Telling Hamlet What to Do: Video Games, Art, and Cultural Hierarchies

For the video game community, summer is the season of reflection. Players are still working through the dense stack of games released during the winter and spring, developers are toiling away on next fall’s big titles, and critics are trying to make sense of the medium as a whole. Things slow down a little bit, which gives folks time to think about the bigger artistic and philosophical questions facing video games.

One can only stare into the endless abyss of competing philosophies for so long before becoming unhinged. Thankfully, the changing seasons save us from consuming ourselves. Mother nature announces the end of summer by turning the leaves gold and brown. The video game industry does something similar by releasing the annual Madden installment. Conversations about theory will soon give way to conversations about specific games: Will Gears of War 3 make us cry? What will Journey teach us about companionship? Is Apple eating Sony and Nintendo’s lunch? New grist is added to the mill and converted into fuel for next summer’s existential evaluation.

Grappling with intractable questions of art and meaning is valuable, but exhausting. Those that do it publicly expose themselves to potentially embarrassing corrections (just ask Roger Ebert). As a rule, my wariness and caution tend to stop me from writing to much about The Nature of Art With a Capital “A,” but this week I’ll make an exception. For those wishing to stay topside, here’s the simple version of my argument: notions of what constitute art have changed throughout history. Because of this, asking whether art will change to accommodate video games is just as valid as asking whether video games can be art. We would do well to remember that artistic strata are ultimately human constructions and are therefore malleable.

To those of you still with me: let’s talk about Shakespeare.

In Highbrow/Lowbrow, cultural historian Lawrence Levine explores the construction of a cultural hierarchy in America. He tells the story of how certain types of art became rigidly defined and organized by cultural elites. This story is ongoing, and it provides insight into why some people hesitate to think of video games as being art.

A major part of Levine’s book traces Shakespeare’s path through American culture, noting its transition from popular to “high” art. Before the late nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s plays were widely read and performed across social, ethnic, and economic groups. Plays that are today seen as symbols of high culture were well known and commonly performed all over the North American continent on stages that ranged from massive amphitheaters to barroom pool tables.

Just as important is the malleability that Shakespeare demonstrated. Audiences were familiar enough with traditional versions of the play to appreciate jokes and parodies of the material: audiences laughed when Hamlet shouted profanity after being ordered to “swear” by his father’s ghost and when he commanded Ophelia to “Get thee to a brewery” (Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, 1990, p. 13-14). British comedian Charles Matthews recorded the complex interplay between race, humor, drama, and audience authority while visiting American theaters in the 1820s:

Charles Matthews visited what he called the “nigger’s (or Negroe’s) theatre” in New York, where he heard ” a black tragedian in the character of Hamlet” recite “To be, or not to be? That is the question; whether it is nobler in de mind to suffer, or tak’ up arms against a sea of trouble, and by opossum end ’em.”

“No sooner was the word opossum out of his mouth,” Matthews reported, “than the audience burst forth, in one general cry, ‘Opossum! opossum! opossum!” — prompting the actor to come forward and sing the popular dialect song ‘Opossum up a Gum Tree’.” (Levine, p. 14)

In the comments section of his article, “Why Video Games Might Not Be Art,” G. Christopher Williams distills his argument about the difference between video games and “passive” media: “You can’t tell Hamlet what to do. You can tell Solid Snake, though” (G. Christopher Williams, “Why Video Games Might Not Be Art,” PopMatters, 23 August 2011). This statement is true when applied to modern, mainstream theatre, but Levine demonstrates that media that we consider “passive” has not always been that way. In 1856, a performance of Richard III inspired the audience to participate in the story, thus changing the production:

During the early scenes of Act I “a few carrots timidly thrown, had made their appearance,” but the full ardor of the audience was roused only when Richard’s killing of Henry included a “thrust, a poseriori, after Henry had fallen.” Then…”Cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, a wreath of vegetables, a sack of flour and one of soot, and a dead goose, with other articles, simultaneously fell upon the stage.” The barrage woke the dead Henry, who fled followed by Richard, “his head enveloped in a halo of vegetable glory” (Levine, p. 28).

Critic Samuel Johnson summed up the audience’s power by commenting: “The public in the final resort, govern the stage” (Levine, p. 28-29). True, they might not have complete control over the script, the stage, or the actors, but they can definitely influence a production. The same can be said of video game players: Solid Snake might not be meant to roll around like an idiot, die a dozen times, or use a rocket launcher at point-blank range, but the decision to deviate from the authored plot is ultimately made by the player.

Of course, this authority is not always used towards destructive ends: an 1832 performance of Richard III in New York saw the audience act to extend a performance they found pleasing. During Richard and Richmond’s fight scene “the audience ‘made a ring round the combatants to see fair play, and kept them at it for nearly a quarter of an hour'” (Levine, p. 29). Similarly, I might purposely prolong a particularly enjoyable firefight in Halo, or choose to instantly replay a challenging track in Mario Kart. Whether it is developing an amusing sequence or enacting “the nuclear option” and sabotaging the entire production, both theater audiences and video game players share the same subtle power. Games have not stumbled upon a new way of creating and interacting with art, they have rediscovered an older system.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare had “ascended to a new and higher sphere in the firmament of intellect” (Levine, p. 73). The reasons are varied and complex, and I am glossing over their details for the purposes of this essay. It suffices to say that a confluence of industrialization, the professionalization of theater, and cultural elitism had “converted…a popular playwright whose dramas were the property of those who flocked to see them, into a sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences and overbearing actors threatening the integrity of his creations” (Levine, p. 72). Critics disavowed the democratized Shakespeare, the Shakespeare re-imagined by satirists and reinterpreted by actors, directors, and audiences. The feeling was that the theater “materializes Shakespeare, and in doing so vulgarizes him” (Levine, p. 73). Critics argued he accessible Shakespeare was “destined to become the Shakespeare of the college and university, and even more the Shakespeare of private and select culture. Nor will he ever be perfectly himself and perfectly at home anywhere else” (Levine, p. 73).

Shakespeare was not alone in undergoing this process: museums, libraries, and orchestras all shifted towards the model of prizing the divine ideal that true art descended from on high, untouched by anyone save its creator’s blessed hands. Audiences were trained to quietly admire paintings, theater, and music in a manner far removed from the participatory, often tactile manner of the past. Creators were seen as drawing from heavenly inspiration and curators were tasked with “elevating” the masses so that their tastes conformed with the ethnocentric standards of elite, Western European cultural arbiters.

Shakespeare exemplifies the transition to the “sacred” model of art, a model that video games challenge with their very nature. Even the most linear video games are subject to the whims of their would-be audience. Like nineteenth century theater-goers, players are not a docile, powerless mass. The very act of playing a game hearkens back to that older idea of art in which folk and elite tastes are mingled and the lines between creator, performer, and viewer are blurred. A script exists, but every decision has the potential to alter the theoretical ideal, the pure aesthetic experience we have been conditioned to accept as “art.” Attempting to determine whether video games are art is less about evaluating the state of games than it is evaluating the current definition of art. Judging the medium’s ability to hit a moving target hardly seems like the most productive way of measuring its legitimacy.

Even those that seek to undermine this cultural hierarchy are subject to its influences. In a recent interview with Michael Abbott, Jonathan Blow (outspoken game designer, and creator of Braid) discussed his ambivalent feelings towards the distinction between “artistic” and “entertainment” works. Using To Kill a Mockingbird and The DiVinci Code as literary examples of each respective category, he cautiously articulates that the former is communicating something about the human condition, while the latter is more focused on being a pleasant diversion. Still, Blow remains dissatisfied by the dichotomy. In describing his forthcoming game, The Witness, he explains: “The Witness is not an art game. It…is not an entertainment game. It may be entertaining at times…but it is what it is” (Michael Abbott, “Brainy Gamer Podcast – Episode 35, pt. 3,” Brainy Gamer, 30 August 2011). Our narrow constructions of highbrow and lowbrow culture are confounded by artists like Blow. He seeks to make games that explore serious, sometimes lofty concepts, but he does so via a medium that is massively accessible and reliant on audience participation, two properties that supposedly dilute true art.

By creating a game, Blow abdicates the pedestal designed to keep his art pure. Like the Shakespeare plays of the past, Blow’s sophisticated ideas are subject to the whims of an empowered audience. Some people might sit in front of their screen in hushed reverenced while concentrating on Braid’s hidden messages. Others will have a few drinks, invite some friends over, and proceed to laugh in the face of its solemnity. Soulja Boy tells us there “ain’t no point” to the game and that it’s “stupid as hell,” but he does so while gleefully (and I think knowingly) demonstrating what makes Braid so special. How do we rank something that is both serious and silly, something that bears the mark of its creator while requiring the input of its audience? Is Braid more or less artful than a film, a book, a live play, or a written script?

Herein lies the most insidious aspect of our historically-relative cultural hierarchy: we are compelled to position specific games and the entire medium along some theoretical, fallacious grand chain of artistic merit. The chain is powerful and restrictive. It brings order to a chaotic world by telling us what pieces of art are higher than others. The chain feels like it has existed forever and is immutable, but we know that this is not true. As is demonstrated by Shakespeare’s history in America, the boundary between mass entertainment and high art is composed of little more than social beliefs. After all, Shakespeare’s scripts have been essentially the same for hundreds of years; it is our interpretations and values that have changed their meanings.

The dream of our current cultural hierarchy is responsible for our current confusion over video games’ artistic status. For America in particular, the past hundred years have been ruled by the idea that the best art must be infused with elitism, either in terms of the number of people who enjoy it or in the way in which people interact with it. Wide spread popularity and a lack of authorial control came to denote impurity. Theater was modified to fit this new ideal, as were other artistic forms like music, painting, and literature. Now, we are confronted by video games: a medium whose obvious artistry and inherent interactivity pose an irreconcilable challenge to the great chain of art responsible for separating the highbrow from the lowbrow. Video games have arrived at the conundrum that theater has faced for hundreds of years: Can a medium allow people to act both as participants in and recipients of an aesthetic experience and still be considered high art?

It is tempting to ask whether video games have or will become art but to do so is to ask the wrong question. As we have seen, the definition of art and what constitutes the most admirable form of human expression has changed over time, even when the media being defined remains static. The question then becomes: Is our understanding of what constitutes art refined and sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the value that video games offer?

Are we ready to throw off the chain of cultural hierarchy and embrace the terrible excitement of more nebulous questions? Instead of chasing aesthetic perfection or measuring video games against an ever changing definition of art, why not ask: What does this game say about what it means to be human? What does it communicate about our philosophies, cultures, and surroundings, and how effectively does it do this? What does it mean that we are both given a script as well as the power to alter it?

The summer is a time for reflection, but we must be wary of mirages. The image of art as a single, definitive, ahistorical concept is a tempting sight, but it always seems to remain a hazy promise on the horizon. In our single-minded pursuit, we risk ignoring the tangible wonders of our immediate surroundings. Be it fate or some cosmic accident, video games have brought us back to the precipice of a culture in which works of human expression can be both democratic and sublime, meticulously constructed and delightfully spontaneous, lighthearted, and philosophical. Once again, we can tell Hamlet what to do. Let us not allow our fleeting notions of “art” spoil such a beautiful moment.


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