Sunday, 27 October 2013

Blip: Are video games really art?

Yes. Yes they are. Any attempt to argue with that requires a great deal of equivocation and iffy distinctions. They don’t use paint? Well neither do sculptures. They aren’t in a gallery? Neither is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or any number of historical statues dotted around city centres in England (and, of course, many European cities and so on and so forth).

If you’re here to disagree that fundamental point then that’s fine but know that I’m not taking you seriously ever again. However, discussing whether video games are art isn’t actually the topic here. The topic is the functions and affectations of games as art. What can they bring to creative and artistic discourses that would be otherwise missing?

Brief note: I’m not taking the time to explain game names or abbreviations. This post is for gamers, under whatever definition you like. If you don’t know what something is, then research.

First off, a great many games contain example of most other types of art. The music in Final Fantasy 7 could make me weep, the visual vistas of Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind have, in turn, moved me beyond any real view I’ve seen and the rich depth of character in games such as Lost Odyssey, KotOR and MGS have touched me on a more personal level than any of the vapid cattle that inhabit the self-proclaimed ‘real’ world.

The real beauty of games as an art form, though, is in the element they share most with ‘interactive art’: Choice. Some interactive art requires participation on behalf of the viewer and some requires participation on some outside factor, which makes it an artwork that changes over time, becoming something new every second and being something new overall in its abandonment of stability (which happens to be something I think all art should embrace. By the way, I’m thinking of Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘spun’ and Utsusemi Motoi’s Salt Stairs).

These pieces of art need you to take part in some way. Admittedly, every piece of art requires some element of choice, you can choose to look at it or not, you can look at it from another angle etc. The key difference is that in an artwork discussing choice, the art will actually react to your participation and respond to your influence. It’s this factor that’s so very prominent in games. In fact, this factor is more represented in games than anywhere else.

The reason that this factor of choice is so important is that it allows for a discourse between the artist and the viewer, the game-maker and the player. The game-maker anticipates how the player will act and react to the game (any good game designer will tell you how important that is) and make the game respond accordingly. When a game has a death animation for falling down a certain hole or simply running out of health, it means the game-maker anticipated that would happen at some point and is showing you that you’re following the plan. You are bound to follow that plan, there are no choices outside it but the decisions that are there, are there to be made.

Contrary to many ideas on predeterminism and free will, the two can coincide and actually act together. Boethius made such a point that God’s theoretical foreknowledge of everything that is to happen needn’t preclude your choice in acting. Determinism, cause and effect, action and reaction and free will are all descriptions born from our way of understanding time whereas God exists completely out of time. There is no before or after, there simply is. In a sense, games work in a similar way; the game-maker made the game in a totally different way than the way you’re playing it. They viewed it all as a whole creation and built it to their specifications, allowing for whatever choices and reactions they wanted. When you play the game, it’s like traversing the 2-dimensional surface of a 3-dimensional object; it’s impossible to truly grasp the full picture in the way in which it was built. Rather, you can get at it how it was intended, which is the experience from the player’s point of view. Within this realm (which only seems limited when put up against the larger, 3D, framework) you have the full spectrum of choices. You have choice, and yet you’re bound within a plan of larger dimensions.

The mistake comes from seeing the bigger picture too much and pre-defining a purpose of the game: To win. Ultimately, the aim of all games is the same as all art: Subjective, implicit expression of the game-maker/artist and subjective, inductive, inferential expression of the viewer/player. The internal rules of the game help form the structure within which you experience the game but they don’t constitute all the game has to offer. Does everybody stop playing a game as soon as they win? Some do (often greatly scorned by the ‘true gamers’) but most will, at some point, want to win again or win in a different way, they’ll want to work toward other in-game objectives or self-made challenges (complete a certain level of a Super Mario game with only X amount of jumps) or they will simply want to play the game and see what else they can experience. Look at GTA, Elder Scrolls and Minecraft. The sheer potential for wandering about and finding things to do or enjoying the same activities in a new way is staggering because there is a wealth beyond the basic ‘win’ objective.

Doesn’t it feel like a kind of achievement when you’re playing a game and you slowly but valiantly go down in flames because of that mis-placed tetrimino or those Rhodok sharpshooters whittling down your health? Well that’s because you have still achieved. You’ve enjoyed yourself and gained some sensual experience from it. Think of it like this: When reading a simple story, if the protagonist fails their objective by the end (the main character dies, their enemy wins or perhaps simply, their wife leaves them), do you then feel that the time spent reading the book was wasted? If you do, seek help.

The objective of the characters in a play or novel is akin to the objective of the player-character in a game in that it is a theoretical objective that exists only within the gamespace and does not represent the overall, objective: The aesthetic goal. With regards to game-making, this tends to refer to the overall experience or bank of experiences made available to the player thanks to the anticipation and informed design of the game-maker.

Sometimes, these two level of objectives interact with each other and can even clash. I’ll hopefully be exploring more of that next time.

TL;DR – Games are awesome because of the choices you make.


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