Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Judging Video Games as “Art” (1)

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!


Now that it is clear in what framework and setting that video games can be “art”, how can that particular quality be judged correctly, or how can video game be examined in a way amenable to their unique qualities? First, the critic must have a full scope of perception, not just recognition of the objects in question, for

natural and artistic criticism is always determined by the quality of first-hand perception; obtuseness in perception can never be made good by any amount of learning, however extensive, nor any command of abstract theory, however correct.

To say that in layman’s terms, you actually NEED to play them yourself. In fact, you need to play A LOT of them. Old, new, doesn’t matter. Even if you cannot play it, you must research it to the best of your own abilities. The Internet provides a wealth of resources to do the scholar’s work, work that doesn’t exist in copious quantities as of this moment. In fact, our perspective seems limited to Japan, the United States, and Western European countries at the moment.

We’re missing data on the rest; one striking example comes from the video game scene in non-Japanese Asian countries, such as Korean and Chinese games. Not everything is a pirated copy, and though some of them are derivative, there’s a unique game scene in other countries. Heck, we could even include Iran if we wanted. Frankly, we just don’t know everything, nor can a human being know everything, but a collaborative historical archival would remedy a lot of game criticism problems, in my view. Unless, you know, you think Fez the height of puzzle games for some reason. There’s nothing new under the sun; what indie game devs do now has been done by someone, somewhere, possibly better, possibly worse. However, discerning between a good/bad implementation of said concept will prove helpful.

Judgment, in that case, requires the use of intelligence on perception to allow for greater perception of the object in question. The heretofore mentioned analysis renders a more complete perception of the objects in question. The larger problem, for Dewey, is the attempt to set concrete rules, stringent requirements, and the baggage of tradition to determine what “art” is, rather than letting the natural processes heretofore mentioned play out in the creation of “an experience”. If that sounds like where video games found themselves in a nutshell, then you understand this well. The fallacy inherent in legalistic criticism of that sort is

…confusion of a particular technique with esthetic form.

Judicial critics do not allow for the emergence of new modes of life, new experiences, and new modes of expression to account for them; instead, they must retain the old guard, and keep “art” in its proper pedestal. In our case here in Western culture, that means ANYTHING is art. Then again, that’s not REALLY true; what is art must intentionally obfuscate and confuse, or maybe even have pretensions of being art – so that I can call it art without giving any definition. The possibilities are endless in regards to this; even if there isn’t a fixed standard, a consensus forms on the right way to look at things over time. Video games, unfortunately, found themselves right in a rut regarding criticism, fitting in a middle ground between product and artistic experience.

Why are they in museums? Why can’t I play them? It’s mixing the spectatorial model with an interactive one; you don’t observe a video game and say “look at the neat pixel art”. That complements the game you play with a mouse and keyboard, or controller, or your own limbs (haha Wii Kinect). Our culture tried right from the get-go to place video games in the same neat little package as film, books, and the plastic arts, and it just doesn’t work well. It requires a different model, a new one that arises naturally, not one beholden to some preconceived notions of “art” or “meaning”. Apparently AAA games and indie devs alike didn’t get the memo.

Honestly, it’s frustrating to think that academic respectability and popular acclaim somehow make something “art”. It’s frustrating, especially, when a host of knowledgeable gamers could tell you of games you’ve never heard of, yet whatever content-rich drivel they throw out becomes the de facto standard for everything else. This is why I feel the responsibility to highlight games that don’t get enough recognition, and to tear down those with notable, and ignored, flaws from the mainstream press. Mark 4 dictates this for me:

21 And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides.25 For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

Christians intend to reveal things, to bring them out in the open. We’re talking about the Gospel, here, but we can think of most any other discussion topic as a natural outgrowth of that. Artistic “expression” is merely an invention of the modern age. Plenty of works we’ve cited as hallmarks of human civilizations came into being out of comission or planned in advance by the “artist”. Seriously, just go look at the Sistine Chapel. True art does not rely on the personality or the “expressive” nature of its author, but about how exactly it fits into comparisons with everything else.

As a person born into the first world, I have been given much, and I don’t want others (or myself) to waste their time on petty frivolities, or “meanings” behind “artistic works” that don’t contribute. Let us find the best of our culture, rather than the worst, and highlight that. As a person who writes about video games, that is what I intend to do.

So let me propose using Dewey’s model to show you what I mean, in contrast to this sort of frustration. Hideo Kojima’s games are not nearly perfect, but they take risks and try something different every time. Let’s take a closer look at the Metal Gear Solid series, specifically the first and second games, to show the strange contrast inherent in game criticism regarding both (as to their reputation during their release, and now more than a decade later).

Metal Gear Solid was one of the premier games of the later 20th century. In it, you control a secret agent known as Solid Snake, whose mission is to recapture or disable nuclear weapons in Alaska that have been stolen by a military black ops group known as Foxhound. Snake, as a former member of this group, warily accepts this mission because he is in Alaska (even though he was retired) and proceeds, under the player’s command, to counter this threat to national security.

The rules of the game are thus: the player is much like a human being, so one must sneak around and silently disable, or avoid entirely, enemy Foxhound troops patrolling various areas of Shadow Moses Island. However, the game was revolutionary mostly for its unique storytelling methods, which involved several supernatural elements, as well as numerous cut-scenes of dialogue in the form of a cinematic action-adventure film. The game, through the combination of its unique mechanics, as well as its engaging, though incredibly derivative story (surprise, Solid Snake saves the day), served to heighten the Metal Gear Solid series’ popularity. Inevitably, there would be a sequel.

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.