Computer games and art: the practice of deepening our gameplay experiences
23. 6. 10.
The question ‘are computer games art?’ is not a productive one if there is the expectation that there can be a reasonable answer to it without some questioning of the question itself. I will explain why this is so and make the case that we would be better served by thinking about the ‘aesthetic experiences’ that playing computer games may foster as opposed to their categorization as art or as non-art. One may well ask: ‘are artworks not synonymous with inculcating aesthetic experiences?’ The answer to this can only be ‘of course’ yet the qualification here is that we have to be precise about the kinds of ‘experiences’ in question. If we expect computer games to be able to convey complex states of interiority encountered by a protagonist grappling with a gamut of emotions, then we would potentially be comparing the game to works of literature and philosophy (and judging it as such). The orientation that I suggest is, moving away from preoccupations of artistic status towards scrutinizing experience can potentially shift our attention away from pining for the acceptance of computer games into the fold of high culture – a dubious aim at best – to focusing on deepening our gameplay experiences. This aim of deepening aims to have us become more attentive to our experiences and to then demand games that push the boundaries of existing experiences.
‘Aesthetics’ and ‘experience’
Computer games are multimedial works. In this respect, we might call them Gesamstkunstwerks (total works of art) made through collaborations of skilled individuals that go beyond the confines of a single medium. When we play them, we can focus on the experience as a whole or attune ourselves more narrowly to, for example, the visual representations, the animation, the level design, the dialogue, the musical score, etc. The notion of ‘experience’ that I have mentioned can be brought out via existing understandings of the concept of ‘aesthetics’ (or the ‘aesthetic’), which is a polyvalent one. Western aesthetics has generally demarcated aísthēsis (perception from the senses as well as discernment through them) from noesis (purely intellectual apprehension or the application of reason). ‘Aesthetics’ is often taken expansively to encompass the overlapping concepts of: ‘sensation’, or what presents itself to our sensory experiences in general; ‘perception’, where the activity of the viewer is crucial to the mode in which the object is apprehended or perceived; and ‘judgment’, in which aesthetic judgments are characterized by their not being mediated by the application of concepts or reason. ‘Game aesthetics’ may be taken to connote a degree of distinctiveness to computer games, digital games, or videogames. It can be taken in terms of the experience of gameplay: ‘how it feels to play a game’; playing games can be said to yield particular kinds of experiences or perceptions through the senses, which can be studied with an aesthetic focus.
The philosopher John Dewey consistently made the case for seeing continuity between so-called ‘high’ culture and popular culture. Dewey thought that what was to be avoided was the human creature divided against itself, which happens when our capacities (emotional, intellectual, sensory) are not be allowed to work naturally in conjunction with one another but are instead compartmentalized or separated from each other. This occurs as soon as we think about the realm of ‘art’ as separate from the sphere of ‘life’. It happens as soon as we assume that aesthetic experiences are only to be had when we enter into the designated space of the art gallery or the opera house (and not outside of them). To do this is to leave behind all our other experiences to languish as non-aesthetic, or even to assume that they are merely ‘instrumental’ – geared towards and reducible to a direct end like earning a wage, cleaning the house, keeping fit, having a conversation with friends, and that there is nothing else to them. The potential richness of improving our immediate experiences, of integrating aesthetic experiences into individuals’ vital interests and lives would therefore be missed. This is not to put the blame at the feet of artists or curators or critics; it is not to say that there are not works in the art world that are not contributing to the deepening of our experience – there certainly are. Yet it is also the case that there are real financial interests in play that want to keep the art world as separate. Preserving its power of categorical consecration, its ability to bestow the symbolic status of ‘this is art’, is to keep the current ordering of the world.
Built into the question ‘are computer games art?’ are many key assumptions. These assumptions are arguably hostile to our developing fine-grained attentiveness to the actual experiences of gameplay. The first assumption concerns how the concept of ‘art’ is deployed with the supposition that either some works are ‘art’ or they are not. This is a binary categorization that can stifle further questioning. Secondly, there is the invocation of ‘computer games’ as a single category, which does little to help us parse the very different sorts of gameplay available even within a single genre. Finally, there is the assumption that computer games are like (most) other artworks in that they are identifiable objects or works. In this framing, the value is thought to reside more in the expression of artistic insights into the work by the developer and less in the process of what the player brought to the gameplay in order to enliven the experience in the greatest possible way for them. When players report that a game like Dark Souls (2011, FromSoftware) helped them to battle depression, it is the psychological state (together with the dedication) that the player brought with them that, in a concatenation of player and game via a lengthy process, produced an experiential transformation in the player.
Critics applying aesthetic criteria
The film critic Roger Ebert caused controversy when, in 2005, he claimed that video games, which, by their nature require player choices, could not attain the stature of art, since serious art like film and literature all require authorial control. Although he later stated that it was foolish to deny that all games could not ever be art even in principle, his position arguably concretized a perspective that is held by many – that computer games are juvenile, unsophisticated, geared towards immediate gratification, saturated with bombastic visual effects, quantified so as to preclude ambiguity, pandering to vulgar emotions. I am less interested here in dissecting Ebert’s arguments or in mounting counter-arguments (others have already done this) than in pointing out the nature of the claim itself. It is a claim that in order for games to seriously contend for the status of art, they must become like other accepted art forms. For some, this is so uncontroversial as to go without saying. Even for some philosophers of computer games, it has been a difficult position to escape.
Grant Tavinor is a philosopher of the arts. His writings have largely focused on the ontological issue of whether computer games can be deemed to be art. He has consistently held that this can be answered in the affirmative but has always severely qualified it so that only a subset of video games are properly considered art. His approach has been to turn to existing definitions of art – to analyse the extent to which computer games do or do not satisfy their conditions – yet to do so without championing any single theory. This is accomplished by taking the ‘cluster theory’ approach which posits a list of aesthetic properties; a computer game is deemed to be a work of art if it instantiates a sufficient number of these attributes. In his 2009 book, The Art of Videogames, Tavinor cites on page 177 the cluster definition given by aesthetician Berys Gaut, which had stated that the following properties 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.
Tavinor emphasises that Gaut is not necessarily committed to these ten conditions in their particularity, only that they are the kind of conditions that should make up a successful cluster account of art. Clearly, Tavinor appears to share the view that such existing cluster theories are broadly correct in their articulation of such conditions, even if they reserve the right for themselves to make revisions on finer points. The application of this approach leads him to preclude games that have been recognized as classics, such as Space Invaders (1978, Taito) and Red Dead Redemption (2010, Rockstar San Diego), from artistic status. This is because they only have very partial overlap with the cluster theory. About Red Dead Redemption, Tavinor says the following in a chapter in the Routledge Companion to Game Studies (p.60):
Red Dead Redemption is frequently and justly held up as a high point of recent game art, but even in this game the drama and narrative is a rather derivative and often ham-fisted approximation of the Western genre; treated as a film, it is firmly B grade. It is an unexceptionable statement that the narrative, characterization, acting, and writing found in video games are often of poor quality. Moreover, it is difficult to find a single instance where these aspects reach the heights of refinement they do in the confirmed arts.
In other words, Red Dead Redemption appears to be judged primarily with regard to its ‘narrative, characterization, acting, and writing’. These elements can be more easily accommodated in cluster theories than may be the case with the feel or the rhythm of the gameplay experience as a product of its ‘interactivity’ (or some other framing of its distinctive qualities). Thus, although Tavinor believes that computer games should be treated, as a form of art, on their own terms, and not simply seen as derivative forms of pre-existing types, the reality of his applying a cluster theory amounts exactly to applying a list of qualities that come from extant theories of art. As such, these qualities were formulated in a cultural and historical milieu in which the candidacy of computer games as art, or even as capable of fostering experiences worthy of aesthetic consideration, were not genuinely entertained. Tavinor’s philosophical methodology determined the result.
Are artists who work with games interested in gameplay?
It is not just existing philosophical frameworks that have had a hard time with making sense of the experience of gameplay. The art world has tended to exhibit computer games by presenting them in the neutral context of a historical overview, which sidesteps the issue of the qualities of their gameplay. The first UK exhibition to show games was Game On: the History and Culture of Video Games at the Barbican Art Gallery in 2002. The Smithsonian American Art Museum also took a historical approach in 2012 with The Art of Video Games, featuring games from Combat (1977) to LittleBigPlanet 2 (2011). Alternatively, other strategies include foregrounding commonly understood aspects of games such as the playable avatar, the premise of inhabiting a virtual world, or the representational aspects of games. The American artist Cory Arcangel is known for his conceptual focus on the visual aspects of computer games. His works rank amongst the most widely known ‘game-related art’, having been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art – Chicago. One of Arcangel’s most celebrated pieces is his Super Mario Clouds, a video installation of the 1983 game Super Mario Bros. modded so as to be stripped of everything except the cyan sky and white 8-bit clouds game clouds drifting across it. There is no Mario, no koopa troopas, no goombas. Gameplay has been exorcised in favour of visual contemplation.
In a similar vein, Arcangel’s 2011 exhibition at the Barbican called Beat the Champ, an installation that featured fourteen bowling games (from the 1970s to the 2000s) in chronological order, precluded gameplay(https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2011/event/cory-arcangel-beat-the-champ). As the viewer walks through the space, the sounds that the encounter are not ones of bowling ball striking pins but the whir of ‘gutter balls’ as each of the games has been programmed by Arcangel so that the bowler does not score a single point. Thus, the gallery goer encounters the kind of authorial control lauded by Ebert. They are confronted with the audio-visual dimensions of failure in bowling games, designed to elicit a series of subsequent reflections. But when seen in terms of the experience of gameplay, it is a determined failure that is shorn from social and gaming context that would give failure meaning. The presence of the consoles themselves at the exhibition – the gameplay on show are not mere recordings – further underscores your inability to play the games themselves. This is an inability to experience the tensions and anxieties involved in the gameplay, the dance of fingers on buttons, the acclimatization to gaming rhythms, the inevitable frustrations, and the judgment of which game might offer the most compelling gameplay and why this may be so. It goes without saying that the artwork here is what Arcangel did with the games and how he displayed them. As with Super Mario Clouds, the claim to art lies in the conceptual and the visual aspects of the display – a language familiar to the art world. It is most certainly not the games themselves. The embodied challenges of the gameplay as an experience also do not feature.
* Image from: https://coryarcangel.com/shows/beat-the-champ
Robbie Cooper’s installation Immersion (2008), on the other hand, does take gameplay as a point of interest. It documented the embodied reactions of users of digital media across the world(https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/robbie-cooper-immersion). A prominent component of this consists of children playing computer games. The high-definition video capture of the players’ faces (the camera is in the position of the screen so the players seems to look directly at us) gives us the impression that we can peer into the moment-by-moment mental states of the players. Although we cannot see the changing displays, we are able to draw correspondences between the sounds emanating from the game and the players’ facial expression and bodily postures. One girl is playing the fighting game Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection(2005, Namco). There are sounds accompanying the special effects as blows connect, as well as the grunts and yowls of the characters. We can piece together the unfolding action, since anyone who has played Tekken will remember which moves trigger which sounds. We see Cooper’s subjects’ bodily, emotional, and cognitive sense-making in process, how the action has been enacted by the player and how it then affects the player in the machinic loop between player and game that is gameplay. Yet while Cooper is able to bring our attention to the complexity of the players’ experiences in question here and how they are bound up with their bodily being in the world, he is not able to shed any further light on them. He holds up a mirror but does not comment.
* Image from: https://robbiecooper.com/project/immersion
Indie game makers have pushed our gaming experiences by challenging existing gaming conventions, by having us see what has been normalized within genres as accepted practice by players and developers to fit a model of ‘good gameplay’. Thus, they offer their commentaries on what has gone stale in the status quo of game design and what else we might have instead, what alternatives experiences are possible. Of course, larger developers have also done this; my contribution here is not to attempt a history of such innovations. There are innumerable indie examples to draw from here, and they have all been discussed at length by others elsewhere so I will keep this very short. Undertale (2015, Toby Fox) forced us to confront our own assumptions around the RPG genre by underscoring that what we thought was the only way in any situation might not in fact be the only one (and may indeed not be the only way for gameplay to occur); Braid (2008, Number None) opened up avenues for considerations of time-based mechanics, for thinking about causation that has influenced many other games; The Stanley Parable (2013, Galactic Cafe) riffed on choice and freedom through the limits of replayability in order to question how freedom in games might ultimately be rather limited; Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy (2017, Bennett Foddy) tested the player’s relationship with themselves – whether they were able to ‘get over it’ or whether they were entrapped to exact unforgiving expectations on themselves for the sake of their own egos or self-identification as ‘hardcore gamers’. These and other games have provoked reflection on the gameplay experience. My point, however, is certainly not that we should await such thoughtful offerings and to pin all expectations of claims to artistic status and aesthetic experience on them.
A deepening of the gameplay experience
The Deweyan project called for an integration of art and life, which is something that is only possible when we are able to, as a community, bring the attention that we might reserve for art to everyday life. This is no small challenge. In this essay, I have been talking about the gameplay ‘experience’ and the need to deepen it. The best way to do this is for every individual to direct their attention to their own gaming experiences and to hone their ability to do so. This would be in keeping with the Deweyan idea of fostering a community of human beings that do not have their capacities divided into compartments corresponding to social norms. I can attempt to sketch out some general aspects of gameplay experience which are shared across a range of games, acknowledging that these descriptive generalizations are only pale shadows of the specific experiences that individuals actually have under specific circumstances: there is the joy in seeing our gradual skill-development as we internalize the game mechanics and come to act and respond in accordance with principles that we have inferred, which are also principles that we adapt over time; there is the strategic appraisal of different choices and the speculation over their possible outcomes; there is the strain in the exercise of memory in which pieces of information are selectively recalled or forgotten as they become relevant or obsolete; there is the intelligent but non-conscious focusing of attention to some moving stimuli and not others, a keeping track of the complex and ever-shifting landscape of moving opportunities and threats; there is an appreciation for the ebb and flow of the gameplay, for periods of rest and moments of being on the brink of loss or victory; there is a keenly honed spatial and temporal awareness applicable to specific contexts such as certain levels, where the action of a split-second condenses some possibilities and severs others; and finally, there is the pleasure in the ability to act automatically, intuitively, masterfully, in serene moments where control is both relinquished and yet exercised.
It is the case that we can often be amnesiac with respect to our gameplay experiences. We play the game, relegating the experience to that of mere ‘fun’ in our own head, and then learn to forget about it afterwards. This is because we have not attempted to apply the aesthetic perspective to what we do not think is ‘art’. Alternatively, we might think about gaming only as a form of training to get better or of beating a challenge, measuring value by our progress in this respect. Instead, we might take time to mull over the contours and textures of our gameplay experiences, considering how they unfolded, how they are developing, how they might have been different, and what about them succeeded or failed to captivate us (and why). The demands of gameplay can of course make such reflections, in the moment of play, difficult. With greater proficiency in the game this becomes easier over time. Such accomplishment (both in the game and in attending to our experience) takes practice. As the philosopher of habit, Clare Carlisle has remarked, our attentiveness to thoughts, physical sensations and emotional responses can catch habit in the act and can lead to the cultivation of a connoisseurial sensitivity. Through this practice, we might come to a more refined understanding of the aesthetic value of gameplay experiences, in their complexity, and thus a deepening of our experience that will cascade into a greater appreciation of what games can potentially offer.