Games Are Not Art
Posted on Sunday, October 18 2009 @ 13:52:02 Eastern
I swear I wrote this entry when I was either high, or really tired. Regardless, I still make a good point. Somewhere.
I want to take you on a journey, reader. Imagine you are strolling through the cobbled streets of a small town somewhere in the south of France. The white buildings are baked in the morning's light, and the scent of freshly-made pastries fills your nostrils. You begin to cross the town square to drop by the bakery before beginning another day in this beautiful wonderland. On the way to La Croustillant Tarte, you are accosted by the local street painter. He offers to sell you beautiful paintings of the surrounding landscape at ridiculously low prices. At first you doubt this man's talents. You shake your head, claiming that this scruff vagrant couldn't possibly craft such masterpieces. After a few minutes of receiving a heated sales pitch from this man, you walk away carrying his entire collection. You are very happy, as you only paid a tenth of what the work is really worth. To many in the videogames industry, this man is like the indie games developer.
Now you are stood in a world-famous art gallery. It's huge, easily bigger than any of the Tates or the Louvre. You are looking at a wall-length painting and two men in suits are stood at either side, facing you. One is babbling incessantly about the features of the piece, needlessly highlighting the obvious glossy texture of the oil and the broad brush strokes. His accomplice shifts his weight from foot to foot nervously, silently praying you buy the painting based off the inane ramblings of the marketing bloke. You and the mute exchange eye contact and he looks away first. He appears to be feeling guilty. Guilty that he's trying to sell you this generic, boisterous monstrosity. Guilty that he's trying to pass it off as art. In this situation, many New Games Journalists will claim that the silent man is like the well-paid studio producing a wanktastic FPS and his yapping associate is the publishing house.
When people speak of comparing videogames to art, they do so in these terms. However, using elongated metaphors like the two above does not make such elaborate points any less inaccurate. I'm sick of every videogame journo or forum member claiming that Peter Molyneux is the William Turner of gaming, Half Life 2 is as beautiful as Madonna On The Rocks or Dante's Inferno is as epic as Dante's... oh, nevermind. The point is that most games, in their present format, cannot be classified as true art. Similarly, their producers and publishers cannot be likened to even contemporary art creators in music and film – although videogames often employ people from both of those fields. There are many reasons for this, but I'll only focus on one, key aspect that is often overlooked. As always, feel free to (politely) contribute to the discussion via the comments.
The major issue that presents itself is the gaming part of videogameing. Anyone can see that videogames are more immersive than a book or film and can evoke just as much emotion as a song. Furthermore, the forever-increasing graphical capabilities of consoles are causing some games to look better than Pre-Raphaelite paintings. These factors have nothing to do with why gaming isn't an art. Allow me to explain.
Anyone watch Charlie Brooker's 'Gameswipe' a few weeks ago? A notable segment was when Mock The Week host Dara O'Briain talked about a level in Gears Of War where he kept getting repeatedly killed. Eventually Dara just gave up after only completing 14% of the game. With this statement, Dara had inadvertently identified what alienates games from the other art forms. Art is not hard. Some pieces are difficult to understand, but most of it is immediately accessible by anyone interested. You can pick up a book and read any chapter you want. You can skip to any scene in a film. You can look at a sculpture from any angle. This restriction on accessing content is what makes videogames different from other art forms.
The 'challenge' element of videogames has been present from Day One. It's also exactly why FOX News can make obtuse, ignorant statements when sensationalising moments like the sex in Mass Effect. These people have the audacity to make such bold, irrational claims because they don't have the time (or ability) to play the game for themselves. Neither do their audience. It's not like a nude painting where folks can decide instantly whether it's offensive or not. Since videogames are shrouded in a veil of complexity and require hours of investment to complete, they are not as accessible as traditional art. Their beauty is not seen to be as astounding as a mural or movie because it's not available to everyone. I believe if everyone could play games, then the transparency would allow everyone to appreciate them as art. But that's simply not the case.
I've probably confused you with that wall of text, so let's back up a second. Do you remember when E. E died in Metal Gear Solid 2, or when Aries got shanked in Final Fantasy 7? So do I. Both were wonderfully orchestrated moments of videogaming perfection and number among the tens of examples I'd brand as 'art in a game'. But guess what? If some poor unskilled fellow couldn't kill Vamp or figure out FF's battle system, they'll never experience such glorious scenes.
For millennia art has been available to whomever wished to view it, from stick-figures of cavemen carves into limestone to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There was no one around to say 'Oh, you can't look at this until you've seen 50 miserably boring paintings before it'. The challenges in videogames that proceed artful parts of the experience are what make videogames worth playing. The 'art' part is a reward for suffering through a puzzle or boss battle so we appreciate it more. Can we take that aspect away and just make videogames interactive stories? Yes. Alternatively, games could have a simple 'skip' feature (see Braid and World of Goo) to enable progress when the player hits a stumbling block.
Art has always been about complete accessibility. Any wanker can sit down and watch a movie or read a book, but completing a good game without a walkthrough can be a chore. I imagine many people gave up on MGS2 or FF7 before the end, so their opinion of these titles is going to be a lot lower than my own. Then again, maybe this is a new side to art – as such examples surely reflect the competency and patience of the player, rather than the quality of the game?
This leads us to one clear conclusion: That having to actually play games is both the artistic and er... unartistic side of videogaming. Videogames are not accessible to everyone unless its some crapware for the Wii. Moreover, the games with touching moments are often the hardest. This trend appears set to continue for the foreseeable future, that means videogart (coin it!) will not be accepted as other forms have been for many years to come. Whatever happens, we can't go about comparing paintings, sculptures, books, music and films to videogames. We're looking at a whole new medium here and it should be treated that way.
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