Music, Art History, and the 'Dumb Games' Debate

Devin Wilson takes a stand in the 'Dumb Games' debate that grew out of a couple of pieces written by Taylor Clark.

“Let’s face it: Games, in general, suck.” Jason Rohrer said this in his wonderful "The Game Design of Art" article from 2008. Obviously, we haven’t faced it and such an indictment still rubs people the wrong way. Earlier this year, Taylor Clark wrote a portrait of Jon Blow that many saw as an ignorant slight against the medium they love so much. Though accusations of exaggerations in Clark’s writing may be valid, attacking the sentiment that provided the foundation for the piece is far less so. Still, the Twittersphere and such exploded when computer game fanatics (and ‘fanatic’ is certainly not an exaggeration in this case) defended the honor of their $60 murder simulators.

So, Clark followed it up with a piece called “Most Popular Video Games Are Dumb. Can We Stop Apologizing For Them Now?” Apparently the answer to this question is a resounding “no”.

Dumb games are the modern-day rock music” by Jason Killingsworth makes no mention of Clark, but can not be read as anything but a response to his ideas. While he makes no clear attempt to say which band games should emulate, the artists he refers to are far from obscure. He tries to characterize games as having a spirit akin to the unbridled passion found in popular rock acts, and—while I hesitate to make such a direct comment—this is an utterly glib appreciation.

Most of the anti-establishment sentiment found in “impassioned” rock music is completely superficial. Bands that act like they refuse to follow the rules (punk bands specifically come to mind) actually adhere to well-defined conventions. Their musical structures and styles are not inventive, despite pretensions to the contrary. Tattoos, piercings, and wild hair become a standard-issue uniform for legitimacy. The lyrics and appearances of their performances become nothing more than hand-waving.

This is where I’m perfectly comfortable having violent games and rock music compared to one another. How many games have you played that can be summed up as, “You, the indispensable hero, must save the world from the moustache-twirling forces of evil, mostly by killing creatures who don’t look like you”? How many rock songs are just a predictable I-IV-V chord progression? If you consume either of these forms often enough with a critical eye, they become completely stale.

This isn’t to say that violence has absolutely no place in games, nor does aggression have no place in music. However, having a truly rebellious spirit doesn’t mean regurgitating conventions angrily with no further comment. It means creating something new because the existing paradigm doesn’t satisfy you. To draw upon my own musical tastes, Meshuggah (alongside groups like Cynic, Exivious, Animals as Leaders, and the like) exemplify this in a way I find particularly relevant to this discussion. Meshuggah is intelligent, violent music. They eschew traditional rhythmic patterns and incorporate jazz fusion flavors into a style that could superficially be disregarded as unsophisticated. Meshuggah’s regular homages to Allan Holdsworth are interesting in themselves, but you also need to take a look at what makes Allan Holdsworth so unique.

Allan Holdsworth didn’t originally want to be a guitarist. He wanted to be a saxophone player like John Coltrane. This is why his music is so original: he was influenced by something outside of the form he was working within. His guitar solos sound more like fluid saxophone runs than the clunky blues-rock rigmarole that is more recognizable as normal lead guitar playing.

The people who make and play games are often woefully ignorant of the culture outside of their own, leaving us with an echo chamber of game design conventions. If they’re not ignorant, they tend to cling to this idea that games aren’t art and, as such, should not take any cues from art. This may be the only reason that the “games as art” debate is worth pursuing at all, to convince people who like games that their medium does not exist in a vacuum. Somehow game aesthetics are something like a century behind the larger discussions about vital issues of representation and the like. Photorealism is still a concern in games, 140 years after Monet’s seminal Impression, soleil levant launched a tradition of visual art that allows itself to proceed outside of strictly photorealistic representation. In addition, we’ve learned nothing from Duchamp’s Fountain as a community. We refuse to acknowledge our medium as art, maybe because art isn’t fun to most people who like games.

I don’t want games to be rock music, unless we’re talking about something like Rush or Frank Zappa. These people legitimately had a passion for pushing boundaries, and not simply technological or financial ones. Killingsworth is right: computer games are an awful lot like rock music. They’re popular, commercial, uninteresting, and formulaic. Their participants objectify women and glorify addiction.

As Pippin Barr once said, “We need some Duchamping in game making.” When we lash out at people like Taylor Clark for wanting more out of a medium with so much untapped potential, it’s embarrassing. It’s not pompous to be tired of immature, derivative, kitschy wastes of time. It’s pompous to act like games couldn’t use every kick in the pants they can get.

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