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Video Games as Art

Video gaming, as a medium, lives now in a constant state of public debate over when it might bridge the gap into being an art form. A conversation sprang up the other day in G+ over this article, and I had enough that I wanted to say that, well, here we are in my blog, where it's okay for me to be the only one talking for the first 2,000 words or so. I hope to explain a pathway between the current state of video games and wider acceptance as Art, but with more matter along the way, without becoming a foolish figure or indeed quite mad.

In all my life I have never heard a conversation about whether a given work, genre, or medium is Art that did not break down into a dispute over the definition of Art in five steps or fewer. Therefore I want to start with laying out in broad strokes the definition I expect to use; I enjoin those writing in response to spend as little time as possible disputing the core definition, so that we can move on to the interesting part. I am nowhere near as well-educated on these debates as many of my readers, and I offer no pretense otherwise.
Art is a discrete work that carries an aesthetic intent on the part of the creator and can be shared with others.
Aesthetic intent must be held to a high standard if video games hope to cross the chasm of acceptance imposed by the institutional theory of art, in the same way that words on a page must achieve a high standard of emotional resonance and other kinds of aesthetic value to hold literary merit. Without imposing a stringent standard, most definitions of art would almost necessarily embrace video games almost from their inception. Audiovisual spectacle, especially in combination with a baseline level of audience engagement, is certainly available in early video games - here I would point to the meditative state brought on by an hour or so of Tetris, and the way its gyrating shapes emerge again in the mind's eye as you drift off to sleep.

No, we can't short-circuit the discussion with the claim that video games have always been art, or that the full standard of art was achieved in video gaming 29 years ago by... the Soviets. We're really talking about what standard video games will have to reach before the artistic establishment really should accept the validity of the medium.

It's terribly tempting, especially as someone who does this for a living, to insist that true art is present in games already, and it is only the audience that is not prepared to receive it. I am sure an endless list of artists in other media have felt exactly that impulse - that their greatness would be recognized if only the audience shared their aesthetic refinement. Considering how many creators find only posthumous celebrity, they must not be entirely wrong. It is, however, entirely outside of our powers as both creators and audience to effect change on the populace, except through the discernment of criticism.

I would certainly argue that the Mass Effect series, for example, deserves as much analysis from video game critics as literary critics has lavished on the canon of Western literature. Given its ability to provoke deep, thoughtful argument about narrative structure and cosmic meaning (even among those who detest the series' conclusion), it's halfway there. It certainly provoked sound and fury (and a DLC revision of the end) to compete with the Parisian premiere of The Rites of Spring. For the sake of Mass Effect, I'll have to argue that specific works may be at or near the standard of Art even if video gaming as a medium still falls short.

David Cage argues a variety of different points about the path toward video games becoming art. These arguments range from the economic realities of gaming to the medium's approach to emotion. It's a manifesto in nine parts, so I'm going to go through it a piece at a time. He reveals, over the course of his arguments, that he is in touch with only a limited portion of the gaming sphere (the triple-A part), and cannot overcome his disdain for a focus on fun as an aspect of the game. He also doesn't think there are any popular game models other than shooting things or jumping on platforms; I imagine the endless lines of clones of Tetris, Bejeweled, FarmVille, and a great many other kinds would find this rather perplexing. I'm not sure why he thinks that consoles are the only platforms, but that is a strong through-line of his discussion. The lesson here is that game designers have no idea that anyone makes any genre of game other than their own.

First, as to broadening the audience, he wants games to appeal to "your mother or grandmother". There are exceptions to this - Kainenchen's grandmother was the one to introduce her to video gaming - but for most of the Baby Boomer generation and older, video games are a foreign country, inaccessible in every aspect. I have said that we must not wish to change the audience; at the same time, I think it is only the generations that grew up with video gaming that are prepared to engage with video games at all. Hoping to create games for older generations is, in my view, about like trying to sell them books written in Sanskrit. A game might be the Mona Lisa of the medium, but that will mean little to those whose eyes are resolutely closed.

Cage's next point starts with accusing game designers of not knowing how to make a game without a gun. This is ludicrous, and even as hyperbole it undermines the validity of his arguments. The same Hollywood that he hopes will come to respect video games has just as extensive an obsession with first-person shooters - sorry, I mean action movies. It's just as much of a trope to say that Hollywood makes only violence, and it's just as wrong. Oh, but wait: when he says "designers" he actually means "investors." Let me pull back the curtain of video game creation just a bit: games are crushingly expensive to make, because they are made with a profit motive. Consider the comparison here to other artistic media: "starving artist" (or writer) couldn't be any more of a stereotype, while plenty of movies have failed when funding falls through. Video games have everything in common with film here, except that investors don't respect the medium and thus won't readily accept a studio alternating between the "money game" and the "art game." Until investors (and marketing departments) believe that the "art game" can sell, there's no way forward on this point.

There are, however, character-driven games with guns or gun-like objects that offer a rich narrative experience, replete with layers of meaning and theme. There are platformers, flight sims, and beat-em-ups that recognize those descriptors as nothing more than tools, surpassing them to become more than the sum of their parts and some of the finest recent games. Cage is absolutely, 100% right when he urges games to have something to say. Investors, marketing departments, and others have, I think, always seen Deeper Meaning as inaccessible and frivolous - but let me step back and simply say that in any creation-by-committee (excepting only the DtD Plot committee, who are wonderful beyond compare), there are going to be people who want to present the product in a different way. It's obscenely difficult for the outcome to be Art if the guiding star is whether or not it helps the product to sell.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible for a work to be too blatant in its message - so tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Not all audiences want to engage a text in order to comprehend it, but every audience hates feeling that the creator is talking down to it or beating it over the head. Massive text blocks aren't the way, either - unless we're talking about The Elder Scrolls' vast libraries of world-lore, I can promise you that the audience has tuned out and is looking for an Escape button. This is either because it isn't gameplay or because they aren't authors, depending on what you choose to believe - for my money, it's both. There are plenty of excellent writers working in content creation, but Sturgeon's Revelation applies. Further, if a game involves either room to explore or a success/failure duality, the creator intrinsically accepts that emergent outcomes may cause the audience to miss the Deeper Meaning entirely.

Games are unlike every other medium; while we can learn a great deal from literature, visual arts, and cinema, the consumer is an active participant in the consumption of games, and that changes everything. The essence of the game, the point at which the game diverges from every other medium, is the moment when the player makes a decision with one or more options that changes the observed state of the game. There is input, and in response there is output. This is true of every game; this is why responsive controls are good, excessive cut-scenes are bad, and railroading is the worst. Cage rails endlessly against games that challenge the user, because old guys don't like a challenge. That may be so, but games have to engage the active part of the player's brain so that the player will continue to consume the content. If the most fundamental game loop doesn't trip the triggers in the player's brain that get them involved, the game might as well be a book that is glued shut.

Cage moves on to suggest that game studios work with people outside of gaming to improve their works. This is a great idea if you can afford a celebrity's time. This prices game creation out of a small studio's reach, though. "Triple-A" is not the only number of As.

On both censorship and the press, Cage's positions make good sense. I hated having someone looming over my shoulder telling me I had to cut lines of dialogue for content. On the other hand, an avatar in a game is literally intended to be the player's representation in the world, so that the player's responses (emotions and adrenaline) become easier to manipulate. This presents the writers with a great power and responsibility, just as someone writing rhetoric ought not persuade an audience of false or evil things. It should therefore not be censored, but treated with respect. As for the gaming press, much as Cage suggests, they are one of the best possible sources of pressure toward more artistic merit in games. I particularly recognize Penny Arcade as a leading source of recognition and unpretentious commentary on games that transcend genre and medium to deliver something greater.

Violence is, if anything, more useful in games than elsewhere, as it represents engaging content here in ways it does not in cinema. Until we come up with a better dialogue parser than any we have yet seen, conversation will not be a strong option for moving the majority of scenes forward. The chief problems we face now are that player options are too narrowly limited, and mechanical results from dialogue choices compel players to min-max outcomes in order to see the "best" content, particularly endings. At the same time, providing more diverging options than good-neutral-bad or nice-neutral-jerkass rapidly expands into a crushing burden on content creators and astronomical expenses for voice actors, since players are coming to expect fully voice-acted dialogue. An action sequence that is gratuitous in a novel or movie is just a matter of sustaining the pacing of a video game. There are all kinds of games without violent conflict, or with strategic rather than tactical violence, such as the list that made this guy famous, but the industry's reliance on violence is more nuanced than simple laziness. I do agree with Cage that no one wins in a race to the bottom for the most horrific violence, especially if the game gives the player no other way forward than to continue in the violence.

Finally, I disagree in the strongest of terms with Cage's contention that we shift the industry toward "digital entertainment" and away from "games." He describes here an ever more glorified choose-your-own-adventure, eliminating the artificial challenge in favor of a "journey." Supposing that the content team does give players a branching tree of meaningful choices (even if those choices circle back to bring the conversation onto a core path, as Bioware does so well), we're talking about the art and content teams making multiple concurrent, artistically valid animated films. Actually, I'm pretty sure this has been done on DVD already. This has nothing in common with the things that hook players into a game; if Cage wants to make "digital entertainment" instead, that is well and good, but I cannot see how it would have any bearing on the video game industry. I would frankly be surprised if it competed with it effectively, though history is littered with naysayers.

Cage speaks more like a frustrated novelist than a designer, as his ideas strip out mechanics and play in favor of a range of guided experiences. There are certainly puzzle games that focus on the freedom to explore, such as Journey. Mechanics and gameplay engage players during the exposition and carry them along into the plot; they are to the medium of gaming what polished prose is to the novel, and what cinematography is to film. Even Fallen London, which is a glorified choose-your-own-adventure, includes mechanics to give complication and nuance to the world that the player explores.

As I've listed a wide range of video games, I think there are many ways forward for the industry as a whole. Getting a rein on production costs is a priority, in order to keep as much creative control as possible in designers' hands rather than investors', and to keep the game from needing to earn several million dollars to break even. Opening the industry to a wider base - inviting in more voices to create - can only help. If Sturgeon is right, let it be 10% of a very large number.

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