Monday, May 24, 2010

Beyond the aesthetic: insightful words on Games and Art

There are some topics that people tend to lean away from, For me it's usually politics, due to my irritation of hearing half-informed commenters going on rage filled tirades. Of course the gaming end is much of the same. With that being said, I can see why I've been avoiding the "Games as Art" debate that seems to have the gaming community at odds with each other. Perhaps, it has more to do with not wanting to be involved, or that I just can't seem to form a proper explanation of how I feel, and don't want to dismiss anyone's opinion on the subject. So I've held my tongue, and kept my opinions to myself until I discovered something that changed everything.

I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Raul Aguirre Jr's podcast "Man Vs Art". It was after hearing his commentary about exactly what Art is to him, is the moment when I started to understand how it would fit into this debate. Fear not, reader I'm not going to go the Roger Ebert route and say that games can never be art, but I'm also not going to say that games in general are art simply due to such things as aesthetic, either. In order to fully explain this I'll be using quotes made by Mr Aguirre ( You'll have to bear with me, since I can't find a transcript of the podcast itself, so I'm writing his words verbatim.)

Understanding Art

So in order to classify games as art, we have to first understand what art is. The easiest way to do that is to check the definition. What is art? Well let's check the definition.

  • the products of human creativity; works of art collectively; "an art exhibition"; "a fine collection of art"
  • the creation of beautiful or significant things; "art does not need to be innovative to be good"; "I was never any good at art"; "he said that architecture is the art of wasting space beautifully"
  • a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation; "the art of conversation"; "it's quite an art"
  • artwork: photographs or other visual representations in a printed publication; "the publisher was responsible for all the artwork in the book" 
These are all interesting, but I feel that this is only the superficial definitions of "Art" I think in order to better understand let's take it a little deeper than that. Wikipedia, you're up.

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings.
So Art can be arranged in any way using anything to affect the senses or emotions of the person viewing it. Of course this means art can provide an emotional response in the realm of  visual, aural, touch, taste, and smell as well as cause emotional responses within ourselves. How does this relate to games? Well games are created and arranged to affect our senses and emotions. The use of rumble in games to indicate weight like the movement of a large character, or the heartbeat of  a character near death, or the gravity of a large explosion nearby. The use of sound in games to alert you of impending danger coming from either side of your surround sound speakers, or used to put you in a disturbed mood of fear and panic in games like Doom 3 or Silent Hill 2. In those terms that would make those games the very definition of art, but this doesn't conclude things by a longshot. There's much more to explore here.

Art in three flavors

So Raul expressed in his podcast, Man Vs Art that Art can be broken down into three categories. Through these three 'flavors' of art we can better understand how games would fit into the classification of being art or not art. I'll let him explain that.

" There are three categories of art, I believe. There is Bad art, there is good art and there is great art. Bad art will elicit no emotional response in the person that was exposed to it in other words like a song you hear in an elevator that does nothing for you, or a picture on the wall that gives you the same emotional response as if the wall had been blank, or like a movie on an airline that just chews up time. Good art will make you feel an emotion that you've felt before. It will remind you of something. You see a picture of a forest and remember the last time you were out there fishing with your grandpa. Or you hear a song about love and remember that feeling you had when you saw your lady for the first time, or your remember the first time you felt love. 

Great art though..Great art. That will make you feel an emotion that you never felt before! For example the Pieta, the world famous sculpture by Michelangelo. That can cause someone to feel the pain of losing a child, even if they've never had one. seeing the woman cradling her son-her son's corpse across her lap like that and the look of sadness in her, and just how wrecked her son was .. my god!. It makes you feel like you lost a kid even though you may never have lost one. It's heavy! that's great art!!"
Now, we all know that games do create emotional responses in the people who play them, most of those responses are usually anger, however usually that's not the desired response of the person who's creating the game (well unless the developer is a complete dick, but that's for another article). So we can't say that causing people to ragequit would mean that a game is artistic, unless we want to call every crappy game we've ever played "bad art". Let's just say that pissing people off is easy. I could easily just walk up to someone on the street and punch them in the face or saying any one of the seven dirty words you can't say on television in ear range of children or a church congregation. (it's fun to tick off the Christans isn't it?), but That wouldn't be considered art either. Now what about presenting things that move a person to tears? or causes someone to think in terms of something similar going on in their lives, or inspires passion?.

Have games done that? Well much like the effect of traditional art, these opinions vary from person to person so it depends on who you talk to. There have been quite a few games that have made me laugh. There have been a few games that scared the daylights out of me. I've even got a little misty eyed over a game's ending before. That is the goal of art, though;  to create a way to make us the viewer, understand the feelings and ideas the artist wants to convey. If the goal of a Silent Hill game  was to scare the crap out of us and to understand that these demons we have to fight through are manifestations of the main character's own inner conflict underneath all of that, well then I could see that as a well conveyed artistic endeavor. But that's only one game, and it brings us to a new question; How can one game in a genre be artistic in some aspects, but the other games in that genre not?

A difference between Art and Craft

 To answer that question I'll go back to what Mr Aguirre said in his podcast, which sheds some more light on this ever growing article.
 '"there's a lot of people out there that are artists and a lot of people are craftspeople and they all put effort into their work, and a try to produce something from the heart ,but there's a difference between the two. A craft is any form of creativity that kind of lacks originality or can be replicated from instructions or archetypes. basically all those weavings that we did in grade school and how to paint flowers where the teacher told us step by step. All the stuff in grade school that we were praised for being natural artists for, that's craft! Art stems from the concept of craft but has an element of innovation or creativity."
So in the case of games, would games that innovate, and bring something new to the table for that particular genre be considered art while the games that perpetuate those innovative concepts presented are instead more like crafts? Or maybe it's more like all games are crafts, because they are manufactured, and a few games can be considered as art depending on how innovative they are and what emotional responses are provided to whoever plays them? Damn, that sounds confusing.  Perhaps we should look at the dictionary definition for more insight. ( I took the liberty of highlighting all the relevant definitions in blue. ) 

  • Skill in doing or making something, as in the arts; proficiency. See Synonyms at art1   
  •  Skill in evasion or deception; guile. 
  •      a. An occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or skilled artistry.
  •      b. The membership of such an occupation or trade; guild.
  •  pl. craft A boat, ship, or aircraft.
  • tr.v. craft·ed, craft·ing, crafts 
  • To make by hand.
  • To make or construct (something) in a manner suggesting great care or ingenuity: "It was not the Chamber of Commerce that crafted the public policies that have resulted in a $26 billion annual subvention to the farmers" (William F. Buckley, Jr.)
    The only thing that sets art apart from crafts in that aspect are the notion of both innovation and inspiration. Any average joe can throw together something, but it takes a hint of inspiration to basically push a person to go a different route and create something that is innovative; meaning it presents the same ideas that the artist wants to convey, but presents it in a way that's fresh and unique. So what does this mean for games? well apparently it doesn't mean that every game on the shelf is a masterpiece. Only a few games could possibly fit that description, just like only a few movies could fit the description of art well, unless you want to argue the artistic value of White Chicks.


    So are games art? Does that question even need an answer? Art is subjective, meaning like the song by Everclear, it's everything to everyone. However, In the opinion of the writer, which is me, I feel that some games can be artistic endeavors in the thoughts they convey and ideas they present, but the thing is we can't just look at beautiful graphics and say "yup this is art". Art is so much more than just the aesthetic. To view things only on the surface like that would be the same as saying that music is just "pretty noises". There's a deeper context that needs to be explored when talking about these things, otherwise we're just throwing labels on any and everything in an effort to seek validation for a medium that already stands on it's own due to it's unique and dynamic nature. Games can be art or movies, but games are much more than that.

    Game on.

    For more interesting tidbits of wisdom about art and inspiration be sure to check out Mr Aguirre's website and podcast.

    1 comment:

    1. This is probably the most thought out response to the whole "Are Video Games art?" debate that I've to the stuff from folks on the "Malstrom's Comments" fourm. ;)

      Ultimately, though, the whole notion of arguing that the medium one wastes their time with is worthy of acclaim is pointless. If one just honestly and truthfully loves something, why does one have to have snobish "cultured" people lavishing it with hyperbole and quotes to even justify a minute of one's enjoyment?

      The true criteria of "art" (if there is such a thing) are how truly enjoyable something is, and how much impact it can make (i.e. Sales and Word of Mouth), because often times "Great Art" is something that's discovered, not by the pragmatic expertise of today's critics (or even by industry checks and measures), but in hindsight and memory of what they inspired in generations of people. Just think of how many of the creative pieces that we consider "Art" today are things that were meet with great controversy by establishments and love by people who yearned for something to move them.

      I mean did Shakespeare care about the criteria of art? Not really. Did Anne Frank care about getting a Pulitzer? No, she just wrote out of her heart. Yet here we are, years later, using THEIR words and quotes, in various mediums and even in everyday life.

      Meanwhile, some hack makes "abstract art", writes a "shocking" book that just has profanity all over it, or, worse, someone directs a film by the level of the film "Antichrist" (Don't watch it. Trust me.), and almost no one likes it, yet our "experts" call it genius and "real art simply because it isn't "mainstream".

      I mean, who's more dishonest, the people who look at their creative work as a way to pay their bills and express themselves plainly, or the people who create mystery religions at the expense of commerce and even common sense?

      So, ultimately, one's enjoyment is what speaks bigger, louder, longer and in a more immediate way than the cries of a million of today's critics. The inspiration a piece carries and the movements it inspires are the art, everything else is just noise and dressing.