Reconciling Art History and Video Games

 Nov 23, 2015   Digital Essays, iDMAa Conference Journal 2015, Peer-reviewed   No Comments

Digital Essay by René Alberto García Cepeda, Universidad de Las Americas, Puebla, Mexico

 

Video games have become one of the most successful forms of entertainment in the world, and as such has become an important distributor of popular culture. This fact has recently interested artists and video game creators who have turned from creating simple entertainment to utilizing the medium to communicate emotions, political messages and even pure aesthetics with their audience. However, within the art world a certain resistance exists not only to video games on the basis of their “low-culture” origins but due to their interactivity, with the most notorious example coming from film critic Roger Ebert (Ebert) where he denounces the lack of authorship that stems from interactivity. This is understandable as historically touch (and by extension interactivity) was ignored. Philosophers from Plato to Hegel fail to discuss it, or subsume it to a broader discussion of the senses (Mileaf 7). Aristotle considered it inferior due to his perception that touch was related to the sensual body (Mileaf 7) while Greenberg banished tactility from readings of “the modern sensibility” (Mileaf 9). Washington Post critic Phillip Kennicott denounces interactivity saying:

Many art forms are fundamentally resistant to the kind of participation celebrated in the gaming world. The fact that you can’t reach into the pages of a novel by Charles Dickens to avert disaster, or assuage the pain in a crucifixion painting from the Renaissance, or save the young courtesan from death in an opera by Verdi is part of the moral and aesthetic project of experiencing them as art. A certain kind of passivity, a submission to the artist’s vision, may be essential to art. It’s entirely possible that great art disempowers as much as it empowers.

Kenicott ignores the fact that while video games are interactive, they are not boundless. Interaction occurs within the limits the designers set to it (Hocking). To further illustrate this I submit the following scene from Spec Ops: the Line (2012), a game released two months after Kennicott’s article, which asks the player to use white phosphorous, a banned incendiary substance, on what the player believes is a platoon of enemy soldiers. The game, through dialogue, stresses the immorality of the action, while the protagonist is dismissive of the consequences. When the player takes control, the only option is pressing [spacebar] to fire on the soldiers. Once this is done, the character witnesses the consequences of the devastation, and suffering caused by his actions. The interaction is limited to pulling the trigger; the narrative is still as set as in Kennicott’s examples. But Spec Ops uses interactivity to offer a choice: play the game or shut it off (Dyer), and in that lies the artistry in the interactive choice. As a player you either push through out of a need to “finish the mission” or you just delete the game and “go home.” Interactivity is not the abandonment of authorship, it is one of many tools available to authors for delivering meaning.

Having offered a counter to the idea that interactivity negates authorship, now we have to question ourselves as to whether video games have authors or even auteurs, that is, individuals with the vision to create works of art with meanings and creativity.

Originally video games were a way for engineers to explore the limits of a new technology (computers), and only afterwards becoming entertainment (Bissell). The paradigm seemed to go from small independent efforts to massive multi-million dollar productions (Brustein). However by the early 2000’s the Internet’s reach and ubiquity offered small independent groups the means to connect with other creators and distribute their work without the need for big publishers such as Electronic Arts or Activision-Blizzard (Pajot and Swirsky). This facilitated independence and creative control which in turn translated into highly experimental titles (Bycer); however, it came with great financial and personal risks (Woodrow; Hietalahti). As a result of this creative freedom, titles such as Journey (2012), Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013), and To Build a Better Mousetrap (2014) have become possible. These games address subjects such as the wonder of discovery, acceptance and growth via a significant other’s death, and the injustices and consequences of neo-liberal schemes of production respectively. These are not accidental thematic attributions; in each case, intention is central to these works, and the auteurs have made definite statements on what they intended to communicate. Game creator Jenova Chen tells us “…that not only is Journey a metaphor for life and death, it is also an apt description of the struggle that Los Angeles-based Thatgamecompany went through” (Takahashi). There is no speculation here, Chen´s aim is not to create a toy, instead he displays the same artistic intentions that we can find in Munch’s The Sick Child (1885–86); this of course applies to other game creators as well (Mahardy; Pedercini).

Figure 1, Peter Molyneux, Fable III, 2010

Figure 1, Peter Molyneux, Fable III, 2010

 

Even in the corporate environment, auteurs do surface from time to time, perhaps with more modest proclivities in comparison with their independent counterparts, but with clear artistic visions. Peter Molyneux (Fig. 1), Tim Schafer, David Cage and Hideo Kojima (Fig. 2) go beyond simple entertainment. They seek to encourage thought and criticism in the tradition of artists such as David or Marina Abramovic.

Figure 2. Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid IV. 2008.

Figure 2. Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid IV. 2008.

For example In Peter Molyneux’s latest game, Fable 3, saving the kingdom is not a matter of combat, it depends on careful economic and social choices where making the morally correct choice might be prejudicial to the long term survival of a kingdom, and vice versa, thus upturning a long narrative tradition of Manichean world views. Another example can be found in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001):

Knowledge will be a major component in the world-wide competitions for power and it is conceivable that nation-states will one day fight for control of information just as they battled for control over territories in the past … Knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government. (Metal Gear Solid 2, Hideo Kojima, 2001)

Kojima, through his game reflects on how information and societal control through manipulation of knowledge are used to control not only his characters but the player as well, and thus elevates a camp game into a critique of society.

Having argued that authorship and auteurs are possible in the field, it is now necessary to define art and its relationship to video games. To define the term is a complicated task that philosophers as varied as Plato, Kant, Danto, and Nietzsche, amongst others, have attempted; yet repeatedly, art seems to find new forms that do not fit previous rules. As post-modern thought took over, it became clearer that one all encompassing theory is impossible as the field continues expanding (Warburton, 37; Freeland, xviii). In this paper, three theories will be the focus of my research: Clive Bell’s significant form (1914), Robin George Collingwood’s expression of emotion (1938) and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family resemblances (1967). While these theories and particularly Bell’s theory have been critiqued to the point of obsolescence (Warburton 24-35), they hold particular value as comparison tools. Arguably the three theories cannot respond to all artistic manifestations adequately, yet they each address some of the inherent facets of the art question. Therefore, if we can analyze particular games with a combination of the three theories, we could come closer to determining whether those particular examples are art. It should be mentioned that this is not a qualitative survey; or, as Marcel Duchamp would put it: art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art (Duchamp 138).

Clive Bell’s significant form states “certain objects, created by human hands, for whatever reason have been charged with a power to produce an aesthetic emotion in sensitive viewers” (Warburton 10; Freeland 96). Here we find ourselves with the question, what is significant form? A combination of lines, shapes and colors in certain relations, which evokes an aesthetic emotion and allows us to examine the structure of the world as it really is. In a way, Bell assigns a metaphysical timeless quality to works of art that not only is irreproducible but observable in a feeling of supreme elation at being exposed to a true work of art (Warburton 10-16; Bell). Critiques of the theory include: To whom is this form significant to? Who are the illuminated ones that can judiciously judge true art? However, the theory involves certain concepts that are well understood and taught in art schools, such as golden ratios, rule of thirds, phi, Fibonacci sequences and color theory (Adams; Zeki). By using these rules and expanding to include scene framing, acting, narrative, and character and world design, then we could use the theory as a way to gauge the artistry of particular examples.

R.G. Collingwood describes art as “the imaginative expression of emotion in a way that goes from a general imprecise feeling, to an expression that allows an understanding on part of the audience of the exact kind of feeling the artist feels” (Warburton 49-50; Collingwood). It is also important that this expression be rid of utilitarian purpose, for example, creating a painting for the purpose of arousing a religious feeling, to entertain or invoke a sense of patriotism, would not be considered art (1958 6). Criticism to the theory is vast. In one hand it admits too much while excluding too much. Under this definition, multiple artworks would be rejected from the artistic canon. Renaissance paintings, film, theatre and even video games would be rejected offhand (Warburton 60-61). The theory also depends on being privy to the aetiology of the object, something that is often unavailable to the contemporary viewer. Nevertheless, even if this theory de jure dismisses video games, game authors themselves adhere to it, as shown in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie (2012) and in interviews with other authors (Conditt; Mahardy), therefore any discussion about games as art must include expression of emotion in its analysis.

The last theory is family resemblances, and with it, Wittgenstein seeks to define art through a series of familiar resemblances instead of a common denominator like emotion or the evocation of an aesthetic reaction on the viewer (Warburton68). Influenced by this, the philosopher Morris Weitz argues that it is impossible to find the essence of art, and instead we should focus on whether particular works can be categorized as art through resemblances to other accepted works of art (Warburton 74-76). Weitz’s theory gives no definition of art; instead, he leaves open the possibility that a not yet discovered underlying common characteristic exists and that art would cease should a closed definition be found for it since such an action would negate creativity (Warburton 82). In the case of video games we could argue they hold similarities to performance art like the works of Pippin Barr, or film in Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid, or to protest art in the case of Spec Ops The Line.

Be it Pippin Barr’s The Artist is Present, or Spec Ops The Line, the intention to create art is present in their creators. The following in-depth analysis of the critically successful game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons will help make all these points clear.

Figure 3, Josef Fares, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, 2013

Figure 3, Josef Fares, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, 2013

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013, Fig. 3), was created by famed Swedish director Josef Fares in collaboration with Starbreeze Studios (Mahardy). In Brothers, we are confronted with the tragedy of a family faced with multiple deaths (Mahardy). In the opening scene we see two children mourning the death of their mother, an event the younger brother blames on himself, while their father is ill and who can only be saved, by finding the tree of life. While the plot follows basic fairy tale tropes, Brothers distinguishes itself by expanding on Collingwood’s theory of expression of emotion, by allowing us to experience the emotions he wishes to communicate to the audience, through the control of both brothers with one controller.

The game involves the brothers working together solving environmental puzzles; these interactions start as simple two step operations, but eventually grow in complexity. It is this mechanic that drives the main message of Brothers, communicating Fare’s message of brotherly collaboration and personal growth. The final twist comes in the third act, at which point the younger brother is faced with the death and burial of his older sibling. While some games would load the moment with melodrama, Brothers, instead, asks more of us. First, it eliminates inputs from the stick which controlled the older brother, then requires the player to dig a grave, drag the brother into it and finally bury him (Fig. 4). This is done in total silence, and only when the burial is complete, does the musical score resume, and while it is a stirring piece, it is not manipulative; it is sorrowful, yet optimistic.

Figure 4. Josef Fares, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. 2013.

Figure 4. Josef Fares, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. 2013.

 

The epilogue then subverts the mechanics again by returning control of the elder brother’s side of the controller, this time, however, acting as a way to provide the younger one the strength to perform actions that previously had been impossible for him alone, driving home the message of the importance of brotherhood and growth (Mahardy). Fares finds a way to make the player experience the grief of the younger brother by using interactivity and turning the audience into the child. This is no vague feeling of sadness; the vibrations while digging, the act of picking up the boy and finally interring the body add emotional weight. It is an ordeal, one in which Fares and the audience are complicit; the player now knows what interring a sibling feels like, an experience Fares is familiar with, yet in doing so explores it in a new way not possible in film (Mahardy). This is precisely what Collingwood meant when he says: “[The artist] explores his own emotions: to discover emotions in himself of which he was unaware, and, by permitting the audience to witness the discovery, enable them to make a similar discovery about themselves” (Collingwood 6).

Brothers works through the expression of emotions (Mahardy) and as an aesthetic experience. Bell tells us “to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions (Warburton 10)”. This in a way is disingenuous, as Fares’ work could not have happened without the emotional baggage inherent in his life. However, just as Collingwood recognizes the need for craftsmanship ( Warburton 44), we can recognize the aesthetic rules Clive Bell requires for art to be considered as such. These combinations of lines, color and shapes have been found to at least have some neurological truth behind them, and indeed there is a certain biologically response to significant arrangements (Zeki). In Brothers’ case, if we use the expanded definition I previously delineated, we can say that color, composition, framing, character design, physical space and more pictorial concepts all come together to create a work possessing the qualities Bell expected from works of art. Indeed these qualities have been recognized in critiques of the game by critics such as Stephen Riach who tells us:

This tale of two brothers looks stunning thanks to a cinematic viewpoint being emphasized at all times and impressive lighting effects being used throughout the adventure. Character models are a bit simplistic-looking, but that style works pretty well since they still convey emotion (Riach).

Thus, even in isolation from qualities such as intention or context, Fares’ work could qualify as art.

Figure 5. Law of thirds, lighting, set design and framing in Brothers: a tale of two sons.

Figure 5. Law of thirds, lighting, set design and framing in Brothers: a tale of two sons.

Qualities such as emotional depth, beauty and intention of the artist are often cited as common qualities of all art (Warburton 3), Under this category, Brothers also succeeds, meeting Wittgenstein theories of family resemblance. The obvious connection is with film; not only is Fares a recognized film director, but Brothers itself contains examples of film concepts such as implicit meanings, that is, general themes such as the maturation of a child into a grown up, referential meanings, such as references to real world events, in this case past wars [Lebanon War / The War of the Giants] and deaths in a family [Fares/Younger brother] (Bordwell and Thompson) as well as cinematographic concepts and techniques such as editing, framing, law of thirds, set design, lighting and narrative structure amongst others (Bordwell and Thompson 5-8). One such example can be seen in Figure 5, where the scene not only conveys the emotional tone of the narrative, but also displays qualities such as law of thirds, set design and framing. Therefore, if we accept these aesthetic structures in film as signifiers of art, by taking into account Fare’s expression of emotion, the significant forms manifested through cinematographic techniques and the family resemblances to another art form these techniques represent, we can venture that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons qualifies as a work of art.

As we have seen, intention and authorship are both qualities found in video games, and while we have only surveyed a small sample, it is clear that authors and auteurs exist within the medium and that they are creating works that at least in their own words are art. Often subscribing to a form of R. G. Collingwood’s theory of expression of emotion, these artists view video games as a form of expressing themselves and communicating with the world (Hietalahti, Juuso). Not only that, but these works contain the same qualities both thematically and formally as other recognized art forms and as such we must extend the same measure to video games as we do to film, performance or sculpture. It is then the work of the art historian not to decide whether they are artists or not, but to say how.

 

Works Cited

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Ludography

Fares, J. (2013) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Kojima, H. (1998) Metal Gear Solid

Kojima, H. (2001) Metal Gear Solid 2

Kojima, H. (2004) Metal Gear Solid 3

Kojima, H. (2008) Metal Gear Solid 4

Kojima, H. (2014) Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Molyneux P (2010) Fable 3

Pederccini, P. (2014) To Build a Better Mousetrap

Yager Development, (2012) Spec Ops: the Line

 

Figures

Figure 1, Peter Molyneux, Fable III, 2010

Figure 2. Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid IV. 2008.

Figure 3, Josef Fares, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, 2013

Figure 4. Josef Fares, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. 2013.

Figure 5. Law of thirds, lighting, set design and framing in Brothers: a tale of two brothers.

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