Screenshot from Journey
If you are informed and culturally savvy–which, this week at least, means you have an opinion on HBO’s Girls–should you care about video games? By this, I don’t mean “do games make kids violent?”. I also don’t mean if you should be aware that they exist and that people play them. I mean this: if you consider yourself someone who is “smart”–define that however you like–should you consider video games part of the mix of stuff that makes you a conscious, worth-listening-to participant in contemporary culture?
If you are wondering this, you wouldn’t be alone in considering the question. In fact, there has been a mini-rash of writing asking just such questions recently. Two in particular have stuck out. First came a story in New York Magazine on “stupid games”, in which author Sam Anderson relayed how he came to grips with the potentially addictive quality of small, bite-size games like Angry Birds. Then, The Atlantic had a long, compelling feature on Jonathan Blow, an auteur game-maker concerned with making games smarter and more interesting . In the latter piece especially, both the subject and its author claimed most current games are silly and juvenile.
On that latter point, it’s hard to disagree, which makes the answer to our opening question seem pretty clear cut. For every wry, subtle game like Journey or Portal, there are ten titles like Call of Duty or Gears of War, games so overloaded with adolescent testosterone, it’s a wonder they don’t suddenly finish much sooner than you were expecting them to. Yet, at the same time, those of us familiar with those games also know that even “dumb games” can be quite sophisticated to actually play. So there’s this weird tension whenever people talk about whether smart people should care about games: one between the stuff that games depict; and the stuff you can do in them.
The problem with games is that, because they rely on what you can do as much as what they show, we don’t quite know how to understand them in relation to other forms. So to answer our self-serving, narcissistic question, we unfortunately need to think about–blerg–what defines art. Naturally, that’s too big a question for 20 books, let alone one column. But if you were so inclined, you could at least start by dividing the Western conception of art into two very loose categories.
The first, which roughly stems from Aristotle, thinks art is meant to recreate something vaguely recognizable from the world and, in framing it in a particular way, reflect something about the world and ourselves back to us. Most literature and film, and some visual art fall under this category.
The other, which is vaguely derived from Immanuel Kant, looks at art as something that “excites the imagination” in non-specific, but nevertheless important ways. Here we’re talking some types of music and other abstract visual arts. They don’t tell a story or directly reflect something about the world, but we also know they do interesting, provocative things to our brains.
Using that as a frame, you can see why the inevitable and tired “are games art?” question always gets predictable and stuck: video games never really lend themselves to neatly being categorized in either of these ways. There are some video games which, akin to jazz, produce an abstract space of play that is intellectually challenging and pleasing precisely because they draw on, and then reconfigure, what you know. For the perfect example of this, see Super Mario Galaxy–or as I like to call it, gaming’s Giant Steps. On the other hand, other video games, like Ico or Mass Effect, do stories well, but the question of their artistic status is greatly complicated by the question of interactivity. If narrative art works because it shapes the experience in certain ways, being able to choose your path through a story messes around with that. By either of those metrics, games aren’t really art, but not because they’re “bad”. They just don’t fit the ways of talking about art that we currently have.
Yet, this gets us a bit closer to thinking helpfully about games. Because if we value what we now call art for reasons of what they do to us, we can then think about games in those terms, too.
Think of it this way: Both stories and melody and rhythm are universal. Those bases of narrative and music are something we all know. But in their formalization in literature, film and recorded music, we subject them to rules and make them cultural objects of experiences. Then, because they became externalized and, as a result, these social, public things, they became ways for us to explore those basic aspects of being human. This was how we went from telling stories or banging on logs to thinking about novels or albums as cultural touchstones.
Video games do something similar, but rather than relying on stories or sound or images, their basic fodder is play. Like narrative and music, it is one of those rare universal things that all cultures share. All children play, and all adults can also engage in pretend, in puzzle-solving, in making games of things. And like the other two, when placed within a frame, connected to other parts of culture and compared with other examples of the form, they become a space to engage with the human.
How do you play? What did you experience when asked to move through the story this way? What was your view of how these objects interacted? What is to be temporarily somebody or something else? These are the questions games ask of us. They produce arenas of interaction, which recreate something direct or indirect about the world, and then they ask you to move through them according to certain rules. They aren’t so much a place to experience stories or framed aesthetics, which is what other forms of art do, as they are places to make them.
And if you’ll notice, that shift–from the externally-authored experience to the one that meets its author half-way–fits neatly with a slew of other digitally-inspired cultural trends. Which, if you were for an answer to our question, seems like a pretty clear one.