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Art as Game: A Formalist Reversal

A persuasive argument for a potential reversal of thought on this topic: art came from games and not the other way around. Not only are video games art, the future of video games is the future of Art. Should we develop a formalist aesthetic? I think so.

Jonathon Myers, Blogger

May 12, 2010

11 Min Read

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry The Definition of Art:

“The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy. The philosophical usefulness of a definition of art has also been debated.”

I always find it interesting that discussions of art are so often divorced from the term beauty nowadays.  Then again, if you keep that concept involved, you eventually come to find that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  This may be the reason that most discussions of art, even without using “beauty,” devolve into subjective opinion that can’t be supported objectively.  When we’re talking of simply emotion and metaphysical meaning or connection, it’s hard to make the move to an objective assertion.  Whether or not it is explicitly stated, it will always come down to “I think, I feel, my opinion, etc…”

So this is my personal criteria for art: “Is it beautiful?”  Based on this premise there are a lot of video games that I consider to be art.  I say, sure.  And this goes beyond visual beauty and into the experiential.  I've had experiences of beauty with a few video games.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more objective view, the analysis of the subject via Aristotle really gets into it. When it comes to this perspective I adhere to Aristotle’s definition of art as “the imitation of life.” Specifically for the storyteller’s craft this would be “the imitation of an action.”

Keywords: imitation, life, action.  You can substitute "nature" for "life" if you prefer.  And by the way, drama comes from the Greek “dram,” which means “to do.”

If the goal of dramatic art is to provide an opportunity to experience “doing” outside of the realm of “life,” by presenting for human experience the imitation of life and action, then…

Isn’t that pretty much a game?  Just add rules?   

Now stop for a moment and think about this.  Quit comparing video games to movies, plays, novels, etc.  Get that out of your head now.  Clear it.  DON’T COMPARE.  Simply think of what you consider a game to be and look at its potential through the lens of this most ancient of definitions of art from Aristotle’s Poetics: art as the imitation of life.  Now, due to their immersive qualities and rapidly advancing technologies, aren’t video games starting off with a HUGE advantage as a potential art form when compared to what other arts had or have going for them? Is it not true that video games have more aesthetic potential now, in their early stages as an art form, than any of the other arts ever did?

Games (not video games, I mean “games” here) are not made up of techniques of the other arts, despite the fact that this discussion is exhaustingly always framed that way with respect to video games. Actually, the other arts evolved from the primordial notion of “games” and “play” before we even had language to separate these concepts.  At one point, in pre-history, before words got in the way and divided things up with labels, games were art and art was game.  It was first necessary for us to play pretend in order to separate ourselves from life enough to imitate it with an act of physical creation.  The techniques of all arts spring from the primordial needs and play that have been and always will be inseparable from games.  In other words, at its most basic, art came from games when imitative play resulted in objects and eventually became formalized with critical standards and entertainment values.  We were PLAYing games long before someone ever put on a PLAY and called it art, and it turns out Art is simply an emerged branch that is a sibling to Sports.  Ultimately, games are a suspension-of-life performance system we shared that was pre-art, pre-sport, pre-historic, pre-linguistic, and possibly even pre-consciousness.  Put those two cents in your bank and save it for a rainy day.

Games are as fundamental to human being as that.  When applied to “video games,” the rest is simply vocabulary, media and technology.  Humans play games: we play pretend with rules, to imitate and experience the imitation of life.  Games will always provide us with the primordial experience.  Hunting and gathering. First person shooters and inventory-based RPG.  Huh.  It’s kind of funny how simple it really is when you look at it this way.

In this perspective of assumed objectivity regarding art as game, could it actually be that video games can better and more accurately present for human experience “the imitation of an action” than film, theatre, novels, paintings, etc, etc, etc…?   Yes. Video games have more potential to be truly art than ALL other arts if you look at it this way.  (And notice I didn’t have to argue against any other art critics and their theories to arrive at this conclusion.)  All of the other art forms have been explored to death and their limitations as art forms are more or less known.  They have imitated life realistically, expressionistically, impressionistically, and so on.  But video games are just getting started.  What a great time to be alive and at the center of this.

I LOVE the fact that so many people out there claim that video games are not and cannot be art.  It helps us to keep the rare oppositional belief, as if a secret, among only those of us who are passionate enough and who strive to explore the possibilities of something so new, relatively speaking.  (And yet, they are also a perennial reincarnation of something so ancient!)  What potential there is to express ourselves as human beings and have that expression experienced by others!  Fifty years from now, folks will look back on the snobbery and derision and categorization and gate-keeping and SEMANTICS and… I think they’ll laugh. They will laugh at the short-sightedness of our society at the turn of the 21st Century.  This is why I ultimately don’t care who calls art what and what art; although I AM concerned with how to determine what makes games good and what is a good game, which in my opinion is an aesthetic issue with all the concerns of subjectivity and objectivity.  

Now, before I get too swept up in the passion of my own argument, I should step back and provide a cautionary note: we’re a long way off from truly actualizing the potential I’m talking about here.  We’ve seen blips and flashes of it, and like I wrote at the beginning there are some beautiful video games that I would definitely call art.  I have argued here that games are necessarily the root of art, but to really get down to it we haven’t seen anything close to a video game that is Art in a “classical definition” sort-of way.  In other words, we have yet to see a video game that meets high standards of formal construction in addition to that of beauty.  People are already affected by games.  That much is clear, but so far no particular video game has provided a near-universal experience to a widespread audience such that its formal construction is recognized near-universally as "aesthetically great."  That is the only quality where other arts currently trump video games.  They all have their historical cannon of readily available "quintessential examples" that demonstrate the full potential of their various media of expression.  We have work to do (creating and forming a cannon of great video games) before we can begin to make comparisons or historical analyses.  However, we will see this change in time.  Those who think games are not art may not be able to conceive of this change.

And you know what?  (Soapbox time.)  That type of change cannot happen until we quit arguing intellectual semantics like in the story vs. gameplay debate.  Crazy, huh, that it all comes down to silly quibbles that continue to float around, but I feel like I have to say this:  “It is not a dichotomous relationship.  They form a synthesis.  Story is of the same primordial stuff that makes gameplay what it is and is not, and vice-versa.  So why don’t we dip our hands into that primordial goo to keep them rejoined as best we can instead of looking at them as though they are mutually exclusive qualities?"  In debates like this one, why continue to champion one over the other, especially in light of the fact that we do not need to define video games as unique from the other arts, given the fact that games are so universal that all arts and their evolved techniques come from games and play in the first place?  Perhaps this is why there has been such confusion and confrontation in determining what qualities define video games as unique when compared to other media/arts.  Perhaps the comparison and contrast is actually getting in the way.  I’m reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each of whom seizes upon a different part of the elephant (trunk, tusk, leg, tail, etc.) and compares the elephant to their tactile image of other things: snake, spear, tree, rope…  In our industry, this mode of thinking only leads to partial definitions of what a video game is or can be.  In the parable, the blind men each take up their own definition of “elephant,” based on their initial comparison, and then ceaselessly debate with each other about “what is an elephant?” The moral: each was partly right and all of them were wrong.

So why not think in terms of synthesis and fusion?  Why not seek to broaden our definitions of both art and game rather than narrow our paradigms with unnecessary exclusions that can only hinder progress?  Why not consider video games a fully inclusive collaboration of media elements whose goal (in terms of aesthetics, at least) is none other than to imitate life?  We can then begin to understand video games by a more objective and formalist view of art that focuses predominantly on video games as they are constructed in a synthesis of various aesthetic elements and techniques.  (It is expected, of course, that some are more "unique" to games than others.)  In a broad and formalist aesthetic such as this, the perfected fusion of gameplay (a structural interactive experience of pretend rule-based activity) and narrative (sequentially presented or experienced events) can only get us closer to a higher quality imitation of life that we can securely call “Art as Game."

[CONCLUDING NOTE:  I'd like to offer a simple thought experiment.  Imagine a bricklayer or a stone mason whose typical daily task is to fit together various shapes, one on top of the other, in order to fill horizontal rows in a vertically progressing wall.  Now imagine them playing Tetris.  Would they consider Tetris an imitation of life?  Even for the simple puzzle-based, decision-generating experience, if we are to assume the above definition, then it would be difficult to argue that Tetris is not art.  From this basic assumption spring questions about a game's formal construction that can then lead to the statements of value and critical analysis necessary for a comprehensive discussion of game aesthetics.]

[DISCLOSURES:  I recognize that there is some connection between what I have written, Roger Ebert's Blog Post and the Kellee Santiago Presentation that spurred Ebert's post.  I formulated my argument and drafted a majority of this essay before encountering these and although I make some points that are similar to points they each made I believe that I am executing these ideas very differently and with an extremely different thesis and conclusion.  At the advice of friends, I did end up consulting the other arguments before finalizing this text; however, I have not written this as a reply to either of them.  I do not intend for this to be viewed as a rebuttal.  On the other hand, I'm intrigued and excited by two posts from Yung Sing Lim.  I respectfully disagree with some of what he writes (i.e. games will not be an art form in the future) but I really like his questions and explorations and agree with many of this thoughts.  Some may read my post as participating in a dialogue with his posts and I would welcome that observation.]

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