Saturday, April 17, 2010

Video games are art

Roger Ebert is a shit-stirrer. After sparking the "games as art" debate for the first time and then walking away to let us try and deal with it, he recently updated his personal blog with another entry on why video games can never be art. Of course people in the gaming community are getting upset. One person commented to Ebert that "you just don't get it" while this guy thinks that the stories in games are just as good as those in movies and therefore games can be art too.

I'm not concerned with arguing against any particular point Ebert made beside the one that says "video games can never be art." So that's what I'm going to do.

First off, gamers have it wrong. Orson Scott Card, who has written dialogue for a few games, was absolutely correct when he said that story in video games is about as meaningful as the windmills and props on a miniature golf course. In the games-as-art debate, "meaningful story" is one of the most oft-cited qualities of games that project them to the status of art. This is wrong, and it's simply the wrong direction to go in while proving that video games can be art.

I'll argue that video games already are art. Or, more accurately, video games are an artistic medium like music, paintings, film or poetry are. Another misconception that people have about games is that an individual game can be "elevated" to the status of art. That's not how art works. You can have good art and bad art, but bad art isn't disqualified from being art just because it's bad.

A piece of art is a work in a creative medium that conveys meaning in a form that is unique to that medium, to be experienced for its own sake. Poetry is the art of the written word, music is the art of sound and paintings are the art of paint. Video games are the art of digital interactivity.

Video games are defined by four properties:
1. They are digital
2. They are interactive
3. They have rules that define the interaction
4. They are played for their own sake

The first two properties define the medium of the video game. Something that isn't digital or interactive simply can't be a video game. I think everybody can agree with this.

The third property is perhaps the most important in arguing that video games are an artistic medium. The rules in a video game define the player's experience with that game. Even a game like Flower, which appears to have no rules or objectives, is at a base level governed by rules (such as those created by the in-game physics engine, which determines what happens based on player input). The rules of a video game are comparable to the laws of physics in real life - everything that happens is subject to and caused by them.

The process of game design is the creation of rules and arrangement of elements that will interact with them (including the player). Designing a game is like painting, or editing a movie, or writing a poem - you can set everything up the way you want and fine-tune it all, but the person experiencing your work will come away with their own interpretation. If you did a good job, it'll be similar to what you wanted them to come away with.

The question in your mind now is hopefully "but how can one create meaning through rules and interaction?" This is the right question. Truth be told though, very few people are asking it and there are even less answers. Jason Rohrer, an indie game developer, is one of those people. His game Passage is a good example of a game where meaning comes purely through playing the game. Rohrer has dedicated a lot of his time to finding out whether or not games "can be" art (though the question is whether games are art, and the answer is yes). He even typed up a new gamist manifesto, which is interesting, though I disagree with a few of the points.

To back-peddle a little bit though, I want to readdress story in games. While story in video games isn't the factor that allows them to be art, it can sometimes be integral to conveying artistic meaning. What one must understand is that story provides context for player action. Story, art and sound provide a lens through which to view player interaction, giving it artistic meaning. For example, Bioshock used its story to provide an excuse for its linearity, revealing to the player in a major twist (spoilers) that they were a lab-grown slave. This revelation also functioned as a reminder that while the player is in immediate control of their actions, ultimately they have to do what the game tells them to do if they want to progress. It was a brilliant commentary on false non-linearity in first person shooters, which they unfortunately followed by continuing with the linear experience.

Imagine how much more artistically sound the game would have been if your character was forced to kill himself after the revelation instead of continuing with the linear experience. I'm sure there are numerous reasons the designers didn't have this happen though, especially because the average gamer wouldn't be able to handle it and would just say "it sucked." Perhaps the morality system in the game was a way to give the player some sense of control after they realized they ultimately didn't have any.

I digress though.

Moving ahead, gamers need to realize that what makes games unique is their interactivity. If gamers are truly interested in seeing games as art, they should actually study art. The search for the "most artistic game" is horribly misled if driven by a blind need to validate all the time sunk into a fun hobby.