March 26, 2012 by aakang
The debate questioning whether videogames are art has lost its fire. Recently, many have been agreeing more than before that videogames are art. However, they believe videogames are art for different reasons. Some like Lore Sjöberg even go on to make the questionable claim that the passage of time is what will make videogames true works of art. Instead, I believe that videogames can be true works of art based on their meaning and not necessarily based on the passage of time; also it is important that the gameplay brings about such emotional effects.
In the article “Alt Text: Are Videogames Art? Time Will Tell,” Lore Sjöberg begins his argument by refutin1g Roger Ebert’s belief that videogames cannot be considered art. Ebert’s belief is that the element of interactivity precludes videogames from being a form of art; Sjöberg denies this claim by mentioning that interactive pop-up books like Choose Your Own Adventure are art. He states Pacman as a work of art due to its being “a masterpiece of techno-primitive color, sound and interactivity.” He also cites Portal as a work of art because of its being a comedy. Lore Sjöberg states that true works of art are based on age. Anything that is between 0-25 years old rarely exists as because many people find it difficult to agree with the vision of artistic geniuses. On the other hand, he makes the case that anything that is between 2,000 and 30,000 years old, from scrap to baskets, can be considered art; the people of this time expressed artistic creativity and utility through commonplace means. In the end, he believes that eventually even videogame controllers will be considered art.
Contrary to Sjöberg’s argument that anything could become a work of art after enough time has passed, Bogost mentions that “context became the predominant factor” (Page 10). Arbitrary creations generally have a more difficult time finding a place in art. For instance, to consider a piece of gum wrapper that I throw away in the trash to be a work of art 4,000 years later is absurd. In this case, the gum wrapper was meant to be discarded so it doesn’t have important context. It is questionable to say that pieces of trash like gum wrappers can one day become a work of art in itself. In this case, context prevents just anything from becoming a true work of art despite the fact that a lot of time has passed.
However, disagreeing with his emphasis on time, I believe what the passage of time does is evoke curiosity by creating obscurity and ambiguity through age. For example, take a basket woven by the Mayans 4,000 years ago. First of all, remnants are scarce. Almost all baskets have probably been ruined while preserved ones are scarce. In addition to this dearth, it’s difficult to find a firsthand explanation of their creations. Thus, not much can be said about its intent. Instead, all we can do is make speculations. Much mystery shrouds even the simplest commodities such as Mayan jewelry because of our lack of knowledge and reliable resources from that era; the gum wrapper that I mentioned earlier will have a very difficult time finding a place in art 4,000 years later because many resources will be available by then resulting in less curiosity and ambiguity. The passage of time is not what makes videogames a work of art. Its emotional effects of ambiguity, mystery, and curiosity are what make videogames a work of art. These emotional effects, which Sjöberg neglects to mention, are more consistent with Portal’s comedic effects, which he briefly discusses.
The emotional effects introduced above are crucial to art. No one explains this concept better than Tom Bissell. He states that in Braid “unusual melancholy and corresponding emotional significance…feels, in other words, a lot like art” (page 101). This emotional significance and their effects are what Sjöberg mentioned but failed to emphasize. The beauty of art lies in this emotional and expressive power about the human condition. Ian Bogost attests to the “the values of expressionism in art, especially as [it relates]…to the subjective interpretation of emotion” (page 16). Art is expressive; for video games to be considered true works of art, they must also be expressive as well. In the case of the basket, the evocation of ambiguity and curiosity, which results from the passage of time, is also a form of expression. However, such expression may not be the Mayans’ intentions.
Sjöberg’s lightly touches on the importance of emotional effects in qualifying video games as art; he mentions Portal as a comedy. But I want to take this discussion further and stress its importance and necessity in games as art. I believe Bully, a sandbox game similar to Grand Theft Auto, expands on this idea through its satire. It specifically satirizes life in boarding schools. Strong feelings of hysteria and disturbance come from the combination of the authority’s ineptness and strictness combined with negligence, predominance of cliques, emphasis on social hierarchies, and overall violence. These examples of gameplay are more responsible than visual and aural aesthetics for bringing about these feelings. Although visual and aural aesthetics can help relay meaning, I believe that as video games, video games should put more emphasis on its process and gameplay in order to bring about the emotional effects necessary for art. Video games should use gameplay to relay its meanings because it has the capabilities unlike any other form of media. Paintings heavily rely on the visuals while books rely on words to produce the desired emotional effects.
Tom Bissell explains how gameplay evokes these emotional effects. He offers Braid as an example as being “meaningfully difficult, because, again, it forces you to think about what subverting time really mean and does-and what it cannot mean, and cannot do” (Page 101). In Bully, the cliques request the player to complete certain missions that are related to fighting and antagonizing other cliques. For example, the “nerds” request that the player plant a stink bomb in the jocks’ locker room or to fight several of them. After completing several of their requests, the nerds eventually help you fight other cliques and people. These inter-clique fights highlight the predominance of cliques and ubiquitous social hierarchies. At night the teachers constantly roam the school premises with flashlights. At the same time, it takes them a long time to notice that the player is causing a ruckus. Also, there are mini-games in which players have to attend class; the teacher in chemistry class fails to really assist students and only repeats “good job.” The classes are also repetitive and numbing. Players in turn feel that the authorities and teachers are not doing their jobs correctly and are slacking. In this way, the gameplay instills feelings of hysteria and disappointment, which are exemplified through the inter-clique fights, disappointing faculty, and overall violence. The hysteria and disappointment as a result of the gameplay all go back to what Bogost describes as the “values of expressionism in art.” Bully is an expressive videogame that has meaning, which is portrayed through fighting school officials and helping nerds fight against the jocks. The emotional significance, which Bissell emphasizes in Braid, is strong here; one cannot help but have a negative impression towards social divisions, incompetent boarding school systems, and violence.
Bully evokes strong negative emotions and attitudes toward its central topics. This explanation of Bully’s meanings, which arise from gameplay, sheds more light on what makes video games art. As art, video games should have cultural significance by eliciting some sort of response such as disappointment. Bully does what the passage of time strives to do: evoke certain emotional effects and have interpretative meaning.