When I started writing seriously about games in 2002, most of what was being written about video games came largely in the form of previews and product reviews. Video games were still largely being covered as a form of entertainment, but largely anyone, like myself, pondering whether or not the medium might be more than a frivolous way of passing time existed only in fairly small numbers in pockets of the Internet.
As the decade progressed, though, more and more bloggers appeared asking questions similar to my own about whether or not video games were not just a pastime, but also an art form. Many mainstream gaming web sites began including essays of a more critical (that is, “critical” in the sense of art criticism) nature alongside the more traditional offerings of screen shots and consumer information about video games. Infamously, Roger Ebert declared that video games were not art, but by the mid 2000s, there were an awful lot of writers, some journalists, some academics, and some enthusiasts, talking about video games, their stories, their mechanisms, and even their possible aesthetics using that very term.
Like a number of others, much of my own awareness of the discussions of games that existed outside of my own writing about them at PopMatters was made clearer by the appearance of Michael Abbot’s blog, The Brainy Gamer, which became a kind of hub for those writers interested in taking part in a “thoughtful conversation about video games.” Abbot himself is a theater professor and was often interested in discussing the relationships between games and performance, seeing interesting linkages between his own discipline of acting and that of playing video games. However, any number of other writers from various walks of life and various disciplines were interested in discussing how to talk about games in a serious way, what perspectives to view them from, and how they might fit into the arts as a whole.
Fast forward to this decade and the notion that video games are art hardly seems all that controversial any more. Indeed, it seems largely a foregone conclusion. All of which seems somewhat heartening to me. No longer having to justify the medium as an art form, we can continue to develop discussion of how the art form works, how games communicate, and why they are not merely fun, but also sometimes quite beautiful creations.
However, much of the “serious” conversation about games, at least from my perspective, seems to have turned away from the discussion of this art form as an art, and we seem to have moved back once again to discussions from the late 90s about whether or not the medium is good or bad for the culture (see my essay ”The New Puritanism, or, Some Troubling Tendencies in Video Game Criticism”).
Thus, it was with some surprise that I opened Matt Sainsbury’s Game Art, which might best be described as a coffee table book, since it is large and contains some beautiful examples of the kinds of visuals that modern games now boast, but also seems a bit more substantive than most typical coffee table books usually are. This seems largely due to the fact that while featuring great game art, this isn’t a book that is about the visual art of games. It is a book about the art, the craft, and the aesthetics of video games as games.
In Game Art, Sainsbury has interviewed game developers (largely indie developers or Japanese developers) about the process of making games, not, though, in terms of coding or programming or level design or any of the technical side of video games. Instead, Sainsbury is asking questions of these developers that one might ask a movie director or a novelist or a painter. He wants to know their influences, what themes interest them, why and how they represent their ideas visually, mechanically, and narratively. In a nutshell, he is asking questions of artists about how they conceptualize their art.
The book opens with a chapter called “Serenity and Wonder” in which Sainsbury interviews Jennifer Schneidereit, one of the developers of the indie game Tengami. Schneidereit discusses she and fellow developer Phil Tossel’s influence for the game, pop-up books. She discusses how the two wanted to figure out how they could use a “pop-up as a mechanic and a setting” for a game. Their initial design was abandoned after they tested it, and they found that their earliest designs weren’t taking full advantage of the central concept of how one uses an actual pop-up book. As a result, the game evolved, becoming something else entirely in the process, something more tranquil than it had been, something more about observing and contemplating images as they emerge on the screen.
The book contains 21 brief essay interviews like this one on a range of topics and a range of games. Sainsbury has organized the essays into groupings that touch on thematic interests of developers and on genre representation. There is a section on “Beautiful Games,” the first section of the book, from which the aforementioned essay interview comes, but there are also essays that concern how parody works in video games, how games represent culture and history, how fairy tales and the epic influence games, surrealism in games, and the representation of violence and sex in video games and how games communicate through these representations.
Sainsbury seems to have asked some really great questions of his interview subjects, as they have interesting things to say about their work and what they think video games can communicate as an art form. In particular, I was especially intrigued by the section entitled “Pushing Boundaries,” a section that concerns provocation in video games and that includes two essay interviews, one with Yosuke Hayashi, one of the developers of the Dead or Alive series and Ninja Gaiden, and the other with one of my own personal favorite developers, video game auteur and provocateur extraordinaire Suda 51.
For me, what is currently ailing video game criticism is what is also ailing the humanities in general. As an English professor who has published literary criticism, film criticism, music criticism, and video game criticism, I am aware of how criticism in the arts has moved away from classical questions about aesthetics and the nature of beauty towards something else in the more modern conception of the function of art criticism. Like any academic discipline, be it physics, sociology, or political science, a discipline like my own, literary criticism, is about observing and investigating subject matter within that discipline, determining how it works, why it works, and theorizing about its operations. Since no one believes in beauty anymore as a concept, the humanities have often found themselves floundering to figure out what it is that literary study is supposed to “do” anymore. The answer frequently seems to be to move away from discussions of how literary art works, how novels or poems communicate, how to interpret those communications, and has turned instead towards using literary or art criticism at best as a form of political or social activism and at worst as a moralistic bully pulpit. This sort of criticism tends to become about the critic rather than about the art.
Sainsbury’s choice of subjects, on the one hand, a seeming designer of salacious games, Yosuke Hayashi (successor of Tomonobu Itagaki, infamous purveyor of sex and violence), and on the other, the controversial punk artist, Suda 51, seems appropriate for a discussion of the place of provocation in video games as an art form. Sainsbury takes both men seriously and is not concerned here with the morality of what they are doing but instead on asking the two men themselves about what they see themselves communicating and why. He asks them what they want to represent through their sexual and violent imagery and game mechanics, which seems to me to be a return to the goals of the art critic, to observe and analyze, not to determine the morality or politics of the art.
Both men have interesting things to say. Hayashi discusses his conception of the beauty of stylized violence, playing with cultural taboos, and cross-cultural differences between the East and the West in terms of what is appropriate in representations of sexuality. Suda 51 talks about how his love of the theatrical qualities of wrestling informs his work and sensibilities, along with the art and object of provoking an audience through images of a cheerleader with a chainsaw. Readers may or may not like what Itagaki and Suda 51 create, but those same readers might be surprised that both men have clearly given serious thought to what they are doing when presenting stylized sex and stylized violence. Regardless, I’m just pleased that Sainsbury is interested in taking the artist as provocateur as seriously as the artist as creator of sublime and tranquil experiences. And that the book has more to offer than even that, considering the art of the video game from each developers perspective with an effort to represent each of their own perspectives and aesthetics even clearly to the reader.
Put simply, I’m rather taken by this book and the approach that Sainsbury has taken to his subjects and subject matter. This is useful and interesting reading for the video game critic. For those who want to observe and investigate the aesthetics of the video game, I believe that you will find a kindred spirit in Matt Sainsbury.