Video games are not an art form

Video games are a sophisticated form of pornography. They are not art. To understand this unfashionable claim we need to first understand what art is, which is impossible to do literally. In fact art, great art, is the answer to what art is — what beauty is, truth, goodness and so on — but it’s not a literal answer. It reveals these things metaphorically, which is why we find a story funny, but why the joke literally explained can only ever be appreciated, which means given a value.

An explanation of what art is can therefore never quite work, never quite ‘envelop’ it; will always sound incomplete and unsatisfying, but, with this in mind, we can still ‘gesture’ towards what art is, even if the necessary vagueness of what we have to say leaves us exposed to complaints that this or that example has been omitted.

One such ‘gesture’ is that, as James Joyce put it, where pornography moves, art stills. Pornography makes us want — it dangles sex and victory and sensory satisfaction before our eyes — or not want — it revolts us or terrifies us or even bores us. Art makes all this momentum stop, so that we see, or hear, or feel the truth of life; which is why after a wonderful artistic experience, like a wonderful natural experience, we feel we can ‘see through the veil’ of the illusory world — which has stopped for a moment — into something enigmatic, something eternal; yet not at all fantastical or imaginary.

Art is, we could say, the mystery of the actual, while pornography is the entirely unmysterious attraction of the unreal, or invented. Art uses invention to guide us back to our own experience, which is why there is a wonderful sense of familiarity about experiencing magnificent music or myth, a sense of ‘yes, of course, I always knew this, but could not say it,’ while pornography is bound by invention, by the possibilities it offers for escape, or for power.

With this sketched gesture in mind — and perhaps a rough, provisional definition; ‘art is a manufactured self-stilling form’ — let’s take a look at video games, often claimed to be an art form by those who are addicted to them.

The difference between video games and art is, firstly, in the isolated nature of the former. Great art is part of a tradition, stretching back in time, and part of a wider, contextual culture stretching out, as it were, in space, which the great artist embodies and which, to a greater or lesser degree, those who enjoy the art are part of, albeit unconsciously. Video games, by contrast, are a closed system; they may base their technical aspects on games which have gone before, they may ‘reference’ wider culture and use cultural ‘artifacts’, but they don’t have to, and neither does the player, who is primarily enjoying the puzzle, the quest or the fight within an entirely self-contained world. It is no coincidence that as video games consume more and more time and energy, so culture dies, the manifold filaments connecting it to the past, to the future, and to the rest of the world burn out, leaving, effectively, cultural cancers, black holes into which the isolated me pours its mind without ever having to come out and participate in anything which we have in common.

Secondly, video games are usually made by corporate committee. There is very rarely a single consciousness behind them. Not that art cannot come from groups of people working together (‘jamming’), but that system-embedded committees do not and cannot put artistic truth or beauty first, or do anything meaningful to discover an immortal expression of that truth. They have to put profit, popularity and system-approved convention first, they have to test and retest their games for popularity, for efficacy, for utility. As with all culture manufactured in this way — Netflix television shows, K-Pop music, BBC Radio 4 Drama, trade paperbacks — offensive, inappropriate, upsetting, radical, extreme, genuinely profound and difficult content has to be edited out long before they can reach the production line, often long before they can reach the minds of those tasked to find them.

Video games are system-generated objects, created in order to make users spend money on them and to continue to attend to them. The system demands constant consumption and constant distraction. This means, like most products manufactured in the system, video games must be addictive. This is the third difference between them and art.

Vast amounts of time and money are spent by powerful corporations on learning how to addict users (note; ‘user’ is a word we tend to use for the operative end of computer applications and of narcotics) to their products. Making games easy to learn and difficult to master, posing clear problems which must be solved to ‘progress’, making rewards intermittent and unpredictable, addressing our thirst for myth, adventure and the satisfaction of certain virtues (such as faith, self-sacrifice and courage) and making games constantly replayable (‘permadeath’ is an unpopular ‘game mechanic’ and even when it is employed it must never get in the way of replayability; imagine a video game you could only ever play once, even if you died after a few minutes!). None of these techniques are to express artistic truth or inspiration, they are solely the means to make users want to play them.

Art is not addictive in this way; in truth it is the opposite of addictive. In art there is often a sense that I want to find out who committed the crime, or a sense that I want to reach the culminating passage in a symphony, but I am not primarily motivated to get something, to achieve a certain score, or rating, or status, or acquire a valuable item, or solve a puzzle (or to cooperate with others in a degrading parody of sensate socialisation). This is why great writers and artists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Oscar Wilde, have stressed the utter uselessness of great art; the ‘stamp of its authenticity’. With great art I get nothing but the significance of what is happening.

Note that this doesn’t mean that video games can’t contain art. What if, for example, ‘Deus Ex’ used Mozart’s requiem as its score? Does that make it art? Obviously not, no more than if someone stuck a Van Gogh in Tracy Emin’s tent. Or what if Fallout contains some neat satirical posters and a bit of (rather crude) social commentary, does that make the game art? No more than if a director of hardcore porn had one of his actresses recite a haiku which, actually, is kind of pretty.

There are video games in which open-ended experience is supposed to be a guiding principle, or in which the ‘beauty’ of the ‘art’ is — which usually amounts to slick, featureless, symbolic characters drifting through a landscape coloured with a carefully-chosen pastel palette. Putting aside the fact that such games are few and far between, putting aside the fact that there is still nearly always some motivating thing to get in such games, putting aside the fact that they reward exploration with titillating surprises, there is no actual significance to these ‘experiences’, no meaning, any more than there would be to your house suddenly glowing pink. It gets a ‘wow’ — but so what?

Actually, of course, if your house suddenly glowed pink there would be some actual meaning to the event, as such a strange sensory experience in real life would, as all surprising events tend to do, propel you into your senses, more fully into the here and now, but this is what the ‘beautiful’ video game is unable to do. One focuses on the isolated image, through the screen, while sitting immobile in a darkened room. Art — meaning, here, great fine art — has a sensory context. It is part of a living space, it is an embodied, sensate experience.

This is the fourth difference between video games and art. With the latter the whole body is involved, in both the experience of creating and of enjoying the work. This is particularly evident in song, dance, sculpture and the crafts (a word which is completely debased in video games; as if one can ‘craft’; as if ‘craft’ can come from anything but the sensate body), but even an author, sitting in a darkened study, and his reader lying in bed, are evoking a colossal, almost infinite, range of subtle physical experiences, completely denied to the essentially non-physical focus of the gamer. Stories also come to us primarily through [imagined] hearing, which allows us to experience paradox, mystery and silence in a way that the far more abstract and rational sense of sight denies us.

The fifth, final and by far most important difference between video games and art is that the ultimate and foundational purpose of the latter is meaning, a meaningful experience; meaning an experience beyond self. When watching a film (even in the theatre) we also sit staring, sense-dimmed, at a square of light; but with genuine narrative art — myth, literature or story — we are being guided towards truth. Video games aspire to, and must aspire to, the truth of myth, literature or story; but they can never fulfill this promise. For where stories ask us to identify with, ultimately, an elemental human need to understand and overcome one’s self and one’s society — through love, sacrifice, acceptance and so on — video games force us to abnegate this need through one of their central, defining, characteristics; the fact that I control the main character. This fact automatically precludes that which gives myth meaning; a sense of fate and a sense of individuality.

The fate and individuality we experience in great stories, novels, plays and films, or myths is founded on unity, which is to say on the oneness of character. The harmonious totality of a character’s body, mind, situation, fears and desires he has are all, in the hands of a master storyteller, one with the action, a ‘oneness’ we experience, and experience pleasurably, as a sense that what happens must happen — fate — and a sense that this happening is absolutely unique — individuality. Fate and individuality combined to form endings which are, paradoxically, both inevitable (fateful) and yet surprising (individual).1

The crack in this unity is the one the civilised mind introduced between mind and body and which, by the time computer games came to ‘express’ whatever it is that their creators intend, is splintered into the available, in-game, options a player makes; decisions about one’s avatar,2 routes one can take through a virtual terrain, items one can ‘craft’ or acquire and so on and so forth. The totality of character presented to us by a great artist does not and cannot exist in video games because the player gets to choose what the character does, choices which leave most of his world, except for the few events in his programmed ‘arc’, unchanged.3

Video game characters can just as well be tall or short, black or white, English or Japanese, men as women, with no effect on the game. In more ‘serious’ games, those that aspire to tell a ‘story’, the total impossibility of meaningful fate, arising from the the uniqueness of a character, is substituted for a mimicked, signposted fate, in which a ‘surprising reveal’ or a ‘plot twist’ or a ‘happy ending’ is engineered though constraints in a player’s choices, bottlenecks in the ‘narrative’ through which players must pass — comprising of tedious, stilted, expositional dialogue — so that a ‘deus ex machina’ can periodically descend and direct players this way or that and let them get back to what they want to do; shoot and collect things.

Deus ex machina, or ‘god in the machine’ was, if you don’t know, a clumsy plot device used in ancient Greeks to resolve complicated stories. The problems of the play would all be cleared up in the final scene by a god, descending from the heavens, and magicking everything alright. Second-rate storytellers have been using a version of this ever since, producing the same feeling, in the audience; of being cheated. The difference being that the god — the author — does not literally appear, but artificially manipulates his pawns to achieve the desired effect, a effect which cannot move us any more than an explained joke can, because we are, in effect, being told to feel happy or sad or inspired or whatever.

The video game script writer is forced to continually descend, god-like, into his narratives because the player’s gamepad is continually sending that narrative arbitrarily hither and yon. This is why the reveal, or twist, or denouement, or end screen of the in-game story always leave us cold, or least those of us who are not strangers to unity, those of us who can still feel genuine surprise and delight and don’t need to be told to do so. Those working at tasks that anyone with a little training could do, living their lives in entirely mediated worlds built entirely from information, raised on a diet of novels in which characters are basically interchangeable, cannot create or recognise unity in art, and so they believe that video games are delivering fate and individuality to them.

Video games can no more give players an artistic experience that King Lear could if the audience were allowed to choose his actions or his speech. All they can do is all the second-rate scriptwriter or novelist can do to hide his or her lack of insight, craft and depth; cover the emptiness with special effects, sex and violence, pretty images, ‘fun’ and a variety of signposts telling the audience to feel this way or that. This is why no memorable insights ever emerge from video games, nothing that one can absorb and express to someone else. One can whistle a lovely song one has heard, and give pleasure to someone else, or retell a great story, or share a joke or an observation about the human condition in much the same way as one can share something that has actually happened. Art thus spreads through our culture organically, because it speaks to our organic experience as human beings and it is connected with our shared culture. Compare that with what one absorbs from a video game — nothing.

Nothing that comes from a hundred and forty hours of Zelda can be shared with friends and family without sounding impossibly sad; because it is not experience. It is meaningless unexperience. This is why three years of, say, reading classical Russian literature improves the mind and the heart, while three years of playing Call of Duty, or Hollow Knight, or Eurotruck Simulator,4, or Myst drains us dry, stunts our emotional growth makes us unfit to interact with our fellows. Take a look around you at the millions of young people5 plugged every waking moment into a manufactured digital realm. Would you call them cultured? Wise? Bettered by their long experience with this so-called ‘art’?6

No, because video games are not an art form. They are porn. No coincidence that so many addicts of one are obsessive users of the other.

Notes

  1. The fateful individuality of art is a function of its capacity to express eternity. The choices available to any artist, at any moment, are as infinite as the universe he is feelingly part of. Although this choice is constrained all the way down to a singular, choiceless fate (which makes us feel, with great art, that each gesture, each note, each word could be no other), inspiration is only possible through the fact that at any moment the artist can say or do anything. Not so the gamer. His world is bounded (or if it is infinite, its procedural generation, even if random, is fundamentally iterative), his movements constrained (by the mechanics of the game and the sensitivity and range of the pad or VR suit), his speech and all his forms of communication are limited (ludicrously, appallingly so). Compare the greatest ‘conversation’ with a character in a game to the greatest dialogue in a play or script; compare the digital art of the highest resolution screen with what an artist can do with paint (or the eternal complexity he can see); compare a dance game or a music-making game or a farm-simulator with actual dancing, singing and farming. Only someone blind to reality could claim such things are equivalent; only someone who lived their lives wearing goggles that made the world monochrome could claim there is no difference between a black and white version of Van Gogh’s wheat fields and the coloured original.
  2. One of the most depressing selling points for computer games is that it is possible to ‘express yourself’ through the ‘characters’ you control in them. Once again, only someone with no character could make such a claim.
  3. ‘The author is dead’ as the postmodern thinker tells us, although it takes a video game to actually manifest this expression of nightmarish solipsism.
  4. It exists. There’s also a ‘homeless simulator’.
  5. And not so young people — sometimes thirty and forty-year old men. I don’t mean the occasional game of Mario or Cuphead or what-have-you, I mean mature men (physically mature at least) playing video games all day and all night. Women too, which is even more depressing, although still thankfully rarer; women tend to be more addicted to social media.
  6. What about the makers of these games? Take a look or read an interview with one of them; do they sound like great artists, like geniuses? Or do they sound like computer programmers?