Art for the computer age…

I was originally planning on doing a movie review while our gentle web-master is away, but a topic has come up too many times in the past few weeks for me not to write about it.

First it came up in the tag map of Kaedrin, when I noticed that some people were writing pages just to create appealing tag-maps.

Then it came up in Illinois and Louisiana. They’ve passed laws regulating the sale and distribution of “violent games” to minors. This, of course, has led to lawsuits and claims that the law violates free speech.

After that, it was the guys at Penny Arcade. They posted links to We Feel Fine and Listening Post.. Those projects search the internet for blogs (maybe this one?) and pull text from them about feelings, and present those feelings to an audience in different ways. Very interesting.

Finally, it came up when I opened up the July issue of Game Informer, and read Hideo Kojima’s quote:

I believe that games are not art, and will never be art. Let me explain � games will only match their era, meaning what the people of that age want reflects the outcome of the game at that time. So, if you bring a game from 20 years ago out today, no one will say �wow.� There will be some essence where it�s fun, but there won�t be any wows or touching moments. Like a car, for example. If you bring a car from 20 years ago to the modern day, it will be appealing in a classic sense, but how much gasoline it uses, or the lack of air conditioning will simply not be appreciated in that era. So games will always be a kind of mass entertainment form rather than art. Of course, there will be artistic ways of representing games in that era, but it will still be entertainment. However, I believe that games can be a culture that represent their time. If it�s a light era, or a dark era, I always try to implement that era in my works. In the end, when we look back on the projects, we can say �Oh, it was that era.� So overall, when you look back, it becomes a culture.�

Every time I reread that quote, I cringe. Here’s a man who is one of the most significant forces in video games today, the creator of Metal Gear, and he’s saying “No, they’re not art, and never will be.” I find his distinction between mass entertaintment and art troubling, and his comparison to a car flawed.

It’s true that games will always be a reflection of their times- just like anything else is. The limitations of the time and the attitudes of the culture at the time are going to have an effect on everything coming out of that time. A car made in the 60s is going to show the style of the 60s, and is going to have the tech of the 60s. That makes sense. Of course, a painting made in the 1700s is going to show the limits and is going to reflect the feelings of that time, too. The paints, brushes, and canvas used then aren’t necessarily going to be the same as the ones used now, especially with the popular use of computers in painting. The fact that something is a reflection of the times isn’t going to stop people from appreciating the artistic worth of that thing. The fact that the Egyptians hadn’t mastered perspective doesn’t stop anyone from wanting to see their statues.

What does that really tell us, though? Nothing. A car from the 80s may not be appreciated as much as a new model car as a means of transport, but Kojima seems to be completely forgetting that there are many cars that are appreciated as special. Nobody buys a 60s era muscle car because they think it’s a good car for driving around in- they buy it because they think it’s special, because some people view older cars as collectable. Some people do see them as more than a mere means of transportation. People are very much “wowed” by old cars. Is there any reason why this can’t be true of games?

I am 8 Bit seems to suggest that there are people who are still wowed by those games. Kojima may be partially correct, though. Maybe most of those early games won’t hold up in the long run. That shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re the first generation of games. The 8-Bit era was the begining of the new wave of games, though. For the first time, creators could start to tell real stories, beyond simple high-score pursuit. Game makers were just getting their wings, and starting to see what games were really capable of. Maybe early games aren’t art. Does that mean that games aren’t art?

The problem mostly seems to be that we’re asking the wrong questions. We shouldn’t be asking “are video games art” any more than we’d ask “are movies art.” It’s a loaded question and you’ll never come to any real answer, because the answer is going to depend completely on what movie you’re looking at, and who you’re asking. The same holds true with games. The question shouldn’t be whether all games are art, but whether a particular game has some artistic merrit. How we decide what counts as art is constantly up for debate, but there are games that raise such significant moral or philosophical questions, or have such an amazing sense of style, or tell such an amazing story, that it seems hard to argue that they have no artistic merrit.

All of this really is leading somewhere. Computers have changed everything. I know that seems obvious, but I think it’s taking some people- people like Kojima- a little longer to realize it. Computers have opened up a level of interactivity and access to information that we’ve never really had before. I can update Kaedrin from Michigan, and can send a message to a friend in Germany, all while buying videos from Japan and playing chess with a man in Alaska (not that I’m actually doing those things… but I could). These changes are going to be reflected in the art our culture produces. There’s going to be backlash and criticism, and we’re going to find that some people just don’t “get it” or don’t want to. We’ve gone through the same thing countless times before. Nobody thought movies would be seen as art when they came on the scene, and they were sure that the talkies wouldn’t. When Andy Warhol came out, there were plenty of nay-sayers. Soup cans? As art? Computers have generally been accepted as a tool for making art, but I think we’re still seeing the limits pushed. We’ve barely scratched the surface. The interaction between art, artist, and viewer is blurring, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.

4 thoughts on “Art for the computer age…”

  1. A few comments:

    1. As you mentioned, I find his distinction between art and entertainment dubious at best. I don’t even really understand what the distinction is, so much so that I’m wondering if something was lost in translation (I’m assuming that this guy is not a native English speaker). Something that is entertaining can still be art and art is always a product of its time. Watching a film, reading a book, or viewing a painting is all enhanced by an understanding of the cultural and historical context of the artist(s) who created the film/book/painting. The same thing will probably go for video games (look at my review of Pitfall II – there are several attempts to contextualize the technology of the era, so as to aid in the appreciation of the game).

    2. That said, the inclusion of the car metaphor may be Kojima’s way of speaking of novelty. Once we play a game to death, we become bored with it and don’t appreciate it much. Yes, there may be historical importance or a relevant cultural hook, but the actual functionality becomes stale (just as a car’s functionality is rarely why people collect classic cars).

    3. “Computers have generally been accepted as a tool for making art, but I think we’re still seeing the limits pushed.” Pshah, ever talk to a mac user? They’ll have you believe that the computer itself is a work of art:)

    4. “The interaction between art, artist, and viewer is blurring, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.” Me too. It’s interesting, because it seems like interactivity is on the rise, and we’ve now got these video games which are more like interactive movies… it’s no wonder that the film industry is experiencing some leveling off of profits. I seriously doubt it’s piracy that is the cause of the problem – people want what they want, when they want it, and video games give them the added bonus of interactivity.

    There’s probably a lot more to be said on the subject, but it’d probably be better saved for another post. Thanks again for posting!

  2. 1. Obviously, I agree with you. I don’t see any reason why something can’t have both mass appeal, and artistic significance. I think it’s an elitist attitude that says “if something appeals to the masses, it can’t be art.” I can understand that argument that *great* art should have *some* “timeless” aspect. That is, something about “great art” trancends the time it was created in, and has the ability to speak to us. Shakespeare’s works are great, in part, because they deal with universal themes (or, at least, themes that appear to be universal to us). They have messages and issues that, even hundreds of years after they were written, we can relate to and understand on some level.

    2. That could be his angle, but I have to disagree with it. My recent Mario Mega Marathon of Madness (MMMM) provides some evidence to the flaw there. We may become tired of some games, but it doesn’t follow that we’ll grow tired of *all* games, or even that a period of being tired of a game won’t end. I enjoyed the Mario games quite a bit, despite the fact that I’d played them practically to death before. There are some games that seem to maintain popularity regardless of how many times they’re played, or how old they get. Final Fantasy has be rereleased quite a few times, and people are paying out the nose for a copy of Castlevania for the playstation a decade after the fact. Besides, art isn’t usually concerned with utility. In fact, art- in some ways- is almost the opposite. We appreciate tools for their utility- we appreciate art for the aesthetic.

    3. Heh. So true.

    4. It’s not even just the level of interactivity that’s changing. We’re seeing games that are really pushing the envelope in regards to what counts as a game. There have always been some experiemental games out there- stuff like “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” (based on the short story), or “Grim Fandango.” But I think we’re starting to see more and more games coming out where there’s a lot more focus on artistic vision than ever before. It’s hard to play “Killer 7” and not feel like it’s almost more a performance piece than a game. It seems like the industry is strong enough now, and the technology has reached a point that it’s allowing game makers to really go out on a limb to make some crazy stuff.

    Thanks for having me guest post!

  3. I kinda know where he’s coming from. His mistake lies in trying to generalise and sweep all games under the carpet of ‘not art’ – there can be exceptions. But generally speaking, I’d say I kinda agree with him.. mostly because it frustrates me when people try to validate their pop culture consumption by tagging it as ‘art’.

    I realise that ‘art’ is the hardest term to define, and people will always bicker back and forth about what counts and what doesn’t, but I feel that just slapping the ‘art’ tag onto whatever you please is disrespectful to the true art. It’s like you said – there are games which raise such questions, or such feeling, that it would be silly to argue that they are not art.

    The same sort of thing applies to books and television and movies and everything else.

    I suppose you would say that I am arguing for ‘good art’ rather than ‘art’ in general, but I find that distinction to be pointless. I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as ‘bad art’. It either evokes those thoughts and emotions, or it doesn’t.

    Of course, this argument leads to the conclusion that even specific items within an accepted ‘art form’ can not be ‘art’: ie. ‘bad’ poetry, a brainless clone of a movie, regurgitated pop songs etc. Perhaps in this stance I am far more harsh and demanding than what others are like. But I can’t help feeling that as soon as we start painting everything around us in the light of being ‘art’, then the term loses all meaning and becomes nothing more than just another way of pretentiously validating everything around you.

    Very interestig post, Sam. Cheers.

  4. Well, I think that’s probably true, but I don’t know that most people who art talking about games and art think that *all* games are art. Just like I don’t know anybody who thinks that all photographs, movies, books, or sculptures are art.

    I certainly wouldn’t try to argue that all games are art (Britney’s Dance Grooves is *definitely* not art). =)

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