Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Addressing the Critics and Game Studies

Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards is an exhaustive look at video games, the ambiguities of art, and how they come to rest on objective standards – though maybe not in the way you were thinking. This series intends to show video games are a unique medium that deserves a special criteria and methodological examination. This is part and parcel of my theology as well. I invite you to leave comments on any section below!

Thus, a theory of video games as “art”, outlined with Dewey’s theory, solves many of the problems associated with video games by treating them as a unique medium. At this juncture, the difficulties with maintaining any of the three views outlined previously – “video games are not art,” “video games are art by virtue of narratives,” and “video games are art by virtue of their rules,” – become clear. Perhaps in line with this, an integrative approach that says that narratives aid mechanics, and mechanics aid narrative, also run into their own problems by making one element primary in deference to the others.

As outlined, Dewey applies this to any endeavor such as painting, film, or anything else one can imagine. However, if the modern critic does not accept Dewey’s criterion for all art, at the very least video games, with experience and interactivity as their base elements, can work under this rubric. Otherwise, two different mediums, compared with no concern for their uniqueness, find conflation in the work of a critic.

Ebert

Much of the reason why video games cannot retain the “art” designation, according to Ebert, is their popularity. Recently, starting with the mid 1990s to the modern day, the video game industry has grown exponentially. As with any entertainment medium, with a larger market come a greater number of releases that do not exhibit a high standard of quality. However, this has been the case with nearly every art form in popular culture, especially in American society; Dewey, seeing his modern entertainment as mere distraction, believed “The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion from political concern…the movie, radio, cheap reading matter and motor car with all they stand
for have come to stay.”

Ebert does not realize that every “art” form has had its “low culture” moment, and video games (which, as noted, are less than a half century old) are similarly in that same place. Secondly, Ebert claims that “serious art” requires a spectatorial and passive model, wherein the artist create his/her work with a specific intent, and that intent transfer to his/her audience through the medium and material means through which the artist works.

In a film, this is the script, the cinematography, the actors, the music, the sound, and hosts of other tools toward one specific end. In this case, Ebert adopts an institutional perspective while ignoring the historical location of his own medium, film. As well, he ignores the unique attributes of video games as “not art” simply because they do not fit within the predetermined criteria developed for previous “art” forms – a conflation of methodology with medium.

In this case, it is obvious that Ebert has taken a narrow viewpoint that is unwarranted by the facts of the case; in what way is interactivity and “player choice” a problem if the artist takes this factor into account? In video games, complete control does not exist, for the developer determines the game’s rules and narrative in advance – those emergent games allowing freedom of choice still limit one’s choices by virtue of the game’s setting or rules.

Ebert’s criticism does not hold true because he lacks the necessary background – rather than understanding the developers as artists, attempting to understand their choices, he make a rash judgment as to the qualities of video games being limited to the visual realm. Unless he could have substantiated such claims with stronger reasoning, his argument remains awed. Ebert, as a film critic, easily falls under any close examination; narratology and ludology, however, begin with extensive knowledge of games already in place, justifying each position’s place to criticize.

Narratology

To examine video games as a simple narrative is to impose a methodology that does not exist within the works themselves. Similar to Ebert, they take an established methodology (observing a medium as a narrative) and apply it to the realm of video games; however, their project appears less insidious than it actually is. Treating games merely as an alternate form removes their uniqueness. To state that interactivity only matters in the vein of reaching different story-telling conclusions reduces video games to a device of story-telling akin to Ebert’s spectatorial mode.

What if a video game does not tell a story? Certainly, the narratologist could say that such video games create a “story” within the person who views it, but this means they have, inadvertently, accepted Dewey’s aesthetics in an attempt to escape the problem. As critics, it appears their knowledge of video games does not have the depth and breadth to make such an analysis – one of the first video games, SpaceWar!, does not have a narrative other than “defeat your opponent”, and how does one categorize that as a “narrative”?

Spacewar!-PDP-1-20070512

If you squint really hard…

As well, their terminology of “narrative” remains unclear. Who defines the category of narrative, and what is that definition? Do rules necessitate a narrative? Puzzle games tend not to have any narrative; the most famous puzzle video game, Tetris, literally involves the moving of falling blocks with absolutely no pretensions of storytelling. In that case, the narratologist must retreat to the “interior narrative”: is the narrative or story created in the video game world’s fiction, or inside of the player? At that point, they have again found themselves at “an experience”!

The narratologist assumes a future view where “games will become art like other forms”, but that prefigures how video games should be understood. Rather than examine them on their own terms, interactivity becomes an additional characteristic of a currently ersatz form of “high art”, not a unique entity in itself. Their ambiguity of definition and methodology is a result of ignoring the game’s rules as an equal component; when the rules disappear, how can the video game be a game? The fundamentally impressionist view (at least given by Atkins) of video games and narrative does not equal anything but a narrow examination, as well as one without any definitive content.

Ludology

However, the corrective of rule examination goes only so far; to examine video games as a set of rules in isolation tends to remove the experiential quality of the work. Imagine a game solely built of rules; certainly, card games can function in this capacity, but a video game?

Though the ludologist certainly wants to view narrative as a constituent of the rules, this is not always the case. In MGS2, for example, the rules of the game are still exactly the same as MGS; the stealth mechanics have not, in any way, changed from game to game (except for the notable change of a first-person perspective option; this was not present in the original, but it does not change how the player interacts with the world to a major degree.)

However, the narrative gives the player an entirely different hermeneutical lens by which to view the event unfolding through both their play and their interaction with the material. In MGS, the goal was straight-forward and obvious, and the game did not try to deceive the player, but MGS2 goes out of its way to make the player see their actions in a different light even though they perform the exact same actions they undertook in the first game. If rules were the only constituent, then why play MGS2 over MGS, or why consider them fundamentally different at all?

Rules, as the primary criteria, like narratology, limit the options of viewing games as “art” by a restrictive methodology. Even with rules, the ludologist believe these rules, in the fictional world, function to elicit certain feelings and desire in the player – does that not constitute “an experience” as much as anything else? If a game has only rules, the feeling of accomplishment will still be there regardless! The feeling of victory, or defeat, still attempts to create “fun” as the player sets arbitrary challenges – if the narrative is within the self, focuses upon the self’s interaction with a ctional game world, and if it is half-real, then a real person still interacts and creates “an experience”.

To view a game in abstraction, even retaining interactivity, removes the necessity of narrative for some video games that absolutely require a narrative element to motivate the player. If rules were all that were required, why bother bringing video games into the discussion at all? This is a generalization of all video games that cannot engender fruitful evaluation and criticism. An institutional examination such as the ludologist proposes only leads to misconceptions.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.