Author Archive

Upon leaving a reply to “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care,” I soon realized that the reply was quickly becoming its own post. So here it is.

My good Twitchdoctor, I am pleased that you tackle the question of “Are games art?” in the way that you have – in that you’re engaging the question itself. Beyond inspiring us to seriously consider games as art (or as texts or as narratives or as heralding the downfall of all of humankind), I grow tired of these “grand debates,” ones that exist only within the framework of a false binary. For instance, I understand — although without question partially disagree — with Carmack’s claim (also appearing in the McNamara article) that “A gamer pays to play, not to admire.” Ultimately, what Carmack intends, I think, like many ludologists have done (especially more than five or so years ago), elevating the actual gaming aspect of games. Sure, that makes sense, given that a game is, well, a game. We should be emphasizing their ludic, game-like, qualities. But such binaries are also foolishly simplistic as many gamers/scholars/designers/developers doubtless realize.

I take to heart your comment in response to games-as-art that “there is no reason that games, like other art forms, shouldn’t do both, or neither” (I might reiterate that “neither” portion, as I have attempted to play games that are virtually unplayable; I have tried to see as art, objects of art for art’s sake that I cannot, no matter my mind’s openness, see any artistic value in and certainly no function; likewise, I have seen plenty of objects that are intended solely to be functional that simply aren’t, yet they without question are not art, either . . . take, for instance, pretty much anything labeled “As Seen On TV”). Our obsession with absolutes — “yes or no” and “all or nothing” as you accurately put it in your post — frustrate me thoroughly. And you’re right, it’s not whether games are art, but rather “whether” (I’d say “when”) specific game titles can be considered art, or, to put it another way, what artistic elements we see in specific game titles. “Art” versus “artistic” might provide a clearer lens through which to look at these objects, and one that might reveal another question that you pose regarding motivation.

It is motivation, to some extent (those of game authors, gamers, and critics). For instance, I wonder if part of Carmack’s problem, too, when he labels those who claim games-as-art are sophists, even on an unconscious level, is that the critics are elevating themselves, for if games are works of art, then game critics are contributing to cultural knowledge, revealing and making meaning, whereas if games are merely commodities, critics are simply writing product reviews. And there has long existed a tension between critics and artists, as much as their relationships can be symbiotic. [This may really not be the case, even if I find it plausible, though, as I should point out that Au, quoting Carmack, indicates that Carmack is implicating “fellow developers” and not game critics: “In an apparent slam at fellow developers who strive for something higher …” (Au). This pointing-the-finger-at game developers and not critics changes the game, slightly, but I’ll get back to that).

Motivation need not be singular, either, though — we might think about, in addition to motivation, a matter of motivational priority. In other words, while my instinct is to say definitively (and obviously) that a game is both art and commodity (it is, or at least can be), I am willing to instead (or also) ask the question, “To what extent is a game a work of art and to what extent is it a commodity?” (Which is NOT to ask for some silly percentage or numeric value, but merely to point out that we can investigate games in numerous ways simultaneously; to put it yet another way, might a game be a commodity first and a work of art second?) That’s potentially a more productive and accurate way to frame the question (especially in that we might generate some identifiable answer to the question or at least an arguable, plausible claim, rather than just perpetuating the debate itself ad nauseam). Furniture is art. Or can be. But largely, furniture is first functional, and only then is it artistic (or do we have to bring up the distinction, now, between the “fine” and “decorative” arts? … although perhaps I’ll reveal my barbarity when I comment that if a painting isn’t “decorative,” then I don’t know what is.) Automobiles are works of art. Or can be. Compare a Delahaye to a Ford, and the case is made. But largely, automobiles are first functional, and then artistic (although not incidentally, many of those beautiful 1930s coach-built shapes also aided in aerodynamics, and their designers intentionally were pursuing aerodynamic qualities — without the benefit of windtunnels — while still focusing on pleasing, beautiful shapes: the functional can be beautiful, the beautiful can be functional). Quilts are art. Or can be. But largely, they’re functional first – it’s a poor quilt that won’t keep out the shivers, but it’s not as nice a quilt whose stitching is all uneven. Anyway, I think we get the idea.

Also on the question of motivation, you mention that “‘True’ artists are not supposed to be motivated by money but by the purity of their creative drive. If this were true, however, the list of art works in our culture would be pathetically short.” Yep, Twitchdoctor, yep. There’s no inherent problem with being also motivated by economic gain, even if just to support one’s artistic (or other noble) endeavors. In fact, this is where Carmack’s comment about “sophistry” gets especially interesting to me (as much as I recognize that he’s likely just using the term to mean “mere rhetoric” as we do in the common parlance), for we might argue along the same lines for teachers (wait for it…). So Carmack says, “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry.” Let’s unpack that. The “aggrandizing” the gaming industry that some of its developers pursue — the elevating of, the exaggeration of the importance of — is indicating that, what, an artwork is “higher” than a game? Or, another interpretation that takes your smart “Art versus Commerce” section into account: because the motivation to create art is supposed to be somehow “pure” (that is, not for monetary gain), Carmack and the game industry should go ahead and recognize that they’re in it for the money – that games are indeed a lucrative commodity (they certainly were for Carmack). Many games are (but not always). (Or perhaps we can be more generous, and say Carmack’s intention is that games should be about gaming and playing, not art, and not necessarily money?) At any rate, these are, let’s admit, nice, honest claims. But again, they’re overly simplistic. Games are money-makers, entertainment media, and art — but each one is only potentially any of these.

But what an odd reversal of “sophistry,” which is also linked to motivation. It is well known that the philosophers took serious issue with the sophists, for the sophists accepted student fees for teaching (and accepting payment versus not accepting payment was in part what made a sophist a sophist, and a philosopher a philosopher, respectively). Somehow that made the sophists’ motivations impure, like those artists who smartly realize that their work may have commercial value. What’s more, motivation was at the heart of philosophy versus sophistry: as Plato may have had it, philosophers seek truth (presumably for the common good), while sophists seek only to teach people to persuade (in other words, “mere rhetoric”) and for monetary gain. If we over-simplify, then, we may come up with the following. In Carmack’s statement,

game-developer-artists = sophists = aggrandizing (games or the gaming industry)

And in terms of the original use of the term “sophistry,”

money-making-teachers = sophists = belittling (truth or the philosophic “industry”)

Like you do of artists, Twitchdoctor, I can imagine how many teachers we’d have now (or philosophers, for that matter) if being paid was not part of the bargain (I’ll refrain from snide commentary about how teachers’ salaries make that condition pretty close to the truth anyway). It might be fun to brainstorm a list of teachers who would argue how heinous being paid for their work is (yet that activity won’t provide much fun for long). Seems to me, then, these false binaries may inspire us to think about them, as I mentioned, and that’s productive. But they also have the potential to cloud the truth, which is, whether you’re Carmack, a developer calling games art, a critic, a gamer, a teacher, a philosophy, that all of these objects rest comfortably in-between all of these absurd boundaries — it is we who don’t.

References (from “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care”)

Au, W. J. (2002, May 6). Playing games with free speech. Salon.
McNamara, T. (2004, March 26). GDC 2004: John Carmack talks game development.


I was delighted (and oddly, albeit slightly, “discomfited”) to see the following ad in my emailbox recently:

Brodart is a company that has for decades specialized in library equipment, supplies, and furniture.  (Note that I have no affiliation whatsoever with Brodart, save that I have used its mylar dustjacket covers for years, with their lovely, non-reactive plastic which prevent books’ covers from deteriorating as they do, and makes them all shiny to boot – sorry: you know, books, the kind one can hold and read and flip the pages of?  But I digress).  Education and gaming is not an “easy” partnership (as some would have us believe, but I don’t mean to imply that it need or should be), perhaps especially when administrators (of public educational institutions) are fighting politicians interested only in privatizing education) and parents (who are constantly looking for the next media scapegoat to explain their underachieving and generally apathetic children) are involved in the conversation.  Yet here it is, “Gaming at Your Library,” which pleases me (and, I admit, somewhat dismays me as a gamer and as a library-goer).

For a mere $1345 (extracted from educational institutions with exceedingly difficult budget and cashflow problems, no doubt), your university library can get the “Brodart Solutions Gaming Station” (perhaps to put alongside its carrels?), the “wedge-shaped mobile gaming station with ganging capability.”  Ganging capability.  I know what that means, but tell me, does that or does that not sound off?  The station also comes equipped with “locking cabinet” which “keeps gaming equipment safe and secure.”  Well that’s good.  But I suppose it also conceivably implies something about that equipment or the people who desire it.  Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the ganging and potential theft that’s unnerving.  (I’m sure, too, that clients will veritably demand that they receive their ganging-capable, lockable, wedge-shaped, mobile gaming station with the Victorian finish – no, I’m not making that up.)

A colleague of mine was equally as fascinated by the library-gaming development that the advertisement implies, and was specifically intrigued by the physicality of the station: that is, many students (I still hesitate to say “the majority of”) feel neither responsibility nor compulsion to physically enter a university library, and many gamers have no need of physically occupying the same space to play.  My colleague says, “The ad implies the importance of attending to the physicality of places (and how we inhabit those places) and bodies as well as points to possible tension between gaming and academics.  (To be clear, I do not see them as mutually exclusive).”  Hear, hear!  I wonder – should these gaming stations become commonplace in library spaces (about which I admit serious doubts) – if it may herald a return to those tabletop Pac-Man and Space Invaders games that used to appear in pizza parlors (in the days before one simply ordered one’s pizza online).  I, for one, adore face-to-face gaming, even when not playing multiplayer titles.  Perhaps such an endeavor as Brodart’s can put, in a limited way, the “connect” back in the term “connected.”

Video Gaming and Video Gaming

Posted: January 19, 2010 by Broadpaw in Games and the Media, Uncategorized

While I envision people ignorant of the depth and diversity of video games enthusiastically expressing, “It’s about time,” when reacting to the headline from the Chicago Tribune’s “Local News” section (26 November 2009) covering one of Chicago’s western suburbs — “Lisle Bans Video Gaming” — it indicates to me that one part of the problem for those weary of the (stale) argument that video games will be the death of our future (current?) generation has to do merely with language, with word choice: “video gaming” in that headline actually means gambling.  When “gaming” is coupled with “commission,” I think there no misunderstanding.  Coupling the term with “video,” however, can lead to some confusion.  The article mentions Illinois’s “Video Gaming Act” which “provides local governments the option of passing an ordinance prohibiting video gaming within the corporate limits of the municipality” (3).  It is not until the last two lines of the article (which is admittedly short, I’d be remiss if I did not point out) that gambling is actually mentioned.  Before that, it’s always “video gaming.” Troublesome.  The article represents a contemporary reminder that, while now rather inaccurate, there is a (perhaps unfortunate) link between “gaming” as video game studies folks know it and “gambling,” evoking the “pay-out” machines of the 1930s [which, as Steven L. Kent reports in The Ultimate History of Video Games, “combined pinball and gambling” (5)].  That history still rears its ugly head every now and again it seems; and I suppose that makes it not quite history just yet.

In thinking about games’ representation in mainstream media (see “And on a lighter note . . .”, Oct 6), I am uncertain about two ads that I have recently seen:

The first is for the History Channel’s presentation of World War II in HD — the ads have been playing for a while, and frequently the week of Nov. 2nd and 9th. The ad opens with a game interface — what looks like a first-person shooter with digital target sights and visible tracers — overlaying real WWII footage. Quite an interesting look if one can get over the disturbing nature of it (when the digital shells hit the submarine, it’s a real, filmed explosion). The words appear, then, “This was no game.” Of course not. But the marketers chose explicitly to make it look that way and then advertise WWII in HD for the first time — a ludic, if not game-like, enticement. The second advertisement is for the Air Force, depicting typical fantasy/scifi-like environments and then making the claim that it’s not science fiction (but real battle, a real profession).

Not only is there yet another videogaming-violence link in mainstream media, but one used specifically, it seems to me, to garner interest (or curiosity) in a WWII documentary or actual Air Force service.

At a conference this past weekend, I was asked after my presentation whether or not I have studied games’ representation in non-gaming spaces (television and film, specifically); I haven’t. Well, the time, it seems, has come (the walrus said) . . .