Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Defining the Video Game

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!

I am certain I have used this text before, but I believe it’s necessary to define what words and terms are in the following articles. Minor change will be put here and there. We cannot define the artistic parameters of video games without defining the objects in themselves, I am sure.

A game, at its most basic, has no concrete definition; Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, states that one cannot see anything in common with various games, but similarities and relationships exist. However, for the sake of explanation, assume that a game is an activity wherein a particular arbitrary goal is set in advance, and this goal can only be achieved within a set of predefined rules. In chess, for example, two persons agree upon common rules of what the game board looks like, how the pieces are used, and what the goal of the game is. Furthermore, the obstacles created by these rules cannot be trivially overcome; they must present a challenge, for games foster the development of skill. The more complex a game’s rules are, the greater the barrier to entry and the greater the challenge. Chess presents a greater complexity because each unique playing piece moves differently in its rules, whereas checkers only provides one type of playing piece and one type of movement. Thus, the greater the complexity of a game (referring to its rules), the greater its depth (the knowledge and time required to learn the game), which further engenders greater skill.

This statement, however, doesn’t cover exceptions to that “rule”, and to create a rule can seem insurmountable when it comes to the entire history of games. The ancient Chinese game Go, for example, has exactly two rules and one piece type (like Checkers in that respect), yet it’s objectively true that it provides a greater amount of complexity (kudos to DJ Orwell/Cordwainer for this particular insight). Of course, that game’s board also have a 19×19 playing area, in comparison to Chess’s restricted 8×8 square, and Go’s entire setup depends on the player’s strategy, but only two rules govern movement in Go. Thus, Go displays greater complexity while maintaining fewer rules.

So, which is it? Games, then, can represent an infinite variety. Some may have more depth, and some may not, but that doesn’t mean they can’t both be enjoyable. Rather, that depth allows us to clearly see which games are worth the trouble, and which ones are not. Games like Chess and Go survive the span of time because they have enough depth to make them enjoyable. Chess, for its part, is more a game about tactics and psychology than the rules; there are a finite number of movements in most games, and thus chess grand masters tend to play the opponent, not the game. Go requires a knowledge of both – how does the opponent use his resource, how does he position his pieces, what’s his resource model, and many other questions certainly come to mind.

Video games, however, present a diff erent set of challenges than normal games. While, at base, they still operate under a set of arbitrary rules and challenges, they can also provide narrative and motivation through the wonders of visual and aural artistry. Imagine a player who has absolutely no understanding of video games. Boot up a copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES and hand them a controller. First, when starting, they’ll see Mario standing still. Looking at the controller, they’ll see a D-pad and two large red buttons. The directional pad looks obvious enough; it must move Mario. The player tries it and it works! Mario walks slowly to the left and hits a wall. Well, I guess he can’t go that way, now can he? The player, then, directs Mario to the right-hand side to find that he can move right.

Moving forward, the player sees a question mark block. What is it, and what do I do with it, he wonders? Looking again at the controller, he sees two buttons once again. He tries one, and sees that it makes Mario jump. Great – so how do I use this? He can’t reach the top of the block; Mario doesn’t jump high enough. Maybe I need to hit it from below? This works, and the player receives coins! That’s great, but there’s yet another thing moving towards him. One of the first things a player sees when starting a game of Super Mario Bros. is the goomba, a malformed “evil” mushroom creature. Using the D-pad, the player move towards the goomba – what do I do? He walks into it and dies. Well, maybe I can just jump over it? His second attempt sees success, but he also lands on the goomba’s head. It dies. The player learns that enemies can be killed by jumping on their heads. In a mere few seconds (which took SO much time to explain here), the video game has taught you the majority of its rules through little more than good design. It can convey the rules because it enforces those same rules in one breath so there’s no ambiguity (well, in good games anyway). Heck, even points are given when he does both these actions, clearly visible and reinforcing the idea that these are good things to do.

In this sense, video games strike a contrast in conveyance with other games. Imagine that you do not know the rules of chess in any way. You, as a player, are presented with a chess board and all the relevant pieces required to play chess. How, in this situation, would you learn to play the game? Most likely, the rules are contained in an instruction booklet or passed down through word of mouth from persons who have played the game before. However, without such resources, no avenue presents itself for understanding the rules of chess as a specific game – in fact, it is more likely that an entirely new game would be created than two players with a chess board recreating chess.

The ability to convey the rules in such a direct way gives the video game, by contrast, a certain intensity lacking in the traditional game model, as the rules are integrated into the logic and narrative (spoken, written, or conveyed through visuals) of a digital world. This does not mean the game requires a “story” that invests the player like a novel: rather, the game must simply motivate the player towards its arbitrary goals through whatever means the developer uses. Usually these result in the idea of “challenge”, which forces the player to use the tools provided to overcome whatever obstacles are presented. These can come in a variety of forms (such as those depicted in the conversation above), but the key factor remains the challenge. Without challenge, there’s no real games; there’s exploring a digital world, yes, but there’s no “game” that supports this exploration.

So, what can we do with these definitions? We can, for one, distinguish between video games and other forms of art – that is, film, music, etc. Many might say that it’s merely a combination of these elements, but break it down into its tiniest parts and you’ll find one element shining above all other: interactivity. Games provides challenge, depth, and complexity that forces the player to become an active participant in the experience. This is a far cry from film, which forces the spectatorial model at every moment. What we can see in film is purely what the author/auteur wants us to see. There is no variation; there is only either a well-conveyed description of human experience, or a message. That is how we usually grade films, I imagine.

That’s not to say that several different messages, subjective emotional reactions, or otherwise might find their way into a film. You and I might have a substantial disagreement on whether, for example, The Dark Knight Rises is a good film (it’s not. Just saying). Still, we have no say in the experience – we can’t, for example, determine what the ending will be, nor the character’s actions, nor anything of a similar type. It is a purely passive experience from the standpoint of the audience, even if their mind interacts with the story (either in figuring out what the heck’s going on, or otherwise) on some level. That’s just the long and the short of it.

Music is almost the same way – you’re imperceptibly receiving whatever music comes into your auditory range. It takes time and effort to get the nuances (like film), but it’s still entirely passive at one point or another. You can’t fundamentally change the music, but accept what it is when you listen to it, and move on. The same goes for the painted and sculpted arts; we receive these aesthetic objects as purely passive in a sense. They do not change unless reconfigured into a new form; by that point, they’re still the exact same object that they were except different. It is still passive.

Games, however, are not passive. They require interaction. They force the human mind to reckon with the rules and then participate, discovering strategies and tactics for victory. They, at base, always involve the game primarily. Everything else, much as it might provide motivation, context, emotional satisfaction or otherwise, run on the mechanical underpinnings. This fact has been lost, over time, as game companies continue to make “experiences” that are less games and more visual/aural craftsmanship. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when every game gets judged as a movie instead of a game, that’s when the problem arise.

As we see above, games are games. They don’t deserve the treatment of other mediums right from the outset. Give them time to develop as a thing in themselves. Set a quite different place for video games in your life than other art, and you’ll see they reveal a very different side of human nature. The competitive nature of their play, the constant difficulties and hardships one must endure – these are the important parts of that art, and not the aesthetic accouterments. Games have evolved only in the sense that their appearance has changed; they are still the same thing at base. Whether they’re played by the self or with a human being, when they’re content to tell the stories and go through the tropes of other mediums, they do this at their own detriment.

Like faith, games don’t necessarily provide a mood or a feeling; their origins lie in the conquest of challenges. In other words, we use our reason, ingenuity, and stored knowledge to get through whatever the game presents us (I suppose we could use the DKART system as well). I would rather not see that rich history thrown away for some pretensions of cultural acceptance outright. As Chesterton might say:

The modern man, like the modern conception of Hamlet, believes only in mood. [Chesterton writes]  But the real Hamlet, like the Catholic Church, believes in reason. Many fine optimists have praised man when they felt like praising him. Only Hamlet has praised man when he felt like kicking him as a monkey of the mud. Many poets, like Shelley and Whitman, have been optimistic when they felt optimistic. Only Shakespeare has been optimistic when he felt pessimistic. This is the definition of a faith. A faith is that which is able to survive a mood.

And I would wager a faith isn’t something I accept with my feelings but my reason united with those same feelings. One confirms the other, not one in absentia. As such, video games could become the culmination of represent real life…in a fun and engaging way, of course, and not always in hyper-seriousness (as AAA games are wont to do). That’s what is neat and awesome about them, and I’d hate to see video games co-opted into the form of other mediums simply for recognition.

They involve, by definition, unique elements; why throw that away? It’s almost the same as Israel’s struggles in the wilderness; they wanted to be like the other nations, and that was their primary fault. Whether in making sacrifices to lesser gods (Leviticus 20) or demanding a king (I Samuel 8), they could not get out of the rut of their preconceived notions. They held too closely to the nations, not seeing what God had in store because…well, that would require faith, now wouldn’t it? And maybe a bit of reason strewn on top?

Let’s be a little more cautious here, rather than giving up the ghosts. Video games remain unique, and the definitions herein should make that clear enough. Either we take a holistic view of the situation, or get our own way and suffer our own consequences:

19 Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”21 Now after Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the Lord’s hearing. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and appoint them a king.” So Samuel said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

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.