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Toward a critical body of work interrogating the prospect of video games considered as art

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Because I wrote this:

Games are not a narrative art form

people keep referring me to this:

Roger Ebert: Video games can never be art

To reiterate my argument from two years ago: although video games have some storytelling aspects (worldbuilding, etc.) they are not really a narrative art form because their core purpose and measure of success is not the act of telling a story.

The first time it was suggested to me that video games were a narrative art form similar to movies, I was simply baffled that anybody thought that. Of course they don’t tell a story. They’re *games*. Sure, they have story elements — characters, setting, a backstory, that sort of thing.

But, then, Candyland has all those things too, and I’ve never seen anybody try to claim that boardgames are a narrative art form.

I won’t even argue, here, whether video games are in fact a narrative art form. But I will assert: they are not actually very much like movies.

No matter how fascinating the game scenario sounds — no matter how intriguing or beautiful the artwork — or how elaborate the cut scenes — at some point a game must be played or it is not a game. Is playing a game like reading a story? Obviously not. Is playing a game like *watching* a story unfold, as in a movie? No.

Is watching somebody else play a game like watching a story unfold? Still no. It’s like watching somebody play a game. Watching somebody play a game can be interesting, I suppose — we have this entertainment called "sports" which is based entirely on the notion that watching somebody else play a game can be interesting. Also game shows. And the poker channel for some reason. I don’t know why it’s interesting to watch people play poker, but whatever. Big world and all.

Is the act of playing a game like playing a story?

Does the phrase "play a story" even make sense?

Sure, I guess it does. Role-playing games, or that thing you used to do when you were a kid and you made your Barbies and your brother’s GI Joe be spies together?

So, let’s say we regard video games as a potentially narrative medium in which the narrative is played, not viewed or read or listened to. How do they hold up against other narrative forms?

Well. Game fans assure me that some games provide moments of emotional effectiveness to rival any movie. All right. I’ll take their word for it. But here’s the thing. Movies last about two hours, while playing to the end of a game lasts considerably longer. And you want it to, don’t you? Wouldn’t you be a bit disappointed in a game that was over after two hours? So to get that emotional experience you have to play the game for hours and hours and hours, which is fine if you want to be playing the game anyway, but if you just want the emotional experience, it seems like kind of a waste of time.

Actually, unless you enjoy the act of playing the game, even two hours is probably a waste of time.

Furthermore, I suspect that if you don’t enjoy playing the game you won’t even get that deeply emotional experience. You’re likely to spend the whole time on the surface of the game thinking "this is so irritating, where’s that fantastic emotional experience I was promised? No, I don’t want to shoot another zombie, just give me that emotional experience! Come on! Gah! I don’t want to solve another stupid pointless puzzle, WHERE IS MY EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE YOU STUPID GAME?"

If you take game-playing as a given, then it becomes important that some games provide a richer story experience for the player. But if the game-playing isn’t a given — is there really any game story experience out there that is worth trying to learn to enjoy playing video games in the first place?

I think this is the true impasse between Mr. Ebert and the game fans. Unspoken assumptions on both sides.

Game fans: [Given that we like to play video games anyway] some games are truly art.

Roger Ebert: No, they’re not [worth me taking the time to wade through all that tedious game play to get to what you allege is a meaningful artistic experience].

And this is an impasse that is not going to be solved at some future date with hypothetically better games (one of the game fan suggestions). I can’t speak for Mr. Ebert, but I know that for myself, I prefer simpler, less narrative games, things like Rock Band and Tetris, precisely because I’m not much of a game player. I’m only interested in short-cycle games that are easy to play at a low skill and attention level, the video game equivalent of darts or pinball.

If we lived in an alternate universe where games were the default narrative experience, that would no doubt make me hopelessly lowbrow, like the people who are only interested in movies where stuff blows up real good.

But we don’t. We live in a world where the default narrative experience is, probably, movies.

(Television is even more common, but so much of television isn’t really narrative — well, isn’t really storytelling — it’s still narrative, but crappy and stupid narrative that pretends to be real life, and I’m now going to toss out the theory that most TV news is best regarded as a kind of cheesy reality show.)

So, games-as-art fans, you need to give up on trying to convert people like Mr. Ebert to your cause. Not gonna happen.

Instead, if you want games taken seriously as an art form, you need to build up a body of pretentious critical work. Write as if you already lived in that alternate universe where games are the default, and you’re the ones who get to call Mr. Ebert a lowbrow fanboy.

But here’s a tip: unless your critiques are at least as well-written and thoughtful as Mr. Ebert’s, that approach is not going to work. The sputtering, "are too!" approach taken by so many of the commentators on his post is not going to persuade anyone to your cause. First, you have to learn how to write a critique and then you need to apply those skills to writing about video games.

Can this work? Can you convince the artistic establishment that something is high art just because of the body of critique surrounding it?

Why, of course. Look at mid-20th-century modern art. There’s a reason people think, for example, that Jackson Pollock or a canvas entirely painted an unpleasant shade of orange is art, and it’s not really the paintings. I’m sure many people genuinely enjoy them, but the typical layperson’s reaction is more along the lines of "you call that art? my kid could do that!" Pollock et al would be nothing without an artistic critical establishment successfully convincing the layperson that, if you don’t enjoy it, if you don’t see what makes it so great, the fault lies in you, the viewer.

So, have at it!

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27 Comments

  1. Well said.

    Here’s a snippit of a starting point:

    Not all art is narrative. Some of it is experiential. Some of it is ambient.

    Tetris was created using skill and thought toward an emotional reaction produced in its players, and it was created out of a passion that is obvious in every aspect of the construction of the original version.

    • If I were to have at this myself I would probably start with an essay about PacMan and what it said about our society during the time it was popular, and what current PacMan nostalgia says about our society now.

      The lack of persistence in video games is a major factor working against their perception as art — imagine how movies or books would be regarded if nobody ever watched or read them again after their initial run of popularity.

      In fact, you don’t have to imagine. Comic books started to get taken a lot more seriously with the introduction of the graphic novel. And I think DVD collections are starting to erase the somewhat arbitrary cultural hierarchy distinction between movies and television.

      • Good point.

        That there are “fine artists” out there that dedicate their careers to making either transitory art or even unseen art gives that angle even more traction for discussion.

      • PacMan — with the running around in the dark and the repetitive music and the pill popping — is a trenchant and impressively foresighted critique of rave culture.

        • I was seeing it as a perfect metaphor for the 80s zeitgeist: a desperate race to consume as much as possible before the inevitable touch of mortality in the form of drifting ghosts.

          And of course, if you just consume the right thing, you can, for a time, turn the tables on mortality, and it’s you eating the ghosts.

          But the ghosts ultimately come back. Ultimately, the ghosts must win.

          I’d have to talk about Ms. PacMan and how it relates to the feminism of the era as well.

          Does anybody else remember a television commercial where Ms. PacMan does a little kick routine singing “Honey, dontcha know, I’m more than PacMan with a bow”?

  2. I’m not feeling very clever this morning, but:

    Art is a discourse with the viewer (erm … experiencer?). It requires context (cultural, social, humanoid, whatever), as suggested in your Pollock example.

    Reaction to art — emotional experience — is meant to be subjective, though people do like to phrase the ‘value’ of art in universal terms. Commodification and ‘value’ appear to be linked, but are not intrinsically so.

    . . . This really has nothing to do with your post, does it? Sorry.

    • This quote, “Commodification and ‘value’ appear to be linked, but are not intrinsically so.” has everything to do with the post.

    • No, it’s actually very relevant. Keep going!

  3. For some the money talks but I think the process of acceptance of games as art has already begun

    Video game revenue has surpassed movie revenue until you take into account DVD sales. Then it becomes apparent that while video games have strong sales it is not a complete media takeover dollar wise. http://vgsales.wikia.com/wiki/Video_game_industry

    I don’t think that most video games meet normal definitions of art. Some can be said to have been artfully done and even have transcended the sum of its parts. Outsiders and their works are often met with derision and skepticism by the elite of the art world.

    I can’t posit that video games have a good and classic narrative form. The heart of my position that games can be considered an art form lies with the escapism motive. One of the many reasons people watch movies and read books is to escape from their current situation and forget about life for a while. In terms of escapism I think books, movies, tv and plays are similar to video games.

    There are many books, movies and tv shows that I do not enjoy and don’t see the point in me experiencing them but my opinion of them doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad but rather indicative that I don’t like them.

    • Re: For some the money talks but I think the process of acceptance of games as art has already begun

      Most video games, as with movies and T.V. shows, fall into what should be called corporate art. Which is not to say that they were made by Big Corporations(TM) but rather by a team of people with distinct jobs. And some of those people typically are insiders to the art work, not outsiders. Or at the very least, they have often had the same schooling as art insiders.

      Corporate art can be fine art, but it almost always surpasses what an individual can do in terms of craftsmanship and scale, and it very often has an agenda that is strongly influenced by the need to be wildly popular (usually to make money). Because there usually has to be some sort of strong justification for taking up so much time from multiple people, not all of whom are actually artists.

      • Re: For some the money talks but I think the process of acceptance of games as art has already begun

        Most big name comic books and even strips are also a form of corporate art. So, as a cartoonist, I’ve always struggled with comparing my work to theirs. It doesn’t work very well.

    • Re: For some the money talks but I think the process of acceptance of games as art has already begun

      I don’t think that most video games meet normal definitions of art.

      Well, here’s the thing about definitions of art — they are problematic at best. Often they are used as a kind of elitist cultural weapon, to denigrate art that is too popular or enjoyable as merely “entertainment.” As if art exists for any reason other than to be entertaining.

      But “entertainment” is still a broader category than art, because it includes things like baseball games and a trip to the zoo, neither of which I would argue for being art.

      I agree that video games as art are not best considered as a narrative art form, but for some reason the narrative consideration is the one that game fans are always reaching for. I think the art of video games needs to be argued on its own terms. But maybe people keep finding narrative there just because as humans we’re inclined to find narrative everywhere.

      • Re: For some the money talks but I think the process of acceptance of games as art has already begun

        once did a one page comic that depicted the press investigating a crime scene. They were interviewing a survivor of a massacre in a school room, who said, “The teacher wrote ‘what is art?’ on the chalkboard, and then it happened…”

        • Re: For some the money talks but I think the process of acceptance of games as art has already begun

          ER, that would be , with two “l”s.

  4. Does the phrase “play a story” even make sense?

    Sure. That is, essentially, what I get paid to do. We call it “highly structured improv” but in truth, I am a sort of human video game.

    • You are getting paid to do improv? What awesomeness did I miss?

      • You didn’t hear? For the last few years I’ve been working with med students (and some other future medical professionals) by pretending to be physically ill, mentally ill, or dying. Mostly I’m at the UW but I’ve also done some work at Bastyr. We’re called “standardized patients” or “medical actors”, and we help students learn and practice clinical skills in a setting that’s safe for everyone.

        There’s a fair bit of improv and role-playing involved in that, especially in the longer, non-testing sessions. Students will come up with all sorts of odd things, and you’ve just got to stay in your character and go with it; “it’s not in the script” is never a good answer, after all. Or sometimes the students won’t give you much of anything to respond to at all, and you just have to keep on complaining with artful vagueness. At Bastyr, the program director would hand me a one-page explanation of my character’s issues and I’d spin half an hour of talking out of it.

        I’ve learned a lot from it.

        • That’s cool, I did not know you were doing that.

  5. Of course, the pretentious critical review and analysis would do the trick, wouldn’t it? Well, it does help stretch the envelope. There is some of that on the Escapist Magazine, and it is very good, addressing all sorts of issues in game (Misogyny in games, the amount of creative ideas or lack thereof, etc.)

    You did hit the nail on the head though. Games do need to move away from the old stereotype they have and need to be appreciated as a medium with ideas and innovations. Super Castlevania 4 did it for me in terms of graphics and music, and the critical analysis of Objectivisim in Bioshock does show that games can have a heavily philosophical context.

    • critical analysis of Objectivisim in Bioshock

      See, that’s what I’m talking about.

  6. As a casual gamer, I find the role playing portion of games like Neverwinter Nights to be a little like the “choose your own adventure” stories I would read once in a while as a kid. You have options, but they are limited. Although these games are called “role playing” games, you only have a few choices, so the story unfolds along a set of relatively limited paths.

    The roleplay portions are interspersed with combat portions. They really are two distinct sections. If you cared to (which I’m sure you don’t) you could hand over the terminal and let someone else play through the combat, and it would not affect your ability to play the roleplay portion of the game.

    There definitely is a narrative to these video games. Still, I guess I wouldn’t call these games “narrative art.” Like you pointed out, the narrative of the game is only part of the experience, and probably doesn’t stand on its own very well.

    • the narrative of the game is only part of the experience, and probably doesn’t stand on its own very well.

      Exactly. I think the crucial issue is one of engagement. If you think about the ways that movies are engaging, games can use a few of those elements (music, art design, premise) but other elements (acting, dialogue, pacing) are mostly negated by the demands of game play.

      I get the impression that the way it usually works is that the engagement of playing the game substitutes for some other aspects of story engagement. If “I” (the player) am the protagonist, it doesn’t matter that the protagonist is shallowly conceived, because my own personal engagement in the proceedings is what drives the experience.

      I am pretty sure that’s the theory behind the “choose your own adventure” books. My parents got them for my brother when he wasn’t as engaged in reading as they wanted him to be. (Note: I don’t know if he was actually having trouble in school, or if my parents were just taking me as the norm and therefore concluding that he wasn’t a strong reader.)

      I attempted to read a couple of them and did not like them in the least. I quickly found it tedious — the game play didn’t suck me in, it put me off.

      I know the CYOA books weren’t all that well-written in the first place, so that’s probably part of it. But I quickly got tired of reading Geoff Ryman’s 253 (http://www.ryman-novel.com) as a hyperlinked novel experience, and he’s actually a good writer.

      For what it’s worth, I tend to think of the artistic expression of video games as being more akin to what you can get out of an immersive art exhibit, rather than what you get out of a primarily narrative art, like books or movies.

      • Oh, and, thinking of them as being like an immersive art exhibit is kind of why I’m even interested in the concept of games-as-art.

        The kind of art where Yoko Ono makes you climb a ladder (http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2002/06/21/30036.html) isn’t my favorite thing in all the world like stories are, but I do find it fascinating. Does it really mean anything, or is it just a lark? Or a put-on? Does it have intrinsic meaning, or is the meaning only found in the context of having it put on display in a gallery?

        Etc.

  7. I suspect one of the tricks in considering video games as narrative art is looking at how good worldbuilding lets us write our own stories.

    I’m not much of a video game player–I lack the coordination and patience. Most games, I play a couple levels, won’t be able to get farther, and give up.
    Right now, I’m playing Echo Bazaar, which is a card-based role-playing game online. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure, though with a bunch of repetitive tasks thrown in. But I find myself making up my own story as I go, figuring out what is motivating my character to do these things. The fact that it’s an awesome world is the most important thing.

    Our brain edits out the repetitive parts, fills in the gaps, and poof! There’s a story. If you don’t enjoy the interim parts, then yeah, it’s not going to be a stimulating experience.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if I should be taking a side in this argument. I hate “what is art?” arguments, but in this case, I do think we need to at least break down video games into their parts and figure out what we can do with them, because whether or not I think video games are art or narratives or whatever, I do think they’re a valuable aspect of our culture that we shouldn’t resign to the same corner as Michael Bay and The DaVinci Code. Not yet, anyway.

    • Our brain edits out the repetitive parts, fills in the gaps, and poof! There’s a story.

      That illusion of story is a neat trick, but I think it’s why movies based on video games tend to be so bad. It’s like trying to explain your dream — it seemed like a narrative at the time! And it was just so cool! But the kind of narrative that a movie needs just isn’t there.

  8. As a non-videogame person living with a video game person, watching Jon play Heavy Rain was slightly more entertaining than watching CSI. The story was not as stupid as CSI at least.

    This new reality TV show that is like Project Runway with art. TV art judges are weird.

    It took me a long time to get into 253, but after I did, I liked it. I think I ended up reading it straight though though. The hyperlinked format didn’t work for me. The last Wired had an article that said that MRI scans of people’s brain activity were different if they had experience on the internet, or clicking though hyperlinks, than people with no experience. Then after the newbies practiced using hyperlinks for a couple of days, their brain activity scanned differently. Something about having to come to a decision point when coming across a link eeven if you don’t click on it. The internet is physically rewiring our brains.

  9. I think adventure games totally have narrative. For a good example, play Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight games, which are now more than 10 years old. She did write novels based on the games, but they were like watered down versions of what happened in the game. I don’t mean just that the game play was missing, but story stuff was compressed, dialogue was edited down, etc. Her characters and story live in my mind as vividly or more vividly than many novels that I’ve read.

    As for getting legitimacy and respect by having snooty art critics….one thing I really don’t like about modern art is the pretentious art critics. If that’s what it takes, then maybe it’s not worth it.

    And for taking many hours to play a game….people watch mini-series. Usually because the scope of the story requires more than one hour or two. That same sort of thing can happen in games.

    Not all games have a strong narrative, but some of them definitely do.

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