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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Video Games as Successful Art

Abstract

Can video games be classed as art? The question is a challenging one, cutting to the heart of what we think art is and what it should do. In this essay I offer one definition of "art" that seems to fit very well with video games, as well as with literature and paintings. In this case, art is defined as a work which makes full use of the opportunities for expression that are available to it. Video games have available to them multiple media for expression (audio-visual, simulation, gameplay satisfaction), and this definition of art suggests that video games must satisfy a wider range of criteria for "success" than other creative forms. On the other hand, this definition also means that we can still treat older games, which fully exploited the hardware of their own generation, as being artful in their own way.

Essay

There are many definitions of what constitutes art, and further of what constitutes good art. Trying to come up with a single one that satisfies all people and applies equally to all artistic objects is probably a fruitless exercise. There is much to be said for G.E. Moore's argument in Principia Ethica that - to paraphrase - one just knows the "good" when one sees it. Trying to articulate or define more deeply than this is a challenge equivalent to trying to explain the colour yellow. Nevertheless, when confronted with a form like video games whose credentials as art are contested, trying to find an applicable definition seems a necessary effort to make.

In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell tries to explain why and how games appeal to him, even though as a mature writer he should be prejudiced against them, because of their often childish premises. In an attempt to reconcile his conflict, and in order to incorporate games within the penumbra of legitimate and potentially "good" art, he comes up with the following:

Works of art we call masterpieces typically run the table on the many forms artistic intelligence can take: They are comprehensively intelligent..."True" art makes the attempt to succeed in every way available to it.

Bissell does not apply this notion much more in relation to video games, or indeed to other art forms by comparison. But it seems to be a definition that works particularly well in relation to our newest genre, which in both critical and popular culture challenges our understanding of what art is and what it should aspire to do. Particularly useful is the fact that this definition thinks about art as an object striving for an effect in its own terms, before we try to impose our own value judgments (such as the one that adheres to games like Grand Theft Auto, which questions how we can call a game art if it is pathologically violent). Value on this definition inheres in the artwork itself and its ability to show intelligence or skill in all the areas that its given media possibly can permit, prior to our particular socio-cultural interpretation of it. There are of course many epistemological counterarguments that could be made against an internalist view of "true art," but as we are still struggling to articulate aesthetic criteria for video games it is worth taking this definition and seeing how far it runs in these particular circumstances.

Successful Art

To start, though, by thinking about more conventional art forms, since games can be considered as art only if the same definition applies to other, established media.

The idea that art tries to "succeed in every way available to it" is useful, because it acknowledges the limitations that surround a particular medium of production. We can say, for example, that Middlemarch is probably a better novel than Fifty Shades of Grey, but we would be foolish to try to argue that Middlemarch is a better novel than Constable's Hay Wain is a painting. We might say that George Eliot better captures the spectrum of provincial life than Constable does, but this would be unfair given that his painting could not feasibly include the same wide range of characters Eliot offers in 800 pages without becoming congested. Conversely, the novel can only make use of the systems available to it for creating meaning, in this case printed words. We do not expect a novel to provide us also with pictures, and we do not judge a novel as being less artful when it lacks them.The two representations work as aesthetic visions that are satisfying in and of themselves, according to the ways available to them.

Importantly, though, a successful painting or novel also justifies why it adopts the particular, limited methods that it does. As a linear form, a conventional novel does not generally allow us to choose to read it in a different order, but leads us by the hand through the narrative; at the same time, a novel varies its style such as by increasing its ambiguity, symbolism, description etc. in accordance with those areas, characters or aspects that it wants us to attend to the most. It can do this only because it adopts one limited means of representation, printed words marching left to right across page after page. A novel is therefore not interactive and does not distract us with pictures - but this is not a deficit but actually an advantage in terms that the novel sets for itself. (As an aside, one might suggest that on this basis a novel may be judged as "bad" art when, in spite of this having option to manipulate and direct the reader's interest through adopting variant styles within a linear text, it instead adopts a flat style which is consistent and often stereotypical throughout.)

To help us to understand what the terms and capacities of a given medium are, good paintings and novels contain their own best instructions for their interpretation: they tell us ideally what to look at or how to read them. If you look at the Hay Wain, it is likely that your attention will be first drawn to a point lying along a vertical axis around two thirds of the way from the left, an axis formed by the brighter white cloud, tall tree and the cart; only later will you notice the small dog in the bottom left corner. Thus the work tells us what its own criteria for success is. In the Hay Wain, the arrangement of light and elements ensures that we build the narrative of life up gradually as we look at it: here is a cart passing, and then we notice the dog barking in response. The painting is not only a depiction of space, but of lived time. Its own formal arrangement suggests that it wants us to judge it according to its realistic capture of life.

We do not have to conform to these interpretative expectations, of course: we can read against the grain or interpret a painting differently according to our taste or historical circumstances. However, we do generally work with a works expected codes for interpretation rather than against them. You could admire Constable's rendition of the fur of the barking dog, but this would not by itself sufficiently capture the reason why the painting works as a scenic depiction of a rural moment. If you tried reading Middlemarch backwards I doubt you would you still call it a good novel.

Successful Games

On this sort of basis, Bissell also provides a good definition of a successful modern (we will return to this historical issue) game. Just as a literary or artistic work contains all the codes we need for its own interpretation, thereby making us aware of the representative means that are "available to it," so too a game must self-consciously present rules for our encounter with it. In the case of games, the control system and game mechanics must explain themselves with internal consistency. If in one scenario pressing a button causes me to shoot, and in an apparently similar scenario causes me to jump, or if in one situation dropping a certain height kills me whereas doing it again I land successfully, this is frustrating, like if we were suddenly to spot a water nymph prancing across Constable's realist scene or if, for that matter, the dog were to be the most colourful thing in the picture and thus what we looked at first.

Of course, as with a painting or a novel I can always choose not to obey the rules by which the game is constructed. However, disobeying them usually leads to a very obvious failure, "Game Over." If we judge a game as bad simply because we have failed to follow its rules - because we have hit "jump" rather than "fire" - this would be a false evaluation. It is not, I would suggest, wholly different to the failure that results if we judge the Hay Wain bad art according to the aesthetics of modernist abstraction. It is only according to the internal definition that they set themselves for success that the effectiveness of artworks can be fairly evaluated, and it is when we try to bend these definitions according to our own external criteria, which the works do not anticipate or want, that our judgments become skewed.

Although a game does not have to be realist in its representation of a particular world, it certainly needs to possess sufficient fidelity in accordance with the parameters it has set itself. We do not expect a racing game to allow us to step out of the car and wander inside the buildings in the background, but we do expect the car to behave in a particular way that is true to its genre whether a simulation like Gran Turismo or hyperbolical chase game such as Burnout. Just as Constable's painting uses its formal arrangement to tell us about its realism, so too the mechanics of Burnout tell us about what its own criteria for representational success are. As we play the game we understand that to judge Burnout as a bad game simply because the cars behave in a cartoonish way would be a false evaluation given its own criteria for success. In turn, this suggests that even though Burnout or any other driving simulator does not possess those creative qualities which may seem to have the potential to be artistic, such as a story, character, or dialogue, this does not wholly disqualify it from being evaluated as art according to the attempt it is trying to make. This is not to argue that Burnout is art; I am concerned here to establish the criteria for that judgement, not to apply them. It is simply to say that if we are going to attempt to make such a judgement, we need to do so fairly, respecting the standards it wants us to judge it by, just as it would be unfair to say Middlemarch is not art because it is linear rather than interactive, and uses words alone rather than pictures. So long as it exploits the possibilities and intentions of its medium, it has the right to stand before the court of critical opinion.

This is emphasised by the way in which a successful game will give rise to an experience that is not merely mechanistic, even though a game depends on a single underlying program - just as a novel exploits its restrictive linearity by using it to direct our through style to particular aspects or values. Whilst it would be wrong to call games literary, in relation to game narrative this sense of taking the restrictions of a medium and exploiting rather than succumbing to them seems to be important.

There are two types of narrative that a game must operate with. At the less interesting level is the frame or scripted narrative, cinematic cut-scenes or prepared dialogue over which a player has little or no control, but which move the scenario forwards more generally. Arguably similar criteria for success apply here as in film: realistic behaviour and speech, characterisation, point of view, the development of tension. Such scenes usually denote the player's completion of a stage in the game, a visual vindication of the gamer's ability to learn and assimilate the game's mechanistic criteria for success.

The more interesting, and predominant type of narrative in a game is the ludonarrative, which can be understood as the way in which a game enables a story about the process of gaming: I battled my way up the stairs and was at the window artfully sniping the enemy below, when suddenly I was shot in the back by the unseen enemy who had crept up behind me. Narrative here is a result of the game's own rules and mechanisms, which the player can work with but which cannot be directly manipulated by the player (unless through a software patch or cheat mode). Since games typically depend on surprise or newly challenging elements, the more unexpected the mechanism is for facilitating ludonarrative, the more fluid and natural it will feel. As mentioned above, the success of a game depends on its rules being internally consistent and reliable. In the scenario above, a mechanism that allows for a soldier to be wounded so as to go unnoticed by the player until he creeps up on him will be preferable to one in which a new enemy suddenly spawns in a previously empty room, which will seem a breach of the contract between game and player.

As in other art, then, a game must internally describe the ways in which it expects us to play, whilst at the same time leaving room for us to do our own work of interpretation. The game does not tell us explicitly what has happened in the snippet above: narrative is something we project onto the game. All the game has to do is to provide and make us aware of the mechanism by which this narrative can arise. In a similar way, the Hay Wain does not tell us directly that the cart has caused a momentary irruption in the rural landscape, but its formal arrangement instructs us to attempt to make this narrative response, so that we understand that there is a longer temporal event going on even though the painting alone is only one particular frame of it.

When confronted with good art we construct a story that is not self-evidently a consequence of the medium - a game becomes intelligent, a painting tells a story - even if we know it can only be manifested by the rules - game mechanics, the formal arrangement of light and lines - it works with, rules which guide but which do not wholly determine our reaction to it. Revising Bissell's definition slightly, one might suggest that in either painting, literature or gaming, an artwork is successful when it is somehow larger than the parts that we know go into generating it. The Hay Wain works because it is a still life painting that somehow conveys time and movement. A shooter is successful when cunning and freshly challenging intelligence seems to be emergent from an unintelligent program, the rules of which we smugly thought we had mastered. Not only does good art succeed in the ways available to it: it transcends those ways.

What Makes a Game Great?

From the above discussion, it seems that a great game must take advantage of a wide range of possibilities available to it: a reliable mechanism by which we understand how to play the game; the consistent simulation - such as cartoonish or realistic car handling - of the type of game world we need according to the game's genre; structural rules which despite being potentially predictable allow a larger and unexpected ludonarrative possibility to result which both challenges and engages us.

If we accept this as a minimum list for an evaluation of games, this perhaps suggests that although critically perceived as a "low" art form, in fact the criteria for games-as-art are set remarkably high. As Bissell points out, for example, he enjoys games in spite of the fact that they often have hammy dialogue more suited to cheap novels that he would never dream of reading. One way of looking at this according to his definition is that the game has failed, because it has not successfully used all the means available to it. The other way of looking at this is to suggest that a game must succeed in so many areas compared to a form like the novel that it is surprising that anyone ever thinks of classing games as great art at all. The modern console game is a truly multimedia experience, one that requires far more success in far more areas than required by the novel or cinema (hence why the budget for games outstrips that for all but the most effects-laden movies).

This is not to suggest that the game as a genre is aesthetically, morally, or narratively superior to the novel or theatre or a painting. Indeed, Bissell's definition - and my expansion above on the way a work encodes its own best interpretation - suggests the precise opposite: this definition recognises that different forms must adopt different criteria for judgement of their success. There are many types of response that an artwork might elicit, and correspondingly diverse ways each form tries to go about it; and there are many different audiences who seek different types of experience, some of which may be more interestingly available through some forms rather than others.

However, I would argue that, internally according to the multiple possibilities for narrative, drama, interactivity, audio-visual environment, and mechanism available to them, games have more work to do in order to work well. The useful thing with Bissell's definition is that it evaluates genres according to their own criteria for success, not those we might subjectively impose upon them. It thus bypasses the prejudiced views of the likes of Roger Ebert who contends games can never be great art, based on his own arbitrarily determined values.

Historicising Games

As mentioned in my earlier example, a novel is not bad art simply because it lacks pictures; the one medium embodies its own requirements and is not punished when it fails to make use of another, so long as it well uses the tools that are at its disposal. Thus the "ways available to art" also includes a technical dimension in relation to the media upon which an artwork is developed. As well as enabling us to think across genres, the definition therefore has another use too, enabling us to think about genre as it has developed historically.

Cave paintings or Roman wall murals can be considered to be great art according to the possibilities available to the artist. They may lack the fine brushstrokes of a Vermeer, but then the medium of a cave wall does not permit such detailed realism. That is not, of course, to suggest that all good art after the invention of the canvas must be realistic and detailed. But any reversion to earlier or more simple styles must be done consciously. For Vermeer to resort to daubing paint with his fingers would have been inconsistent with the internal realist codes which - like Constable - instruct us how best to read his paintings. On the other hand, modernist painters such as Picasso backward-engineered their art to invoke "primitive" models which nevertheless seemed to provide a purer focus on form. Importantly, in doing this modernists acknowledged that what they were doing should not necessarily be judged as better or worse than older art, simply different. T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf or the post-impressionist advocate Clive Bell all acknowledged that even if they were constructing new styles of art, their art was not in and of itself superior to the art of a Roman mural or nineteenth-century novel. As Eliot put it in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same." These earlier works were doing the best job they could do with the materials and ideas available to them; it was just that by the modern period both materials - such as the camera or cinema - and cultural concepts and social change - such as the advent of psychoanalysis or the rise of the city - had changed our perception of what job they should do.

Video games are unique, however, in that the possibilities available to them have changed and will continue to change with unprecedented rapidity in accordance with the underlying hardware. Virginia Woolf wrote in Modern Fiction:

It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature. We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.

We may look at a nineteenth-century novel and say that according to the ways in which the realist novel expects us to interpret it, Middlemarch is successful; conversely, according to the ways in which To the Lighthouse expects us to read impressionistically, this too is good art. Whilst a car is clearly a better technology for transport than a canal boat, neither Middlemarch or To the Lighthouse is better than the other according to their own codes for constructing meaning. This seems a pretty straightforward convention to sustain when given the limited capacities of the printed codex, and the written word.

But it is much more difficult to read games according to this principle of an unimproving if ever-changing aesthetic tradition. Looking at Space Invader, it is hard to see how this can be judged as being as as "good" a piece of art as a modern open world space simulator, such as Eve Online. Whilst modernists self-consciously returned to primitive models in order to focus on form, a modern third person shooter that was backward-engineered to look and have a game mechanic like Wolfenstein 3D could not, surely, be considered to be a great game. The reason? It fails to take advantage to the technical possibilities available to it through more advanced hardware. In her essay Woolf draws a distinction between art and technology. But games problematically blur these two, so that a game is as much an aestheticised expression of a technical possibility as it is as an artwork in its own right.

So Bissell's internalist criteria is useful as it encourages us to acknowledge the technology inherent in a media, and to note that technology is part of the possibility available to an artwork, whether this is the technology of the brush on the canvas over the finger on the cave wall, or of the hardware on which a game runs. Just as the modernists saw earlier, "primitive" forms as intrinsically good art, so early games need not necessarily be less "good" examples of the art than later ones. In its own terms, according to the technical possibilities available to it, Space Invaders may be considered as a great game indeed, one which a young Martin Amis wrote obsessively about. I share with Bissell a sense of astonishment when I look back on my early games playing. Was I really taken in by the cartoon world of a mushroom-eating plumber and an angry turtle? Yes, I was. And although in terms of graphics, audio, gameplay mechanics and so on early platformers like Mario were more limited than modern shooters like Half Life, I was taken in because I recognised intuitively that the game was successful in all the ways available to it.

Conclusion

When I played the groundbreaking Wolfenstein 3D, the ludonarrative moments created by its game world were remarkable; I will never forget the horror of opening a door to find a slobbering Alsatian dog placed immediately on the other side leaping into my face. Such situations were enabled by the fact that Wolfenstein was a corridor shooter. Without the memory or graphical ability to develop an open world space, Wolfensteins designers had to lead the player through narrow corridors from a to b, perhaps with an occasional sideways diversion to point c. Within this limit, such cunningly arranged experiences were the best available option to deliver a ludological narrative. By contrast, modern-day shooters or role play games are far more open world, with the likes of Fallout 3 placing a player in a game world and allowing them to exploit it as they see fit. Because modern hardware allows things not possible in Wolfenstein, such as vertical as well as horizontal movement or spoken dialogue rather than blips and beeps, they must do more with the resources available to them in order to be considered successful, and have different ways of achieving ludonarratological experiences.

But this returns me to one overall contention, which is that using this criteria for success, one realises in just how many dimensions games are required to operate compared to other art forms. Whilst a novel does not need to use pictures in order to be successful according to the opportunities available to it, a modern game has to succeed in multiple areas before it can put itself forward for consideration as great art. Games are multimedia forms, drawing on theatre, cinema, the novel, painting, simulation; they must contain rules that allow us to play them reliably yet at the same time these stable rules must give rise to unpredictable behaviour and challenges for the player to face. The ways available to the novel or painting are limited - hence why even modernists who radically altered their style acknowledged that their modes were only different, not necessarily intrinsically better than the old. The ways available to the game are multiple and expanding all the time with the advance of hardware and processing power. Within the next few years we can expect to see three-dimensional televisions and haptic immersion systems offering fresh opportunities for designers to exploit, but also correspondingly raising the bar for the ways a game must take advantage of if it is to be judged successful. This multidimensional complexity makes the best case for saying that when a game gets most things right, it has surely earned the right to assert its credentials as art.

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This page was published on August 7, 2012 | Keywords: video games, art, aesthetics, literature

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