Sunday, 23 September 2012

Games as Art and Achievements

The argument of whether or not games should be considered art is as old as gaming itself. There are usually 2 distinct replies. A high and mighty “Games are not art, they’re toys!” from film and literature enthusiasts and a knee jerk “Duh, games are like totally art! Go play Heavy Rain/Braid/Journey etc. They’re like so frickin’ arty!” reaction from ‘gamers.’ And yet, ironically enough, approximately 0% of these conversations actually discuss any of the genuinely artistic qualities within the videogames being discussed. I find far too often that a discussion about whether or not games should be considered art is actually a discussion about the value of videogames as a medium in general.

When Roger Ebert says that videogames can never be considered art, he hasn’t considered the artistic qualities of a wide range of videogames and come to an informed opinion. He simply doesn’t like them, and as such chooses to dismiss and insult them, and their fans, in a way that he knows will hurt them the most. As most ‘gamers’ will blindly defend any perceived attack on their beloved past time in fear of having it invalidated as *gasp* a simple past time, this was obviously particularly effective. 99% of the “games are not art” arguments will come from similarly uninformed people, and as such it’s easy enough to dismiss them as such. So if the question is “Are videogames a valuable medium for entertainment and storytelling?” then I would say yes, obviously. Perhaps even more so than movies or books in many cases, mainly due to the heightened interactivity and immersion that comes with gaming. If the question, however, is “Are videogames genuine pieces of art?” then, in most cases, I would say no.

For most of my time as a videogame enthusiast, I hate the word ‘gamer’ and refuse to use it in a context that isn’t ironic or insulting, I would have followed the trends and simply said that all games are definitely art, pointed to something with pretty graphics and told the person questioning me to perform a sex act on a close relative. It certainly wasn’t Roger Ebert or the people on Fox News shouting their stupid opinions that made me change my mind. It was Hideo Kojima, a world famous game designer, saying that most games are not art that made me question my previously held beliefs. I’d reference the interview but this is a blog and not coursework, but his basic point was that the lack of symbolism, deeper meaning and focus on creating a pleasurable experience that must always reward the player for their actions basically prohibits many games from being considered art, despite being composed of artistic elements. This viewpoint is worthy of consideration because 1. The genuine artistic qualities of games are being discussed instead of their general worth, 2. Genuine reasons are given for his opinions, instead of just saying “THEY’RE NOT ART! LALALALA” and sticking his fingers in his ears like most “games are not art” arguments would consist of and 3. He actually knows something about videogames, which shouldn’t be much to ask in a discussion specifically about videogames but you’d be surprised.

So after considering the viewpoint that most games are not art, I did a quick scour of the Web and put together a very basic and incomprehensive list of features that would qualify a piece of work as art. Seriously, like 5 minutes of work made me realise that 99.9% of videogames are not art. Surely that would have been easier than spending your life arguing on forums, idiot gamers!? Again, if you want references then become a lecturer, start a course on videogames and I’ll put them in when I write essays for you. Actually, do that anyway. Preferably in Coventry. PLEASE?

A very obvious point would be that a piece of art should communicate something to you. It could be a message, an idea, an emotion. Anything that you can take away and apply to your own life or that makes you think differently about something. Now let’s look at the messages that videogames transmit to their audiences. Call of Duty says that killing is cool. Burnout says that driving is cool. Grand Theft Auto says that killing while driving is cool. Not exactly Shakespeare, is it? I know these are hardly the games that people would point to as “art” but I’ve genuinely heard people whose opinions I respect say that ALL games are art, so I just thought I’d get that one out there. I did say that only most games are not art so I must consider some games to be art. Yes, I consider many games to be genuine art, but I’ll mainly be looking at 3, here: Portal, Silent Hill 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2. Now, it could be said that these games are just as superficial as those listed above; Portal makes jumping look cool, SH2 makes fighting monsters cool and MGS2 makes blonde hair and androgyny cool. Well, kind of. You could say that, and admittedly most people do enjoy them in this way, but you’d be somewhat ignorant to do so. A small amount of deeper thinking can reveal Portal’s subtle criticisms on the nature of gaming, MGS2’s commentary on information control and questioning all that we see around us and SH’s discussion on the effects of domestic abuse, bullying and the burden of illness on loved ones. Bit better.

Another characteristic of art is the communication of ideas in a non-literal way, using symbolism and metaphors to get your message across instead of asking your audience to accept everything at face value. Again, this is something that many games struggle with. Kojima pointed to the fact that a horse in Shadow of the Colossus, a game normally pointed to as artistic, is just a horse, it doesn’t represent anything or contain any deeper meaning, and as such cannot be considered an artistic quality. This idea can be applied to many supposedly artistic games. Heavy Rain, for example, is a game that many ‘gamers’ point to as artistic, for some completely unknown reason. In that game, your son is hit by a car. From what I can tell, the car doesn’t represent anything. The event marks a downward spiral of luck in Ethan’s life, yes, but I can’t really see any way to link that to a car. It’s just a car. If some trauma in Ethan or The Origami Killer’s pasts had been linked to a car or it was presented in any significantly meaningful way then maybe it could be considered an artistic scene, but it can’t because it seems to be more of a coincidence than anything, a running theme of Heavy Rain but I’ll leave that for another time. Compare that to Silent Hill 2; for example, towards the start of the game you find a flashlight on a mannequin wearing your wife’s outfit. Later on, when you find that your wife is actually dead, the flashlight goes out. This is a wonderful piece of symbolism suggesting that James’s hope of finding his wife alive is all that is ‘lighting’ his way through the town; the extinguishing of the light representing James’s total loss of hope. See how that’s more effective than just having one of your main characters think, “I’ve lost all hope!” as Heavy Rain does? Metal Gear Solid 2 has a particularly ironic instance of symbolism in the much loathed protagonist Raiden. He is a girly, na├»ve, Virtual Reality obsessed rookie, longing to be Solid Snake. He’s actually supposed to represent the player, desperate to play as Solid Snake and indulge in mindless killing. Making all of the hate towards him particularly hilarious, as Kojima points to an androgynous man-girl and says “That’s you! See how stupid you look!” It’s like the representation of young people as Shia LeBeouf in the last Indiana Jones movie except much less insulting.

You’d think this would be an easy one but apparently not: A true piece of art should be made specifically to communicate ideas, emotions and messages and not just to make money. And of course, when you look at companies like EA, Ubisoft or Blizzard, it’s hard to imagine that artistic integrity even comes into their Top 100 List of Company Priorities; 1-99 are most likely variations of “Make money” and “Screw over gamers” and 100 might be to make a game at some point. Maybe. If there’s time, I dunno. Of course, there’s no way to measure the artistic integrity of a developer but if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t touch women very often and reads/watches developer interviews then you can get a rough idea. When you read interviews with David Cage in which he rants about people buying his game pre-owned or interviews with Cliffy B in which he genuinely has the nerve to COMPLAIN about 8/10 review scores then I can be sure that their intentions are a little less artistically grounded than those of Team Silent, who discuss character and monster design and the meticulous reasons behind them, or Valve, whose in-game commentaries reveal some shockingly detailed game design.

An interesting point raised by Kojima is the fact that videogames, by their very nature, are forced to reward the player for doing well. This is a problem unique to videogames; when Stephen King sits down to write a novel, at no point does he have to consider: “How can I reward the reader for reading it well and punish them for not reading it properly?” Any videogame that solely focuses on rewarding the player for doing well, without any overarching themes or messages, would be hard-pressed to receive an “ART” stamp from me. I mean, a set of challenges with a simple goal in mind is not art, it’s an obstacle course. Would you argue that an obstacle course is art? This train of thought has led me to disqualify games I’d previously considered to be extremely artistic from being considered as art. Dark Souls, for example, is set in a vast, gorgeous world, full of beautiful architecture and intricate enemy designs, particularly impressive when showcased in the Art Book included with the Limited Edition. However, that same box also contains a Behind the Scenes DVD, on which a developer states that the main aim with Dark Souls is to challenge the player and create a feeling of achievement upon completing the various tasks. That’s all; no mention of themes of humanity or morality, themes which do exist in the game but were ignored in favour of showcasing the game as a glorified set of monkey bars. This is the case with most games, the (vague) handling of important issues and beautiful artwork are certainly artistic qualities, no-one can deny that, but the fact that they are forced to co-exist with decidedly inartistic, and usually gameplay friendly, features somewhat disqualifies them from being considered genuine pieces of art as a whole.

That’s not to say that genuinely artistic games can’t reward the player, but it can’t be the main focus. Some games, however, do actively try to leave their players with a feeling of dissatisfaction, this is something that MGS2, Portal and SH2 do to varying effect and obviousness; you could classify these games as “post-modern art,” art that actively tries to do the opposite of what the player, in this case, would hope for or expect. Raiden’s revelation that his mission was all scripted and that he must continue knowing that he’s essentially serving the “bad guys,” James’s revelation that he killed his own wife, and the revelation that GLaDOS is “still alive” and that all of your actions were part of her plan, a triumph and a huge success, you might say, are examples of the audience’s expectations being subverted. This is distinct from a plot twist in that all of the events previous to the revelation make sense in hindsight, as opposed to a Shyamalan-esque plot twist which makes the rest of the story seem ridiculous after its revelation, as well as being intentionally designed to upset the audience where a plot twist is supposed to be a pleasing surprise. It could be said that the wonder of videogames is that they can be enjoyed on different levels; even in these situations, many players will still feel a sense of satisfaction after they’ve “beaten” the game, whereas those paying more attention will feel the sense of betrayal and disappointment so vital to post-modern storytelling. Players who do feel some sense of achievement may have somewhat missed the point of the story but that’s just personal interpretation, developers like Kojima may openly criticise them in long-winded exposition but if that’s what they got from the experience then fair enough; the messages are still there alongside the sense of accomplishment and as such, the game can still be considered artistic.

So, given that a focus solely on gaining a sense of achievement and victory so fundamentally undermines videogames as an artistic experience, I find it wonderfully ironic that gamers simultaneously demand that the general public views videogames as a legitimate art form, while accepting and celebrating systems such as Achievements, Gamerscores and PSN Trophies, and complaining when they’re not included in new titles. It seriously baffles me that players so righteously defend the notion of having their ego stroked by a machine, reacting to a lack of Achievements with the equivalent of “No Achievements? NOT GAME! HOW WILL I KNOW I’M ENJOYING MYSELF IF THE GAME DOESN’T SPECIFICALLY TELL ME!?” while also demanding that video games be viewed as art, a medium in which the importance of competition is non-existent, in favour of placing prominence on themes and messages. As mentioned earlier, videogames are the only medium which places any importance on competition and the idea of reward; you can’t get points for reading a book well or looking at a painting better than someone else, by simply comparing videogames to other art forms you could immediately disqualify them from classification as “art” on the spot. But as I also said, any game that downplays the importance of achievement in favour of exploring more important topics can definitely be considered art, and as such if you’re the sort of ‘gamer’ who takes pride in your Gamerscore or your World of Warcraft level or gaining all of the achievements in a particular game then you lose all right to demand that games be considered art by anyone. It’s as simple as that.

So any game that focuses on simple achievement is not art. So what is it? Well, you could just say it’s a game and move on but where’s the fun in that? If you must give simple Skinner Box-esque games a higher classification than “game,” then I’d prefer to call them “Sport” instead of “Art.” For example, an online Call of Duty game is very similar to a poker tournament, in both cases you’re playing against people you may or may not know for recognition, a sense of accomplishment and prizes. No-one’s playing to learn anything about themselves or The World; it’s simply play for the sake of achievement and various forms of profit. I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could argue that poker is an art form outside of certain psychological factors; it’s a game of skill and chance, much like Call of Duty. *subtle dig*

Particularly bamboozling is the inclusion of Achievements and Trophies in games in which the very idea of achievement is mocked. Metal Gear Solid fans, for example, have tried for years to get Konami to put trophies in MGS4, ignoring the fact pretty much all of the enemies, the PMCs, Militia and the Paradise Lost Army, are neutral mindless killing machines trained by Virtual Reality and First Person Shooters, who are fighting for literally no reason, that are designed to represent the brain dead action gamer of today, just wanting to fight and kill without paying attention to the deeper meanings as MGS fans have done for so long. Knowing Kojima, trophies were consciously left out of the game in order to emphasise this point; the demand for trophies can therefore be seen as a validation of Kojima’s bleak view of the modern gamer. Portal used a slightly more subtle and adorable method to make the same point with its infamous promise of cake. I know it’s now uncool to say “The cake is a lie” in any capacity but it’s shocking how many people used this phrase like mindless sheep without thinking about what it actually means. To me, the cake is a representation of phenomena like Trophies and Gamerscores. Think about this: what is your reason for progressing through a video game? For many people it would be the promise of Achievements and Trophies; Portal is saying that this, as a motivation, is no more meaningful than just being offered cake. Of course, the game can’t physically give the player cake, so it’s giving you nothing in reality. Exactly the same reward that Trophies and Achievements give you. The constant repetition of the phrase “The cake is a lie,” to me anyway, is basically screaming at the player, “Your Achievements are meaningless!” A point driven home when the song at the end tells you that everything you did was part of GLaDOS’s plan and you haven’t done anything she didn’t want you to. So what have you achieved on your own? Nothing. Kind of makes all of the accumulated Gamerscore points a little bittersweet, doesn’t it?

Overall, it can be seen that gamers are indeed trying to have their cake (sorry) and eat it when demanding that games feature reward structures and be considered art by the general population. So which one do you want, gamers? You can’t have it both ways.


  1. but jack, your missing one vital piece of information..... the cake wasn't a lie :P had fun reading this mate :)

  2. I mentioned this originally but it didn't quite flow right, should have left it in now :P My guess would be that the fact that all through the game, you're told that by beating the game, and by extension GLaDOS, you'll be given cake. The cake is actually there but even though you "beat" the game, you're still not given any cake. Meaning you didn't actually "beat" the game, in the way that most people feel they've "outsmarted" the AI and the developers, as any solutions to problems and puzzles have to be created by them, so you can only do what the developers allow you to do. It's a comment on the illusion of freedom and rebellion that videogames create, emphasized in the last section when you "escape" from the fire pit. You're supposed to feel as if you're defying the games wishes but ultimately you'll never do anything the designer doesn't allow you to, in the same way that Chell never did anything that GLaDOS didn't specifically want her to. That's my interpretation, anyway.

    Oh, and thank you xD