Also really? Really? Katamari Damacy has no societal meaning and therefore can’t be viewed as art?
You collect all this stuff, meters and meters and meters of stuff, and what’s left on the Earth when you’re done? Nothing.
Katamari Damacy is one of the worst games to mention for a video-games are meaningless and therefore not art argument.
Art, beauty and video games
Ever since the Romantics repurposed the word “art” as the name for a certain set of human disciplines, creativity has been undergoing an identity crisis. If art is a category, then what fits into it? What doesn’t fit into it? By the end of the 20th century, these problems led to the veneration of dull, irrelevant and uninspired work on the grounds that it is “art”; and to the exile of much high-quality work simply because it is not “art”. Debates over the label’s ambit rage on to this day—most recently in the case of video games. Now, our view is that art does not exist, which makes obvious our response to this newest controversy. A more pressing issue is the continuing dismissal of video games as valueless timesinks, as work without cultural importance. The question must be asked: are video games good? Are they interesting—can they spark the imagination? Are they meaningful? Do they enrich lives and expand horizons?
So I was still pissed about that article claiming that video games aren’t art and after some reading around came across the actual installation of Katamari Damacy in MoMA, with this gallery description (bolding mine):
Applied Design March 2, 2013–January 31, 2014
Shortly after graduation from art school, Takahashi was hired as a designer at NAMCO BANDAI, where he was allowed to develop unconventional games. Critically acclaimed for its innovation and wit, Katamari Damacy (Clump soul) is simple, if unconventional: the player takes on the role of an extraterrestrial prince sent to Earth by the King of the Cosmos to gather balls of anything and everything—balls that, when sufficiently big, become new stars that populate the cosmos. The narrative, characters, and details are unique, but the player’s task is not complex, limited to rolling clumps of debris—starting with erasers and bits of sushi and moving to cows and houses—into progressively larger spheres, until whole mountains and cities adhere. The game plays with scale, allowing the user to interact in a creative, surreal way with ordinary objects and built environments, rendering the objects of everyday life fantastical. The minimal narrative and repetitive activity yield surprise and elation, due to the quality of the graphics and the unexpected coherence of the “clump”—inexorable and playful as it eats up the whole world.
MoMA, at least you know what’s up, and, more importantly, are actually familiar with the game.
“Games are unique among all media, among all art forms. We are not novels. We are not movies. We aren’t television. We shouldn’t try to be like that. We can do things that no other medium in human history has ever been able to do. We have to focus our energy on those things, the things that make us unique.”—Warren Spector (Disney Epic Mickey & Deus Ex Creator), via GameInformer
Video Games as Art
The idea that a video game - that a roleplaying video game - can’t be art because it’s experiential, and because you are in the game modifying the experience, is ludicrous to me.
Go ahead and tell performance arists that what they’re doing isn’t art. I dare you. Tell art historians that Dada isn’t art. That Fluxus isn’t. By all means, go up to a musician on the street and tell them that what they’re doing isn’t art.
Art by its very nature is experiential. If you look at a piece of art and feel nothing, it has failed. Or has it? What if its purpose was to make you feel the absence of feeling? Art is fluid. It is changing. The idea that art can be constrained by a canvas and frame and nailed to a wall is obsolete.
Person on the internet, you claim, by way of Tolstory (who really isn’t the guy to quote), that art is meant to make you feel the same thing the artist felt while making the piece. But this is a ludicrous claim. I am not confronted with the crushing certainty of my own mortality when I view Saturn Devouring His Son as Goya was when he painted it. I am, however, greatly disturbed and very uncomfortable. Does that mean, because I don’t experience the same sensations, that Goya’s piece is not art? Of course not. That’s ludicrous. I couldn’t possibly hope to understand Freida Kahlo’s self-portraits based on your statement, person on the internet. Because they are self-portraits, paintings that express very personal troubles or feelings at a given point in time, I will never feel the exact same things. Does this mean Kahlo as failed as an artist? Absurd.
Are video games, then, art? I don’t know. That’s a question best answered by a thesis - one that I am not going to write. But dismissing them out of hand, saying they aren’t art at all because the player is involved with them, is preposterous. Fluxus art hinges on participation - and often Fluxus art is game-like in nature. In fact, how the participants adapt and react to Fluxus pieces is part of the art. So clearly we can’t dismiss games - especially roleplaying games - as art because of player input.
Maybe later I’ll write a post defending games as art, because I believe they are a kind of art. They aren’t the kind you put up on a wall in a frame, but art is something that is constantly evolving.
Video Games As Art
This is such a huge and dumb conversation that I can’t begin to tackle it in any meaningful way. Instead, I just felt like mentioning the three ways that I personally experience games as art. I have no doubt that there are tons of other ways to view games, and if you feel like something is missing, feel free to add on to it.
Video games have plots, they have art direction, they have musical scores. These things are each an art form on their own, and games can employ them. And, even though music and story and stuff might not seem like they’re part of the gameplay, they influence how I perceive it.
The Chess Game
Video games can be a sequence of challenges for you to overcome. You’ll see this in any good shmup or Mega Man game. Whether it’s finding the right way to weave through an enemy’s bullets or learning how the enemy moves, these games are a matter of studying and analysis.
A song might be written about something, but for the most part, you enjoy a song because of how it sounds. Unlike a story, a song isn’t a sequence of events with people doing things—it’s a series of notes flowing from one to the next. It’s a thing that you feel. In a similar sense, Super Mario Bros is a game you feel. There’s a certain rhythm to the gameplay, whether slow or fast. It’s not about the compelling story, and it’s not about figuring out how to dodge the intricate attack patterns; instead, Super Mario Bros is just about how it feels when you play it.
So, is anything missing?
Video Games as Art
You may or may not be aware of the upcoming Art of Video Games Exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in which several dozen games were chosen by online voters to be included. This is one of the first, and probably the most prominent, exhibitions to treat video games as an artistic medium.
Video games are far often derided- mostly to the prominence and popularity of shoot-em-up games such as Call of Duty and the multiplayer aspect of Halo. Video games are seen as mindless wastes of money and time by most, with no intrinsic artistic merit. But one could argue the same for cinema or novels, based on the populist fare of both. Cinema is not just summer action flicks, literature isn’t just Twilight, and video games aren’t just shooting people in the face.
Video games, as an artistic medium, are only just now finding a strong footing in terms of storytelling. As technology refines and innovates, developers are finding ways to tell rich, complex stories- not just “save the Princess” affairs. Morality and philosophy are beginning to be explored. Characters are no longer voiceless player avatars. Like comic books did, video games are starting to shed the stigma of being populist entertainment and are becoming legitimate forms of storytelling. Games like Bioshock (the source of the striking image above), Portal, Half-Life 2, Fallout, and countless others are creating incredibly complex and realized realities that are rarely seen in other mediums. And what video games have over other mediums is the immersion- you are in the world. You aren’t a voyeur. You can break objects and hurt people, you can perform tasks and assist, you can affect the world and the world can affect you.
The possibilities of world creation in video games are endless and should make any artist tingly. From the clinical testing center of Portal to the ravaged, post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland of a retro-futuristic Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 to the underwater art deco city of Rapture in Bioshock, video games have created more vivid, unique, and fully-realized places in the last few years than, I daresay, any other modern medium has managed in that time. Even J.K. Rowling’s magical shadow world can’t compare to some of the places video game players are taken to, whether it be deep space or something more terrestrial. Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic, the epic 2003 RPG, managed to surpass the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy in terms of quality storytelling (and critical reception).
Have video games yet perfected themselves? Not quite. Moral quandaries often resolve themselves into good/evil binary thought. Expectations of a climactic final boss often result in shoehorned-in battles. The fact that people want to just fucking shoot something results in battle gameplay that can be somewhat dissonant to the things being expressed. Video game developers need players to do certain things in order to get the story told. The fact that the player is an active participant in the goings-on is what sets video games apart and also can trip them up. There is something else to consider: gameplay. How the game actually feels to be played. There are some video games that are simply masterworks of streamlined, effective gameplay- Super Mario World, for example. But this often comes at the cost of the storytelling. Some modern games rely on lengthy cinematics, going the complete opposite direction and sacrificing gameplay for plot.
There is not yet a true masterwork of video gaming- yet. There are, however, numerous games that come close, and these signify the the time of a transition of how video games are perceived are nigh. A playthrough of the new game L.A. Noire debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. And this Smithsonian exhibition is a milestone. Needless to say, video games have come a long way from Pong.