Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Preliminary Objections (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!

I couldn’t resist.

Of course, there’s bound to be objections to the idea of an objective standard in art. Let’s look at a few arguments relating to video games as an artform. If some of my comments seem snide or less than friendly, I assure you that’s not the intent. The extremity of some of the rhetoric is there to expose the absurdity of a position or the assumptions inherent. I do not launch ad hominems; I only attack positions, not people. Hebrews 3:13 says:

13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

I am not equating “disagreement with Zach” as sin, but I find there a necessity to this argument that, in some sense, determines where video games are going. It is also a Christian treatise on aesthetics, in some sense, that is trying to find a consistent theological and philosophical basis for “art”. I feel strongly enough to argue my case, so please take this seriously.

We have not, obviously, made the case for that particular identity quite yet, but let’s assume for the sake of rhetorical jousting that video games are art in some sense.

Video games, if they are are, are primarily artistic works that rely heavily on subjective response, not tools.  It has nothing to do with postmodernism. Or little to do with it.

Do video games rely on subjective response? In a way, absolutely; people can like or dislike games that even receive popular acclaim. I, for example, dislike the Elder Scrolls series – I think they’re poorly designed as games, rather than as role-playing experiences. Yet, I can understand the direction Bethesda took objectively, and appreciate it from afar. I see the various questlines, the huge world, the decisionmaking, the character building, the ability to totally lose one’s self in a realistic, fantastic, and imaginitive world. There’s a great deal of craft and work that goes into those games, even if I don’t appreciate the things within it as fun or enjoyable.

So, in that sense, your response (however you evaluate said game as good/bad/meaningful/whatever) might be your personal response, yet they exist as an object accessible to all. Yet, my personal subjective response doesn’t determine the value/greatness/meaning of said game, anymore than my personal opinion makes video games an art-form. Subjectivity’s got nothing to do with it. Personal interaction only gives you the tool to recognize, not to understand.

One must know that I’m not trying to make “art” a magically quantifiable thing; however, there can be a standard by which we judge the excellence or mediocrity of art, and that has been done throughout the whole history of civilization. Many great works were discovered years, decades, centuries, or even millenium beyond their original context – it took a relatively few number to discern their quality and then expand its study to the masses. Without those experts, you wouldn’t even know that they exist, nor the depth of their work. However, video games just don’t have the depth or breadth to make this a possibility as of yet – they have not existed for even a century yet! The evaluative judgements have come too quick and from too many angles.

They are not treated as unique in themselves; rather, they’re treated like every other art form, and this has muddied the waters. That, in a nutshell, is the problem of the modern “games are art” enterprise. It takes standards fitted to one medium (apparently, “art”) and applies it to another. Still, we neither have the experience, experts, methodologies, or proper tool to examine them with any competency that is exclusive to this particular medium.

You’re talking about the definition of good art getting decided by those in power, when that is not what art is meant to be.

I don’t think we are talking of “those in power” just by lieu of talking of the role of experts. I would, in no way, count myself as an expert in any field of video games; I happen to like them all and specialize in none. However, and here’s the kicker, there are many gamers obsessed with a single game or genre to the point where they understand proper design choices, what makes a competitive game last, what makes a platformer memorable, etc. These people, who can understand and compile that information, are the tournamanet players, the major league gamers, and those guys/gals who write those unbelievable guides on GameFAQs. They get to the nitty-gritty of mechanical analysis. They can help us understand games and their underpinnings. The developers, as well, help reveal the design decisions that they make as they decide what goes into making a game. Who wouldn’t consider their opinion as valid as to the depth and meaning of their own games? To say otherwise, that the work of art can suddenly mean anything, and that it distances itself from the author – Derrida’s famous saying “there is only the text”, descends straight into postmodernism.

On the other hand, we would have those persons who, in some sense, represent experts on the subject of aesthetics; they can understand why a particular game’s graphics, sound, art design, story, or any number of other elements coalesce into something holistic and beautiful. They can, with the best tools available, understand why we all seem to love Mario games (even though, to any observer, it looks like something akin to a bad acid trip) and remember our childhood. These persons can help us understand why we might like a particular appearance to our games, not only from philosophy but psychology, art history, sociology, theology, and nearly every other field that has some notion as to the quality and quantification of aesthetics.

Then, in the end, people of all fields and expertise (but usually the philosophers, let’s say) can compile all of this information into a way that makes it both understandable and accessible. This is my particular bias, but I find philosophers who pepper their texts with new vocabularies and neologisms as tiresome and pretentious. Rather, the philosophy here attempts a fusion of all the information these experts provide in a way accessible to the layman. Make no mistake, this would be a huge boon to the recognition of video games in popular culture (although, again, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon). How can you appreciate something that you have just begun to read, play, watch, etc.? I find that highly tendentious, at best.

More than likely, we’re only going to have a base inclination that there might be something special going on in any particular work. To understand that, though, will take a great deal of time and effort to see what causes that reaction in so many people.

To make this clearer with an example: red wine’s a learned art. Let’s say you come into trying it with the expectation of every other drink you’ve savored. That is, such drinks quench thirst and/or refresh, and sometimes provide particularly bright and forward flavors. Red wine does not do this; in some cases, it tastes like dirt and not at all like grape juice. Many will just give up on red win immediately, solely because it doesn’t fit their expectations of “drinks”. The realm of wine-drinking (as a hobby, of course) isn’t immediately accessible or discernible. Yet, as anyone can find out with a bit of research, red wine contains a variety of different types, vintages, years, flavors, and others elements that come solely from experience. Am I going to taste that at first? By no means! Yet, over time, I may taste the creaminess of the wine, the supple oak flavors from the barreling process, the subtle tannins from the Sonoma soil, and all the other characteristics that make that red wine unique and fantastic.

Key to this, however, is that you know nothing going into wine tasting. Anybody can have a glass, but it takes a conisseur to really enjoy the wine as its meant to be enjoyed by the grower, the vinter, and the vineyard owner. If you come with a “one and done” mentality, you’ll miss out on the huge variety of wines, their various flavors and everything else because you have no standard by which to base it. You’ve come in with preconceived notions, and those notions make red wine a horrible, terrible prospect. The artistic quality of the wine comes from its manufacturing process, and the only way to understand that comes with time, knowledge, and experience. Experts ease the process along by identifying the good qualities of a wine and making this understandable and palatable to the layman.

It is not determined by “elites” – rather, experts in all fields related to the subject lend their skills and knowledge to the enterprises, and by result  raising everyone’s understanding and expectation of any future wines. This is especially prescient, given that wine and video games are both primarily designed as products – yet some can transcend these notions, we believe, and possible mean something more. Appreciation takes time, dedication, hard work, reflection, and spiritual connection – these are not elements that come without work. One does not see the impact of something on their person by nature, although they might perceive that it had an affect (or, worse, they may not understand that it impacts them at all!). That goes for the video game as well; how can you appreciate Bayonetta, the fine red wine of action/combat games? Without any prior experience in similar games, you might prefer God of War, which only provides the illusion of depth without actually providing it. Again, that’s a personal bias, but on a mechanical level Bayonetta provides so much more depth in its system than God of War, just on a cursory glance.

In a surprise to no one, the layman prefers God of War. It is easier, takes less dedication, and demands only the player to press buttons repeatedly and occasionally dodge. Yet, of course, we hear “best game ever!” escape the lips of the person who has never played any similar games. They’re not even in a position to make an evaluative judgment of video games, let alone discern their meaning. However, and here is my problem, some person on the street has neither the skills nor the inclination to study in-depth what makes games tick. Rather, they think because “I’ve played a lot of games”, this somehow gives them justification to butt into a conversation. That’s not how these things work! Any person can grasp that something IS art, but it takes a special mind and a long process to explain WHY. A game journalist does not become an expert by virtue of playing video games; at best, they can only do what the rest of us can do: perceive something as great.

As much as this sounds like a pretentious scholar lamenting egalitarian ethics, I mean no such thing. Any society has power structures; this is inevitable. Some people’s skills in particular fields are, simply put, better than others. Everyone has skills and exemplary attributes in a number of areas; we can combine our cultivated and pruned talents to contribute to the greater society. That’s the whole point of objective standards in art – to learn from one another, to see different sides of the coin, and to have debates about these things.

In my mind, this rings truer than ‘everything is art”. This breeds a culture of mediocrity, wherein everyone becomes the expert. This does not help us understand our art, from how it is designed to where it emerges in the human soul. Rather, it makes impossible the distinctions that make its identification possible. If that is elitist, so be it; Christianity, too, is elitist by its very notions of objective truth (if you’re more conservative, anyway). How could all faiths not also find their way into the salvation family? But I recognize the scope of what I do not know, and what the whole collaborative efforts of the greatest minds in the world can bring to a particular task that enhances our understanding of artistic endeavors.

(Part 2)

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.