthetic experience, and I'm happy calling that art too.
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I saw this quote just now:

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. (Roy Ascott’s phrase.) That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andrew Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.”

I myself have never particularly felt anything from a video game that gives me the same feeling as some other genres of work more typically considered art give. But don't let that stop you, or anyone else, from getting such a feeling while playing a video game.
(Also, this may have more to do with my relative lack of experience with games than anything else.)
I like your definition!

If anything at all is clear to me from writing this thing, it's that I have no idea how to define art. This works better than whatever I was able to come up with, at least.