Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why video games are not art and why comic books aren't graphic novels.

I taunted my news media/soon-to-be-filmmaking cohort Rob Steffen into responding to an antagonistic Facebook message about how video games cannot, by their nature, be art, and that the term "graphic novel" is stupid and fallacious. He responded:

"A comic book is a flimsy thing you buy at a grocery store checkout stand, starring HEROIC CODPIECE MAN, (if not Archie and Veronica). A graphic novel is hardcover, bought at a book store, and is about twisted shit like The Dark Tower, or Sin City. Most video games are art in the way that most television is art. Which is to say that there's art in all of it, but very few pieces can be considered art on their own. Like Heavy Rain and Breaking Bad, or GTA IV and Sopranos, or Portal and How I met your Mother (I'm assuming)."

My response is as follows, with a few added remarks:

Just because something makes you cry doesn't make it art. People cry when their home burns down. Is arson art? No, but Fahrenheit 451 is. I cried in fifth grade when I lost the spelling bee. Is failure art? No, but Akeelah and the Bee is. My buddy cried at a World Cup game. Is soccer art? No, but Invictus is.

A game of chess isn't art. The chess board and pieces themselves may be, but the process of playing the game itself isn't. The character design, the script, and the music for, say, Bioshock are each art. Pushing the buttons in order to progress the final singular package? Not art.

I'm not saying this because I don't like video games; I LOVE video games and spent a few hours today curled up with Red Dead Redemption. But in the same way that "graphic novel" is a stupid term created by self-loathing nerds trying to validate their own obsessions, so too did this "VIDEO GAMES ARE ART" thing happen. People want to justify their own pastimes and think that getting them referred to as "art" is a way to do so, but that's stupid. A list of things I love that aren't art: a good steak, the satisfaction of finishing a big project, and air conditioning.

For example, Transformers 2 is a work of cinema, thus making it art. It's also complete shit not worth anybody's time. Fallout 3 is an affecting work of--dare I say--brilliance, but it's a video game, so it isn't art. Doesn't mean that Transformers 2 > Fallout 3, it just means that Transformers 2=art and Fallout 3=not art.

Now, if you wanted to argue that video games are a form of cinema, and as such are art, yeah, I'll concede that, assuming you agree that the interactive portion of the game is just a way to get to the cutscenes, which are the actual cinema. Game writers are always talking about how "cinematic" a game is, so it sounds like they just want to be movies, anyway.

And Rob, you're confusing form with function. A comic book is a book of comics. Comics are the medium. To use the analogy I already use with Matthew, a short story by Raymond Carver doesn't stop being a short story if it's read on a computer screen, in a collection of his other work, or if it's written in macaroni art. The story is the story is the story. A monthly-issued comic book is just a serialization of a larger work, just as Dickens releasing chapters of his novels in smaller chunks were still prose.

"Graphic novel" is also a semantic grasping-for-straws that denigrates what good work has been made from superheroes and the superhero template. Something like Blankets, Maus, etc. is still a comic book, it's just one that's released as a standalone work. They've released Spider-Man stories like that, too: made for a bookstore market, rather than the comic book store/direct market.

In summary: this is all a misappropriation of the term "art." When Michael Jordan would dunk, people would say "he's an artist!" I know that they mean--and presumably you do, too--but part of it is that we know he's not ACTUALLY an artist, but he's playing a game with the level of skill, technique, and a certain degree of idiosyncrasy that an artist would (ideally) bring to their work. Obviously, a dunk isn't REALLY art, and anyone that argues otherwise doesn't deserve to be heard. That doesn't mean that a dunk is easy, or that a novel about sparkly vampires is of greater cultural significance--I'd personally argue that Michael Jordan is one of the most important cultural figures of the last century--it just means that is isn't art.

Obviously, this is strictly an issue of semantics; while someone like Ebert, peace be upon Him, is arguing that video games aren't worthwhile, I, as someone who DOES think video games have their place, simply don't want the concept of "art" being diluted by people who cried when Aeris died in Final Fantasy 7, you big sissy nerds.

FINAL THOUGHTS: One of the arguments that people make is that video games aren't art yet, based on the idea that it's still in its primitive stages, but such an argument has more holes in it than Tupac Shakur. Describing something as "art" doesn't make it good, and saying that video games aren't art yet implies that, as video games become better, they will become more artistic, which is simply...well, it's stupid.

Man's first cave paintings, while simple and rudimentary, were art. Basic art, yes, but art all the same, and art from their creation on. When Pong (jeez, I feel stupid italicizing that) was released in 1972, was it art? No, in the same way that table tennis, the activity that it more or less simulated, also was not art.

Buying into the application of the term "art" as a value judgment completely belittles what actually is art. Not all art is valuable, and things that aren't art may be valuable. A person can't survive without eating, drinking water, sleeping, or breathing. Doesn't make them art.

In all of this talk about instigation of an emotional reaction, something's depth of meaning, or its overall importance, let's examine the primary inspiration behind, well, pretty much all art, in one way or another:

Sex. Is sex art? No. (I'm sooooo tempted to use one of several The Big Lebowski quotes right here) Sex is not art, but Last Tango in Paris is. A relationship is not art, but Annie Hall is. A marriage is not art, but Scenes From a Marriage is.

In summary, being "art" isn't the same as being "good." I'm totally awesome, and I'm not art. I had a really delicious bunch of nuggets from Chick-Fil-A tonight. Tasty, but not art. Similarly, I watched an episode of the original A-Team series last week, and it was pretty stupid. Moronic, but art. I also read a really terrible poem by this girl I used to know. Nonsensical crap, but art. Doesn't mean I wouldn't rather be scarfing deep-fried poultry than subjecting myself to the poetic equivalent of Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven.

I'm gonna go play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic now. Yeah, it's a game, but it's still the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back.

But it's still. not. art.

Nor is the Zinger I really want to eat.

And I still love you, Rob.


Anonymous said...

It's AERITH, not "Aeris," you heartless bastard. :)

I agree 99% - as we discussed, I see video games aping more and more of cinema (and maybe here I am putting on the hat of that Scottish science fiction writer we like so much) but comics are doing the same thing. They need to cut it out because it only kinda works. And yeah, something like "Maus," "Blankets," "Fun House," etc. may work within the term "graphic novel" better than Miller's "Dark Knight" books, Moore's "V For Vendetta," etc. - but they are all comics, because that's the medium. Like the guy said, "Let's forget about all that and get back to blowing minds."

Andy said...

For the English release, "Aerith" was romanized to "Aeris."

Don't challenge me on trivia. I play through that game like I was getting paid for it. But it didn't make me cry, because I'm not an emotionally stunted man-child obsessed with a culture that he doesn't understand.

Kai Daigoji said...

If I deliberately push buttons on my iPod to listen to "A Shot in the Arm," that song is still a work of art, and in a related discussion, music is still an artform. If I push buttons on my computer to bring up a David Foster Wallace short story then that story, and literature in general, are still art and artforms, respectively. Why does the pushing of buttons to control an avatar change things so much? Imagine you're reading a story on a computer, and there is an animation connected to the scrollbar - as you advance in the story, a little man appears to run along. Perhaps he leaps obstacles, or acts out portions of the story. At what point do his actions make the story a game, and no longer art?

I think people feel videogames are problematic to think of as an artform because of the problem of intentionality - if I make choices as an active participant, the thinking may go, then I am no longer a passive viewer, or receiver of art, but an active (and equal) participant in a game.

To me, intentionality isn't a problem - I have no choices that weren't given to me by the author of the videogame, just like I can't see a painting Picasso didn't make. In fact, my participation is often cleverly used by the creators of games, to indict me for my own actions - when I kill a colossus in Shadow of the Colossus, it's not because the plot demands it, as in a book, but because I myself have made a conscious choice to kill. To me, this heightens the sense that an artistic action has taken place. Others, I understand, react differently.

I won't say either side is right or wrong. Videogames are perched perfectly on the line between games and art, having qualities of both. To some (Ebert) they are self-evidently not art; to me, they are just as clearly art, but no amount of talking will convince others. No definition of art or games can be created that will ever disambiguate this situation - Wittgenstein found that defining "games" was not possible; there were always things agreed on as games which nonetheless did not fit the criteria. I will say, that when I consider videogames an artform, part of what drives the decision for me is that I have had experiences playing videogames that are indistinguishable from experiences I've had with literature, or film. I count "Planescape:Torment" and "Braid" as experiences as precious to me as "Reservoir Dogs" or "In Bruges."

Anonymous said...

My comment from Facebook:

Yeah man, this is way long, especially for a sentiment that is essentially circular: "Video games are not art because video games are not art." Or maybe it's closer to: "Video games are not art because the interactivity element inherent to the form precludes them from being art". Both statements are equally bullshit.

You've put me in a tricky pickle here, Andy, because as much as I don't want to be the pale, mulleted, villainous douchebag defending video games as art... some of them are, and should be considered, art.

Firstly, Ebert's definitions of games as art are useless, and fuck Ebert anyway, his voice was irrelevant long before he had the genuine misfortune to lose it.

Secondly, this is going to be, if it isn't already, one of those sad and meaningless conversations about whether something should be considered art. In order to head off the moral bankruptcy of such a flacid vis a vis, I'm going to borrow a sentiment from Alex Caldiero here that always resonated with me. Prepare for a declarative statement.

If an artist creates a work of art, and calls it art, then you have art.

Now before we go down the "definition is too broad to be useful" (diluted) path, let's take a look at the satchelful of questions we still have at our disposal, beside the mournful 'is it art?'. Like, is it good art? Is it beautiful art? Is it important art? Is it worthwhile art? Does this art communicate something from the artist?

Aren't these what you're really saying no to when asking if VG's are art? If not, you should be. Most games won't live up to these standards.

You're lucky I have some homework due tonight, or else I'd be quoting the shit out of you in an effort to pick apart your argument. Instead, I leave you with this Encyclopedia Brittanica definition on art, that speaks directly to this issue.

"[Art is]the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others".

P.S. If that doesn't sway you, then I have two words for you: Shaq Fu.

Mormonrage said...

Why video games are not [necessarily] art. I fixed your title for you. ;)

Azúcar said...

A.) 10 points for Maus.
B.) "Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick"
C.) Video games are not art.

Andy said...

Kai, I think you raise an incredibly valid point: the interactive part of games, which is ostensibly (and possibly reductively) the only difference between video games and film, is indeed a manual process, like, to add to your list of examples, pressing play on a DVD to watch Rio Bravo. No one in their right minds would consider such a thing "art," and for good reason.

Accordingly, if we want to argue that video games are essentially films with small bits of interaction between them that allows a participant/player/user/observer to decide (or at least affect) the next chapter viewed, I'll accept that, but only if it's also accepted that some dude skipping the chapter in Taxi Driver where he meets Jodie Foster is also playing a video game. If we can make "video game" synonymous/interchangeable with "interactive film," so be it. As any film theorist knows, film is film because of editing, and that's essentially what the guy with the remote is doing, right?

No, it's not. He's utilizing technology to bring himself art. Warped art, too, but that's not really relevant to the topic at hand. What it comes down to is that if video games are art, all games are art, because video games, as competition (be it against a set of rules in a single-player game like Bioshock or against other players like Modern Warfare, are more akin to checkers/chess/Monopoly, with any narrative trappings being as worthwhile as noting that the fudge monster in Candyland looks sorta scary if you're four years old. The point of a video game isn't to to do anything but "win," which could be defined as any permutation of "win," including victory, completion, whatever.

AGAIN: THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT I THINK VIDEO GAMES ARE STUPID. I am simply stating that they are NOT art. If one game is art, ALL games are art. However, that is not the case. All paintings, films, etc. are art.

And Kai, you raise a second important point about your experiences with Braid and Planescape: Torment being just as valued as your experiences with In Bruges. However, if we take that in a different direction, I treasure the first time I held my baby niece more than any movie I've ever seen. That doesn't make my sister's nine-month-long incubation art.

Rob: let's say a dog has four legs and a tail. Let's also say that he calls his tail a leg. Does the dog have five legs? No. Even if he says so. Bigger picture: TALKING DOG.

Mormonrage: a medium is a medium is a medium. If you want to argue that video games are some kind of mixed medium, I can see how that argument might be made, but at best, that's a good first step to an argument that's still weaker than the third act of The Dark Knight. Like I said, all paintings are art.

The idea that some video games are art and others aren't, especially since the only criteria people offer is some standard of "quality," is, again, a value judgment, which is not what we're talking about. Something being "art" doesn't make it good, and for some reason, that essential distinction isn't being acknowledged by any of the incredibly intelligent people (I'm not being sarcastic; Rob and Kai are two of the brightest gentlemen I've had the pleasure of knowing) that disagree with my position.

Lachelleandmanasseh said...

Invictus wasn't about soccer... maybe a better example is "Bend it Like Beckham"? Kidding. That's my only point because I personally find video games pointless. Otherwise, awesome post, Andy. May I never get into an internet argument with you.

Anonymous said...

I don't see you defining what art IS here. Would you say it's any creation designed to carry a message? Or it's anything that expresses an emotion?

Whatever your definition, what's the exception for video games? That they're interactive? That you can change the message by the choices you make?

If that's the argument, then are "Choose Your Own Adventure" books art?

Ebert was wrong. Fallout 3? Wow - art. Just because I can move through the art and affect it -- with rifles or grenades or whatever -- doesn't un-art it. It still carries a heavy theme, as written into the dialogue and dialogue choices, the things you discover, etc.

In short, how do you define art? I hate when people are too loose with the term, too, but what's IS art?

I say games CAN be art. They can have non-artistic elements, just like the type of paper in a book is unlikely to affect the author's original intent, but until we have a solid definition, maybe the argument is moot.

Also: I like me some video games.

Anonymous said...

Andy: let's say a dog has four legs and a tail. Let's also say that he calls his tail a leg. Does the dog have five legs? No. Even if he says so.

But let's imagine this same dog CREATED a tail, with skill, and passion, fashioning it out of woven cloth which he then embroidered, and affixed to the upper reaches of his hindquarters. This dog calls this tail-appendage art, and he is right. Bigger picture: TALKING DOG ARTIST.

Art is not equivalent with good. Something can be good, and not art, and vice versa. But value judgements of good and bad are irrelevant to my point. Something *created with *intentionality by an artist to be art IS art. That's my point.

Also, I was glad when Aeris died. She was such a drag, always talking about the planet, and her limit breaks were worse than useless.

Anonymous said...


Andy said...

Excellent point, 江婷. Animal pornography could indeed be art.

Wait, what?

Haylee said...

pac- man.

jer said...

I'm confused about the implications of this argument (and I was up a good deal of the night thinking about it - that is, when I wasn't crying over the moving narrative in Super Mario Galaxy 2, and reading a whole bunch of Archie graphic novels.) A few points.

1) I think people do have the tendency to want anything they like or value to be considered "art" (there was a nauseating discussion on the BBC a few weeks ago about whether or not Soccer is a) the greatest invention in the history of mankind, and b) art - really), and that's not terribly productive. Conversely, anything people dislike or find distasteful they feel compelled to disqualify from the ART label. I'm glad that everyone on here seems to be in agreement that this is a fallacious way to go about things.

2) Okay, so we've decided that video games can't be art (or, at least, Andy has, and I'm more or less persuaded.) Now what? I guess what I'd really like to hear from Andy on (or anyone else invested in this), is what the STAKES of this conversation are. Is it more than just semantics? If it's not, then why the blue fuck are we still talking about it? If video games are not art (or comic books not graphic novels), what does that mean? Or, from another perspective: if they ARE art, then where does that take us?

Put another way: Andy, what is at risk by calling video games art, or comics graphic novels? What do we lose or gain?

That's my question. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to google "Aerith," because I have no idea who the fuck you people are talking about.

Kai Daigoji said...

Andy - fair points all round. I tend to think this is a somewhat unanswerable dilemma, and one we are unlikely to define our ways out of. It reminds me of a news post from Penny Arcade where they were playing a game from Japan, so the dialog trees were incomprehensible. What they ended up doing was creating their own narrative, matching up with the game - in this case, the female character stood in for all women. Thus, she comes, and she's unhappy about something (which is Japanese and therefore, incomprehensible) so you say something, anything, hoping it's the "right" thing. Then, because you guessed wrong, she takes your umbrella.

I would argue that a work of literature has been created in this description - somewhere between the interaction with the game and the interpretation, art has been created. But others may disagree for completely valid reasons.

I will say I'm glad we're not having the brain dead conversation that all video games are bad. (I was going to say that your definition of "not art" does indeed seem tautological, except that my own is even more tautological - this is a problem of tautology, so I'm not sure what the answer is.)

Mormonrage said...

I think your assertion that "all paintings are art" summarizes why this discussion is futile: you don't understand art.

Andy said...

Mormonrage, you're adorable.