Art Deco Spandrel

Art Deco Spandrel. CC Copyright by Atelier Tee

In his article Broadpaw made an excellent point about the reluctance of many people to think of games as art or even that particular games might be a form of art; we are lightyears away from someone acknowledging that a specific game might be great art.  Broadpaw noted that the entire debate is structured around a series of false binaries.  And they are false  if we consider the way these things actually work in the world.  As I noted previously, the non-art/art binary doesn’t apply at all to our actual creative practices.  However, the important thing about false binaries is that they can nevertheless have real-world effects.  It is the reason why people use them, after all.  The concepts they describe and the words that give them life are the foundation of careers, schools of thought, forms of power.  All well and good, right?  The great wheel of capitalism turns to the benefit of all?  I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the downside, the real world negative effects of these false binaries on the present and future place of games in our culture.

In a 2003 article for the International Game Developers Association Matt Sakey pointed to one result of game designers’ resistance to the idea of games as art: an impoverished vocabulary for talking about the aesthetic effect of games that allows a discussion of games as purely technical, instrumental artifacts to predominate.  Sakey makes an excellent case for why the lack of the analytic frameworks that could be derived from a discussion of the artistic potential of games impoverishes the design process, and I won’t replicate it here.  However there are three other factors that underscore the potential damage done to games and gaming industry by the fact that they are valued only as objects of consumption rather than as sources of cultural value.

We do not process what we do not value
The real problem with the kind of art/entertainment opposition offered by Carmack, for example, may well be the fact that it diminishes our notion of entertainment.  For Carmack, as for many game development studios and gamers alike, gaming is all about the fun: escaping from a care-laden world by consuming a pre-packaged adrenaline rush that holds your interest until the next package comes along.  Games in this way of thinking become a commodity only and we lose track of the fact that they are, like any other form of creative expression, a process.  Gaming takes place as one component of the life world of an individual; it cannot be so readily compartmentalized, but instead draws from aspects of that life and feeds into it in turn.  Games also process material from the culture, and in turn they contribute to further acts of cultural processing.  All of this, however, drops below the radar when we focus on a simplistic approach to fun. Game designer Chris Crawford has lambasted the obsession with fun and treats it as symptomatic of the entire gaming industry.  He has described most games as “cute shoot-’em-ups, lots of graphic splendiferousness, and emphasis on fun in the childish sense. . . .It’s rather like someone saying, “I went to see the movie Das Boot, but it wasn’t any fun, so it’s a crummy movie.”  Well, I’m sorry, but Das Boot was not meant to be fun” (Rouse, 217).  The limitations of “fun” as an approach to design become obvious when compared with other creative forms.  What would our collective culture be like if we only had novels and films that had happy endings?  Paintings that only depicted pastoral landscapes?

Nevertheless, Crawford’s own argument demonstrates the prevalence of the same kinds of stereotypes about art invoked by Carmack.  Art is equated with “serious” subjects, with a sense of dutiful engagement with the darker side of things.  It leaves intact the fundamental binary between engagement (art) and escape (entertainment).  It is more productive to drop the whole concept of fun and focus instead on the issue of enjoyment.  There are, after all, many kinds of artistic experience that while not fun in any meaningful sense of the word are nevertheless enjoyable.  We enjoy horror films, for example, and spectacles of human misery that reduce us to tears.  The reasons why are many and complex, and indicate that there is nothing more complex than figuring out what is the underlying basis for a person’s enjoyment.

Once games are accepted as mere entertainment, however, we don’t even ask these kinds of questions about how individuals process their content.  Game reviews, for example, persistently treat games as if they had been produced in underground bunkers by people sealed off from their cultures since birth and consumed by similarly isolated drones.  To take just one example, I’ve lost count of the number of reviews I’ve read that have pointed out how crowded is the field of World War II games at the moment; a Gamespot review of Medal of Honor: Airborne seemed as if it wanted to address this very fact: “It seems you can’t read a preview or review of a World War II-based FPS without hearing about how many games there are in the genre.”  But I’ve yet to read a single review that asks, much less attempts to answer, the obvious question: why?  Indeed, the Gamespot review forcibly underscores this avoidance with a spectacularly redundant comment: reviewers make this observation, we are told, because the field is indeed “a crowded one.”  When there is a rash of films about particular subject it is relatively common for the better reviews to explore the significance of that fact.  The sheer volume of WWII titles and their continued popularity should encourage us to ask similar basic but important questions.

One of the ironies, therefore, of the idea that games are simply entertainment, is that they are treated as if gaming takes place inside a leak-proof container that will ensure that cultural discussions and activities relevant to the game will never seep into the gaming experience, and the games themselves will never have any kind of impact upon individuals or the world at large.  Focusing on this process is not just a fun past-time for game scholars; indeed, issues of process are more properly understood as vital design questions that involve trying to figure out the nature of the audience for your game, the chance for success or failure of particular gameplay strategies, and so on.

We do not protect what we do not value
If we focus on process at all when it comes to games it is often only in the negative: in terms of the effect on individuals our culture is fixated on gaming addiction, and in discussions of the societal impact we can’t get past the obsession with games as training grounds for homicidal maniacs.  As is rapidly becoming apparent, when games are understood primarily as a commodity (or, more generously, as an entertainment phenomenon), then they are extremely vulnerable to censorship pressures.  The First Amendment notwithstanding, the US as a nation has been passionately in love with censorship in relation to mass media.  Censorship in the US is, however, more insidious because it focuses on establishing a climate of self-censorship through fostering “regulation” by third-parties, such as industry organizations (the ESRB, the MPAA), an approach that is unlike the ham-fisted but obvious state-sponsored censorship regularly practiced in countries like Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the threat of actual government involvement is never far away.  By tacitly (or explicitly) ceding ground on the issue of games potential as art, however, we surrender what has historically been one of the most powerful defenses against the attempt to censor works: the claim of artistic merit.  A case in point is the infamous 2002 decision by District Judge Limbaugh in the case Interactive Digital Software Ass’n v St. Louis County.  That Limbaugh’s finding that games were not a form of expression and therefore not entitled to constitutional protection was overturned the following year should not obscure the fact that in the original ruling a completely different set of criteria was used to assess videogames than had been applied to any other creative medium.  As Henry Jenkins observes, “Constitutional status has historically rested on a medium’s highest potential, not its worst excesses” (209).  While recent judicial rulings have from one point of view been more positive, they have tended to rest on debates about research evidence concerning violence, not on the issue of first amendment rights.

Refusing to consider the ways in which games can be considered art (and again my disclaimer: not all games, not immediately, not forever) may however have effects that are even more damaging in the long-term than losing ground against the forces of censorship.  James Boyle in Shamans, Software, and Spleens notes that the traditional notion of the single authorial genius has not only been a valuable framework for securing the status of artists (and, as I pointed out above, the key to understanding the key cultural distinctions between art and non-art) but is in fact the foundation of our current intellectual property system.  Boyle’s central point is that the reliance of the legal framework governing intellectual property upon single-authored forms of creative expression means that those works that don’t fit this model are unlikely to be treated as worthy of intellectual property protection.  Furthermore, the reliance on the authorial genius framework has had the ironic effect, Boyle argues, of removing IP protection from actual authors and vesting it in entities that have the ability to demonstrate the presumed “value added” that is at the core of the presumption of genius (114).  Increasingly these entities have been large corporations, with the result, as legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has argued, of ensuring that IP protections are now having the reverse effect to that outlined in the Constitution: thwarting innovation, and doing so for effectively unlimited periods of time.

We do not preserve what we do not value
Innovation requires tradition as both an archive of successful technique and a catalog of received wisdom that can be challenged.  Furthermore, if any medium of creative expression is to find widespread appreciation then that tradition needs to be readily available to the culture at large.  One of the terrible ironies of modern culture is that while we are developing amazing new forms of creative expression our ability to preserve those forms for future generations is almost nonexistent.  Consider television, the most influential medium of the latter part of the twentieth century.  While we are starting to see individual TV shows and whole series made available on DVD, this represents a fraction of the total output of television since its inception.  More significantly, the huge quantity of television shows that are not drama or comedy, including live broadcasts and all news shows, are accessible only via a few specialized television archives (the Library of Congress, for example, or the archive at Vanderbilt university) and then only in part.  Future generations of journalism students will find it easier to research coverage of the Civil War than to research how television covered the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The situation with regard to electronic games is even more dire.  Because game development has accepted a technological arms race as a necessary component to its evolution, it is already the case that the modern PC user can play games from ten years ago only through extensive technical wizardry, but more usually not at all.  Numerous ports exist for console games from the past, but the selection is hardly comprehensive.  Here and there a few universities are beginning to think about how to provide accessible gaming archives, but such efforts begin to founder at the point at which technical challenges meet financial limitations inherent in higher education.  What does this mean for the future of game development?  Imagine what novel-writing and painting would be like, for example, if artists were literally unable either to read or see works created as little as ten years ago, but had to rely only on their own memories or the firsthand accounts (diminishing, the older the work in question) of the creators?  I should stress that this situation arises not because these forms cannot be preserved.  Are the problems involved challenging?  Yes.  Insoluble?  Definitely not.  Our culture spends vast amounts of money preserving those forms of creative expression that it considers valuable.  That, unfortunately, does not include television or electronic games.

The Bottom Line: Moving Beyond the Bottom Line
All of this means that organizations like the IGDA no less than individual developers will need to shift their focus when it comes to the question of the potential of games to be considered art.  Simply claiming that games are a form of creative expression and therefore deserve the same protections as other forms of expression will not work; politicians, members of the public, even developers and players themselves are not convinced by this argument because games fall too far outside the accepted definitions of art for that position ever to have much leverage.  It should also be clear that not taking a position on whether games are art is in fact to take a position, and it is one that plays into a set of popular stereotypes about the nature of art.  Furthermore, this position, no less than an outright hostility to the idea of games as art is damaging to the long-term health of game development on a number of levels.

Of course, there are many who will not see any urgency here; after all, games are still getting made, people are still getting employed.  And if you genuinely believe that the industry is producing the most innovative, the most well-crafted games possible, that all is well in the realm of developers and their IP rights, and that the innovations of today are being adequately preserved to benefit the developers of the future, then I would agree, there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

If you don’t think this fairly describes the current game design scene, then there are some concrete responses that can be undertaken.  The first is simply to be less defensive about confronting the idea of games as art.  Remember that we’re not talking about (or at least shouldn’t be) whether or not all games can be considered art.  If individual developers see themselves as working purely within a commercial framework, that is fine.  At the same time, that should not be seen as implying that individual game titles cannot qualify as works of art, and that idea in turn should not be seen as threatening to the development of commercially successful titles.  Historically, many art works have worked very well as commercial concerns.  Likewise, if we look at other expressive media we see that works produced intentionally for entertainment and profit do have the rather annoying habit of being recognized as art by later generations.

Second, when the industry itself applauds games, we should be sure that there is a place for recognizing games as more than pure technical accomplishments.

Third, those of us in groups like the IGDA will need to focus our efforts in this area not so much on arguing for the ways in which games fit current definitions of art (they don’t), but helping to re-shape understanding of where those current definitions have come from, how they simplify the vast array of creative activities, and work to foreground other, more inclusive and game-friendly definitions of art.  Lastly, it will be helpful if a professional organization like the IGDA took an active role in preserving examples of fine games for future generations.  The games as art debate is filled with people claiming there has never been a game that could be considered art, and it will grow increasingly more difficult to refute that proposition as the sample of playable games at our disposal dwindles.

Boyle, J. (1996). Shamans, software, and spleens: Law and the construction of the information society. Cambridge, Masschusetts: Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: The Penguin Press.

Sakey, M. (2003, January). “There are no words (yet): The desperately incomplete language of gaming.” International Game Developers Association.

Thomas, A. (2007, September 4). Medal of Honor: Airborne [Review]. Gamespot.


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