Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Games and high art vs. low art

In my previous article, I discussed some of the criteria I consider necessary to consider when trying to determine if a given game is art.  At the core of my argument was that a game has to have a unified purpose, with gameplay, technology and narrative coming together to form a cohesive whole.  I realise that, in hindsight, this might have been a little presumptuous - after all, games aren't the product of a singular vision, but of a large team of individuals, and they often aren't created with any sort of artistic aspirations in mind (although this is certainly changing in the case of even some major developers).  In this series of follow-up articles, which I hope to finish within the next few days, I'll be looking at a few of the questions that arose from my article, both out of my own head as well as suggested by some of my readers (thanks guys!).

The primary concern that was brought forth was that my article allowed for some rather controversial interpretations.  More specifically, I suggested that Unreal Tournament, following my framework, could be viewed as art.  The obvious response?  "How could Unreal Tournament be art?  It has no story, no real characters, and is built entirely around game mechanics!"  This sort of statement instantly reveals a belief that many of us have when it comes to art: that for something to be art, it has to be intellectual, emotionally stirring, or otherwise "arty".  This could be explained more simply by the difference we see between art and craft; that is, a work by Monet might be interpreted as art, while a painting on the wall of a hotel is seen as a craft - we acknowledge the mechanical labour and skill that went in producing the piece, but there is an almost invisible understanding that the piece is not "meant" to be high art.

Applying this to video games, we see the same complaint can be made of Unreal Tournament, or even titles that I didn't discuss, like Nintendogs.  The way that many would respond is that while these games are well-made and well-designed, they are not artistic in the same way that a purpose-built piece of art might be.  Yet there are inherently some problems with this belief that have been the subject of debate within the art world for centuries.  Namely, does something have to be built or created as art for it to actually be art?  Shakespeare is considered today to be one of the finest playwrights in history, and yet during his life, his work was regarded as common entertainment and little else.  Similarly, beautiful pieces of architecture often serve the purpose of housing banks, offices, government buildings, and other decidedly "non-artistic" functions.

 Super Mario Bros., most would argue, is
art of a sort, but what makes it so special?

But what happens when we ask the same of games other than Unreal TournamentSuper Mario Bros.
is one of the most influential and well-known games of all time, possibly the most, and I think most people involved with games would consider it to be a piece of art.  Why is this?  Although the game is indeed executed nearly flawlessly considering the time of its release, is there anything about it that particularly says "art"?  Is it the functional but effective visuals?  The iconic soundtrack?  The quality of its mechanics?  Is there anything in particular about it at all that actually makes us sit back and think "that's art" when we may not think the same of another equally well-conceived title?  Inevitably, we have to fall back on one of two answers.  The first, "it's a classic" is unconvincing at best, since it's imprecise and lacks detail as to precisely why a game's precedent matters in relation to its status as art (I have seen many arguments for this sort of thing in the rest of the art world, equally unconvincing).  The second, and most plausible answer, is "it's cohesive and unified in all aspects of its design".  Upon inspecting Super Mario Bros., I think we could all agree: its visuals, soundtrack, gameplay and so forth all serve to achieve the same goal of providing a fun and immediate platform game.  Does it have much to say?  Not really, no, but it's damn well executed.

The simple fact is that we cannot continue to make exceptions for Super Mario Bros., Pong and any other classics that we might crown, either older games or new "modern classics".  Such exceptions fly in the face of us formulating any sort of precise definition for games as art, as well as criteria for understanding them as good art or bad art.  Unreal Tournament might not be full of artistic pretence, and it's not a classic of the same caliber as Super Mario Bros., but to say that it is any less accomplished a game would be to ignore all of the things that it excels at so well in favour of things that we might consider to be "low" on the artistic scale.

Of course, when it comes to Unreal Tournament, those things would be violence and gore.  It seems that whenever one introduces graphic violence to a work of fiction, it's instantly lowered in the eyes of critics and even the public at large, as if something which features blood and guts can't be anything other than a mere childish amusement.  This actually presents quite a problem for games, especially modern games, since so many of them revolve around violence; in order to still be considered "artistic", a game that features violence has to have plenty of other things to "make up" for all of that excess.  Rather than fully accept the violence as an integral part of our enjoyment of the piece, we instead try to justify it by saying "well, at least the story is good", or even "it's a mature work for mature people".  Viewed at a glance, BioShock is no different from legions of other shooters; the game seems almost aware of this, and at every turn is desperate to ensure us that it is "more than just a shooter", just as we insist the same to onlookers.

Now, I'm not trying to say that BioShock isn't necessarily art, although as an art piece I'd say it has some major problems.  However, I don't think it's not art, or low art, simply because of some of its graphic imagery.  Rather, I'd say that the violent content of the game helps to support the narrative, at least to some degree.  BioShock isn't just senseless violence: the game gives players context for the violence that they commit, and even provides meta-commentary by way of a plot device to make us feel a bit uneasy about the things that we do in the game as second nature.  I would go as far as to say as that BioShock would be significantly harmed as a game if it did not include its depictions of violence and gore - perhaps the core experience and story would come through, but it would be lacking a visceral quality to it that would take us out of the game rather than draw us in.  Conversely, the unrealistic and exaggerated blood and gore effects of Unreal Tournament serve to accentuate its hyper-violent and lighting-fast game universe and play style - when you shoot someone with the Flak Cannon and blow them to bits, it satiates something primal and kinetic inside of us.  Just as the inclusion of realistic (for game standards) gore in BioShock helps make the experience more plausible and disturbing, the excess of Unreal Tournament's violence gives us tangible feedback within what might be a very unfamiliar world.  Of course, this works in reverse too: Super Mario Bros. is enhanced by its cartoonish depictions of violence, and would only be harmed by any more than it already portrays.  Violence itself won't make or break a game's art value, but its execution within the context of a given game can certainly add to or detract from its artistic merit.

Taken out of context, BioShock's realistic violence could
be seen as tasteless, but it serves a strong narrative purpose in-game.

In any case, what we do need to do is get beyond this high art vs. low art divide that is currently harming the games industry.  I don't mean to say that we need to start evaluating all games by the same artistic standards - certainly that would be a foolish waste of time, as every other major form of media is well aware of the differing standards between its genres and formats.  However, there is nothing preventing us as critics, journalists and individual thinkers and consumers from looking at games from a more critical perspective, and abandoning our biases about what can and can't be art, as well as our presumptions about various "tiers" of artistry.  I'm convinced that doing so is one of the best ways to ensure that the games industry move forward.

There are a couple of benefits to be had from taking this more open approach.  The first is that we that much more accepting of new ideas.  Thinking of X and Y as artistic is fine, but it also limits what we consider to be art in the first place.  Rather than look for telltale signs of an "art game", instead we'll be able to give all games the benefit of the doubt, as it were.  The second is that we will begin to look at games beyond mere toys.  We don't think of art in the same way we do casual entertainment, or decoration.  As soon as we start to think about something artistically, we start to examine it on far different merits than we would "just a game" - namely, how it speaks to us as human beings and to our human experiences, and what sorts of things it teaches us about the world we live in.

There is a downside to this, and that is that we could run into a potential post-modern quagmire of "well, since art is up to the interpreter, anything can be art".  That may be the case, and that's not something that I believe I can fundamentally or wholly disprove.  However, in the following articles, I hope to further outline some of the criteria for evaluating games as art, to hopefully provide more context and specificity to my articles, as well as in order to shoot a few holes in the "everything is art" argument.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]

1 comment:

  1. Imho pretty much everything is art. For something to be not art it needs to be 100% functional and what is really 100% functional? Its just that some things have a higher emphasis on looking "nice". Unreal Tournament is fairly artistic in the sense of it having a entirely new world with unique architecture,objects and what else not. Sure it might not really have a story but most buildings dont have a story either nor do various other objects that are considered as art.