Video Games As Art: A Debate That Was Settled Before Video Games Existed
Posted on Friday, September 10 2010 @ 02:32:12 Eastern
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp bought a urinal, wrote a name and a date on it, made no other changes whatsoever and submitted it to an art show as a piece called Fountain. It was never displayed and presumably thrown out. Now every reproduction of the piece is either owned in a private collection or on display in a museum, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern. These are art museums. They display art. ‘Modern Art’ is not a runner-up phrase. It’s not an ‘almost.’ It’s an entire period of art and it’s certified and taught the world over. There is of course a very long winded philosophical process of people coming to the consensus that a urinal is art. I certainly do not know all the names involved and you probably wouldn’t want to read it anyway but I can tell you the precedent set by Fountain easily umbrellas over most things in debate of not being art, including video games. So just know that even this early in the argument, you would be refuting the standard of some of the most esteemed art museums in the world to bother arguing any other side.
The best part is, video games would still be art even if we didn’t play them. The cartridges and CDs would constitute an entirely different art by the accepted definition. In fact, the lines of code would be art before any type of production had begun. Once again, there is a very compelling history to this debate. At the moment though how about we just look at the Oxford American Dictionary definition and assume the people responsible for crafting these definitions actually put some research into the matter beforehand.
Art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Wow, that is wide open. Easiest debate ever. Let’s look at the most important words here.
Expression or application of human skill and imagination, Producing works with beauty or emotional power. How conveniently vague. I wonder why the incredibly educated institution of Oxford would be so hesitant to write off any possible types of art with their word choices? Here’s why: the incredibly educated institution of Oxford actually has it’s finger on the academic consensus and realizes it would be hard pressed to think of something that isn’t art.
The only actual parameters imparted in the definition are these:
Art requires human attention to be art.
Imagination comes automatically with perception. By definition all “imagination” is is the formation of things not apparent to the physical senses. The definition of “creative” follows suit so neatly that the word “imagination” is actually used in its definition. That is literally as simple as looking at a tree and recognizing it by the fabricated word and combination of phonetics we arbitrarily assigned to it. Needless to say it would be nearly impossible to observe anything without utilizing that good ol’ human imagination. As an aside, I want everyone to know I had to violently suppress the urge to type “arbortrarily” during my tree example.
Works of art must be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.
That section of the definition is absolutely subjective, bordering on meaningless. ‘Beauty’ may as well be synonymous with “things someone at some point kind of liked.” “Emotional Power” sounds like what the South American kid with the monkey from Captain Planet had. Needless to say, it is equally undefinable. However, this part of the definition does reconfirm that it requires human attention since obviously no fern is going to have a strong emotional appreciation for, o say, the hit Michael Jackson album Thriller. Great album, by the way. Check it out.
Really the debate centers on this one word, the most troublesome of the still completely agreeable definition.
Works of art must be produced.
The fog-breathing limey’s at Oxford don’t help us as much here. The troublesome definition to this argument is the one that requires manufacturing from components or raw materials. The useful definition simply states “causing to happen or come into existence.” Now, finally and really for the first time, we do have at least an attempt at setting restrictions upon what is art. It must be produced from some other tangible material. Well this attempt at restriction is easily dispatched. Dance, stand up comedy,(carrot top and galligher are unfortunately not given amnesty from this restriction) rhetoric in it’s entirety when not written down, singing, any perspective or frame that would work in a photograph or painting but is not photographed or painted. Clearly “raw material” is out and “component” is too vague to restrict anything. Video games aren’t even attacked by that requirement, but I’m not concerned solely with the easily defended video game. Now this is the objective, bare-bones philosophical root of the matter. Any more artistic use of the the word art from, O say...Roger Ebert is really a different word that means "stuff I like as opposed to stuff I don't like." Now for some troubleshooting.
Firstly, things do not have to be presented in a viewing context to be art. By this I mean frames, photographs, drawings, paintings, books, and everything else that goes in museums. The actual production of a product is not required. For example, dance. The seats at a ballet recital being empty does not make the recital less artistic. When someone views a pretty sunset they first observe the stirring beauty of the sunset and then find a point of view to capture it with. This is the imaginative license necessary to make it art. The ensuing photograph is simply an after thought in becoming more art. Words are pretty even when not written down. A bonsai tree is pretty before it’s shaped if someone comes along and thinks so. There is a current blue-collar mentality that art requires hard work, or work at all. This idea has exceptions beyond count. The only thing required is an organism with the mental capability to produce abstract thought and the physical capability to observe.
Video games boast image, plot, and script. Really, they’re almost more art than other types of art. The fact that you interact with it has no bearing whatsoever. People keep peeing in poor Marcel’s “Fountains.” That doesn’t make them less art, just like a kid playing on a public sculptures doesn't knock an artist out of text books at random. The fact that the viewer of video games has some choice in the way they interact with the game also doesn’t matter. I could go to a theater and watch the Godfather by only staring at the lower right hand corner of the screen the entire time. “Sh*t, we better take all those Academy Awards back because some ******* decided to play Call of Duty by laying prone on the ground while attempting to violently knife off the tire of a Humvee for 11 hours.” No art offers a set lens to enjoy it through. That’s just human perspective. While video games have an even less consistent lens than most mediums, it doesn’t play any relevant part in removing them from the realm of art. Sometimes I stand really close to paintings and squint, while wearing glasses I forcibly took from a stranger on the subway. In my opinion, the blue slime-smudge-thing near the top of Starry Night symbolizes Super Shredder’s role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Am I an idiot? Yes. Is Starry Night any less a piece of art because it is enjoyed in an inconsistent way? No.
One of the worst arguments in this debate is the idea that video games aren't meaningful or personal or message-laden enough to qualify. This idea should never even enter into the debate. If a video game does not touch you personally you have every right to call it "bad art" but you are obligated to say the second word in that phrase. It is still art. What people take away from art is a very intuitive process. Video games excel at defying this argument especially. You can chastise story, script, character development, shortage of dragons, graphics, game-play, excess of dragons, whatever, but at the end of the day video games are a visual presentation (as well as auditory and literary) and it's impossible to deny something as instinctively enjoyed as an image the title of art. The various responses people will have to the stimuli they observe is far too widespread for any restrictive definition to be drawn up. For example, I was personally moved to tears by the bildungsroman of Duke Nukem.
Thanks for reading.
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BELIEVE: Why You and Eight Million Other People Bought Halo 3
Posted on Monday, July 12 2010 @ 23:52:58 Eastern
On opening day sales, Halo 3 grossed more than any other entertainment property ever. It made over twice as much as the most successful movie release in history, despite being in a medium less than half the country enjoys. It is not a genre-breaking video-game. It is not even particularly different from its two predecessors. Most importantly...it is not a better piece of artwork than the hit Michael Jackson album Thriller. Thriller is the 20th most influential album of all time according to Rolling Stone. Thriller had 7 of its 9 songs break the top 10 billboard. Thriller is f#cking awesome! Have you listened to it? You should. But Halo 3 made two times more in two months than that album made in two decades. Here’s why.
To date, Halo 3 is the most artistically marketed video game. Rather, it succeeded in convincing people not of the merit of its product but rather on the artistry surrounding that product. For the sake of lucidity let it be known I am focusing on the ‘Believe’ section of Halo 3’s marketing campaign. This does not include the widely televised Starry Night commercial or anything else released before or outside of the two weeks prior to the game release when this last marketing push was begun. Also, it is not in contention that the Halo franchise was already very successful or that the multiplayer and Forge features weren’t a huge part of Halo 3’s success. This is an explanation of what set it so vastly apart from other video games in magnitude of hype and loyalty, including it’s own counterparts.
Halo 3 sold itself on imaginative and moral trends that have resonated with people since the most fundamental narratives: war, honor, duty, sacrifice, cliche, solidarity, survival, etc. The entire ‘Believe’ campaign featured six separately aired advertisements, (a substantial amount for any advertising push) and yet not a single one featured even a second of gameplay footage or one fact about the video game itself. What these commercials did do was create an engine with which the advertisers could manufacture their own meaning for their own product. To take a contemporary and still fairly insular thing and elevate it to a higher status by producing artificial testament. Furthermore to take a FPS, (a genre of game not known for its lush story-lines or character development) remove the focus off of the technical gameplay element, and instead sell it on human emotionalism. They did this in two ways––historical allusion and pure, stubbornly belligerent immersion.
First, the fabrication of a legend. Master Chief’s iconic status isn’t due to anything un-reminiscent of some bygone Pharaoh, except for the fact that it took the Egyptians 100 years to build a pyramid, and the ‘Believe’ campaign started two weeks before game launch. The character was literally eulogized before he had died. This was accomplished with an ingenious manipulation of the historical lens to set the ‘Believe’ advertisements decades after the events of a video game that people hadn’t even played yet. And just like that, voilà! Instant allusion. Suddenly the people in charge of marketing Halo had the ability to glorify history that they hadn’t even been required to provide yet and could still sell to a quickly ravening public. We were presented with images of kindly, battle-scarred veterans tearfully musing over the always ambiguous events of this unreleased game. The entire premise of the advertising series was set around a future museum housing monuments to the events of the Halo series. Master Chief in a character role was not present in a single advertisement, yet his silhouette constantly overshadowed each one. Time is the most reliable glorifier and these advertisers had found a way to bend it to their needs. It’s not coincidence that there’s an over-abundance of World War II shooters. They evoke the same themes as the ‘Believe’ campaign, except the game industry had to wait 60 years for that. Just think of all the mediocre Medal of Honor games we wouldn’t have had to play if other people had learned how to spin their own fiction like Halo had.
Second is the immersion. Unanimous, complete, and uncompromising. The advertisements were shot entirely live action, a good choice for installing a sense of real world drama in anything. However, the angle of perspective they chose was possibly even more effective in making the viewer lose themselves in this fictional meaning. All but one of the commercials were not shot as commercials. The fragmentary format of the commercial is almost intrinsically betraying to the idea of reality. It is this strange glimpse of something, without introduction or explanation, in its own vacuum. A vacuum that is generally bordered on either side by either adds for tampons and breakfast cereals or the gaudy, blaring supplications of various Internet porn websites. Far too artificial to ever pass as life. While the ‘Believe’ commercials still have to vie for plausibility in this media cluster****, they have a leg-up. They present themselves as documentary excerpts. It seems like a simple thing, but this one move immediately springboards them well past the average advertising blurb. Even if you know nothing else about the documentary you still carry the same imprinted responses most people hold toward documentaries. This is an exposé. This snippet is part of a larger work of art. There’s an informative sounding British interviewer. Not an announcer, not a disembodied voice imploring you to join the world largest on-line dating network, an interviewer. Furthermore they provide you with a lovely tidbit of authoritative, technical information that is entirely...made up. Military enlistment information of fictional soldiers provided by a fictional military branch. The campaign goes even further in preserving this bid toward reality. These commercials don’t feature some cyborg super soldier employing ridiculously advanced technology to eradicate a horde of genocidal aliens garbed in chromatically questionable armor. No exotic landscapes with foreign constellations and multiple moons. Nope. Save that kind of craziness for those darn kids and their video games. This is real life, almost. These things would be too apart from reality to overcome in the mind of the audience. Here is what you do get though. Senior citizens attending a museum. But wait! You also get senior citizens shuffling around in what could pass for West-Virginia coal mining country. In fact, the closest you get to any action is viewing a 1/12 life-size model of some, while Chopin gentle plays in the background. Needless to say, it does not take a sizable creative leap on the viewer’s part to find familiarity in scenes like this. They’re intentionally grounded from the fantastical to lend more credibility to them. Furthermore, they’re shot simply, acted conservatively, and rarely even boast music. Possibly the best example of how far into the real-world technicalities this marketing effort was willing to delve in order to maintain its immersion is in the Internet-only advertisement “Making of the John 117 Monument.” This is a fake documentary about the actual building of the fake monument in the fake video game universe featuring footage of actual model builders building the actual monument as you see it in the fake commercials. Setting aside the profound meta-artistic implications of that, as well as the fact that the previous sentence was borderline incomprehensible, we can safely assume the lines between reality and fiction are adequately blurred.
This analysis of the final facet of the ‘Believe’ campaign affords me both an overarching conclusion to the campaign itself, as well as a suitable conclusion to the article. I’ve posited above that the exceptional success of Halo 3 is credited to a marketing campaign that sought to beautify the non-game related side of a video game in order to strike a stronger chord with a larger group of people. The final push of this campaign was not in effort to approve upon their prior attempts. The marketing company behind the ‘Believe’ advertisements knew they had done as good of a job as was possible. The potential was there. The only thing left was the audience and their reception to this video-game as either just that, a video game, or as a humanistic, celebrated epic. To accomplish the latter the artistic lens was finally lowered for only a moment, letting the immersion slip, for this one trait commonly discerned in a marketing attempt. A slogan. Flashed for two seconds, plain white font on an empty black background, the only direct acknowledgment by the sellers to their buyers that this was even an attempt at selling. One word: “Believe.” The veil is dropped and you now can see this thing for what it is, (a shameless advertisement) and yet they use those two seconds not to pitch the product but rather to pitch the commercial you’ve just watched. Set aside the fact this is just capitalism’s big business trying to trick you out of your money. Set aside all the future moments of playing Halo that will just be inane, chaotic machine gun fire and 12 year olds spewing racial slurs over microphones. Don’t get the game for that. Get the game because you want all of these artistic ideals encapsulated in this one faceless protagonist. Just believe. And suddenly you have a perfect comprehension into the artistic vision of these ads. They’re not selling you a video game about a fictional war. They’re selling you the art that comes with all wars, real or fictional. This art just happens to be a video game where you shoot lasers at monsters in outer ****ing space. It’s not a pitch. It’s begging. A final, desperate call to arms for their would be sales demographic. “We’ve created all of this meaning. All you have to do is believe it.” Well, we did believe it. Or rather, we bought it. 8.1 million times over. Humor and hyperbole aside, in the mainstream media of recent years I cannot think of a more deft marketing effort, nor a more earnest, straightforward prayer for the power of Art than the 'Believe' campaign.
If you haven’t watched all the advertisements for Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, and Halo: Reach, please do. They're all quite well done, if not as unique as the one section I talked about. Thanks for reading and stuff.
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