DeconstructionCraft: Video Games and Art

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In this article of DeconstructionCraft, we will be delving into the concept of video games, the philosophy of art, and aesthetics. We will mason a foundation now in an attempt to explain some of the debates and positions that exist in discussion of art and the many perspectives involved in it throughout the related articles. To begin, we will compare the medium of film and video game to emphasize some of the distinctions that appear to separate the two, but the following discussion occurs under the assumption that the film and game mediums are highly similar as forms of media. Then we will look into the art community in a way that is focused more on the reception and the critique of an art work rather than looking at any one medium or one instance of a form of art. To finish, we will approach the concept of politics in the art community and how the status quo affects the way people approach both pieces of art and mediums as well.

 One of the most popular and wide-reaching of modern art forms is the film, and while the genre of film has gone through its own periods of evolution, revolution, acceptance, struggle, and change, it is the most comparable medium of art with video games. Film is a very modern form of art considering it is one of the most recent advents to cross boundaries and occupy multiple spaces simultaneously, and because of its multifaceted nature, there are still questions as to how to critique film. For example, a movie is comprised of many things that are, when taken individually, considered works of art or products of an art medium on their own. Music and storytelling are already art forms in and of themselves, but once combined with each other within a film, it is almost impossible to talk about the film piece by piece or by discussing one facet of the film without associating with the other parts or pieces of the film. This is even more difficult when we include the aspect of the cinematography itself. The visual recording is, in topic, the same as paintings and photography, but because of its organic evolution from scene to scene; it cannot logically be divorced from the storytelling or the music that is played over any one scene. Film, then, takes on the identity that it is an art form comprised of many art forms, and video games operate in much the same way. A video game involves the art of storytelling and all that entails including plot, narrative, and character development. It also includes its own version of cinematography, for example level, character, and aesthetic designs, as well as music that is designed to appropriately expound on the emotion or atmosphere any one scene is trying to convey. The main difference, though, between film and game is the user interface.

 A film is a passive medium, in that the movie plays itself, whereas the gamer plays the game: the gamer is the main character, though somewhat removed, but the main actor or actress is only a visual object whose fate is already determined. This hearkens back to a distinction that Marshall McLuhan made in Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man between hot and cold media. Briefly, hot media is full of information but involves very little interaction, whereas cold media requires high levels of participation and activity on the part of the viewer, but does not offer as much information as hot media does. This would seemingly imply that the film is hot media and the game is cold media, but this is not necessarily so, as many video games which focus heavily on developing characters, telling elaborate tales, and expressing many concepts are not lacking in information. The game, then, occupies a higher state of media than film does, and it is more refined, sophisticated, and evolved than film because it overcomes the dichotomous distinction between level of information and interaction. Further, if the user interface is the only distinction between film and game, then it would seem that a game can be as artistic as a film so long as you are watching the game being played rather than playing it yourself. This creates a very unique situation that would not be possible to comprehend without gaming. If games possess the same characteristics as a film and they possess qualities which place them in a higher position in terms of media and medium than film, then it seems preposterous to say that games aren’t art.

This does not have to be true though, and if we look into how other art forms are judged, such as by critics and art communities, then we may see why games are excluded. Traditionally, art was not art until someone declared it to be so. A painting was merely a painting until someone with sophisticated aesthetic taste experienced said painting and decided it was art worthy of a museum. Then, the paintings identity as art was reinforced by the art museum going community who would have seen the painting and believed that because the art work was on display that it must be a work of art. The artistic community has not let video games into the art museum, and so the museum goes, seeing no games on display, cannot reasonably justify that a game may be a work of art. This is obviously a tautology, in that, as long as someone somewhere says that a work is a piece of art, then it is art, and it must only be art in one case for it to be true to say that the painting is a work of art. Of course there are video game conferences and conventions that could arguably act as substitutes for the art museum and the crowds that partake of the museum displays, but this isn’t acceptable from a philosophical standpoint. In this case, the game is considered art by a community of gamers who are generally biased to believe that games are art. In all cases then, it would seem that to discuss art is to employ a tautology either to deny or to affirm the definition of art, the artistic nature of a piece, or the inclusion or exclusion of one media or medium rather than another.

 The most important thing then would appear to be the politics involved in the art community. Art is a complex collection of varying levels of subjectivity and objectivity, and, especially in the West, there are attempts to include both perspectives. A painting may require a certain level of subjectivity for the viewer to truly appreciate it, but when it comes to the decisive meaning, purpose, or message that the artist is trying to convey, many often want an objective truth preferably from the artist. This is, prima facie, a problematic situation because it requires a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity to attain, and this combination is exactly the reason why there is so much debate about what art is let alone if games can be considered art. In this sense, we require of art subjectivity in the viewer, objectivity about the meaning of a single piece, and a steadfast distinction between art and non-art or high and low art, but you cannot force these conflicting elements into harmony without creating more pandemonium. In our attempts to control the disarray we have created in the art world, we have actually gone farther away from an answer.

 To conclude, then, it would seem that the only way to solve the debate about art, aesthetics, and games as art is to either do away with the search for an answer to the questions in art or to do away with the dichotomy of subjectivity and objectivity. For example, if a company were to take a famous film that is considered art, Apocalypse Now for instance, and were to perfectly replicate the film in game form, then it would lead to a very simple debate. If the film is considered art, and the game is exactly the same as the film except that the main character is played/controlled rather than watched/viewed, then it would be easy to say that, yes, the game is art because it is functionally indistinguishable from the film. The only way to say no, to claim the film is art but the game is not, though, is to claim that there is something inherent in the game, something essential and within the very fabric of the game or the playing of the game, which separates the game from the film. This would objectively end the debate and distinction between games and art, but it would require that someone produced an answer, a working model of sorts, with a factual and indubitable line of reasoning behind it to ultimately settle the dispute. Even this, though, would rely on a certain arbitrary drawing of a line in the sand if the “answer” that the objectivist came up with was somehow subjective in nature and could not be disputed. Ultimately, the question about whether games are art is still unflinchingly unresolved, but at least we now have a framework to look deeper into this topic.

Further Reading

McLuhan, Marshal. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.


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