Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Introduction

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!

Raphael’s School of Athens

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the fi eld has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, lmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic…There is a structural reason for that: video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious fi lm and literature, which requires authorial control.

– Roger Ebert on video games as art

Ebert later rescinded his comments, sure. In fact, I believe he is completely right, even if his objection stems from a distinction between the spectatorial and interactive models for “art.” The “gaming community” has felt the sting of this for a long time – yet they have no particular way to counter this. I think there’s a particular problem, however: we have no real standard, no real analysis of the medium in itself. It is unique, surely, but if video games want to be seen as a height of our culture, how does one evaluate them? As something totally new, rather than study them as a component of other “art” forms. It took hundreds, nay, thousands of year to determine such things – why should we expect video games will be any different?

What we have now, unfortunately, are rows and rows of people, self-proclaimed “experts”, who deign upon us to call video games ‘art”. Whether as an attempt to justify untold hours of time on the playing of games or to feel “important” for having done so, we find games journalists as the heralds of a new artistic movement. One question: who decided THEY should talk for us, or for the rest of society (which they surely do not)? They certainly don’t talk for me. They take the subjective, experiential model of art that I reject wholly and utterly! Why, you ask?

In any medium, there comes a time when consensus must be reached.

Who, today, would doubt the brilliance of Michelangelo, the unbelievable skill and craft of J.R.R. Tolkien, or the majesty of dozens of unaccredited artists in the past, each creating what we now call “art”? Each one of these additions to the human vernacular has, at times, done an incalculable service to us as a society, if not by results then certainly by changing attitudes. Some of them didn’t even intend to create such things at all; they merely expressed themselves through their craft, whatever that might be. However, they stand the test of time for a reason.

The modern era would like to differ. It says: everything is art. Nothing is art. Quod erat demonstradrum. In art as in theology, how can one have a logically inconsistent criteria for art? How can anything be art? This is precisely because of the postmodern impulse. Jacques Derrida tells us that language does not reflect the intentions of the author – that there is a genuine divide between sound and word, signifier and signified. This divide makes it impossible to charge anything with actual, true meaning – writing, painting, video games, and whatever other art form you take exists solely in the realm of the subjective. The divide between the artist and his subjects gives language an amorphous, descriptive quality – whatever something “means”, it means to the individual and them alone. Hence has the idea of objectivity fallen to the wayside.

This may account for why modern culture accepts Larry the Cable Guy and Twilight as art. To some, it is! We live in the time of low art becoming high art – all because the “standard” has left public discourse. We may continue to use “rankings” and “arguments” to prove the superiority of one artistic work, one moral system to another – these exist as vestiges of another time. Yet, these persist; we still cling and hold to the standards of old for this reason: we can think of no other way to function. Without the objective, who is to say what is right and wrong, brilliant or crass? Then what is art? Some ambiguous metaphysical construct that we happen upon? If it’s merely subjective (and that my emotional response becomes the standard by which I judge it), then that is postmodern. The subject determines the meaning of the object – if not consciously, than at least subconsciously.

Pictured: Art. For someone!

Pictured: Art. For someone!

As a Christian, I soundly and emphatically reject this notion. Art does not exist solely in the realm of subjectivity. There can be a standard by which we say – this is good art. This is bad art. The definition as such is, obviously, subjective. But society’s collective opinion on it doesn’t have to be. We can recognize works of greatness from whatever culture from which they come – the enterprise does not find restriction in the works of Western civilization. Reams and reams of philosophy, tapestry work, and artistic endeavors come from China alone, whose long history has only begun to be known by the Western paradigm – if the Romance of the Three Kingdoms does not stand as one of the greatest products of civilization, I can’t imagine what kind of world we live in.

Still, there are the nagging doubts. Does this not raise the question of who can detect “art” as a thing? Well, I’m not going to pretend that isn’t the case; the case for art and artistic endeavor has no theological construct in itself. Take a cursory look at the Biblical texts and you can see plainly: art isn’t an endeavor that they could even recognize or perceive in their conditions. That is, in no way, a judgement upon the depth and clarity of the Bible’s thought – just that the Jewish people do not have a long history of visual arts. Rather, they find expression in oral (and later, written) traditions. We, in ourselves, are a work of a Creator – it is this impulse, this reflection of the imago dei, that gives us the imaginative faculties we possess. We see in Exodus 35, just as a cursory example, that God provides certain talents and gifts for His purposes:

30 Then Moses said to the sons of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 31 And He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship; 32 to make designs for working in gold and in silver and in bronze, 33 and in the cutting of stones for settings and in the carving of wood, so as to perform in every inventive work. 34 He also has put in his heart to teach, both he and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer, in blue and in purple and in scarlet material, and in fine linen, and of a weaver, as performers of every work and makers of designs.

Notice that we do not see a reference to “art” or anything of the kind. Just by nature of skill, that does not mean we can escape the one fact: art exists as a human construct. It is by nature subjective – some persons will, inherently, have a different response to one work than another. I resonate with Lord of the Rings – I think it’s a fantastic set of movies, but I loathe reading the books. Others differ in liking both; others just like the book and loathe the films. Each person will react different to any particular work. That does not mean, however, that we can’t recognize the artistic value of something we personally dislike. This is where I think the  current postmodern artistic world falters – by putting everything on a level playing field, it dismisses any notions of greatness  or achievement. Plus, it’s hard to feel any positive sentiments that allow for such brilliant works as Andres Serrano’s famous Piss Christ. A society of complete egalitarianism cannot exist in a sinful world; there will always be the powers and the oppressed. These are unavoidable. Art, on the other hand, transcends notions of societal positions by allowing us a common point of interaction. That is its true value in identifying the commonalities of human experience.

But, as a society, we all collectively understand what makes something work under said constructed category. We know of that indefinable quality in something that makes it lasting and special. Society makes those things that is recognizes as art, “art” – they’re held to a higher standard than the rest of what society produces. It worked in the past – take a look at any liberal arts education. What is the main problem with said education in the modern era? We can’t distinguish between what is good and what is bad. There’s no significance to anything because everything has equal value (hence, subjective). And that is killing the liberal arts education, in any event – without the abilities and the tools of intellectual reflection and rigor being taught to our coming generation, how can we hope to recognize the best of ourselves? As Jospeh Epstein says in the article linked previously,

The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.

As much as I lament the fall of the academy, it can still have this purpose if it so desires. An example: even if you’re not particularly religious, Western culture has still decided that the Bible represents a special document in terms of human history – if not in determining human events, than also in literature. There’s so many phrases from the King James Bible that have entered into the English vernacular that it’s simply unbelievable. How was this determined? A long process of examination and study. We study and look at these productions of human thought (and, perhaps, divine thought) to see why they produced the reactions that they do. How many different branches of theology and religious studies revolve around a single book and the movements that have sprung from it? We have experts for a reasons, and we have scholars for a reason – not to tell us what good art is, but to give us the tools to understand it.

That is why they are the experts, and I am not. Can every layman understand the subtle nuances in, say, James Joyce’s masterwork, Finnegan’s Wake? I surely can’t! In fact, I absolutely hate reading stream of consciousness writing. I don’t get anything out of it; it merely confuses me, rather than enthralling me. That doesn’t mean I can’t also recognize it as an achievement in human civilization within a particular framework and a methodological achievement. This is not meant to sound elitist or otherwise – any academic will tell you that they attempt to look at all the angles, collaborate with experts in other fields, and make these determinations under a scholarly consensus. Video games, if they are indeed art, deserve the same kind of intellectual scrutiny.

That, in a nutshell, is why I desire such a construct for video games – if they are truly “art” in the sense that human civilization has identified, then they must be taken under the same scrutiny as any other artform – they must be studied, understood, exhaustively examined. This is not a domain for the journalist or the casual observer – the cadre of video game experts, scholars, and philosophers need their say. Such a framework does not exist, but perhaps I can throw my hat into the ring with a first attempt at this subject. Expect many iterations of this series to come.

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.