Thought experiments are frequently misunderstood. Readers often look for absolute conclusions where only hypotheses exist. No matter what The Big Bang Theory says, the purpose of Schrodinger’s cat is not to show that opening the box is the only way to know the unknowable; Schrodinger is only saying quantum mechanics is weird, complicated, and not analogous for macro-level phenomena. Yet quantum mechanics is still an accurate model at the subatomic level even if it does not make sense in our world.
The argument that follows here should be thought of like a thought experiment–an interesting proposal whose conclusion even I don’t agree with. I believe games are just another art form, no better or worse than any other; they just happen to be the one I am most passionate about.
The conclusion that games are art is not an uncontroversial one. But I believe the easiest argument to support the “games are art” side is induction from experience. The reason this debate brings out so many virulent opinions is because claiming games are just a bit of meaningless fun is equivalent to accusing gamers of lying. We have seen games supply the same emotional experiences found in movies, literature, and music. The hallway scene of Metal Gear Solid 4 comes to mind. Those few minutes aren’t “fun”, in the same way that Sophie’s Choice isn’t lighthearted entertainment. Just because some haven’t experienced those moments in games doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is infuriating to be told that the obvious truth before you is a lie (see Ignaz Semmelweis).
But I do think there is an argument to be made that games are not art. Rather than being of lesser importance, however, games may be, in some sense, superior than traditional mediums.
The central problem of the “games as art” debate is that we lack a good definition of art. But an obvious characteristic of art is that it makes us empathize with others. Art shows us the universality of the human experience. Although I am not the king of Ithaca, the plight of Odysseus is easily relatable.
Yet video games, at their best, are not about empathy. The goal of interactive media is not to let me relate to the protagonist’s emotions, but rather to let me be the protagonist and actually undergo those emotional developments.
Let’s look at two of my favorite games to understand this better.
**FULL SPOILERS FOLLOW**
If you choose to save Zulf near the end, you get to experience one of the greatest scenes in gaming history. Supergiant Games did a spectacular job of guiding the player’s emotions to match the narrative occurring on the screen. When playing that scene, your thought process will go something like this.
- 0:40 ”Uh-oh, I’m moving pretty slow right now.”
- 0:55 “Crap, there’s an enemy I can’t do anything about.”
- 0:57 “Hey, look, some cover. I got this.’
- 1:10 “Um, I think I still got this.”
- 1:20 “I don’t got this.’
- 1:30 “Oh no, I’m running out of health tonics.”
- 1:40 “Wait, what’s going on?”
- 2:00 “They’re letting me go?”
- 2:20 “Fuck yeah!”
Inside the narrative, The Kid is having the same thoughts, but you’re not really thinking of him because you are going through a copied, albeit toned down, experience. Those emotions (e.g. worry, relief) are your own; they are the result of gameplay, not narrative. (Consequently, this may also devalue narrative in games.)
SMB has tons of quirk, allusions, and personality, but the feature that stands out the most is its difficulty. The game is hard, but the motivation to beat it is pure. You may die hundreds of times trying to beat a single level, but that only makes the resulting accomplishment sweeter. Listen to an interview with either of the Team Meat guys and you’ll see that neither is a fan of easy achievements and other cheap gamification tactics. The biggest takeaway from Super Meat Boy is that doing something hard is in itself a rewarding experience; external, fake motivation should not be necessary. Team Meat is echoing the sentiments of JFK in a speech at Rice University:
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
But there are several ways to get across the idea that hard work is valuable, and not all of them are artistic. You can read The Lord of the Rings and see that perseverance is more important than power while on the quest to destroy Sauron. On the other hand, parents make you do chores in part to instill a good work ethic, and I don’t believe emptying the dishwasher is art in any form.
If I had to choose between the two, Super Meat Boy‘s lesson on hard work seems to be more like the latter than the former. Instead of comprehending someone else’s discipline, you are putting forth your own effort. Although the accomplishments of SMB have no real world context, the process of playing is more like actual hard work than empathizing with a hard worker.
While games can have a narrative that makes you empathize with its characters, other mediums do narrative better. Interactivity makes games unique, but looking at the two examples above, that interactivity appears to turn games away from art and into emotion simulations. If that is the case, games may trump (or are at least incomparable to) other art forms as actually experiencing your own emotion is more direct than empathizing with someone else’s.
Of course, now I sound like a jerk; putting down artists in other mediums is not my goal, especially since I don’t feel that my time spent writing is less productive than my time spent developing games.
The idea that games are better than art is just an interesting possibility. Rejecting that notion is fairly easy. Normally, I would not ordinarily consider a Campbell’s soup label to be art, but it is when Andy Warhol draws it. Without a solid definition, art is art simply because someone says it’s art. Ergo if anyone makes that claim for games, then games cannot simultaneously be art and uniquely better.
This will probably be my only post ever talking directly about games as art. I’m just going to take it as a given. If you are here right now, I assume you think the same. My directive to you isn’t to spend time thinking about what art is; just start making good art, in whatever form you choose. Personally, I’m going to spend the afternoon making games.