Games Will Never Be Art Until They Are

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The debate rages on.

Brian Moriarty’s investigation of the question of whether video games are or can be art tackles question from both sides, taking on the extreme positions as well as the subtle ones. He draws on art history, aesthetic theory, and philosophy to construct a definition of art that covers all of the pronouncements made by advocates of the not-art position (Roger Ebert) and games-already-are-art (Kellee Santiago), and generally gives the question the philosophical and historical treatment it deserves.

His ultimate conclusion is that games are not yet “high art,” but instead reside squarely in the category of kitsch art. Given the deluge of Call of Duty and Mario knockoffs, I’m content with this conclusion for now, but I don’t think it will hold for very long.

Part of his problem is that he never really unravels the complexity of the question of definition. The definition of high art he uses is vague but is the same definition that Ebert and other film critics have used to excluded almost all movies from the category, save a small handful, so it works for him. Sort of. But notions of “high art” or “great art” are hard to pin down. But I think Moriarty, in all his exposition orbits around probably the best definition for art I have ever read:

Proper art, says Joyce, is “static” and improper art is “kinetic.” Kinisis, as you know, means movement and Stasis, as you know, means standing still.

Kinisis: Improper art is kinetic in that it moves the observer either to desire, positive, or to loathe or fear, negative, that object represented. That’s clear and simple. Improper art is kinetic, it moves the observer either to desire or to refuse, to fear or hate the object represented.

Art that moves you to desire is pornography. All advertising art is pornographic. You are going through a magazine and you see a picture of a beautiful refrigerator and beside it stands a lovely girl with lovely refrigerator teeth. And you think, I love refrigerators like that. Pornography. Picture of a dear old lady and you think, “Oh, lovely old sweet soul, I’d love to have a cup of tea with that dear lady.” That’s pornography. You go into a ski buffs department and you see pictures of ski slopes and you think, “oh, wow, to go down slopes like that.” Pornography.

You get it? It has to do with a relationship to the object that’s that of social, physical or otherwise action. You are not held in aesthetic arrest.

Art that repels is didactic. All of this sociological art is didactic.

-Joseph Campbell, “The Way of Art.”

High art induces stasis. It is art that holds you in aesthetic arrest. Moriarty echoes this when he says “All sublime art is devotional.”

But kinesis here is not used as a synonym for kinetic. All drama, all films, are kinetic to a degree. They have to be to establish the tension that with which the audience empathizes and which is dispelled in a catharsis at the end. But this catharsis is what can induce stasis.

So are games kinetic, under Campbell’s definition? According to Moriarty:

Game designers are taught that the ideal player experience is something called flow.
Flow is that magical state of highly focused motivation, a kind of skating on the fine edge of effort and challenge.
Flow leads to a feeling of euphoric exhilaration.
Gameflow is work made fun! Flow keeps you joyfully working, even in your free time!
Gameflow will be the harness of the New Labor class.
Flow is painless effort. But pain management is not the business of art.
Entrancement is not insight.
Flow is an-aesthetic.

This “flow” is pure kinesis. “Work made fun.” But it’s still work. So if this is what the game industry is shooting for, then Moriarty is absolutely correct. High budget, high concept games will almost never be high art because this approach cannot induce aesthetic arrest. It strives for the opposite–”euphoric exhilaration.”

I don’t work in the industry, so I don’t know if there is a theoretical approach that can be pursued systematically that achieves Joyce’s aesthetic arrest. But I’ve played enough indie games like Passage and Braid to be convinced that we are going to get there sooner rather than later, and from independent and lwer-tech games. 

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46 Responses to Games Will Never Be Art Until They Are

  1. AdamSaleh1987 says:

    It’s a great point. I recommend everyone watch “Extra Credit” on the escapistmagazine.com website. Games are art, see: Shadow of the Colossus. A very symbolic tale about a boy traveling a forbidden land to find what is lost.

  2. hcartaxo says:

    The whole stasis vs kinesis thing is quite interesting, but the connection between that and the flow seems to need some ground.

    The whole argument is a bit too silly, I think. But I’ll go with: video games are art when made by artists willing to do art.

  3. fsarver says:

    “His ultimate conclusion is that games are not yet “high art,” but instead reside squarely in the category of kitsch art. Given the deluge of Call of Duty and Mario knockoffs, I’m content with this conclusion for now, but I don’t think it will hold for very long.”

    Games are a medium, like literature, movies, TV, paintings, music, theater etc.

    It’s not fair to say that because there are a lot of mediocre games that the medium itself is kitsch. Every medium has a slew of mediocre content that is targeted to mainstream tastes, but that doesn’t make them kitsch either. Nobody says literature is kitsch because of all the Danielle Steeles, James Pattersons and Stephanie Meyers. Or movies are kitsch because of all the Tony Scotts, Steven Spielbergs, and Michael Bays. Likewise, the same shouldn’t be said of games.

    The problem to me is that people think art is an evaluative term rather than a descriptive one. Saying something isn’t art doesn’t mean that it is bad. It only means that it is not art. But I think art history in the 20th century has proven that the definition of art is extremely elastic. Almost anything can be considered art these days, and what we do consider to be art has more to do with the social space it occupies rather than any inherent properties a work of art may have.

    We can argue about what makes bad or kitschy art, but I think arguing whether games is art or kitsch is beside the point.

  4. Neex says:

    Interesting commentary Pastabagel. This subject drove me crazy in art class. I’m still passionately going to say that the old lady drawing pretty flowers and feeling happy and full of love and wanting to give all the little things they paint to their family members are doing art.

    The question we’re asking isn’t so much “is it art”. If you want it to be art, sure it’s art. The question is— is it meaningful? does it say something? Does it open up doors of understanding within ourselves or the world? Does it cause us to see the human experience differently, or expand our knowledge of world around us? Does it fill us with wonder and awe? Do we feel changed by looking at it? Does it enhance our experience of beauty, our ability to witness and be moved by the existance of beautiful or horrible or mundane things? Does it open our eyes and make us LOOK at something we wouldn’t have seen otherwise?

    Flowers are beautiful and there is no reason that painting flowers ala Thomas Kincaid can’t be art. Painting little happy cartoon mice on greeting cards can be art. It’s cheap and tacky, but really what people are venting about with that is the intent to sell.

    People produce a cartoon greeting card series to make money and the ease and lack of thought that seems to be put into reproducing numorous versions of basically the same thing repackaged to increase sales make people think “That is not art.” And it certainly, if truly produced with nothing but making money at heart, has no spirit in it and doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of the human condition or to our ability to relish beauty or behold sad things or provide anything meaningful whatsoever.

    Cartoon mice are cute though, so if someone wants to draw doodles of cartoon mice— or make video games with cheesy characters— and call it art, than sure. It can be art. If I make a pile of mud and say “This means something. This is important” is it art? Sure. I believe it’s art and therefore it’s art. But is it GOOD art? Art worthy of recognition among the community because of the depth of it’s artistic value alone?
    Well as usual, that is and always will be in the eyes of the beholder. But as usual, it’s always more better if we debate it amongst ourselves. ; )

    And I like Joseph Campbells distinction.

  5. blithelyunaware says:

    Video games are a modern opiate of the masses. They are played for entertainment, for positive reinforcement, and for that characteristic dopamine rush. Walter Benjamin acolytes would call video games works of art, but any critic concerned with tradition and aesthetics would balk at this distinction. There is no edifying process or internal struggle as one wades through the preset algorithms and sits through the mostly banal cut scenes. Don’t get me wrong, video games can be a lot of fun, but they lack a serious tradition and are still a young medium so they may one day be able to function as art, but to call them art at this point is premature.

    • someone says:

      “Video games can be a lot of fun, but they lack a serious tradition.”

      Yes, because strategy games and simulators are not serious.

      “Are still a young medium.”

      This is a cliche that does not mean anything. There is nothing wrong with the “medium.” All you need for great story-telling in a video game are the same methods used by writers and filmmakers, which have already been perfected. Technology is not an obstacle either ( watch?v=5aAs-vZ4rZE ).

      • blithelyunaware says:

        “Yes, because strategy games and simulators are not serious.”

        You’re right they’re mere simulacra of reality. Or were you attempting sarcasm?

        “All you need for great story-telling in a video game are the same methods used by writers and filmmakers, which have already been perfected.”

        This is a cliche that does not mean anything. If what makes a video game art is a crude mimesis of cinematic technique then the medium is more belated and obsolete than I originally thought.

        • someone says:

          “Or were you attempting sarcasm?”

          I was not “attempting.”

          “This is a cliche that does not mean anything.”

          It is not a cliche (do you even know what a cliche is?), and its meaning is crystal clear.

          “If what makes a video game art is a crude mimesis of cinematic technique then the medium is more belated and obsolete than I originally thought.”

          I didn’t say anything about art.

          • blithelyunaware says:

            You need to (re)read the posting guidelines, specifically those related to maintaining a civil dialogue. I don’t know the source of your bizarre petulance, but for the sake of maintaining a positive and open discourse I suggest you tone down your sarcasm and condescension.

          • someone says:

            Posting guidelines are always bullshit and it’s not like even the people who enforce them actually follow them.

          • Pastabagel says:

            We take the posting guidelines seriously. As should everyone.

  6. someone says:

    The “is games art” debate has not progressed even one inch. Every single blog post and comment on the subject just repeats the same shit over and over again (while trying to seem as if they are making profound revelations).

    The ONLY reason why this debate exists is because kids and manchildren want the grownups to take their hobby seriously. So they don’t have to feel guilty about wasting all their time. And when people say this or that game is art, they are not even talking about the game, they are talking about its cutscenes, which are almost always terrible or mediocre. Or it’s an “art game,” i.e. equivalent to Piss Christ.

  7. Vigil says:

    Went and read the article. A few quick points:

    1. He references Duchamp a few times. Interestingly, Duchamp didn’t sell us on a urinal as a piece of art, he sold us on a narrative. The narrative was “I just bought a urinal and I’m calling it art, here you go,” and we ate it up, and continue to eat it up, but the truth is more complicated. I talked with an art historian who made a good case that Duchamp’s “Readymades” were not, in fact, found objects, but carefully crafted by him, and then he lied about it. This seems like a crazy theory, but we have hard evidence that he’s pulled tricks like that.

    One example—long story short—he told us he got some curves by dropping pieces of string, and many years later we look at the artwork and see the string was carefully placed and sewn on (see http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_1/News/stoppages.html ). This art historian then pointed out some weirdness and inconsistencies in his other work, which along with the fact that the urinal (and the rest) doesn’t match up with any known urinal ever produced, won me over to the idea that this might be the case.

    As for Duchamp, games, and art, a glaring omission from the article (especially seeing as he talks about both chess and the problem of commercialization of games!) is this Duchamp quote: “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”

    2. Moriarty says “Some people admire the elegance of math equations, too, but nobody confuses mathematics with great art.” I do, so that invalidates the “nobody.” I think the above definition of art has something to do with standing still in awe at the sublime beauty of a thing, and having your life enriched as a result. I’d call most mathematics kitsch (in his terms), but there’s some incredible proofs out there. Point being, the definition is not as simple as he’d like it to be. (And, mostly because of the title, I’ll link to the paper “Mathematics is Art” http://erikdemaine.org/papers/BRIDGES2009i/paper.pdf ).

    3. He also references pianist Glen Gould. I think Gould would have something to say about the proclamation that art does not involve choices (which was an argument for games not being art). Gould is known for his incredibly creative interpretations of Bach. Any musician can tell you that playing music is full of choices: do I bring out just the melody, in a crescendo, or do I play it straight and loud but allow the counter-melody to weave higher and lower in a complicated dynamic range, and should I make these two high notes a bit staccato to echo the opening passage, etc, etc. Would Moriarty say that the audience is experiencing art, and the performer is not?

    4. Actually related to the point– It seems that we recognize something is art, and then try to redefine art to encompass the new thing that we know should be art (such as a potential future video game, or a urinal [whether Duchamp was messing with us or not]). Our minds seem to be built for it– act first, believe first, then retroactively apply reasons for your actions and beliefs. Judging things by these sorts of definitions is pointless, because when games start appearing that are art we’ll know it; the definitions will take care of themselves.

    • Pastabagel says:

      Your point about his citing Duchamp is notable for another reason. Moriarty basically uses it to makr the end of theory and philosophy. He cites Schopenauer, Hegel and othes, but like some many gneral knowledge philosophy and art books, he ends in the 50s, with Duchamp, which is precesiely where it gets interesting.

      In my mind, games are a postmodern medium-the player has to basically create the simulated experience for himself (and possibly along with other players in multiplayer gaming). In traditional art and literature, it’s the manipulation of symbols, language and tropes that communicates the story. But in games, experience itself is manipulated. The narrative language is on a much lower/reptilian level.

      My favorite example here is the originalHalf-Life. What moves the story along is the alternation between congested and claustrophobic spaces–air ducts, crawling spaces, sewers–that sudden terminate into brightly lit open air spaces erupting in chaos. Caution and hesitation switch to adrenaline and fear.

      Postmodern theory is very illuminating here, both on the topic of simulation vs. reality/perception/experience generally, but also with respect to the accumulation of overlapping and often contradictory or subversive narratives. When you experience a game, are you experiencing it as a spectator, as an actor in a play, or as a director staging shots and pacing a story? (Much like Gould hints at.) Or does it alternate among them?

      And philosophical discussion of the aesthetics of gaming basically has to startwith Duchamp, not end with him.

      I quoted Moriarty’s definition of flow because frankly it is so utterly backward from the concept of flow as it is understood by the likes Deleuze: “The artisan is one who is determined to follow a flow of matter as pure productivity. The artisan is the itinerant, the ambulant. His work is a legwork. To follow the flow of matter…is intuition in action.” Furthermore, “A life contains only virtuals. It is made of virtualities, events, singularities. What we call virtual is not something that lacks reality, but something that enters into a process of actualization by following the plane that gives it its own reality (“Immanence: A Life…,” 5).” This process whereby the virtual actualizes itself is the primal ontological mode.”

      The flow is the movement of desire, not the movement of the thing desired, but the movement of desire itself. Games currently interpret this crudely by changing what you need to open the next part of the game (the key, the item, the character ability, etc) and have the players need for that map to their desire to finish the game. But that isn’t what he is talking about. In the context of games, flow is the shifting within the game of the same desire expressed differently.

      And that’s what the indie games do. There is very little they ask of you mechanically, other than to ambulate around the game space, to use Deleuze’s world. But lacking any specific material quest, very quickly the player develops an existential desire – to know what is happening in the world of the game, to find a place in it. So those indie story games, the simplistic mechanics are what open the space for the player to desire something more-to look for a meaning or purpose in this virtual life. And in the games, when that virtual is actualized for the player character, that is potentially when the player himself would be held in aesthetic arrest. Just a thought.

  8. rexstuckman says:

    I really think the whole “What is art (Art?)” question gets way out of hand, like a freshman philosophy class. It’s so easy for it to get way too self indulgent.

    I tend to agree with Joseph Campbell here, and also think that postmodern art gets it wrong in that it generally sublimates the individual creating it instead of the universal experience. No urinals or sharks in formaldehyde for me. I also think that you can make almost anything art, depending on the level of commitment and humility that you bring to it. You’re a line chef, and head down with sweat pouring, you are blissfully immersed in the act of creation? That, to me, is art. If a secretary finds the quiet place inside and finds that hot creative bliss while typing, that is an act of art. I don’t think that outside recognition is necessary to qualify something as “art.”

    That said, yes, I agree, video games, or interactive storytelling you could call them, is just a medium. I’ve known people to ruin oil paintings, and I’ve known people to bring cutting paper into the realm of sublime art. It’s all about the intention, the humility, and the honesty of communication. I think some people are better at doing that than others and produce “better” art, but an honest thing is an honest thing, and you can generally tell the difference.

  9. cliche says:

    A popular form of game in Japan is the Visual Novel, a kind of choose your own adventure story, set to a bunch of characters sprites, backgrounds and dramatic piano arrangements.
    Choices can be made at random, usually leading to an unsatisfying ending, but people often use guides that tell you which choices to pick in order to achieve specific endings.
    It wouldn’t be a stretch to call these games art on the same level as modern literature.

  10. foxfire says:

    I like the aesthetic arrest idea, but does it always play out the same in each person.

    Some of the best art to me is art that I viewed, then I find myself thinking about it days, months, or even years later. The ideas presented, and the way that they were presented captivated me in a way that the aesthetic arrest continued long after the actual experience ended. To me, that describes a lot of the best art I have experienced.

    In that sense, a game being a kinetic experience does not invalidate it from being high art. After you have finished the kinetic experience, the memory of playing the game could return you to a state of aesthetic arrest.

    There are also moments within a game where the prior kinetic experience is a setup for a single static moment. I don’t see how that is any different from a book, play, or movie where the introduction and rising action are designed to dynamically pull you in so that you begin to associate and identify with characters. All of that is done to set up a static moment later in the story. In story mediums, the climax or climaxes are often the static moment. The rest of the story is dynamic, in that it is moving along and pulling the reader/viewer along for the ride.

  11. fsarver says:

    I think the discussion here has inspired the new site banner! Vermeer! Oy!

  12. boeotarch says:

    If art that moves you to empathy or disgust or desire is ‘low,’ then how can anything be ‘high’ other than for its context to become lost or incomprehensible? We love to praise ‘high art’ that has no value to us other than its aesthetic beauty, when it was originally created as a religious icon or to make a political point. The distinction between ‘static’ and ‘kinetic’ really only creates a distinction between art which is understood and that which is not.

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