Why Video Games Might Not Be Art

I guess that I should begin by conceding the slightly disingenuous quality of my title. I actually happen to be one of those people that is interested in declaring for the idea that video games can be art.

That said, however, I have run into a great many instances in online essays and on podcasts that I listen to about video games, lately, in which folks of the “it’s just a game” sort (normally my opposites on this issue) have raised what I consider to be a rather legitimate observation about the nature of games and how they might defy standard definitions of art. Additionally, what has bothered me is the response to the objections raised by these folks, objections which usually concern the interactive nature of video games — certainly one of the defining differences between games and other forms of traditional media, like novels or film or theatre, that are normally accepted as potentially artistic productions.

That response usually consists of the “defenders” of the “games as art” position tending to dismiss this objection out of hand, and that frequently if there is a “rebuttal” to it at all, that such a rebuttal includes something like the idea that interactivity is indeed a defining characteristic of games, it is in fact important to games as an art form (for some undefined reason), and that, well, games just are art. As if such a claim is self evident.

Frankly, the point that interactivity might be problematic was one of Roger Ebert’s concerns in his infamous essay on the subject (which I realize that he has in part retracted), nevertheless, this objection I spoke of earlier is present in his original essay, and again, a relevant concern for folks that have a familiarity with aesthetics:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [Kellee] Santiago might cite a [sic] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them. (Roger Ebert, “Games Can Never Be Art”, Chicago Sun-Times, 16 April 2010)

The really crucial observation to me exists in that last sentence, in which Ebert is suggesting that the player is doing something in playing a game, whereas normally an audience’s relationship to art (be that a painting, novel, film, etc.) is merely “experiencing” (in some passive sense of the word) the object before them, allowing meaning to “wash over them”, rather than actively participating with the artwork.

As I alluded to above, the reason that I find this objection compelling is that I am a student of the history of aesthetics, and in that context, the objection makes some sense to me. There’s a tradition of seeing an importance in the distance between artwork and its audience. However, to consider that idea and why that might be a problem, one first needs to consider the way that philosophers who have made claims about aesthetics have done so and why “games as art” folks may need to consider fielding a clearer definition of what they mean by “art” (other than: well, it seems like art) in order to successfully make their case.

I personally very much dislike the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. What bothers me about the phrase is its implication that recognizing beauty can solely be understood as a result of the perception of a thing and that somehow the object under observation has not in some way had the effect of provoking that recognition. In other words, sure, I might recognize that a rose is beautiful, but it isn’t merely because I decided arbitrarily that the rose is beautiful. There may be some qualities inherent in the rose that makes me respond that way. Both my subjective experience of the rose and the rose itself objectively have something to do with why I feel the rose is beautiful.

There are some aestheticians that have made claims about the pure subjectivity of the aesthetic response. However, most philosophers concerned with an understanding of the aesthetic response have held, as I do, the idea that aesthetic response has to do both with the object under investigation and how it has been arranged to provoke an aesthetic response along with what the viewer brings to the table and their ability to recognize those qualities.

This idea is related to something that I really admire in the criticism of video games practiced by Ian Bogost. Bogost has argued for understanding video games in rhetorical terms. Rhetoric is, of course, a field that very much acknowledges the relationship between a communication act (something that a video game may be partly defined as) and the response that that communication act elicits from a “listener”. When someone yells at you, you do not arbitrarily feel sheepish or guilty or angry. Your response is in part defined by the communication itself, which has been designed to elicit one of those specific emotions.

In part, rhetoric as a discipline is the study of what are the most effective means of evoking specific emotional responses from a subject and why some ways of structuring such acts are more effective than others. Ultimately the goal of doing so is practical and functional, though. How does one get a mob angry enough to riot? How does one create an argument that is emotionally evocative enough to pass a certain piece of legislation? Thus, Bogost is interested in political games and how they are designed to get a gamer to “do” something.

While rhetoric can also rather effectively be applied to art that “says something” to see how such artwork might result in getting an audience to feel and act on those emotions, though, this isn’t quite the same concern that aesthetics as a discipline has — though it’s related. Aesthetics is less interested in the practical outcome of a communication (what art can get you to do), as it is in studying a specific kind of response that art assumedly elicits from its viewer, the aesthetic response.

Now, the aesthetic response is a difficult concept to define. It’s easily as difficult as defining any kind of emotion (and, indeed, some thinkers like Aristotle and T.S. Eliot have argued that the aesthetic response is not an emotion at all — more on that idea in a moment). I know what you mean when you say that you are happy because I have experienced this thing you call happiness. However, if pressed to describe what “being happy” feels like, I would have trouble being anything more than abstract and vague in defining that feeling. “Happy”… ummm… feels good (whatever “good” means). To be happy is to not be sad (“sad” being another equally abstractly defined concept).

Defining happiness to someone who has never felt happiness is as difficult as describing the color red to someone who has never seen the color before (try it some time — and good luck with that). These are feelings that we know purely experientially and an aesthetic response is like that. You have have felt it before or not in response to something — and awkwardly for those interested in understanding it, it’s probably a far less common “feeling” than anything like happiness or sadness. So, what is it?

In order to define what one feels when one sees something that is beautiful (as distinct from other feelings, like, say, what one feels when seeing something that is sexy / arousing, or that is ugly / repulsive), philosophers have used various terms to describe the response provoked by beauty. Some call it a sense of the sublime. Aristotle calls it radiata (or a “feeling of radiance”). This might sound something like experiencing enlightenment, and indeed, some have suggested a kind of relatedness between religious experience and aesthetic experience (note James Joyce’s notion of the artist-priest, someone who provokes experiences of the beautiful or mediates between viewer and beauty the way that a priest might between congregation and God).

More recent study of aesthetic response by folks like Abraham Moles and Freider Nake has suggested a relationship between aesthetics and information processing, as if the aesthetic response is at least in part intellectual and not merely emotional. It has something to do with coming to know or appreciate something.

Indeed, in mathematics, part of the evaluation of solutions to problems are aesthetic in quality and mathematicians use terms ascribed normally to aesthetics (not science) to describe successful and less successful mathematical formulas (or more beautiful or less beautiful, more elegant or less elegant mathematical formulas). If one has two mathematical solutions to a problem and one is bloated and overly complex, the simpler, more elegant solution is preferred, as if simplicity has some essentially more beautiful composition than that which is baroque. Simplicity should not be confused with “easy to understand” here, though, just because a math problem is more elegant doesn’t mean that you will understand it if you are not familiar with the symbols and what they represent in a formula — elegance is sometimes recognized more easily by one eye than another.

I Feel Your Pain

In that sense, one way that I like to think of aesthetic response is that it is a feeling of awe (though that is a slightly inaccurate and abstract word) when recognizing a very well arranged object or idea or image or story. It is, maybe, a sense of appreciating something that is well designed.

Now, this, of course, suggests that beauty is in part in the eye of the beholder. I need to have the ability to recognize something that is well designed on its own terms, so my own experiences are relevant to whether the thing is effective in provoking such a response. I would argue, for instance, that apprehending the novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce as a piece of art, as opposed to merely an entertaining novel, is helped a lot by having some knowledge of Catholic ritual and tradition and also by having a familiarity with the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Without such knowledge, the reader is unlikely to see the astonishingly elegant design of the structure of the novel and how Joyce is able to utilize and reorganize the structures of a Greek myth and his sense of Catholicism to interesting and beautiful ends in telling his story.

All of which in a very roundabout way, returns me to my initial topic, whether or not interactivity somehow ruins our ability to have an appreciation of well ordered, well arranged, or well designed objects. As I noted before, some aestheticians, like Aristotle and Eliot, have made some compelling arguments that such successful provocation of the aesthetic response is contingent on the audience being able to “step back” from something well arranged in order to appreciate that very arrangement. You need, as it were, the emotional distance to appreciate the intellectual components that support the design.

Eliot claims that part of the appreciation that we have of tragic situations in theatre, for example, are related to the fact that we are not emotionally involved with them, allowing us to consider circumstances that would normally provoke other sorts of emotions in us (pity, terror, sadness) and also allowing them to be considered in an objective way and appreciate the manner in which they have been presented. We appreciate the design of the narrative circumstances in Hamlet because we are not involved in any way in the action. You are not involved in the problems of the play, as you would be in a tragic circumstance that directly affected you.

A personal tragedy is hard to appreciate in that you may not be able to see how appropriately all of its circumstances fit together, not when you are crying and bleeding over it. You are not Hamlet, nor are you related to him, so all of the moral, political, and social implications of the play are all there for you to appreciate in repose and ostensibly in an unemotional or objective way.

It’s a bit more difficult to make such an argument about the player’s experience in Catherine, however, in which slacker and seemingly professional layabout Vincent is feeling all sorts of pressure from his girlfriend Katherine to become responsible and get married. Similar kinds of pressure are affecting you, the player who, when playing the game, have to flee representations of marriage and responsibility, like a deformed bride or child with a chainsaw, by ascending a complex system of blocks that are dissolving under your feet. Sure, you aren’t really getting married and you aren’t Vincent, but you are feeling pretty directly what he is feeling. And do you have time to appreciate his circumstance as you negotiate and puzzle out a world that is literally falling apart beneath your feet?

Hamlet has it bad. His father is dead, his scheming and murderous uncle has taken the throne that Hamlet should inherit, and his relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart fast. None of this bothers me from the darkened aisles of the theatre. It really isn’t in any way my problem, just a circumstance to ponder.

Whether or not pondering and coming to some kind of understanding of a circumstance or a set of orders or a structure embedded in a piece of art must be done in a less direct, less overtly participatory way, is something that it seems worth considering if gaming is to be taken seriously as an activity that can also catalyze an aesthetic response. After all, there is a certain thrill that I get when riding on a rollercoaster that is quite similar to moments that I have had when playing Call of Duty. I don’t think that either of these “thrills” are aesthetic responses, and in that sense I can see a detractors point in not feeling like gaming is quite like viewing a work of art.

That thrill seems to have something to do with the fact that I am part of this experience (indeed, watching others ride the roller coaster or play Call of Duty does not provoke a response that is any way similar to such a thrill — so the indirect experience is left a bit vacant of meaning in those cases). Thus, I understand why people quite familiar with playing video games might reject them as an art and consider them to be something more like a roller coaster ride.

Parsing these fleeting, visceral responses from an overall experience of a game seems to me necessary to accurately describe why a game might be capable of provoking aesthetic responses. It isn’t as if artistic works have never provoked other kinds of responses from their audience than aesthetic ones. Readers have thrilled at passages from Moby Dick’s whale hunts, have been aroused by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, and have been repulsed by the imagery of Alain Robbe-Grillet. None of these feelings resemble what I think of as aesthetic response. Still, audiences and critics have come to understand that there is some overall response provoked by these works that is aesthetic.

In this sense, I would not cavalierly dismiss the objections of the “it’s just a game” folks. Instead, I’m more interested in hoping to show them some things that are going on in games that they might not have detected with their own eye, but might be made clearer if I can give them a glimpse of some of the things that I have seen with my own.

A Halo-inspired space marine in the gallery from Veteran Gamers