Won't you come out to plaaaaaay?
May 28, 2009 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Dear Esther is a Halflife 2 mod. It could be viewed as an enigmatic, emblematic simulated afterlife, a Hebridean theme park or just a very slow shooter with with a laudable lack of any guns or enemies. Whichever you pick it's hard to deny that this interactive ghost story is Art. Or is it?

Some other people liked it too.
posted by Sebmojo (67 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
This looks neat. I read about it the other day but had forgotten about it until now, thanks!

Also, do I have the authority to preemptively ban use of the word "art" and any discussion about games having anything to do with that word? Oh Please?
posted by palidor at 6:35 PM on May 28, 2009


Didn't we do this in 1993?
posted by The White Hat at 6:38 PM on May 28, 2009



This looks neat. I read about it the other day but had forgotten about it until now, thanks!

Also, do I have the authority to preemptively ban use of the word "art" and any discussion about games having anything to do with that word? Oh Please?
posted by palidor at 6:35 PM on May 28 [+] [!]


No we can't... At least with that phrasing. Video games sure as shit can "contain" art, whether it be design, story elements, commentary, subverting game norms, whathaveyou. But since it is a game, it can not transcend its intrinsic game/goal centered element and become art in and of itself. If that makes sense. I think a lot of games have certainly come close to art (shadow of colossus, bioshock), but in the end the games basic purpose and identity do not work under the definition of art.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 6:44 PM on May 28, 2009


Recently featured on pc-gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun. The link has some extensive commentary on it, which is why I'm including it here. I make no promises about spoilers. My laptop can't run anything newer than early 'oughts games, so I've stopped caring about them.
posted by Decimask at 6:45 PM on May 28, 2009



Didn't we do this in 1993?
posted by The White Hat at 6:38 PM on May 28 [+] [!]


Yeah the sheer amount of people who seem to have completely forgotten about mist astounds me.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 6:45 PM on May 28, 2009


Myst was a puzzle game with a tacked-on story. This seems to be an mildly interactive story.
posted by demiurge at 6:45 PM on May 28, 2009


(the spoilers, not the games)
posted by Decimask at 6:51 PM on May 28, 2009


If you agree that art is "the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions," then video games are art beyond any shadow of a doubt.

I think people are having arguments about whether video games are "high" art or some such nonsense when they think they're asking if they're art at all. These arguments are pointless at best for completely obvious reasons.

All that said, I heard about this a while ago and now that I'm reminded of it I'll download it. It looks like a lot of fun.
posted by Nomiconic at 6:51 PM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Also, do I have the authority to preemptively ban use of the word "art" and any discussion about games having anything to do with that word? Oh Please?"

No.

"But since it is a game, it can not transcend its intrinsic game/goal centered element and become art in and of itself. If that makes sense. I think a lot of games have certainly come close to art (shadow of colossus, bioshock), but in the end the games basic purpose and identity do not work under the definition of art."

No.

At least neither of you was nearly as fucking retarded as that World of Stuart link, which was wrong about both games and art.

Games can be art; art can be games. For a great explication of this see anything written about Fluxus. Video games are easily regarded as pop/low art, but have yet to really fit into a high art schema. We talked about this in that big rant from the gamer woman post.

(As to the content at hand, oh that any of it worked on a mac.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:54 PM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


What klangklangston said. Given the number of contemporary artists who are actively involved in exploring concepts like play, games, and game theory, it's pretty ignorant to state out of hand that video games can never be art and by extension art can never be based around games and play.
posted by bardic at 7:01 PM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


But since it is a game, it can not transcend its intrinsic game/goal centered element and become art in and of itself.

Having a game/goal centered element means that something isn't art? Really? Why not? Just because it has a purpose other than being art? 'Cause that would rule out pretty much all architecture, for an example.

Videogames are made of art. Everything you see in a videogame is art, executed (especially in the larger development houses) by people who've spent significant portions of their own lives honing their artistic skills and instincts. Even the gameplay is art; the careful creation and balance of gameplay elements and their interaction is a process that, like painting, writing, or any other universally-recognized art form, requires skill but is incapable of being precisely quantified, and can create results which are variably pleasing, subject to preference, and capable of being appreciated on multiple levels.

And I'm not just talking about video games like Deus Ex or Half-Life 2, or Katamari Damacy, or even Super Mario Brothers (a triumph of elegance and unity of design). I'm talking about games, period. Settlers of Catan is art. Pandemic is art. Carcassone is art. Clue is art. Chess is art.

To deny this requires a definition of art which either rules out most existing art, or which is constructed specifically to deny that games are art; neither definition is useful in describing reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:04 PM on May 28, 2009 [19 favorites]


(Myst was recently ported to the iPhone.) (So was this.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2009


Carcassone is art.

Get your farmers off my lawn.
posted by kid ichorous at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


But since it is a game, it can not transcend its intrinsic game/goal centered element and become art in and of itself.

No. The works of William Shakespeare were produced with the intrinsic goal of entertaining an audience, no matter if that audience was the court of a patron or a yard-full of paying groundlings. And yet, who could say those works are not art?

Sure, sometimes art will exist (or is even created) for art's sake, but not always and not as an exclusionary rule against those works that somehow manage to become far more than the sum of their meager parts. To believe so would be like saying that since the base purpose of a square of stretched canvas is to serve as a vector for various pigments, a painting produced thereon could not possibly be art.
posted by grabbingsand at 7:23 PM on May 28, 2009


Even aside from the fact that narrative disclosure can be controlled by puzzles, the combination of an explicit challenge and a verbal literary work has a clear precedent. The most direct counterpart to interactive fiction in oral and written literature is seen as the riddle, in true literary riddles such as those of the Latin poet Symphosius and of the early English text The Exeter Book.

- Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages (Google Books, pp 3-4)
posted by kid ichorous at 7:25 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


That World of Stuart link makes me want to poop.
posted by roll truck roll at 7:27 PM on May 28, 2009


didn't we do this in 1917?

of course games can be art.
posted by Jeeb at 7:31 PM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty, that was magisterial.

I think one source of the confusion is linguistic - we have a name, 'art', that appears to be for a category of things - but which actually denotes the feelings those things evoke. Western rationalist thought fairly systematically downplays the relevance of the numinous, so it sort of gets lost.

There's also the issue with ART (ie Mona Lisa, Beethoven's Fifth etc) and 'art' (what artists do in between smoking clove ciggies and drinking shorts).

But really, Lacking Subtlety? A game that moved (for the sake of the argument) every single person who played it to tears would not be art, but every single episode of 'Days of Our Lives' would?
posted by Sebmojo at 7:35 PM on May 28, 2009


Just because it has a purpose other than being art? 'Cause that would rule out pretty much all architecture, for an example.

Architecture is architecture, Pope Guilty. It's not art.

Videogames are made of art. Everything you see in a videogame is art, executed (especially in the larger development houses) by people who've spent significant portions of their own lives honing their artistic skills and instincts.

Videogames are made of craft. The good ones are thoughtful and well-constructed and so on.

I think your definition is too broad and would include such things as my dining room table, my backyard deck, the fountain out front, and the Ferrari I hope to one day drive. I also think it's foolish for game advocates to insist that games are art; the advocacy suggests the advocates aren't entirely confident about the worth of games and so would like to attach games to something, such as art, or literature, that everybody already agrees is worthwhile.

My wife recently commissioned a painting derived from screengrabs of her favorite bits of Katamari Damacy. She's derived more pleasure from her KD experiences than she has from any visit to MOCA.
posted by notyou at 7:37 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


But since it is a game, it can not transcend its intrinsic game/goal centered element and become art in and of itself.

The art debate is silly. Anything that you could pose as a limiting factor, preventing something from being art, immediately becomes a reason that something could be art because it now is pressing boundaries. I mean, that was the basis of Dada, from what I can gather.

Saying something can't be art because it has a "goal" makes just as much sense has saying abstract art isn't art because it doesn't look like anything. Why can't art be interactive? Isn't that just another layer of storing telling? Look, there were times when novels, film, non-representational art "couldn't" be art. Why does it make any more sense to restrict what art means now?

Anyway, nothing is "art in of itself". It's all a poem, or a song, or a painting or a movie. Art isn't a platonic ideal that we can compare other things to and see if they "fit". We label things art. And if you can arbitrarily restrict the term "art" from video games because it has a goal, why can't I arbitrarily restrict the term from poems because they're on paper, or from photography, because it just shows something that already exists?

I think people get hung up on calling something art because they think that lends respectability to it. Saying something is art doesn't mean that it has inherent value or that it's good. Most art sucks, without a doubt.
posted by spaltavian at 7:42 PM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


notyou, I'd argue that all of those things, with the exception of probably your deck, are capable of being both art and craft, or at least the result of both.

And what anyone's advocacy suggests is irrelevant to the discussion. I'm not saying video games are art because it advances my pro-video game agenda, I'm saying it because I think it's true.
posted by Nomiconic at 7:47 PM on May 28, 2009


Videogames are made of craft.

Excepting, naturally, those ones made of art.
posted by kid ichorous at 7:49 PM on May 28, 2009


@notyou, in playing Dear Esther, you move through a space made of three dimensional paintings, listen to (awesome) recorded music and what is effectively prose poetry read out by a (talented) actor.

Every single thing you see, hear and experience was put there with an overall artistic goal.

So what's the magic spark it's missing that means its craft rather than art?
posted by Sebmojo at 7:53 PM on May 28, 2009


So what's the magic spark it's missing that means its craft rather than art?

It isn't in a gallery.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:08 PM on May 28, 2009


Why exclude the deck, Nomiconic? Sure, it's nothing much to look at, but it has its charm. I am pleased with how the untreated redwood has silvered over time. The steps leading down to the brick patio are wide and inviting, both to feet, and as impromptu benches. The carpenters who executed the work spent years honing their skills and their collective experience informed every decision made during the piece's construction.

spaltavian said better what I was trying to say with my comment about advocacy: I think people get hung up on calling something art because they think that lends respectability to it. Saying something is art doesn't mean that it has inherent value or that it's good. Most art sucks, without a doubt.

Games can be valuable as games. They don't need to be anything else to be worthwhile.
posted by notyou at 8:08 PM on May 28, 2009


Oh my god Ian A.T. Thank you for pointing out Myst and Space Ace for iPhone.

My next dozen airport layovers just got a whole lot better.
posted by rokusan at 8:09 PM on May 28, 2009


"Architecture is architecture, Pope Guilty. It's not art."

Bzzt. Not only has architecture been traditionally considered art, non-functional and purely aesthetic architecture exists. At the recent California Biennial, one piece consisted of a room with an artificially-lowered ceiling.

"I think your definition is too broad and would include such things as my dining room table, my backyard deck, the fountain out front, and the Ferrari I hope to one day drive."

Not only could those things be art, but the idea that they could be art is over a century old. The Arts and Crafts movement happened at the end of the 19th century, as a reaction against the industrial revolution. Why don't you think they are art?

I also think it's foolish for game advocates to insist that games are art; the advocacy suggests the advocates aren't entirely confident about the worth of games and so would like to attach games to something, such as art, or literature, that everybody already agrees is worthwhile."

You miss the point—regarding something as art draws it into a broader conversation. And the dominant motif of the 20th century was expanding the boundaries on what was considered art. So more than attempting to create legitimacy for video games, it's a discussion about what "art" means and an expansive view of art that's contested.
posted by klangklangston at 8:15 PM on May 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Games can be valuable as games. They don't need to be anything else to be worthwhile."

And paintings can match your couch.
posted by klangklangston at 8:18 PM on May 28, 2009


Can't speak for Dear Esther, Sebmojo, because I haven't played it.

A spark that's missing from games I've played is the one hinted at in TwelveTwo's quip about the gallery. When we say something is "art for art's sake" or "art in and of itself" we are saying the painting or the sculpture or the photograph or the installation sits in a particular context which includes a history and a discourse and a collection of tropes and so on. Good art interacts with that context and invites the audience to consider the interaction as we consider the artwork itself.

Games offer us a different kind of experience -- more like film or literature, perhaps; experienced through time and often connected to narratives. Games also come embedded within their own contexts, one in which a game is more likely to interact with other games (via gameplay elements or story or visual elements).
posted by notyou at 8:31 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think there are interesting cultural issues tied up with all of this, and the perceived triviality of videogames ("You're comparing 'GoreBlade: The Bloodenating 2 - Frenzy Wars' to DEBUSSY?!)" is very much one of them.

But I've never seen a logically consistent way for games to not ever be art by definition. Stuart attempts it, in the last link of my OP, and it's piffle.

A couple of practical notes to anyone playing the mod; copy the unzipped files into your Steam/steamapps/sourcemods folder then restart Steam and it should show up in the games list.

If you're stuck at the beginning, head along the beach and look for a path up the cliff. If you get stuck on a rock or something, restart (or use the console, but if you know how to do that then you don't need my advice).
posted by Sebmojo at 8:39 PM on May 28, 2009


"But since it is a game, it can not transcend its intrinsic game/goal centered element and become art in and of itself."

I'd just like to point out that this definition of art only emerged in the 19th century, IIRC. Prior to that, most art was functional, and a lot of it was made purely for entertainment -- much like video games.
posted by archagon at 8:41 PM on May 28, 2009


Games offer us a different kind of experience -- more like film or literature, perhaps; experienced through time and often connected to narratives. Games also come embedded within their own contexts, one in which a game is more likely to interact with other games (via gameplay elements or story or visual elements).

I'm not trying to be snarky; I'm really having a hard time trying to navigate this. Are you saying that pieces of art are necessarily self-contained? This, ironically, would rule out a crapload of a lot of painting. Sure, you can look at a canvas and think it looks nice or whatever, but a lot of what paintings are "about" is tightly bound in their relationships with other paintings.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:44 PM on May 28, 2009


@notyou - I respect what you're trying to do, but it's a long way from demonstrating your (fairly sweeping) thesis.

First, as to the gallery point - take the painting out of the gallery then. It's still art.

Seecond, history and discourse: any cultural artefact has that, I don't see how Braid is any less informed by Super Mario than Picasso is by Matisse.

Third, every art form offers an experience that is connected to time. Art happens in the interaction between the experiencer and the art object.

Art, if it is anything, is that interaction. So viewing a painting, listening to music, seeing a play - all tied to time and the viewer's experience.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:46 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, many of the classical composers that we now revere as Great Artists were considered craftsmen in their time. Again, art only gained its stuffy pretentiousness fairly recently.
posted by archagon at 8:46 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


See, I think the whole videogames as art debate is just about semantics and is an artifact of how people with affection for the medium feel it is regarded in the culture as a whole. What does it accomplish to determine through any kind of logic that videogames = art? Government subsidies? I'm not trying to stifle debate, I just think the more interesting discussion has to do with our relationship to games and not whether we can successfully define them as something culturally valuable. Sorry!
posted by palidor at 8:50 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Videogames are made of craft.

I tend to agree with this, but that doesn't mean they can't be art. Art, too, is often made of craft. We have absolutely no fucking idea what art is, but for some reason we love to play at pretending we do (or conversely, pretending to play at knowing what art isn't). But that doesn't mean art doesn't exist, isn't real, or is solely relative. How it doesn't mean this, I have no idea, but I personally don't believe it does. I guess you can call that conviction "faith in art" or something like that, if you want.
posted by treepour at 8:54 PM on May 28, 2009


A spark that's missing from games I've played is the one hinted at in TwelveTwo's quip about the gallery.

But you're backing a statement of non-existence - that there is no game to satisfy some elusive condition - with an appeal to negative evidence - that you've found no game that satisfies. Whatever conditions we're talking about here may well have been met by certain artists and genres. It takes only one such example to revise your initial claim. So why draw such a hard line?

They don't need to be anything else to be worthwhile.

But art has very little to do with necessity, and much more to do with possibility. I don't care for the particular hard candy of Katamari, but I'm glued to certain kinds of interactive prose. Both of these things are admittedly useless. What's more interesting to me is that the latter is possible.
posted by kid ichorous at 9:02 PM on May 28, 2009


Good point, palidor. I think art is meant to tell a message indirectly or convey/evoke an emotion, usually in a compelling way. Games traditionally covered a narrow slice of what art does, in that they try to make people have fun and live out fantasies, much as traditional games (board games, sports, etc) have done. Now that the term has come to include interactive software, it's clear they're capable of much more, even though the most popular games will probably continue to be the equivalent of sitcoms and summer blockbusters.

Of course, we don't let 2 and 1/2 Men count against great television like "The Wire," but it seems like outsiders to video games tend to have that sort of attitude against games, when they argue they lack merit. I've heard similar things about sci-fi's struggle to be accepted as adult literature when PKD was starting out.

Of course, part of the problem could be that the video game press is still geared to praise games that are fun over games that have a deep artistic impact, while in TV and movies critics tend to give media with artistic merit higher scores and stronger recommendations, while dumb comedies and action films just get mediocre reviews. Since it takes serious skill to make a fun game, though, it might be wise if there were separate scores or reviews for games that have artistic merit, aside from how playable they are. Some games can pull off both angles, while most can't.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:03 PM on May 28, 2009


I've already written way too much about "Are Games Art" in a comment in my own thread on the question a year ago. Still, I sorta-kinda-accidentally did a lot more research into the question in the past weekend while trying to look up examples of another video-game phenomenon (namely: Escort Missions) and so I have some more to say (read the linked comment if you're for some reason interested in my whole treatise on the subject, though.)

To dismiss the idea that games can be art is to dismiss the possibilities of the medium, and every day, doing so seems more and more crass and ignorant to a lot of us who still keep in touch with what the medium is doing.

To give an obvious example: In Shadow of the Colossus, you start by making a devil's bargain to revive your beloved, Mono, and then proceed through huge, completely unoccupied lands to slaughter the Colossi to hold up your end of the deal. With each one (and many are remarkably peaceful until you attack them) your appearance worsens. The only character throughout almost all of the game aside from Wander - a.k.a. you - and the Colossi, is your horse, Aggro. SPOILER ALERT: As you approach the final Colossus, Aggro falls to his death, bucking you off his back to save you as his final action. At this point, you lose your final link to anything else in this world - you are completely alone, and yous mission is to destroy the last living thing aside from yourself, and yet you're left so senseless and shocked by Aggro's death that you naturally translate it into rage towards the Colossus that "brought you there," despite the fact that you are the sole aggressor. I won't spoil the absolute ending here, but to say that this game "approaches art" but that games still fundamentally can't "be" art makes no sense to me. Such a statement logically has to employ an arbitrary judgment about what art must consist of, well apart from the goals which art attempts to accomplish.

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are the easiest examples, of course, but many developers have spent their lives in the pursuit of how games can effectively engross the player in a mood, theme, idea, or even moral argument. Even at their silliest, games can still easily attain art-hood. In Sly 3:Honor Among Thieves, the penultimate boss battle comes after Bentley, the recently-parapalegic brains behind the operation, is mercilessly beaten by a pirate king. The whole thing is done in a Saturday-Morning-Cartoon style, but when Penelope, Bentley's crush who hasn't shown him any real interest beyond professional respect, chouts, "Nobody touches that turtle but me!" the player is suddenly shunted into the first and only time they play as Penelope, fencing with the evil captain on his ship in what is both a nice subversion of the genre (playing as the heroic female character fighting to save her male love-interest) and also the payoff of a nice bit where Bentley's bravery in being willing to die for the team gave Penelope the revelation necessary to realize her feelings for him.

In another example, is satire art? Does it matter what form it comes in? Then Penn & Teller's Smoke ad Mirrors qualifies, by forcing the player through the relentless drudgery of doing a traveling show (most notoriously by making the player drive to Las Vegas in six-hour-real-time with a bus that veers slightly to the left in order to score one point.)

The point I'm trying haphazardly to make is that Video Games make use of the "second person," a concept all-but-abandoned by other media, because the other media couldn't use it with any real purpose other than gimmickry. Second Person is where games live, however, but that's no reason for the philistinism that thrives so fashionably around them claiming that this aspect alone can certify them as "not-art."
posted by Navelgazer at 9:03 PM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Art is just pornography for the cortex. Or so he says.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:05 PM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Awesome. Looks like what I wished Myst (and its sequel) was: a fully 3D environment puzzle game. I loves me some gun shooting and big explosions, but it gets repetitive after a while. I do believe I'll dust off the old HL2 cd and reinstall for this.
posted by zardoz at 9:20 PM on May 28, 2009


Zardoz - before you get too excited, be aware that there are no discrete puzzles, as such. The thing itself is a kind of puzzle, but not in the normally accepted game sense - it's more of a deeply cryptic mood-piece.

For anyone who's not going to play it, but who has played Vampire: Bloodlines, think of a cross between the Malkavian Mansion and the haunted hotel.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:27 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seconding and thirding a lot of what's being said here. Based on my definition of "art" (and "game"), games can be art. I knew something was really wrong with the WOS post when he started saying "It should be obvious to anyone with the remotest understanding..." Whenever someone starts out like that, they are usually wrong, because very few topics worth discussing are "obvious to anyone with the remotest understanding." In this case, the complicating issue tends to be the difficulty in establishing a common definition of "art." Obviously! To those with the remotest understanding of whatever! It's like my girlfriend says: never trust an "expert."

But I do agree with this sentiment:

A more pertinent question, of course, might be "Why do we care whether videogames are accepted as art or not?" If you enjoy playing games, why do you need some kind of intellectual, cultural approval to justify the fact?

I have a similar reaction to dead-end discussions about whether hip-hop is music. On one hand, as far as I'm concerned, in both cases, the answer is "yes"; games can be art, and hip-hop is music. On the other hand, it just doesn't matter. People trying to prove that games cannot be art are really trying to prove that videogames are without serious merit. All I can say is that I got something out of investing attention into games (and hip-hop), and the rest is just semantics.

It's funny; when people talk about whether videogames can qualify as art, they tend to trot out the most tortured and personal definitions of art. What in the hell makes them think that this is something we can all agree on? And what is the point, again?
posted by Edgewise at 9:33 PM on May 28, 2009


I gave it 15 minutes. It's moody all right. I walked around an empty landscape while some music played and somebody read out letters with a sonorous voice. Heavy stuff, a little overwritten perhaps. Then I got lost. It didn't feel like I was moving very fast, I kept on looking for the run button. Then I walked into the water, and just went I figured out where I was, I drowned. Then it started over.
posted by muckster at 9:35 PM on May 28, 2009


Whenever someone asserts that some cultural object is art, they mean to it (for being particularly affective, say, or intricate).

Whenever someone denies that some cultural object is art, they mean to relegate it to a lower realm, a realm in which the object can only be praiseworthy for its utility.

I'm inclined to accept all claims that a thing is art -- they generally cause me to reconsider the object in a new light, which is almost always a positive experience. I'm also inclined to ignore all claims that a thing isn't art, and for exactly the same reasons.

What does it add to my experience of the world to stipulate that something isn't art?
posted by voltairemodern at 9:56 PM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Just finished it. It was good, if approached as an art piece. But if approached as a game, it suuucked.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:59 PM on May 28, 2009


Muckster, did you find the path up the cliff from the beach? I missed that the first few times.
posted by Sebmojo at 10:59 PM on May 28, 2009


I don't know what art is, but I sure do love juggling Pyros with the rocket launcher then finishing them off with a quick shotgun blast!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:05 AM on May 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh stavros, surely you mean juggling Soldiers with an air blast then finishing them off with a quick shotgun blast! ; ) That is an art!
posted by asok at 2:07 AM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


It seems like this would be a good candidate for Let's Play.

Please?
posted by Jorus at 5:12 AM on May 29, 2009


Game Rules as Art. From the guy who created The Marriage, an "art game". I just saw the (great) Younger than Jesus exhibit at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and, yep, there's a game there. The "art world" seems to be having less trouble categorizing games as art than the "game world".
posted by pinothefrog at 6:22 AM on May 29, 2009


Any criterion for art which won't allow for the inclusion of braid or portal is faulty in my view.

Early on, shakespeare was a comedian for the unwashed public, beethoven was writing pop music, dickens was a hack writing populist serials, boticelli was a pagan heretic for painting naked ladies, impressionists were just messing about with colour, and film was a medium for entertaining people with footage of trains.

While I'm certainly not going to argue that all or even most games are art, I wouldn't make that argument for books, pictures or film either.

Art is what you make of it. For me, it's about telling a story and causing emotions in a way that I hadn't expected. Evoking something in the soul, not just the eyes. Braid certainly qualifies under that criterion - the ending is simply mind blowing in how it makes you rethink all your assumptions, even if we exclude the backgrounds, music and way it plays with your perception of time.

The biggest problem any game has with being classified as art is that critics don't get it. Film has taken a good long time to get there, but there's not many left now who say that no film can ever be art, though there certainly have been in its history.

Give computer games another few decades, and I think the medium will gain a lot more respect than it has currently.
posted by ArkhanJG at 6:49 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, many of the classical composers that we now revere as Great Artists were considered craftsmen in their time. Again, art only gained its stuffy pretentiousness fairly recently.

Here, here! In the oldest sense of the term "art," it was a very broad, inclusive term meant to encompass virtually the full gamut of human activities, creative, practical or otherwise. If it was produced by human hands or pursued as an area of human interest or study, then it was called art.

In the 11-12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, art was defined as "Skill at doing anything as a result of knowledge and practice..."

It wasn't until around the 18th century that the concept of Art (with a capital A) as a special class of human work-products having an intrinsic aesthetic value over and above any more practical considerations even emerged.

Then the French and American Romanticists further contributed to the process of redefining Art, holding up artists as near-supernatural beings endowed with extraordinary skills and sensitivities that allowed them to achieve more intimate connections with things like Nature, Beauty and Truth than the ordinary person could ever hope to achieve (poets, for example, were men “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility [who have] also thought long and deeply,” as Wordsworth wrote in that period).

Given these now almost superstitious-seeming foundations for many of our cultural assumptions about what Art is or isn't, philosophers and cultural critics have lately begun to raise serious challenges to the legitimacy and conceptual coherency of our notions of Art in their current formulations.

And I mostly agree with the critics. To me, art is any product, tangible or otherwise, produced by human design and requiring special skills, knowledge or technical proficiency in the execution; aesthetic appreciation in the most general sense is just the appreciation of how skillfully any product of human design has been conceived and executed. In the case of art intended to relay specific ideas, narrate a story, or to evoke particular feelings, our aesthetic judgments are based on our subjective impressions of how fully and skillfully (or not) the work achieved its intended effects. In the case of art meant to be appreciated solely as an abstract exercise in technique or to demonstrate certain design principles, our aesthetic judgments are based on essentially the same criteria. The importance of the artist's intent in critical evaluation of their work has been a subject of considerable debate in the recent past (another odd historical anomaly), but like most 2-year olds, I come down squarely on the side of artistic intent, to the extent it's knowable, necessarily informing any serious critical evaluation of a work. Every artist who claims there's no intent behind their work is lying (at the very least, they intend for you to care about or notice their work in some way); every critic who claims artistic intent doesn't matter is merely replacing the artist's narcissism with their own.

Architecture, despite the contrary suggestion up-thread, is and has traditionally been studied alongside other disciplines in art. It's rare to find even an introductory art history course that doesn't discuss the development of the earliest historical designs of architectural features like columns and pillars, for example. Likewise, "Commercial Art" is a legitimate subclass of art. And technically, everything you might have learned to do in shop class falls under the umbrella classification of the "Industrial arts."

So yes, Virginia, video games can be art! In fact, good or bad, they already are. Whether video games can ever be Art, and whether this distinction is even an important one, seems to be moot from where I sit.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:08 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I admit that a large part of my background in this debate comes from a class I took called The Philosophy of Art, back when I wanted to be a philosophy major. The two central questions of the class were "What is art?" and "By what should we judge art?"

As for the first, the three criteria that seem most salient to me are:

1) Human involvement in "creation"

Art has to have human manipulation of physical objects to distinguish it from not-art.

2) Stimulation of the senses

Art has to be created with a sensory experience as a goal

3) An audience to regard a piece as art

Even if it's only the creator, art must be regarded as part of the artistic conversation.

From these three points, video games satisfy the necessary and sufficient conditions—they are undoubtibly created by humans to engage the senses of other humans, and they can be regarded in the context of art by likening them to other pieces of art.

The confusion comes from the unfortunate reflex of assuming that "art" is a qualitative judgment when it's not. Video games can be bad art, both within the realm of video games and within a larger conversation about what art can aspire to. You hear this frequently in discussions of games by gamers—when someone slams a game for being derivative, they're making an artistic claim that originality and novelty are constituent parts of good video games and good art. That ports aren't considered independent pieces backs this up.

This is independent of the argument over High and Low Art, which I went round with Kid Ichorous on before. Low Art is generally things that were not created primarily as part of the larger art conversation regarded by folks using the framing of that conversation. Say, talking about the narrative structure of Super Mario Brothers or the semiotics of Coca Cola logos. I don't think there's been very much High Art in video games, but that's not to say that there couldn't be or that I haven't missed some. I do think that it's fair to claim that there hasn't been any Great Art (both High and nigh-universally acclaimed) in video games, though I realize that comes with a lot of baggage (should video games even aspire to Great Art?). But the percentage of Great Art in any medium is fairly low, and usually takes both a lot of time to recognize and a relatively long time for a medium to develop. Since video games are rather by definition multi-media and the technical aspects are far from stable, there's going to be less focus on art for art's sake.
posted by klangklangston at 9:12 AM on May 29, 2009


WARNING: Dear Esther is really almost nothing like Myst. They both drop the player in medias res to wander around on a deserted island with some attractive terrain, but that is really about the only similarity between the two.

Dear Esther is a neat experience, but if you go into it thinking it's a game like Myst, you will be greatly disappointed.
posted by straight at 12:04 PM on May 29, 2009


Then I got lost. It didn't feel like I was moving very fast, I kept on looking for the run button. Then I walked into the water, and just when I figured out where I was, I drowned. Then it started over.

Just like life, bro. Just like life.
posted by naju at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not Myst. I don't know why people are even making the comparison.

I didn't really like Dear Esther. I had to cheat to get past the first level, then it was just wandering around a very linear world, listening to odd comments of the narrator and looking at circuit diagrams. I support the effort to do new things with the FPS framework but this isn't really worth the hype it's getting.

Of course, neither was Myst.
posted by chairface at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2009


What does it add to my experience of the world to stipulate that something isn't art?

Some things aren't art, they cannot be, some things simply are and they have to remain mute and laconic in their existence in order for things like contemplation and reflection to make sense as detachment from concrete engagement. A world in which everything is considered artful simply for the purpose of aesthetic delight and contemplation is a dead world where all the stakes have been levelled and nothing matters anymore.

The atomic bomb for example is a feat of human design, consciously planned and executed across a large organisation, so for that matter is aufschwitz. We could consider both of these phenomenon aesthetically, and remark on them in terms that avoid the moral implications, but does that make it art?

The 18th Century break that Saulgoodman mentioned was responsible for more than creating that aesthetic constellation of capital A-art, romantic genius and his attendant audience, the man of taste. What does this mean? It wasn't that this art was somehow "better" and more sensitive than before, rather this Art was now an autonomous representation, conceptually constructed, universally deployable and open to detached appreciation, where before art (both high and low) was anonymous and embedded in cultural practices - worship of gods, the abundance of natural harvests, veneration of political figures and heroes - a revelation (versus genius construction) of the things that simply "are", that exist prior to any sort of aesthetic recuperation. I don't know what art is now and I don't know if it's any better, but I know damn well that whatever it was pre-enlightenment sure as hell wasn't playing by the rules we use now, and that for those folks, art had a very specific place in an ordered tradition that we have now completely lost.

Architecture in particular has suffered from the aesthetisation of Art, since it sets up those gradations and intersections between laconic, pre-reflective everyday existence and those higher moments of reflection that reconcile "mere" existence with an ordered schematic (religious, political or whatever). Architecture that succeeds purely on that aesthetic level, like any other piece of aesthetics - dead to the living world beyond esoteric appreciation.

I also have no idea where any of this puts video-games, except that denying the artistry of video gamest because of their purposefulness is so true for about 99% of the computer games that it makes you wonder why you want to salvage the whole medium for that 1% who are experimenting with video games interestingly. If this really is a problem with semantics the operative term isn't art, it's computer games. What I do know is that games are thriving and living without any help from those of us who want to raise its cultural cache or deny it, and probably better off for it.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:19 PM on May 29, 2009


"Some things aren't art, they cannot be, some things simply are and they have to remain mute and laconic in their existence in order for things like contemplation and reflection to make sense as detachment from concrete engagement. A world in which everything is considered artful simply for the purpose of aesthetic delight and contemplation is a dead world where all the stakes have been levelled and nothing matters anymore."

o_O

"The atomic bomb for example is a feat of human design, consciously planned and executed across a large organisation, so for that matter is aufschwitz. We could consider both of these phenomenon aesthetically, and remark on them in terms that avoid the moral implications, but does that make it art?"

Was the bomb intended as art? Was it presented as art? Was it regarded as art? What other work would it comment on? What meta-meaning could be drawn from it?

I don't think that either the Manhattan project or the Holocaust were intended or received as art, and I don't think that sensory stimulation was a serious goal for either of them, but I wouldn't say that a holocaust or bombing couldn't be an artistic expression. Just because something could be art doesn't mean it has to be, just that it can't be dismissed by hand-waving.

"What does this mean? It wasn't that this art was somehow "better" and more sensitive than before, rather this Art was now an autonomous representation, conceptually constructed, universally deployable and open to detached appreciation, where before art (both high and low) was anonymous and embedded in cultural practices - worship of gods, the abundance of natural harvests, veneration of political figures and heroes - a revelation (versus genius construction) of the things that simply "are", that exist prior to any sort of aesthetic recuperation."

Wrong. Virgil, Michelangelo, Vermeer, none of them were anonymous or involved in pure "revelation." In fact, "revelation" was considered a subordinate goal for art for the vast majority of pre-Romantic critics—the post-Platonic model of idealization held sway for folks like Joshua Reynolds and Renaissance artists. In fact, revelation was a revolutionary move intended as a political statement on post-industrial revolution social issues.

"Architecture in particular has suffered from the aesthetisation of Art, since it sets up those gradations and intersections between laconic, pre-reflective everyday existence and those higher moments of reflection that reconcile "mere" existence with an ordered schematic (religious, political or whatever). Architecture that succeeds purely on that aesthetic level, like any other piece of aesthetics - dead to the living world beyond esoteric appreciation."

This is also insane and I have no idea how you got there.

"I also have no idea where any of this puts video-games, except that denying the artistry of video gamest because of their purposefulness is so true for about 99% of the computer games that it makes you wonder why you want to salvage the whole medium for that 1% who are experimenting with video games interestingly. If this really is a problem with semantics the operative term isn't art, it's computer games. What I do know is that games are thriving and living without any help from those of us who want to raise its cultural cache or deny it, and probably better off for it."

Yeah, but no. Purposefulness is antithetical to art? That's just an unsupportable claim—pictures that advance a commercial or political goal are still art, etc. Seriously, your premises are so fundamentally opposed to any sort of historical or contemporary reality that the conclusions can't help but be totally wrong.
posted by klangklangston at 4:06 PM on May 29, 2009


Whenever a discussion about whether video games are art or not comes up, I get so confused by some of the arguments people make because they're so incongruous with what's going on in the literal world.

We all live in the same world, right? The world where most new gallery exhibitions have at least one interactive piece? The world where video game scores appear alongside Mahler in the classical section at the record store? The world where a new generation of independent game designers are redefining production and distribution to artist-centric models? The world where kids with fresh BFAs compete for jobs in art design at video game studios? The world, in fact, where not one, but several arts programs now offer MFAs in game design?

The intellectual hoops required to live in this world and still hold that video games aren't art are staggering. You might not like video games, fine -- I don't like ballet very much -- but what the fuck else are they?

that 1% who are experimenting with video games interestingly

I've heard this voiced by a lot of people, including a lot of people who would more-or-less say that games are art. I think that some people just take the wrong games seriously. The aesthetic sense and creativity that goes into creating a Tetris or a Joust is huge.
posted by roll truck roll at 4:58 PM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think purposefulness is antithetical to art, I said that art was originally bound to cultural practice such as religious worship rather than being an autonomous object for detached observation, this obviously gives the former a sort of purpose versus the modern Art work which has to be completely free of utility. Actually my references come only from architecture so I should probably be a lot less gung ho in pitting traditional revelation versus romantic visionary artwork, but the pre-enlightenment, Western tradition of architecture thought only in terms of particular rooms and traditional iconography and didn't even have a feeling for abstract or universal "space" until modernity, and the theme of revelation for participating in truth is a constant presence in spatial arrangement and iconography from the meson or choros, both types of revelatory middle ground within the Greek agora and theatre respectively to the use of the revealing vine as a metaphor for divinity in situations as diverse as Christian cathedrals and Mesopotamian throne rooms. And however magnificent the individual contributions to the iconography or the building, the artist was lauded for his contributions to an enduring tradition rather than producing an original vision.

I also realise this came out wrong without the proper emphasis:

Architecture in particular has suffered from the aesthetisation of Art, since it sets up those gradations and intersections between laconic, pre-reflective everyday existence and those higher moments of reflection that reconcile "mere" existence with an ordered schematic (religious, political or whatever). Architecture that succeeds purely only on that an aesthetic level, like any other piece of aesthetics - is dead to the living world beyond esoteric appreciation.

My point is that architecture deals with both the engaged practicalities of life and embodies or orientates our reflections on it not as some sort of coded message which you have to get, but by allowing for moments of reflective distance (moments which were originally tied to a cultural or religious tradition). Treating architecture only as a subject of aesthetics or coded message removes the practical considerations in favour of the supposedly "higher" reflections and denies its living connection to the majority of people who use it. The biennales bare this out, being as they are a love in for academics.

I guess I'm trying to get to a picture of art as it might have been, before it was judged only on the basis of aesthetic freedom versus practical necessity, ie traditional art didn't make that distinction because art was always already involved in a situation that would connect the most banal necessities (wiping your feet before getting into the temple), to the highest moments of contemplation (supplication), although purpose is probably too strong a word suggesting as it does an either/or achievement of the goal, rather each occasion allowed the individual the freedom to affirm the collective order in his own creativity. The artistry of the chair isn't that it is a utilitarian object dressed up to look pretty with a special message for those in the know, it is that it orientates and accommodates behaviour and action for dinner, between meals, lounging and whatever else it is that chairs get involved in, from sunday roast intonations to midnight snack stationing, a panoply of occasions in which it can characterise your involvement and participation.

My problem with the purposefulness of games is not so much they they are meant to entertain as that the stories and rule systems are so deeply banal and predictable, offering a completely rigid vision of expectations and involvement (and now you do this) and precisely the either/or of purposefulness rather than the concrete involvement of utility. Purpose here is doing something other than being for the sake of something banal in the middle of the physical world (ie flipping past ads in vogue), purpose here means following rules repetitively which you are neither allowed to break or ignore, even the twists are programmed into the game. Whatever the big artistic vision of the game (even if you are playing Che Geuvara storming the white house on Mars with multiple story lines) it always devolves to rule following in a decision tree clothed in simulated fantasy-scape, this, more than the story, is the basis of the computer game and it doesn't make for much of a reflection on reality.
posted by doobiedoo at 5:46 AM on May 30, 2009


The twist in Shadow of the Colossus for example (I haven't played it) sounds more like morality training than insight into any sort of human condition (and now you do/feel this), in fact any computer game twist, whether it is a narrative moment as in Shadow of the Colossus or a general theme, as in Grand Theft Auto, is just another didactic moment, consider on the other hand how the twist in Oldboy creates a profound ambiguity between what you feel is right, forces a complete reframing and re-evaluation of all that has gone before (something I imagine is difficult in a decision tree which has to adhere to a constant system of values).
posted by doobiedoo at 5:55 AM on May 30, 2009


And to put the concrete involvement vs purposeful rule following thing into comparable examples, there's more potential for thought provoking artistry in Gold Farming for a living in China than in any computer game I have ever seen and this is why games really don't need us arguing on behalf of their cache.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:00 AM on May 30, 2009


My problem with the purposefulness of games is not so much they they are meant to entertain as that the stories and rule systems are so deeply banal and predictable, offering a completely rigid vision of expectations and involvement (and now you do this) and precisely the either/or of purposefulness rather than the concrete involvement of utility

I don't understand this at all. If an excellent piece of prose is split into panels, indexed by a sequence of natural numbers, it is a book. If those pages are perforated, torn out, and rearranged according to the reader's whim, it is a different kind of book, maybe an Oulipo book. If finally the pages are mapped to nodes in a state machine, it has become a piece of interactive fiction, a computer game. Where in this process has the story become banal and predictable? It's become less predictable with each step.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:20 AM on May 30, 2009


Look, I'll solve this argument 100% right here. It will only take about 30 minutes.

Go to this website and play Photopia. And you will understand that games can be a form of art that is not possible in any other media.

It's not hard. It's not long. Choose YES when it asks if you want color unless you're color-blind.

I'm not claiming Photopia is an artistic masterpiece, but I think you have to agree that if short stories can be art, then Photopia is art. But it is experienced in a way that differs so significantly from reading a short story that I think it must be considered a separate art form.

This is only one of the many, very different ways that games can be an art form. I think that in general, architecture and sculpture are the closest artistic cousins to gameplay and game design. I think the things that people most commonly point to as evidence of art in games (the music, the artwork, the cutscenes) are often more akin to an art gallery, where the game is the gallery in which individual, related works of art are displayed in a purposeful arrangement. Which some might argue is an art form in itself. But gameplay and game design are a mixture of art and necessity (which doobiedoo so bizarrely dismisses) that seems more like architecture than anything else.
posted by straight at 9:38 AM on May 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


"I don't think purposefulness is antithetical to art, I said that art was originally bound to cultural practice such as religious worship rather than being an autonomous object for detached observation, this obviously gives the former a sort of purpose versus the modern Art work which has to be completely free of utility."

And that's wrong. Utility is an orthogonal question, and what is considered "art" has been attached to and distanced from utility in cycles for as long as we've written down history. Hence the questions in The Republic over the role of art in a perfect state—Socrates recognizes that there is both art that serves the purpose of glorifying the state and art that is purely for pleasure, even as he is wary of the former and condemns the latter. Art as art by lack of utility is a modern precept only for incredibly thin values of "modern." After Arts and Crafts (pre-Modern), there was Bauhaus (Modern). Both were intimately concerned with utility. And frankly, I can't think of a single critic who holds utility as a definitional term for art.

"And however magnificent the individual contributions to the iconography or the building, the artist was lauded for his contributions to an enduring tradition rather than producing an original vision."

Well, not really. It was understood that art (architecture) takes place in a tradition, but Abbot Suger was definitely praised for his cathedrals—the dichotomy between original and traditional or individual and collective is just a handy conceptual tool, not a narrative of history.

"My point is that architecture deals with both the engaged practicalities of life and embodies or orientates our reflections on it not as some sort of coded message which you have to get, but by allowing for moments of reflective distance (moments which were originally tied to a cultural or religious tradition). Treating architecture only as a subject of aesthetics or coded message removes the practical considerations in favour of the supposedly "higher" reflections and denies its living connection to the majority of people who use it. The biennales bare this out, being as they are a love in for academics."

You're confusing aesthetics with coded messages for some reason—at their base, purely aesthetic art eschew coded messages. That's the point of minimalism and op-art, something Duchamp decried. And aesthetics can definitely be linked to the people who use it; beauty and pleasure are subjective, thus the aesthetics of a building come at least in part from the interactions with it.

"My problem with the purposefulness of games is not so much they they are meant to entertain as that the stories and rule systems are so deeply banal and predictable, offering a completely rigid vision of expectations and involvement (and now you do this) and precisely the either/or of purposefulness rather than the concrete involvement of utility."

There are two responses to this: First, simple, "banal" rules, juxtaposed can create amazing work both intellectually and sensuously. The rules to Tetris are dead simple, but the effect is transcendent; Yves Klein and Ellsworth Kelley, John Cage and Bach all made work based on simple, "banal" rules. So rules and systematized art do not predict low quality. The second is that there are plenty of games that play with the edges of what their rule-sets do; in fact, for many games, that's part of the fun—the search for all of the weird permutations through which you can break the game, "game" the game.

"Whatever the big artistic vision of the game (even if you are playing Che Geuvara storming the white house on Mars with multiple story lines) it always devolves to rule following in a decision tree clothed in simulated fantasy-scape, this, more than the story, is the basis of the computer game and it doesn't make for much of a reflection on reality."

I'm not much of a determinist myself, but I'm not so fast to dismiss them as unreal. And when you attempt this tack, you have to admit that it doesn't make any sense when stretched outside of video games—Films, novels, most music, they all offer a linear progression. Moby Dick isn't art because Ishmael has to live? That's silly. Not only that, but dismissing something as unreal in one breath and then attacking the didacticism in another seems contradictory, especially singling out video games.
posted by klangklangston at 5:44 PM on June 1, 2009


Sorry. Noticed I had that in an open tab, figured I'd just hit post.
posted by klangklangston at 5:44 PM on June 1, 2009


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