Art Thou Entertained?

Controller paintbrush pic, by CY.

"Hug Marine is an art game. It's much more EXPANSIVE than your average artsy title, but it still falls into that category. Consequently, it doesn't take long to beat, it doesn't feel like a full experience, and it has a definite message in mind." - Browser Rousers.

Games are an artistic medium. This is not a topic that should realistically be debated, given that cinema, music, and literature can produce expressionist think-pieces consumed by the masses in the exact same way, although other media have the added benefit of being older, more established and thus less susceptible (though sadly not immune) to ignorant scepticism of the public's "art" classification.

But there does seem to be an odd behaviour cropping up every time a game departs from the clichéd status quo. People will define something as an "art" piece — not to define it as a form of expression through a creative medium, but to ostracize it, to remove it from everything else because it doesn't match their expectations. What worries me is that I'm not sure who should be more insulted: those making triple-A titles that will never be seen as art, or those attempting to take video games in a new direction only to be seen as spikes on the mainstream electrocardiogram of the audience?

The method of rationalising this approach to video games that first occurs to me is that triple-A titles are not artistic expression in the same way that, say, Braid was. In Braid, Jonathan Blow injected much of himself into the story, and knowing that it is a self-expressive piece changes your perception of its identity, and its purpose, sitting there on your hard drive, awaiting its chance to take you on a tour of Blow's inner self.

On the other hand, there's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which has had an entire team's input on the storyline, and hundreds of people have been involved in its overall conception, execution and marketing. While multiple individuals governing the story of something can certainly create art, the design-by-committee nature of large-scale videogame production does induce a scepticism on our part of just how personal and expressive it can be, and whether something so far from an individual or a small group can still feel like art, to us.

Oddly, however, the numbers involved may not actually be the problem, here. Super Meat Boy was created by two people, and Minecraft by one (initially, at least), but these games are not seen as art-house creativity yearning for the approving nod of those in-tune with self-expression through video games. They are competitive, straightforward, devoid of the overt signals that they hold some deep meaning (in stark contrast to Team Meat's Edmund McMillen's other titles, such as Aether or The Binding of Isaac) that allows gamers to firmly set them down in the Art Games box for all to look at and appreciate through that lens.

Are people afraid? Confused? Disappointed? It's hard to know how to feel when someone calls something you made "art," as though its expressive, personal nature is an excuse for some lack of polish or quality of gameplay. Some of the worst attempts at creativity you'll ever see can be written off as passable because they're "art."

I'd love to suggest that this is simply a fall-back, a reliable crutch for those debating a video game's merits — apologists, every last one of them! — but I can't. The reality is that people will often look past the flaws of the various ways in which we express ourselves because the meaning of what we have created resonates far more strongly than their desire for sweet weapons or multiplayer optimization.

That's definitely the case with Hug Marine. It now sits on Newgrounds with over 35,000 views and fans from average gamers up to Tom Fulp himself, many of whom mention that the mechanics may not be up to scratch, but it's the game's message, its meaning and its purpose, that is what makes them throw four or five stars at it when it comes to voting on my newborn attempt at expressing something a step to the left of the safe, market-research-assisted tones and traits of Battlefield 3.

Of course, that's not to imply that big games can't have a message or themes that go beyond Hollywood clichés, which we've come to rely on because they are easier than doing the work of reading into a game's deeper meaning. They can, by all means, provide commentary on war, sexuality, relationships, friendship and so on — but it is arguable that with a development team in the three or four digits, games like Battlefield 3 are never going to provide you with the personal sentiments of a single developer.

Is it art? Of course it is. All video games are. But should people classify it as art as a means to apologise for its failings? No. It's not a mechanically impressive game, and I'd rather people simply said that, rather than using the "art" label to sweep its flaws under the rug.

However, for every indie developer trying to talk about friendship, or depression, or religion in their games, there's a concept artist, or a writer, at a large studio attempting to bring something expressive to the table. It's high time we realised as an audience that although Halo 4 may not be to the high standards of the indie-praising elite in terms of its ability to express emotions and themes outside the safety of the norm, it's arguable that it may contain elements that can be read into in a positive, exploratory light, expressions worth touching on and discussing. Games are only as meaningful as we allow them to be, and it stands to reason that we can perceive them as art should we open our minds to the fact that they are created outside a rigid, industrial approach, despite the market figures and consumer research. Or so I hope.

Comments

I see this in Mass Effect. The overarching story is a bland mix of sci-fi clichés, but some real love went into some of the NPC's. Especially how Mordin's character developed, how his story evolved and ended, and his quirky humor (not often a game makes me laugh out loud) were brilliant.

You are right by the way. I find it hard to look past dreary clichés, especially ones of the dudebro kind. They bore me to tears, and are often enough to ditch an otherwise decent game. Maybe if I put some effort in finding personal stamps on characters or storylines I might enjoy these games more.

dejanzie wrote:

I see this in Mass Effect. The overarching story is a bland mix of sci-fi clichés, but some real love went into some of the NPC's. Especially how Mordin's character developed, how his story evolved and ended, and his quirky humor (not often a game makes me laugh out loud) were brilliant.

You are right by the way. I find it hard to look past dreary clichés, especially ones of the dudebro kind. They bore me to tears, and are often enough to ditch an otherwise decent game. Maybe if I put some effort in finding personal stamps on characters or storylines I might enjoy these games more.

I totally get your Mass Effect one - I saw an ME character die last night and it brought me to tears because of the way it was treated. There's so much love and creativity in the big games, as well - World of Warcraft is a favourite example, as a lot of the mobs have a ton of character, and the environments are incredible.

It's harder to push a message or personal-level creativity through, say, a military FPS, but it does strike me as odd that you could, if you wanted, consider any number of military films as art, but AAA games like COD or BF are out of the mix.

However, as it's been pointed out to me today, there is a theory of Blow's that states the art nature of the game does get worn away the larger the team is, and I think this can happen. But does that mean it's not art? It's something I'm really quite conflicted about, the more I think about it.

What's wrong with calling something an art game, really? If the primary focus or end result is something that is primarily artistic, overshadowing the other aspects of the media (this also applies to movies, music, etc), then why shouldn't it be called an artistic piece?

Seems like an inane argument over semantics if you ask me.

But does that mean it's not art? It's something I'm really quite conflicted about, the more I think about it.

I'm usually weary of 'are games art' discussions, as they tend to degenerate into a fight on whether games get to play with the cool art kids or not. As if games need to be art to be meaningful. The problems on discussing games as art start of course with its definition. Often an outdated Carthesian view of art is adhered to. In these view(s), something is either 100% art or it's 100% not. Since 'art' is a human label, it's not as objective as Newtonian laws. But the definition of art isn't completely subjective either.

Starting to rant, so let me link to this fantastic book and (from the author of that book) this article.

Grant Tavinor wrote:

What sorts of characteristics are we talking about? In a research paper on the topic, the philosopher Berys Gaut claims that art is comprised of the following properties:

"the presence of which ordinary judgment counts toward something's being a work of art, and the absence of which counts against its being art: (1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant (properties which ground a capacity to give sensuous pleasure); (2) being expressive of emotion; (3) being intellectually challenging (i.e. questioning received views and modes of thought); (4) being formally complex and coherent; (5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings; (6) exhibiting an individual point of view; (7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original); (8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill; (9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.); and (10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art."

So the definition of art has shifted over the centuries as well, and it's not as clear cut as in physics. Welcome to social sciences

You'll see that Call of Duty ticks some boxes in the checklist above (high degree of skill, positive aesthetic properties), but not as much as Braid (intention of art, conveying complex meanings, ...).

It at least makes some sense to me

Superbeard wrote:

What's wrong with calling something an art game, really? If the primary focus or end result is something that is primarily artistic, overshadowing the other aspects of the media (this also applies to movies, music, etc), then why shouldn't it be called an artistic piece?

Seems like an inane argument over semantics if you ask me.

Because it's like using the term "art film" to describe, say, David Lynch. It's still cinema, it's still adhering to the same standards as the stuff that isn't art - the only thing that's different is that it challenges people in a different way or presents them with something that isn't the norm. Thus, it's easier to call it "art" and dismiss it as just "one of those things" rather than to actually engage with it.

The reason it hits home is that it's frustrating to think that I could've made Kill Marine had never had the "art" comment - people seem to use the term because it's easier than just being honest and saying "I didn't like all of it, but it had a nice message and that allowed me to look past its flaws."

I really don't think it's an inane argument at all, to request that people (reviewers, especially) actually consider the terms they're using and what those terms may represent to those who actually take the time to engage with all creativity as an art form worthy of reading into, rather than someone who's just there for a bit of platforming (which is absolutely fine). It can be argued that the primary focus of all games, film, music and so on is to create something artistic, so yes, I don't plan on everyone agreeing that it's one way or the other, but I feel that it's worth actually making the effort to use the right words rather than using terms that make you look reluctant to actually read something in the same manner you would its AAA companion.

dejanzie wrote:

So the definition of art has shifted over the centuries as well, and it's not as clear cut as in physics. Welcome to social sciences :-)

I totally agree - it's not clear-cut, at all, and it's this weird mish-mash of different interpretations that I think hinders our understanding of what games are, and what they can be. I think it's harder to define something as "art" - personally speaking, of course - when there are a thousand people working on the "piece" as it were. If anything, it'd be cool to actually learn from people like yourself who drop in to wax thoughtful about the issue. :).

CY wrote:

If anything, it'd be cool to actually learn from people like yourself who drop in to wax thoughtful about the issue. .

I'm just glad I could post before Goodjers like Wordsmythe, Oso and Lobo sniff this thread out and outsmart me

dejanzie wrote:
CY wrote:

If anything, it'd be cool to actually learn from people like yourself who drop in to wax thoughtful about the issue. .

I'm just glad I could post before Goodjers like Wordsmythe, Oso and Lobo sniff this thread out and outsmart me :-D

Oh, mark my words. The Wordsmythe cometh.

CY wrote:

It's harder to push a message or personal-level creativity through, say, a military FPS, but it does strike me as odd that you could, if you wanted, consider any number of military films as art, but AAA games like COD or BF are out of the mix.

This is where I see that mass-market vs. intellectuals conflict come into play. There's a message behind everything but some messages are more congratulatory and feel-good, with a target audience of escapists. Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, and the later Rambo films for example. This is where we find COD and BF. Then we have the works that challenge and force difficult questions on the audience like Paths of Glory or Apocalypse Now. I suppose the best known example of this would be Mass Effect 3.

It's easy to use this comedy/tragedy division to draw the line. Armageddon is a movie because humanity gets its noble on and survives rogue asteroids. Melancholia is cinema because we watch the mental collapse of the film maker and in the end, it's all meaningless because the world is destroyed by a rogue planet. Despite where the Rambo films went, the first is about a man being emasculated and humiliated and then striking out at his tormentors with the weapons that an uncaring and brutal system gave him. Behind all those bullet strikes and blood splatters, there's an important message about violence.

Halo Reach is the one Halo game I've played over and over and I still feel affected by the scenes of Noble 6 flying over the burning cities or disabling Covenant destroyers so that the civilian ships can escape. Yeah, they were a little heavy handed in naming them team Noble, but I think it's still important to see that despite the futility in fighting, the Spartans kept trying to save their home and in so doing become far more human and relatable than Master Chief. AAA title, monolithic publisher wringing money out of their outgoing studio, but still room for a message about strength and perseverence.

Maybe it's the schizophrenic nature of MW that prevents this feeling. Without attachement to a person they can't have that easily felt and meaningful expression. All the bits and pieces don't really add up to a consistent message and it's all easily lost behind the gunsmoke and gibs.

Have you gotten to see Indie Game: The Movie yet? I think it was Blow in that documentary who makes a point about how the personal feel of a game gets refined away in a bigger-budget title. It was weird, because he phrases it in terms of "rough edges" versus "high polish," but he also talks at length about how much time he spends polishing his games.

It was Ebert who built on Romanticist notions (which showed up in film's auteur movement) to declare that games couldn't be art because interactivity precludes a strong enough authorial voice. In AAA games as in the reality of film (rather than Ebert's fantasy), you're really dealing with a vast network of interacting and cross-mediating voices from many, many contributors. Once you take into account how much subconscious forces guide even the poet's pen or painter's brush, the notion of an singular voice or artistic will becomes problematic even within "solo" art.

So yeah, I'll look at Halo 4 as a work of art. Perhaps bad art, perhaps dangerous or socially destructive art, but art all the same.

As for excusing your game from critique of its graphics or polish, I'm much more inclined to compare it to a vignette as opposed to a novel, to a sketch rather than a completed oil painting. It's in that light that the rough edges, the incompleteness, can easily take on a meaning in itself.

I feel like Frank Lantz's recent speech on games as an artform (and, specifically, why we struggle with "art" as applied in gaming discourse) is relevant to this discussion.

OzymandiasAV wrote:

I feel like Frank Lantz's recent speech on games as an artform (and, specifically, why we struggle with "art" as applied in gaming discourse) is relevant to this discussion.

Right on.

CY wrote:
dejanzie wrote:
CY wrote:

If anything, it'd be cool to actually learn from people like yourself who drop in to wax thoughtful about the issue. .

I'm just glad I could post before Goodjers like Wordsmythe, Oso and Lobo sniff this thread out and outsmart me :-D

Oh, mark my words. The Wordsmythe cometh.

Yeah. To be fair, I had a head start on comments to this, since I edit this site.

What always confuses me about the discussions is that, in order to be art, there needs to be check lists involved at all. That there are requirements to be filled, and most often it is artistic expression.

Maybe it's because my educational background involves user experience, but game design itself is an art form to me. Building systems that are fun is an art.

I think the only issue with video games versus cinema is that you more often have individuals at the front and center of a film. People know the names of writers and directors, and even actors. In some ways film can be a collaborative effort, but most of the time there are individuals whose styles we get used to and whose voices we hear most. Games don't have this as much because they are run a lot like software companies, and some developers like that. I've read developers say they like that an entire team gets its voice to be heard rather than giving the praise to specific individuals.

Me, I feel like that is both good AND bad.

But games are art for a lot of reasons, and saying Hug Marine is an art game is redundant. That, or it's saying Hug Marine is specifically trying to be art, which to me tends to be the worst sort. Are you really trying to make something good and enjoyable, or are you just trying to be a pretentious bastard?

Considering the reaction here, I imagine Hug Marine is the former (haven't played it yet myself).

are you just trying to be a pretentious bastard?

Some of us don't need to try.

ccesarano wrote:

But games are art for a lot of reasons, and saying Hug Marine is an art game is redundant. That, or it's saying Hug Marine is specifically trying to be art, which to me tends to be the worst sort. Are you really trying to make something good and enjoyable, or are you just trying to be a pretentious bastard?

I made a platformer about hugging - I'm not sure that could be considered pretentious by anyone. It's also not "art" in the sense they meant, either - it's literally just a game where hugging replaces killing.

CY wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

But games are art for a lot of reasons, and saying Hug Marine is an art game is redundant. That, or it's saying Hug Marine is specifically trying to be art, which to me tends to be the worst sort. Are you really trying to make something good and enjoyable, or are you just trying to be a pretentious bastard?

I made a platformer about hugging - I'm not sure that could be considered pretentious by anyone. It's also not "art" in the sense they meant, either - it's literally just a game where hugging replaces killing.

Well, you're provoking people to think and ask questions. Why is a marine defying his nature by hugging instead of shooting?

Why are the most intense scenes in this war movie about people arguing in a court martial?

If the marine just shot people and Kirk Douglas spent the whole two hours fighting them dirty krauts, no one would be "thinking."

Why do things need to have that sort of obvious "HEY, YOU COULD PROBABLY THINK ABOUT THIS, MAYBE" flag for people to actually think about them, though?

wordsmythe wrote:

Why do things need to have that sort of obvious "HEY, YOU COULD PROBABLY THINK ABOUT THIS, MAYBE" flag for people to actually think about them, though?

From a software design perspective, it is actually best if the user doesn't realize they're thinking about what they're doing and it instead feels instinctual.

But that's not necessarily the same as story-telling, even though it's part of that whole awkward place games sit at as a narrative medium and software design.

wordsmythe wrote:

Why do things need to have that sort of obvious "HEY, YOU COULD PROBABLY THINK ABOUT THIS, MAYBE" flag for people to actually think about them, though?

I'm not saying we need that. In fact, it would be great if we didn't. What I mean is that a game/film/music/etc. critic can use this rationale to stick that flag in Hug Marine with the word ART stitched across it. Then it can be quantified and measured and considered alongside Braid or Fez for the golden .jpg awards of some trendy institute.

gains wrote:

Well, you're provoking people to think and ask questions. Why is a marine defying his nature by hugging instead of shooting?

Actually, that's not the case at all - the description of the game on Newgrounds states that he's custom-built specifically to go out and hug aliens, so he's not actually rebelling against anything. Our perception of marines boils down to soldiers, essentially, but they could simply be very skilled negotiators who offer a warm embrace to avoid conflict and encourage friendship - wouldn't be the first time a soldier was friendly to the locals, I'd imagine.

I'm glad it provokes people to think and ask questions, but the game does have a reasonably big hint that he's not a rebel in its description (at least on the primary site the game's been played on) which answers the question you raised, I'd like to think.

CY wrote:
gains wrote:

Well, you're provoking people to think and ask questions. Why is a marine defying his nature by hugging instead of shooting?

Actually, that's not the case at all - the description of the game on Newgrounds states that he's custom-built specifically to go out and hug aliens, so he's not actually rebelling against anything. Our perception of marines boils down to soldiers, essentially, but they could simply be very skilled negotiators who offer a warm embrace to avoid conflict and encourage friendship - wouldn't be the first time a soldier was friendly to the locals, I'd imagine.

The Green Berets have been given similar tasks. "Winning the hearts and minds" and all that.

ccesarano wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Why do things need to have that sort of obvious "HEY, YOU COULD PROBABLY THINK ABOUT THIS, MAYBE" flag for people to actually think about them, though?

From a software design perspective, it is actually best if the user doesn't realize they're thinking about what they're doing and it instead feels instinctual.

I'm interested in this. I imagine the design in this case would be trying to encourage a certain kind of behavior in the user. What behavior would that be?

gains wrote:

What I mean is that a game/film/music/etc. critic can use this rationale to stick that flag in Hug Marine with the word ART stitched across it. Then it can be quantified and measured and considered alongside Braid or Fez for the golden .jpg awards of some trendy institute.

I think that CY makes the point that this artificial dichotomy hurts games on both side of the line.

As do I.

Are we answering different questions the same way or the same question different ways?

Right! I've had about enough reasonableness and agreement out of you.