Kevin (erf_) wrote,

ebert passes the thumb, part three

Let's go back to the first inspiration for the video game--even before Spacewar and Pong. Let's go back to punch cards and mainframes, at a time when a video screen was an impressive novelty. As a professional programmer I have heard no end of horror stories from that era, those machines being notoriously persnickety, and sensitive to the slightest changes in environment. Suppose, for a moment, we assume that an operator discovered that a single pixel would light up on the video screen every time he set down his coffee mug on a certain spot. Let us assume that another operator discovered that setting his coffee mug down on a different spot would light up a pixel on the other side of the screen. Let's say that, as a daily habit, each operator would try to accumulate more pixels on his or her side of the screen than the other.

This would be a video game. Is it art? Not any more than sneaking pennies onto your co-worker's desk is art. And so we have a hypothetical example of a video game that, in most people's minds, without context, would be not seen as art.

Let's say, instead, that we have two painters sharing a studio. One painter accidentally nicks his paint-wet sleeve against a bare canvas, and goes out to lunch. The other painter comes in and notices that the paint smudge has a heart-wrenchingly expressive shape, like a single dying tulip, and immediately calls their agent. Some time later the painting is sitting in a gallery. Is this art? Yes. (Found art. Maybe not good art. But art.)

Let's say someone's little kid sings karaoke into a microphone, and Jonathan Coulton dubs a guitar line over it and releases the mp3 on his website. (He actually did this--I forget the name of the song.) Is this art? Yes.

What I'm getting at here, as should be somewhat evident by now, is that while video games can be art--at some times recognizably, unmistakably art--they are not necessarily art. It is entirely possible to make a video game that is not art. It is not, however, possible to record a piece of music or paint a painting that is not art.

Of course, you can record static from an inactive wiretapped phone line, or coat a house in protective varnish, and those actions are not necessarily art. This is why in the English language we generally make a distinction between a process, identified by its creating technology, and art created by the process. "Books" are not the same as "literature." The verb "painting" does not always produce the noun "painting." A "recording" is not necessarily a "song."

But a "video game"? It falls in the same category as books, recordings, and verb-paintings. The art form is the technology. We have no word or phrase for art created through the technology of video games.

Given that, in my over twenty years playing video games, some of them the most esoteric art games you've never heard of, I have never come across a game where the gameplay itself, the defining feature of the game, the thing that gives the work its game-ness, is the primary means of artistic expression in a game, I am increasingly convinced that no such thing, as of yet, even exists.

Not that some games haven't tried. News games like September 12 utilize ludic devices like the rhetoric of failure to play on the gamer's existing perceptions of how games work (September 12 in particular playing on the custom of clicking on enemies to make them die, without moral repercussions), as well as their existing perceptions of world politics. Games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG, Escape from Woomera, and Waco Resurrection all attempt to disturb the player by placing his or her agency in a morally troubling context. But the real power of those kinds of games comes from what we bring to them, not what we take from them. None of them would mean anything to someone who hasn't spent a lifetime shooting terrorists, saving the kingdom from apocalypse, or chasing after 1-up mushrooms. Madrid, in particular, would be absolutely meaningless to someone who doesn't know that Madrid was the latest target of a series of terrorist attacks when the game was released. The true medium by which art is expressed in those games is our understanding of the world; the games themselves merely frame it in a new format. (Is a USA Today pie chart of combat deaths in Iraq art?) The ludic elements of a game seem, by themselves, inherently removed from the creative forces that make art art. You may be excited when you score a critical hit in an RPG, or frustrated when someone shotguns you just as you're about to line up a headshot in a first-person shooter, and the game may be deliberately engineered to provoke these reactions, but ultimately there is no personal engagement, no created experience, to the changing of the numbers aside from what you bring to them. As an English professor once said to me: reading into the work, not out of it. One could even define the ludic elements of a game as the parts that aren't inherently artistic--indeed, one of the key elements (as I understand it) of the art of designing the ludic elements of a game is seamlessly marrying the parts of the game that are art to the parts that aren't. (Not having a cutscene feel jarring after an intense firefight, for example, or trying to make the gamer feel torn by putting the protagonist's long-lost love inside the final boss's weak spot.)

The training and background I have as a writer--a participant in a more established art form--gives me some unsettling additional perspective. I have two friends, also writers, Anna and Aries, who are participants in virtually every other art form imaginable. Anna sings, makes vegan bento boxes, writes poetry, makes lampshades out of vintage dresses; she used to be in an improv acting troupe and I would occasionally even see her at anime club showings. Aries, a former cosplayer, dances swing, writes fiction and nonfiction, ran the college circus club, and was in a radio play. All the things they do have a sort of creative thread in common--that slippery, impossible-to-define creativeness that makes art art. Neither of them play video games. In fact, think as I might, with all my years of training and years of playing every game imaginable and thinking about the experience of playing them, I cannot imagine, much less recommend, a video game that could appeal to that side of either of them. Damningly, it is not a failure of imagination at fault, I find, but that the inherent ludic joy of playing or even designing and programming a video game is simply not relevant to that common creative urge at all. One of these hobbies is not like the others.

Let's go back to chess. Chess is, most people would agree, not an art form. Playing it can be. Art can be made from it. You can create beautiful chesspieces and chessboards, devise gorgeous knight's-walk routines, stage plays around it, use it as the motif for a culinary masterpiece. Chess can be--perhaps inherently is--made of art. But chess, itself, is not art, any more than breathing, any more than making popcorn in the microwave. Those things can be art--but they aren't, inherently. Painting, music, cooking--always art. Which are video games more like?

This leads to my depressing conclusion--one that overturns a position I have held, and championed, for over half of my life, and one that is agonizing to me as a game developer and a gamer, who's taking huge risks to pursue new horizons in this medium, and someone who is so passionate about its future:

Video games are not inherently an art form.

Video games can be made of art. And art can be made out of video games. But the same could be said of accounting, paper clip manufacturing, or running a business.

This is, needless to say, goddamned depressing.

A ton of love is going into the Nintendo DS game I'm working on, Lasers! Pew! Pew!. The process of designing the game is, unquestionably, art. The music and graphics my friends are doing for it is, unquestionably, art. Even the code, with its mesmerizing stanzas of poetry in C, and the frolicking of functions and data structures they represent, and the flickering dance of electrons across the Nintendo DS hardware they in turn represent, could be interpreted as art.

But the game itself? It's just a pile of art sitting on my hard drive until I go through the unpleasant, not-at-all creative process of turning it into a game. That last act of transformation, the part I am most responsible for, the thing that makes it a game and not just a loose collection of art and music, adds nothing new, creatively, to the process. And even if I were to flatter myself to the utmost, I will never believe this thing--or anything like it that I make--belongs in a gallery, no matter how preposterously inflated my need for validation would have to get to be anywhere near that point.

Maybe someday I will make a game, or be part of a team that makes a game, that will. But until then, I am erf_, game developer, professional non-artist, at your service.
Tags: art, essays, games, movies

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