Join 3,524 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Salman Rushdie, in defence of video games
January 3, 2011 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Salman Rushdie, in defence of video games
posted by nam3d (96 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
audio interview... anybody have a transcript?
posted by empath at 6:34 AM on January 3, 2011


Hoo hoo hoo! I wouldn't want to be Roger Ebert now!
posted by mazola at 6:36 AM on January 3, 2011


This just in ... makers of playground equipment and tricycles have issued a fatwa ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:39 AM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I like video games and cherish them as much as the next person (provided that the next person is also a lifelong player of RPG's), but how many people do we need to defend video games now?

Video games are what they are-some people enjoy them, some people get emotionally invested in them, some people learn valuable lessons from them. Some people don't.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:49 AM on January 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


The idea that video games, uniquely among all media, cannot be art is patently ridiculous. It's just a prejudice that Mr. Ebert holds as a specialized critic of one form of art.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:50 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Video games are more than art. They contain all other art forms within them. From dance and architecture to comic books, fiction and film, at some point, all of them have been incorporated into a game.

In Red Dead Redemption, you can walk into movie theater and watch a short film. Imagine if they included Citizen Kane (or some other original film, if you like). You could sit down, watch the entirety of Citizen Kane in character. Clearly the film included in the game is art, but would Ebert say that as soon as the film ended and your character walked out into a whole goddamned fully realized world full of actors, landscapes, plot, etc, that the art ends and you're purely in the realm of -- what?
posted by empath at 6:57 AM on January 3, 2011 [15 favorites]


The idea that video games, uniquely among all media, cannot be art is patently ridiculous.

I think video games are more game-like than video-like. It really makes more sense to classify video games with, say, soccer than with painting.

That said, I don't see why soccer can't be art. Or at least fulfill some/many/all of the same needs/impulses that art fulfills.
posted by DU at 6:59 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Video games are folk art of the 21st century.
posted by mazola at 7:01 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with him that perhaps the main narrative strength of games is to do those things that classical linear media just can't do very well; to offer deeper insight into the characters and their environment through alternatives and what-ifs.

Of course, you have to learn to "read" such a story properly, which might be hard for people who spent over half a century of their lives thinking inside constraints of what used to be the limits of possibility.

BTW, if you're only interested in the video game related part of the interview, that goes from about 18 minutes in to the end.
posted by Cironian at 7:04 AM on January 3, 2011


Discussion begins at 19:00 in. Apparently as part of his new children's book Rushdie says:

"Fortunately for Luka he lived in an age when parallel realities were sold as games." And then goes on to describe how video games prepared him to adapt the strange new world he's arrived in.

Which is great on a couple of levels: 1. Video games at their best really are that.
2. I fucking hate it when X minutes of every fantasy or SciFi novel is wasted while the protagonist goes OOOH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS ALL THIS I CANT HANDLE IT. Get on with being a hero already ffs! Modern children should definitely be less annoying at this, they live in many different universes anyway.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:05 AM on January 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


To get back to Mr. Rushdie's interview -- it's totally delightful. I was a teacher for years, and I was amazed at how quickly people fell into the trap of bemoaning the new generation's media shortcomings. It's refreshing to hear Mr. Rushdie a) acknowledge the possibilities of new media and b) acknowledge that, as an older fellow, he only has limited access to them but is perfectly happy to see younger folks explore them.
posted by HeroZero at 7:06 AM on January 3, 2011


I think video games are more game-like than video-like.

I think one has to separate the playing of games from the designing of games. The latter is clearly art. The former is not.
posted by empath at 7:10 AM on January 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


To be honest at this point I kind of wish that game-makers would drop the obsession with their works being taken seriously as peices of narrative art and innovate more with making them interesting as games.
posted by Artw at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2011 [13 favorites]


I'm reminded of Scott Pilgrim, where every issue of the alt-rock magazine has "Comics - not just for kids anymore!" as a headline.
posted by wayland at 7:24 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Salman Rushdie is apparently quite addicted to Angry Birds.
posted by kmz at 7:25 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I fucking hate it when X minutes of every fantasy or SciFi novel is wasted while the protagonist goes OOOH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS ALL THIS I CANT HANDLE IT. Modern children should definitely be less annoying at this, they live in many different universes anyway.

Reading to my 9 and 11 year olds, I've noticed that modern children's books actually do have a lot less of this.

When I started this comment, I agreed with you that I hated it (and I definitely did as a kid). But then I was trying to describe that part of those books to myself and the main word was "wonder". There's no real plot in that section, usually, just a bunch of wandering around in wonder. It might be a bad thing to excise wonder from children's books so we can pragmatically focus on ends.
posted by DU at 7:25 AM on January 3, 2011


empath, similarly, I suppose the reading of novels isn't an art? That's a really weird way of thinking about things.
posted by Casuistry at 7:26 AM on January 3, 2011


To be honest at this point I kind of wish that game-makers would drop the obsession with their works being taken seriously as peices of narrative art and innovate more with making them interesting as games.

Funny, I thought the narrative folks pretty much gave up about a half-decade ago. Apparently some battles are evergreen.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:29 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Trying to make any blanket statement about "Video Games" is silly. It's much to broad of a category. It's like lumping together sculpture, painting, TV, movies, theatre, photography, calligraphy, architecture, and landscaping into a single category, "The Visual Arts," and talking about the overall artistic merits of being able to see stuff.
posted by straight at 7:32 AM on January 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


To be honest at this point I kind of wish that game-makers would drop the obsession with their works being taken seriously as peices of narrative art and innovate more with making them interesting as games.

Yeah Rushdie and where the fuck is my Duke Nukem Forver? Slacker.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:32 AM on January 3, 2011


empath, similarly, I suppose the reading of novels isn't an art? That's a really weird way of thinking about things.

Reading a novel isn't art, and watching a movie isn't art. Is this a controversial statement?

For some reason people get confused and think that people who are saying 'games are art' are saying that the act of playing a game is itself art -- that a specific playthrough of a game is the art.

Which I think confuses the issue, because if one were to watch a playthrough of someone else playing a game, for example, the art of gaming making might be obscured because you're watching essentially a linearly told story on a screen, which is indistinguishable from watching (in the case of most games) a terribly animated film.

The important thing about games is the existence of counterfactuals. "It didn't have to be turn out this way". If you just watch someone else's play through, then it will always turn out the same way, after any number of viewings. It's the creation of systems that one can interact with that is the art, not the experience of merely watching what plays out on the screen.
posted by empath at 7:37 AM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't know if you know this or not, but this Rushdie fellow, some of the books he has written are pretty good!
posted by paisley henosis at 7:38 AM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I kind of wish that game-makers would drop the obsession with their works being taken seriously as peices of narrative art and innovate more with making them interesting as games.

During a talk at the indie games summit at the 2010 game developers conference this thought (mostly) was uttered on stage, to thunderous applause.

Typically when making a game I'm focused on game mechanics more than anything else. Currently I only have one game idea where this is not the case, and in this instance I'm modeling it off of Another World since that's the direction I wish to take it.

I fucking hate it when X minutes of every fantasy or SciFi novel is wasted while the protagonist goes OOOH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS ALL THIS I CANT HANDLE IT.

Speaking of Another World, this reminded me of the first level where you emerge from the pond. You're sort of gawking at the amazing backdrop behind you, while your avatar Lester looks nonplussed.
posted by hellojed at 7:40 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I kind of wish that game-makers would drop the obsession with their works being taken seriously as peices of narrative art and innovate more with making them interesting as games.

Yeah this is the whole narratology vs ludology thing. Games have both elements, and there is a place for both.

Starcraft is as pure a game-y game as can possibly be made for the mainstream audience and they still tack on a narrative. just so you have a way to grasp what's happening on the screen. The mind needs metaphor to process information.

I'm sure you could play SC2 just moving around triangles, squares and circles of various colors, but very few people would play it.
posted by empath at 7:48 AM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think video games are more game-like than video-like.

I think that depends a lot on the game in question. There are definitely games where the focus is on the gameplay, and the 'game' is predominantly an arena for that to happen. I think some traditional FPSes would be not-unfairly included here. (The original Unreal comes to mind. It had a plot, I think, but the game was definitely about running around and shooting things, and arguably the entire single-player mode was just a sort of amuse-bouche while you were waiting to get enough friends together for the main multiplayer course.)

But there are other games where the 'gameplay' is certainly secondary, and merely a way for the player/viewer to experience the plot or artistic elements of the game. I've seen a fair number of high-concept video-game-as-art reskins that didn't look at all fun, and where it was clear that the creator was just using the Doom/Quake/Unreal engine as a display mechanism.

And then, of course, there are a lot of games that fall somewhere in the middle, which manage to -- or at least attempt to -- balance some sort of interesting gameplay mechanics with plot or art to produce something that's both fun to play and artistically meritorious.

Part of the problem may be that 'video games' is too broad to really be considered as one consistent medium. When someone like Ebert talks about 'movies,' it's generally understood that he's talking about something fairly specific and well-defined. It has rules, a product of historical tradition and market forces, and those rules disqualify a lot of stuff that might otherwise make it seem a bit less like serious art. 'Video game' encompasses a pretty wide swath of territory; there are trivial video games that probably require less coding to produce than it takes to output a correctly-formatted NTSC test pattern. Do they really belong in the same category as a complex piece of interactive artwork, or a game with a budget equivalent to a major movie?

I don't think anyone is going to be seriously having this argument in 20 years, but it might not be because games have gotten that much more serious, or even because critics like Ebert have died off. It may be because as the medium matures, it gains rules which allow a single term to include only games worthy of being taken seriously as art, while disqualifying others.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:53 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


> I think video games are more game-like than video-like. It really makes more sense to classify video games with, say, soccer than with painting.

This all depends on how someone interacts with a game. For example, the people who master the fighting games like Tekken don't identify with the moves of the characters, they're simply seeing the array of choices available and systematically executing them. Unlike a lesser player who may be anthropomorphizing their character and trying to move it as if it were something in the real world.

But broad strokes about what video games are and are not are rather fruitless given the diversity of games and ways to interact with them.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:58 AM on January 3, 2011


I don't know if you know this or not, but this Rushdie fellow, some of the books he has written are pretty good!

Not as good as Grand Theft Auto though.

I'm sure you could play SC2 just moving around triangles, squares and circles of various colors, but very few people would play it.

Yeah, they tried that nonsense with games like Chess and Go, and who the hell plays that shit any more?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:00 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


How much gas do you have to mine to create a Queen unit? And pawns can take knights and bishops? They're totally unbalanced. When are they going to fix that with a patch?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:08 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think video games are more game-like than video-like.

You've obviously never sat through a final fantasy cutscene.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:09 AM on January 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


empath: "Video games are more than art. They contain all other art forms within them. From dance and architecture to comic books, fiction and film, at some point, all of them have been incorporated into a game. "

I see your larger point but this argument has always bothered me. Let's pretend for a second that it's the year 1900 and you're a businessman trying to convince me that film is a legitimate medium.

Would you show me:
  1. A 2 hour recording of a concert (The logic being that "music performance is legitimate + film recording of music = film recordings are legitimate")
  2. -OR-
  3. Citizen Kane (um, pirated and then transported back in time 41 years)
As someone who creates art, we should be trying to exercise techniques that are unique to videogames (What makes a videogame a videogame and not, say, a board game? I think this would be an interesting discussion...) and then incorporate all the traditional arts of screenwriting, cinematography, etc.

This marriage of old and new will produce the best games, amirite?
posted by yaymukund at 8:16 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Video games are also a treasure trove of pop culture references. I am recalling things like the TV with the slow moving white Bronco chased by police in the bar in Duke Nukem, and most of the NPCs in World of Warcraft.
posted by jimfl at 8:17 AM on January 3, 2011


SALMAN RUSHDIE
                                VERSUS
                                                  ROGER EBERT


ROUND 1
FIGHT!!

(also, they're both wearing diapers)
posted by Eideteker at 8:19 AM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Didn't Ebert already cop to being in the wrong about video games? I seem to recall having forgiven him for that transgression.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:31 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is ironic considering how awful the Salman Rushdie video game was. All you did was stay in one location.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:44 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Something might be entirely legitimate as "art" and yet also be a complete waste of time.
posted by koeselitz at 8:45 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, they tried that nonsense with games like Chess and Go, and who the hell plays that shit any more?

It's worth noting that even in the purest of pure abstract shape-based games we find trappings of setting or scenario to contextualize the pieces and the actions. Chess pieces are not Tallest One, Diagonal One, L-Move One, and so on, they're nominal functionaries in a royal entourage; in Checkers, a piece advanced to the far rank isn't Powerful Piece, it's a King; in Go, pieces live and die, they fight, there's monkeys and eyes.

For games played by humans, human things are more or less an inevitability, even with the purest mechanics. That's setting aside entirely the aesthetic question of how much any given (board, card, pen and paper, video) game wants to involve narrative for its own sake.

There's a wonderful thing going on at the beginning of Left 4 Dead 2, where the rag-tag group of survivors trying to make their way through the now zombie-laden urban landscape are trying to come to terms with the various weird zombie variations attacking them. In the game, the four characters in the group will spontaneously verbalize what they're seeing, and within the game world they don't start with any working vocab for the specific zombies they're seeing, and so they end up shouting things like (paraphrasing here) "oh crap there's one of those head-jumping guys" or "it's one of those little fast fuckers".

Which is exactly what the human players do too when first encountering unfamiliar baddies in a game: they need to communicate what they're seeing (because it's a cooperate-or-die situation), but at first they only know what they're seeing by what it does, what it looks like. The first few times you encounter a Jockey (a hunchbacked scrabbling quadruped who leaps on a players head and rides them until another player knocks it off them), you haven't memorized that it's called a Jockey; it's just that little head-humper, that thing that jumps on heads, that quick little chittering fuck.

Later on, the characters in the game settle into mostly canonical names for the various uberzombies: Jockey, Hunter, Boomer, Spitter, etc. But they don't start out knowing these names, any more than we do. And while the characters can be reasonably presumed to understand that coming up with a correct name for a given zombie isn't a philosophically important thing (they could call a Jockey a Duck or a Chomsky or a Skinner Box if they wanted, as long as they agreed on the term) and that giving a thing a name doesn't change the mechanics of how it works (calling it a Jockey doesn't make it any less dangerous, the most important fact about it is that it is trying to kill them), they develop through the course of the game an evocative name anyway.

It's a small thing, just a little bit of the stochastic, event-driven random dialogue stuff that makes the L4D games work so well as horror movie analogues, but the way in which it reflects within the avatars of the game the mental and social processes of actual game players really pleases me.
posted by cortex at 8:54 AM on January 3, 2011 [22 favorites]


I think playing games can be art. Sims comes to mind, and the mining game everyone bangs on about.

Also, XQUZYPHYR. If you're playing Rushdie the video game, I suggest you choose the Khomeini character arc. It's loads more fun.
posted by seanyboy at 9:02 AM on January 3, 2011


I think playing games can be art. Sims comes to mind, and the mining game everyone bangs on about.

That's interesting, and I think it's something that I don't think people haven't put a lot of thought in to.

If someone does something 'artistic' within second life or minecraft, what is that and how is it distinct from the creation of a game like minecraft itself?
posted by empath at 9:14 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


(err, don't think people HAVE put, etc)
posted by empath at 9:14 AM on January 3, 2011


Also, the various Dwarf Fortress let's plays. Boatmurdered was an example of... something.. but what?
posted by empath at 9:14 AM on January 3, 2011


If someone does something 'artistic' within second life or minecraft, what is that and how is it distinct from the creation of a game like minecraft itself?

Would you call Minecraft a medium, in this instance? Or a tool? I'm not sure that most people would categorize Adobe's Creative Suite as art, but a good deal of art has been made within CS5.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:29 AM on January 3, 2011


Arghhh. These concepts are too complex for our primitive communication systems. The singularity is here.
posted by seanyboy at 9:48 AM on January 3, 2011


I don't care about any of this. All I know is that if I don't see some more Half Life soon I am going to go totally Gordon on Gabe Newell's arse. Yes, with a crowbar. Yes, and maybe a couple of ant lions too.

FUCKING SORT IT, GABE, OR I FEAR I WILL DELIVER YOU TO A DARKER PLACE.
posted by Decani at 10:02 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Video games are more than art. They contain all other art forms within them. From dance and architecture to comic books, fiction and film, at some point, all of them have been incorporated into a game.
This argument strikes me as very strange.

First of all, they also have incorporated chemistry, and physics, and math, and biology. Are they "more than science"?

Second of all, the things you're saying they have incorporated -- or at least comic books, fiction, and film -- have also incorporated all of the things you're saying that they have incorporated. And have incorporated video games, too. Are all of those things also "more than art"? So all art is "more than art"?
posted by Flunkie at 10:03 AM on January 3, 2011


Gabe Newell is not your bitch.
posted by Artw at 10:04 AM on January 3, 2011


So all art is "more than art"?
posted by Flunkie at 6:03 PM on January 3


Maybe not but ALL HALF LIFE IS MORE THAN LIFE.
posted by Decani at 10:05 AM on January 3, 2011


Gabe Newell is not your bitch.
posted by Artw at 6:04 PM on January 3


Not yet, he isn't.
posted by Decani at 10:05 AM on January 3, 2011


Games can be art. Marina Abramoic's Rhythm 10 was a game. The tools used to play a game can be art. The Bauhaus chess set is a good example. Video games suffer from the same problems as blockbuster films which is they typically cater to the tastes of a certain type of young male. That doesn't mean they can't be art, it just means that they are almost always bad art.

Another thing that hampers games as art is the expectation that they be able to be played for a long time with some freedom for the user. That's just too ambitious for the technology available. The Wire begining to end was about 60 hours most games are expected to offer 20+ hours of gameplay with multiple possible play experiences. Every single major console game is at some level as ambitious an undertaking as creating every episode of a television series.

It is little surprise that videogames are almost universally bad at being art. Those videogames that do succeed at some level at being art usually deviate from these rules in some important ways. They are much shorter than normal (portal, braid), they rely more on mechanics than normal (portal, braid), they rely more on text (really the text in torment is the only artistic thing, the graphics are pretty messy, the mechanics are pretty dull, the puzzles are mostly boring).

Finally those games that are well regarded as art typically get a lot of their artistic pop from making a commentary on videogame conventions, if you have not played a lot of videogames Bioshock will give you hordes of sort of stupid mutants to kill, a sort of dumb for literature Ayn Rand dystopia, some fairly dull and poorly developed characters, and what else? And to get into any of it at all you need to be good at a fairly repetitive abstractly relational target practice.
posted by I Foody at 10:07 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reading a book was art when Andy Kaufmann did it. YMMV on whether or not it was good art.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:09 AM on January 3, 2011


I think one has to separate the playing of games from the designing of games. The latter is clearly art. The former is not.
I wouldn't be so dismissive of the possibility of playing as an art. Clearly for many games there's not much art involved in playing, but there are games which people play in very creative ways, not envisioned by the games' creators, essentially as a labor of love to create something new and different. Is that not "art"? What is "art", if not that?
posted by Flunkie at 10:09 AM on January 3, 2011


Give me the artiest game you've got, and I'll turn it into running around shooting things.

You can lead a horse to water and all that...


Not calling myself a whore, although I know the play on the quote...
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:10 AM on January 3, 2011


I don't think you can classify the process of creation as the only qualifier to determine what art is. I feel for a work to be classified art it must communicate a or many feeling(s) or idea(s) to the viewer, it must tell it's story well. Because as far as I understand this is the basis on which Citizen Kane is judged to be art but a Micheal Bay film is not. The artists involved in Transformers are undoubtedly sophisticated manipulators of their tools, much like the people working on CK, but they use the medium to blow shit up and race cars.

To tick all the boxes though you have to communicate something and current cutscenes and narrative tools are even more schlocky and poorly written than a Hollywood B movie. The interactive language of games is being explored very slowly and I think we'll eventually learn the tools that can be used to communicate from games that got it right by accident or exploration. I feel like everyone wants to explore what games can do and not find out how well you can hide cutscenes in a game. And once someone nails communicating sophisticated ideas or emotions through keyboard keys and not cutscenes Roger Ebert will come say games are art because that thing "he'll know when he sees it" is a powerful connection formed by the language of gameplay. imo anw :/ EDIT: also what I Foody said.
posted by Submiqent at 10:12 AM on January 3, 2011


empath, similarly, I suppose the reading of novels isn't an art? That's a really weird way of thinking about things.
Is it? It has honestly never occurred to me to consider reading novels -- or going to a museum or watching a play or staring at the TV -- to be "art". Honestly, that concept seems like a "really weird way of thinking about things" to me.
posted by Flunkie at 10:13 AM on January 3, 2011


Video games are more than art. They contain all other art forms within them. From dance and architecture to comic books, fiction and film, at some point, all of them have been incorporated into a game.

I know people are hammering on this a lot, but I also have to protest-- I think this argument is kinda silly. Across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago is one of those stores they put on tourist-heavy streets in big cities (lots of skyline sweatshirts and the like), and this one, due to its location, is also full of things like Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street: Rainy Day on an umbrella, Monet water lily neckties, etc. Each of these items contains various art forms, not the least of which is Established & Recognized High Artâ„¢, and yet there are very few arguments presented on the internet that a $30 canvas shopping bag with Bedroom in Arles ought to be regarded as capital-A Art.

I'm not saying that games aren't art, or even Art, mind you, but I think what we like to regard as Art (with the cultural import and the expression and the whatnot) is hardly ever a simple sum-of-its-constituent-parts-of-handicraft kind of deal.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:14 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didn't Ebert already cop to being in the wrong about video games?
I could be misremembering, but I think that's a rather positive spin on what he copped to. I think it was really more like "Well, I don't know much about video games, so I shouldn't have said anything about them. No, I'm not going to bother learning about them."
posted by Flunkie at 10:24 AM on January 3, 2011


Gabe Newell is not your bitch.

John Romero presents: Faster, Katana, Dai, Dai!
posted by cortex at 10:25 AM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


If someone does something 'artistic' within second life or minecraft, what is that and how is it distinct from the creation of a game like minecraft itself?
I am not familiar with Minecraft beyond having watched some videos, but it and games like it were part of what I was thinking of when I said that I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss playing as art.

In fact, for a game like Minecraft -- or what Minecraft seems to be to me -- I would tend to think that playing the game is more artistic than having created it. The creator of Minecraft didn't do anything particularly artistic, any more than the creator of a video camera did. The user of that video camera may very well have used it to make art, though.

Obviously not all games fall into the same relationship - creating a computer role playing game, with an actual story, is certainly more artistic than playing it, although playing it could possibly be artistic to some degree as well.
posted by Flunkie at 10:31 AM on January 3, 2011


It's annoying to me the way that art in games is defined in relationship to "story" compared to cinema and literature. We've had a full century of both that rejected narrative, and we don't particularly judge Gershwin's Concerto, Wright's Falling Water, or the Chicago Picasso according to their narratives.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:32 AM on January 3, 2011


It's annoying to me the way that art in games is defined in relationship to "story" compared to cinema and literature.
Assuming that that was prompted by my post in which I mentioned "creating a computer role playing game, with an actual story": I wasn't saying that creating a story is the only possible artistic thing; merely that it is artistic.
posted by Flunkie at 10:38 AM on January 3, 2011


Minecraft has a story
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


(And what makes it a work of art is that it does that WITHOUT bouncing you between lame preset narrative points)
posted by Artw at 10:42 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Assuming that that was prompted by my post...

Well no, it's been a running theme of these discussions going back to Ebert's original criticism that games can't be art because they lack a singular directive narrative.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:42 AM on January 3, 2011


Finally those games that are well regarded as art typically get a lot of their artistic pop from making a commentary on videogame conventions, if you have not played a lot of videogames Bioshock will give you hordes of sort of stupid mutants to kill, a sort of dumb for literature Ayn Rand dystopia, some fairly dull and poorly developed characters, and what else? And to get into any of it at all you need to be good at a fairly repetitive abstractly relational target practice.
posted by I Foody


I think that's close to the least charitable reading of Bioshock you can give. One could make a similar claim about "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot requiring exposure to massive amounts of literature to grasp fully, but I doubt any would argue that it makes for bad art because of that.
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:48 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because as far as I understand this is the basis on which Citizen Kane is judged to be art but a Micheal Bay film is not.

I don't think art has to be good to be art. "Transformers" was art, even if it was terrible.
posted by empath at 10:52 AM on January 3, 2011


In fact, for a game like Minecraft -- or what Minecraft seems to be to me -- I would tend to think that playing the game is more artistic than having created it. The creator of Minecraft didn't do anything particularly artistic, any more than the creator of a video camera did.

Aside from create the rules of the world, designing the systems, and all the sound effects and art assets.

That feeling you get when lost in a cave with 1 torch left and a couple of hearts and you hear that SSSSS sound? That was an experience crafted by an artist.
posted by empath at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Each of these items contains various art forms, not the least of which is Established & Recognized High Artâ„¢, and yet there are very few arguments presented on the internet that a $30 canvas shopping bag with Bedroom in Arles ought to be regarded as capital-A Art.

If the canvas was created specifically to be in that shopping bag and to be presented as a coherent piece of work, then I'd say the collection of the bag + the painting is art.
posted by empath at 10:56 AM on January 3, 2011


I've never understood why people argue about whether something is or isn't "art." Art isn't some metaphysical category that objects fall into by virtue of some deep, essential "art" quality they have. It's simply a word we apply to various objects in the world - whatever we call "art" is, by definition, art. But it has no relevancy to the actual, real-world status of those objects in any way. Once you realize this, the argument becomes a lot like arguing whether a certain sweater is more red or orange.
posted by decoherence at 11:03 AM on January 3, 2011


So, the ESRB just released their rating for a game called Bulletstorm, along with a description. Some juicy bits:

"During the course of the game, players can consume alcohol and kill enemies in order to receive an Intoxicated Skillshot; the screen turns blurry during these sequences. The dialogue contains numerous jokes and comments that reference sexual acts, venereal diseases, and having sex with one's mother "

If that ain't art, I dunno what is. I know one thing, I'm buying this the first day it comes out.
posted by hellojed at 11:04 AM on January 3, 2011


I don't think art has to be good to be art. "Transformers" was art, even if it was terrible.

If the canvas was created specifically to be in that shopping bag and to be presented as a coherent piece of work, then I'd say the collection of the bag + the painting is art.


I agree with both of these statements, but I think that's a far more liberal application of the term 'art' than the argument above (Video games are more than art. They contain all other art forms within them.) is pitched at.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:18 AM on January 3, 2011


I kind of wish that game-makers would drop the obsession with their works being taken seriously as peices of narrative art and innovate more with making them interesting as games.

During a talk at the indie games summit at the 2010 game developers conference this thought (mostly) was uttered on stage, to thunderous applause.


This is actually really sad to me, because some of the deepest, most memorable experiences I've had in a video game have been those games that put narrative far over gameplay. I am particularly thinking about the games from Black Isle, adventure games, Half Life 2, and many others that don't have anything particularly special or innovative about the gameplay, but have atmosphere and characters and a world that I have found utterly compelling and immersive. Those are the types of games that I have gotten the most satisfaction out of in the long term.
posted by aesacus at 11:20 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what's wrong with people that they think the process of creating a ruleset, poking and prodding it, balancing it, and refining it isn't an artistic process. Some people have the urge to paint, and so they paint, and we call the outcome art. Some people have the urge to make rulesets, and so they make games, and we spit on them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:28 AM on January 3, 2011


This is actually really sad to me, because some of the deepest, most memorable experiences I've had in a video game have been those games that put narrative far over gameplay. I am particularly thinking about the games from Black Isle, adventure games, Half Life 2, and many others that don't have anything particularly special or innovative about the gameplay, but have atmosphere and characters and a world that I have found utterly compelling and immersive.

But in that case--and I really don't mean to snark, but to ask a genuine question--why not just read a book? I couldn't finish Planescape: Torment because, while the narrative was compelling, I spent only about 30-40% of my time while playing reading--and the rest was spent clicking on monsters and watching the same combat animations over and over again. If the best thing about a game is its narrative, wouldn't the game be improved by having the narrative excised and presented to you in another fashion?

You could make the argument that in some games, like Bioshock or Shadow of the Colossus, your participation in the narrative heightens the emotional impact of some sequences, but I'm not sure that makes up for, say, 15 hours of repetitive splicer-murdering. Bioshock's narrative could have been presented effectively in two hours. Those two hours were pretty great; I can't recommend the game, though.
posted by IjonTichy at 11:36 AM on January 3, 2011


You know, I believe there are several languages that have no concept of "art" as this monolithic entity. Paintings are separate from novels, music is separate from film. I mean, they can all be used together of course, but the idea that they they are all this THING--"art"--is a very Western concept. the idea just seems to be used so pretentiously...and excluding video games from thr category also seems to be part of that pretension.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:36 AM on January 3, 2011


Related: Siskel & Ebert's 1989 Holiday Gift Guide, in which the big guy admits to having been at one time addicted to the NES game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Includes a segment in which our heroes square off in a heated game of Tecmo Bowl).
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:39 AM on January 3, 2011


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? That game was awful.

Tecmo Bowl was pretty great though.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:49 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


On the Media did a great show on the 31st about gaming (which only lightly touched on the concept of game as art), that included part of a TED talk with Jane McGonigal. Site says that transcripts will be available later today.
posted by ikahime at 11:49 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Haven't WTFV (at work) but in general, I don't require a lot of validation for making or playing games as art. I think a lot of this comes from being a veteran in the genre vs. literary writing wars--I grew up arguing with people who thought Kurt Vonnegut couldn't be a science fiction writer because he was good. As a result, I don't really care if something is art, I care if it's good or if it's interesting. I've found a lot of purely within-genre "non-artistic" stuff that is beautifully-crafted storytelling, and a lot of literary work that's rambling and poorly-told, but gets credibility from following a certain set of rules that define things as art.

SPOILERS

That said, one of the story-based things I've found video games can do really well is the unreliable narrator. There's a recent game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent where you play a character in a fairly cliche horror setting. However, the game does a masterful job of making you identify with your PC, then turning it around on you in horrifying ways as you realize that the character you've been sympathizing with--and, given the sanity meter and its effects, pity as he shakes and gibbers and hallucinates--is a cold-blooded monster.

And part of what makes it so effective is that you are forced to identify with a player character in a way you don't in other media. You literally can't progress in most video games without guiding and protecting your character in some way, especially in a stealth-based game like Amnesia. Instead of the simple cognitive dissonance of an unsympathetic but interesting protagonist, there was almost a visceral feeling of betrayal.

END SPOILERS

I'm totally willing to talk about Amnesia's quality compared to any given book or movie or painting, although I'm not sure that would necessarily make sense. But I don't need somebody who works primarily in another medium to call it art to make me care about it.
posted by Tubalcain at 12:45 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Which is not to insult Rushdie at all, especially as I haven't see him talk yet. It's more of a general sentiment.)
posted by Tubalcain at 12:50 PM on January 3, 2011


If the best thing about a game is its narrative, wouldn't the game be improved by having the narrative excised and presented to you in another fashion?

Interesting that we don't make the same argument about symphonic tone poems, cantatas, requiems, or Beethoven's 6th which expand very short literary works into extended works of wonderful music. I'm more than happy to let Arvo Part deliver 30+ minutes of harmony from a dozen lines of scripture since art isn't necessarily supposed to be efficient.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:18 PM on January 3, 2011


Interesting that we don't make the same argument about symphonic tone poems, cantatas, requiems, or Beethoven's 6th which expand very short literary works into extended works of wonderful music.

I think you're confusing "got its inspiration from" with "is its only redeeming quality", here.
posted by IjonTichy at 1:23 PM on January 3, 2011


I don't know if you know this or not, but this Rushdie fellow, some of the books he has written are pretty good!

Not as good as Grand Theft Auto though.


Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the fantasy story Rushdie wrote for his son while he was hiding in exile, is much better written and much more fun than any of the GTA games.

FUCKING SORT IT, GABE, OR I FEAR I WILL DELIVER YOU TO A DARKER PLACE.

Every time someone makes fun of Gabe Newell on an internet forum, an orange LED bulb lights on his desk and he smiles and presses the little blue button on his armchair that causes Half-Life Episode 3 to be delayed for two more weeks.
posted by straight at 1:43 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Every time someone makes fun of Gabe Newell on an internet forum, an orange LED bulb lights on his desk and he smiles and presses the little blue button on his armchair that causes Half-Life Episode 3 to be delayed for two more weeks.
posted by straight at 9:43 PM on January 3


The sad thing is, I actually believe this.

AND THIS IS WHY HE MUST BE KILLED.
posted by Decani at 1:47 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Most video games are about middle-class status-anxiety, based on the notion that if you work and try hard enough, anyone can get ahead, pure meritocracy and egalitarianism. Games don't play un-fair, there are clear cut rules that can be learned and exploited in order to win, it's open to anyone. The real world doesn't work like that, which is why novels like The Great Gatsby are considered so great -- it plays with these notions of middle-class and meritocracy and egalitarianism and breaks those myths down. So until video games start acting like the real world, forget it as a serious work of art, it's just a panacea.
posted by stbalbach at 1:52 PM on January 3, 2011


Most video games are about middle-class status-anxiety, based on the notion that if you work and try hard enough, anyone can get ahead, pure meritocracy and egalitarianism. Games don't play un-fair, there are clear cut rules that can be learned and exploited in order to win, it's open to anyone.

This is really interesting, but I'm not sure it's entirely true. The gameplay aspect of it almost always is, and the relationship between the game and the player may be (although I guess you could say this about sports or any other games as well.) But the actual game plots tend to be, overwhelmingly, about power and betrayal (somebody, I forget who, pointed this out on a game review recently.) They're not about egalitarianism, they're about the One Strong Man who beats every odd to survive--at least in shooters, which is where my area of expertise lies. It's not that games try to portray meritocracy, it's that they try to portray a world in which anyone can be exceptional.

Then there are the shooters I started out with--Deus Ex, Half-Life, etc., which are all about how the notion of agency being completely undermined. All the games start with the One Strong Man archetype, but end up with the rules of the game being completely subverted, with the player character trapped or manipulated either by the rules of the game, or by finding out that the rules don't stop things from happening that shouldn't.

One of the best examples of this is probably Portal, which starts in a series of hypercontrolled test chambers that slowly become more and more anarchic, until you're almost literally trying to escape the world of the game. This doesn't carry over into the gameplay mechanics--which sort of goes back to the weird fusion of game-and-story that most narrative games have--but the story, at least, is very much a deconstruction of this meritocracy.
posted by Tubalcain at 2:31 PM on January 3, 2011


You know, I believe there are several languages that have no concept of "art" as this monolithic entity. Paintings are separate from novels, music is separate from film. I mean, they can all be used together of course, but the idea that they they are all this THING--"art"--is a very Western concept. the idea just seems to be used so pretentiously...and excluding video games from thr category also seems to be part of that pretension.

Exactly.

Art is feeling your heart clenching or unfurling in response to a human work. That is all.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:41 PM on January 3, 2011


The idea of games not being art seem to focus on that old opinion, "I don't know what art is, but this isn't art."

This is art: Art is communication from the artist to the audience.

Does the work convey meaning? Emotion? Feeling?

If yes, then how effectively does it convey any/all/some of those things? Discuss.

When someone says video games can't be art because the player is an active participant in the outcome, then you're wrong, because when you view a painting, read a novel, watch a movie then you are an active participant as well. There is no outcome in a game that has not been put there by the creator of the work and therefore they all have meaning of some kind even if it's just, 'you're a winner.'

I think when Ebert made his comment, he was only aware of games from the infancy of video gaming. Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids... These were games that were designed to make the player lose so more quarters would be inserted... In this sense, he was mostly right even though someone still had to choose (within the limits of hardware) aesthetically how many bricks spanned the top of the screen, what the aliens looked like, and what the asteroids would look like. And all of these decisions still had an impact on the player. The aliens in Space Invaders show up on T-shirts and graffiti all the time.

I have a feeling that Ebert changed his mind when he was sat down and presented with the narratives of more modern games and he saw that some were more like films. I'm worried that he may still not see the breadth that some games have today even the most casual titles.
posted by CarlRossi at 3:06 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the best moment in Amnesia (which is tied with Minecraft and Red Dead Redemption for my personal Games of the Year) was



SPOILER

.
.
.
.
.
.
.
When you find out that all the random screams and moaning and stuff that you were hearing isn't in your head or being hallucinated at all at all, but is being carried to you through the pipes in the walls from the torture chambers.

I actually shivered when I got to that point.
posted by empath at 3:39 PM on January 3, 2011


The idea of games not being art seem to focus on that old opinion, "I don't know what art is, but this isn't art."

I tend to have a very expansive definition of art. IMO, if it was done for any reason besides practicality, it's art. Even advertising and wall paper can be art, to me. If you decide to paint your walls to match the carpet, that's art. Art like that may or may not be individual or unique or particularly well done, or worthwhile to a large number of people, but even if it expresses something to just one person it's 'art'.

I don't understand why people feel the need to tie up notions of quality with the definition of art. Art can suck and still be art. It can be crude, amateurish, pointless, and so on, but none of that would make it 'not art'.
posted by empath at 3:45 PM on January 3, 2011


Snake? Snaaake? SNNNAAAAAAAAAAKE!
posted by fullerine at 3:53 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Starcraft is as pure a game-y game as can possibly be made for the mainstream audience and they still tack on a narrative. just so you have a way to grasp what's happening on the screen. The mind needs metaphor to process information.

The narrative in Starcraft is not just an afterthought though. One could argue it represents a break from the previous mould of real time strategies. The story of Total Annihilation was a generic us vs them: if you switched sides to any unit nothing would look out of place. The narrative of the campaign of Age of Empires usually stopped when you got control of your units. Red Alert had invested in a b-movie approach, complete with actors and cutscenes, but the narrative, as I perceived it, was on a level mostly separate from the gameplay (similar to Wing Commander IV). This might be my own bias though.

From the previous generation, destroying the enemy was the name of the game. In Command & Conquer, the narrative mostly tranlated ingameplay to a chance to nuke or avoid being nuked by the enemy. Warcraft 2 had a few stages where you had to escort heroes, but nothing to write home about and the story was underdeveloped, in contrast to Warcraft III (Starcraft was released between the two). In Dune 2, the forefather of mouse-clicking RTSs, the game was loosely based on Dune and iirc a stage would play the same regardless of whether it was the second stage you played or if you had conquered the whole Arrakis other than that stage in the meantime.

These games are the mainstream history of RTSs in a nutshell.

With Starcraft, Blizzard tied the narrative to the gameplay. The factions you control have different units and abilities because they represent three different alien races. The aim of each stage isn't just to eliminate your enemy. You have to lead small groups and individual units to further the plot, you have to survive for 30 mins until you can be evacuated or you have to carry an artifact to a special point. Let me illustrate what this means in practice: In the final stage of Warcraft 2, the Orcs have to invade the capital of Humans. The player has to destroy every last farm to win. In contrast, in the last stage of Starcraft if you destroy the leader of the opposite faction, the Overmind, you win even if the whole enemy base is standing because your narrative-driven objective is to bring down their leader. In Starcraft 2 there are hardly any generic "build you base at peace and destroy the enemy base" stages*.

Furthermore, the expansion pack of Starcraft tied the new units it offered to the narrative. The units belonged to factions that played a major part in the story. The bar had been set low for strategy games, granted, but whereas Starcraft had already decided to use cutscenes for atmosphere rather than to demonstrate technical chops and tried to characterise the three playable races through the campaign, the expansion pack went a step further with its shifting alliances and "zooming out": The triumph at the end of one campaign might turn out to be unstable or unable to prevent a disaster when considering the big picture.

Starcraft had stellar gameplay and multiplayer, but part of its resilience is owed to the narrative that gave identity the conflicts in the game. Looking at the narrative or at the gameplay on its own means overlooking an important part of the picture.

*That's the other extreme, really.
posted by ersatz at 3:55 PM on January 3, 2011


With Starcraft, Blizzard tied the narrative to the gameplay. The factions you control have different units and abilities because they represent three different alien races. The aim of each stage isn't just to eliminate your enemy. You have to lead small groups and individual units to further the plot, you have to survive for 30 mins until you can be evacuated or you have to carry an artifact to a special point. Let me illustrate what this means in practice: In the final stage of Warcraft 2, the Orcs have to invade the capital of Humans. The player has to destroy every last farm to win. In contrast, in the last stage of Starcraft if you destroy the leader of the opposite faction, the Overmind, you win even if the whole enemy base is standing because your narrative-driven objective is to bring down their leader. In Starcraft 2 there are hardly any generic "build you base at peace and destroy the enemy base" stages*.

I've played about 120 hours of starcraft 2 so far and barely touched the single player campaign, and only then because I wanted to get a hang of the controls. Starcraft 2 is a multiplayer game, first and foremost.
posted by empath at 3:58 PM on January 3, 2011


For a lot of people yes. For a lot of people no. Mind that my comment was mainly about Starcraft and Starcraft:BW because the story of Starcraft 2 opts for the easy way out quite often and the small bits of characterisation on the Battlecruiser have to make up for it.
posted by ersatz at 4:03 PM on January 3, 2011


KirkJobSluder: “Interesting that we don't make the same argument about symphonic tone poems, cantatas, requiems, or Beethoven's 6th which expand very short literary works into extended works of wonderful music. I'm more than happy to let Arvo Part deliver 30+ minutes of harmony from a dozen lines of scripture since art isn't necessarily supposed to be efficient.”

Yeah, well, the trouble is that there isn't a precise analogue. Most big-money games these days trumpeted as "innovative" or "creative" are just movies with minigames attached. That's lame, I'm sorry to say.

I have gamer friends who make this argument, and I think it's fair. Insofar as a thing has a story, it's not really a game. Gaming is about play, not about the passive sensation of looking at pretty pictures on a screen. Frankly, I'd like to see more of this – exploration of what games mean when they're divorced from narrative, when they're removed from this childish and inane necessity to identify with some character on the screen. Pure games like that exist, but they've rarely been the moneymakers. People want passive entertainment. Hence the popularity of games with lots of cutscenes and characters to identify with and some lame story you're asked to follow. Even those games are generally much more fun when you divorce them from the story; one could take as an example the game Red Dead Redemption.

In sum, yeah, lots of sorts of art are composite, but video games really are plagued by endemic passivity. The trouble, I think, stems from the fact that the medium – a television or computer screen – is commonly used for passive entertainment. Video games might break free from this unfortunate tendency to turn into big character-driven movies with little aspect of actual play by eschewing the urge to have players identify with a character. Games where players are asked to identify with a character – and especially where they're asked to pick kinds of characters, attributes, etc – are almost always flat and rather drab where gameplay is concerned, no matter how flashy they may look and how easily they captivate the player's attention.
posted by koeselitz at 4:05 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reading a book was art when Andy Kaufmann did it.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
posted by ovvl at 4:42 PM on January 3, 2011


I'm partway through an Xbox 360 game called Deadly Premonition (based partly on Twin Peaks and famously described as "like watching two clowns eat each other"; discussed previously). The main character is FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan, but it's apparent from the start that the player is actually playing as his imaginary friend/split personality Zach. Parts of the game are pretty cheesy, but Agent York is fascinating - his long, rambling monologues (to Zach) about his tastes in popular culture, his often inappropriate conversational style, his weird prophetic dreams, his bizarre attitudes to women all come together to create a protagonist as compelling and likeable as any from any other art form. Anyone interested in the new possibilities of narrative that videogames open up has no excuse for not playing this game.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:56 PM on January 3, 2011


I don't understand why people feel the need to tie up notions of quality with the definition of art.

Testify.
posted by CarlRossi at 7:28 PM on January 3, 2011


« Older Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness....  |  100 quirky things we didn't kn... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments