Fear No Art

Playing the mediums.

Thus far this blog has primarily served as commentary and critiques. Reviews frighten me, as I am horrid at assigning scores (I agonize over my Goodreads list quite frequently). I’ve not really focused on the question of are videogames art because others are wont to do so, and it really does not interest me any more than the discussion I feel people should be having: what is art?

The problem with the question of whether games are art is that it always seems to assume some definition of art based on what we already know in other mediums. I see art as a constantly evolving term, much like our entire language itself. This includes what constitutes the oeuvre of art. I know that every time I seek to define it in a measurable way, someone sneaks in some example that requires acknowledgment, and it revives the whole discussion again. In other words, it’s a never-ending cycle.

No, what interests me is where art (for the sake of argument, I’m firmly in the videogames as art camp) starts being aware of itself. More specifically, where different media start learning from each other.

Recently I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. While reading it, I could clearly see the images in my head–by no accident. Murakami wrote a novelized screenplay in many ways, even acknowledging the camera that is the reader, and what he’s allowing us to see as the author/camera. Murakami could not have written this novel with the impact he was attempting to achieve if film did not exist. In his method of delivery he was clearly framing a camera lens for us, the reader, to experience the scenes he was describing. He goes so far as to place us in the story and uses this camera as that point of entry, and as an excuse to make sure we cannot interact, as we are recording and watching.

Instead of placing a whole scene before us and continuing the narrative, he very delicately and deliberately chooses how to lead us, using this technique to focus our attention. Much like the fact that the comparison of videogames to film isn’t completely erroneous (only so far as it becomes the only focal point, and doesn’t allow acknowledgment of differences in how it interacts), this book uses techniques that have certainly been available in novel writing and storytelling for some time, but insists on using another medium’s language to inform how we see our own interaction. It bolsters its own techniques by borrowing another’s and creating something different, but with which we are familiar.

I repeat: where different media start learning from each other.

Already I’ve written of one novel that did this with videogames: Steve Beard’s Digital Leatherette. At some point in the future I wish to more closely examine Dennis Cooper’s God Jr, whose premise of a father who has lost his son and therefore gets stoned and plays said son’s videogames serves to explore how that level of interaction can bring out a new understanding of how we even interact with each other.

While it seems some are seeking legitimacy in various forms, I find it much more intriguing to note what the artists themselves are doing. There was last year’s controversy over Douglas Edric Stanley’s Invaders! at the Leipzig Games Convention. We’re already seeing postmodern sensibilities in art pay homage to videogame icons and culture, as well as become more interactive. Whatever critical and ‘honorable’ legitimacy we seek, we’re already acknowledged in many facets, and as newer artists of all media emerge, I believe we’ll start seeing more cross-polination.

This also works in the reverse, to some extent (after all, still a fairly new medium, videogames have quite a bit to explore on their own). Games, as a medium that is emerging more into the public’s scrutiny, may wish to examine more of the world around them, including its art. While I often champion for better writing in games, it is a misnomer, as I believe we need stronger storytelling in games, or at least the tools by which we can tell better stories ourselves. Not all writers are good storytellers and vice versa. Already we’re seeing this attention to storytelling being discussed more often, and that may be an issue of knowing where to look.

Not all of it is written word. Not all of it needs to be written word. The attention that Valve has paid to lighting and guiding a player’s eyes in their blog posts concerning Left 4 Dead certainly made my own eyes grow larger. Richard Terrell also has been writing quite proliferously on such topics, showing how games communicate their stories and lessons to us in very intelligent ways (or not).

After all, until a teacher decided to push me in my own writing, it never occurred to me how versatile the written word could be in conveying anything beyond the words placed in front of one’s eyes (this was before I came across poets like e.e. cummings). She then showed me an essay where she spoke about the ever-increasing speed of today’s world; as the essay progressed and offered more concrete examples, the sentences themselves complemented the points and grew shorter, more succinct, and clipped by one’s eyes in rapid succession.

Not only can the mediums themselves learn from each other, but as Chris Lepine commented in my quixotic ramblings (oh, and I finished Don Quixote last night):

As a gamer, I both feel the need to offer game designers suggestions (as you have) for making games suit our changing tastes. But another part of me, the psychologist, keeps asking how we can suit ourselves to make the games (or books) that already exist, fulfilling and meaningful?

That’s what interests me more than the question of whether or not games are acknowledged as (or even are) art.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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2 Responses to Fear No Art

  1. It’s interesting how much what they really need is a healthy dose of just about everything. Between the indie scene and mainstream games, I think there’s a decent attraction to absolutely anything new possible. Hell, even if it’s going to be ridiculous, they’re still making a Dante’s Inferno game. Expand, experiment, and try just about everything.

  2. Chris Lepine says:

    Interesting thoughts. I have to admit that I feel ambivalent about how games have become ingrained in public culture — how, for instance, anyone out there knows who Mario is. Part of me loves the ability to speak much more openly about my experiences as a gamer with a larger number of people and find some common ground. But another part of me misses the more “privative” world I lived during the 80s and 90s where games were much less of a cultural good. When I talked about games as a child/adolescent, it was only with my closest friends. It was a secret world where you’d talk about frying hamsters in microwaves (Maniac Mansion), the perverse things you wrote into the Hero’s Quest text parser, or the hilarious crashes you could manage in Stunts. The privative nature of games in those days ensured they were a thoroughly ‘childish’ pursuit (I don’t mean that disparagingly).. a territory only explored by kids and hidden from their adult overlords.

    That being said, I suspect that kids nowadays – unless someone can disprove me on this, please do! – no longer experience gaming as a perverse joy. It is now “something to do” along with watching TV, texting, or browsing the web. It’s almost is if there has been a flattening of experience…. where games have become just another entertainment product among many others. That doesn’t apply to everyone of course as there are still people out there who derive a deep joy from playing games, but I wonder how many of those kinds of people are left?
    I certainly have noticed that my patience, joyfulness, exploratory desire, and curiousity, have all waned as I’ve become an older gamer. I can imagine the difficulty reading <>Don Quixote<>… just as I can imagine the difficulty finding a way to love a game that I don’t really like.

    Sorry to repeat myself here – but I thought the idea of the increasing legitimization of games is relevant to our ability to enjoy/play/surprise ourselves with games is relevant. Thanks again for the post – it gave me a lot to think about.

    (and please, give us some closure on Don Quixote! I’d love to know how your experience of it ended.)

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