Sunday, September 12, 2004

Videogame Theory: Yes, but is it Art?

All too often you hear the question on videogames forums "Are videogames Art?" but rarely does the discourse answering it go beyond "Yes." or "Don't be so fucking stupid." The reason for this is because most people struggle to find a definition of "Art" that they can agree upon.

So let's define terms. What is "Art"? What makes the Mona Lisa "Art" and an advertising billboard showing off the new Renault Mégane's arse "Not Art"? It's not simply that critics like Brian Sewell will coo pretentiously about "form" or "colour palette" over one but not the other.

Art takes many forms; painting, sculpture, writing, cinema, theatre, collage, tapestry, to name but a few. Yet this doesn't help define what Art is. Art is not just a thing, Art is a purpose. Art is more than having an image or statue to look at. Art is making a unique statement, and Art is the consideration of that statement. Art makes you look at yourself, not just at the artist's work.

This is what makes the Mona Lisa "Art", rather than just a simple portrait. The Mona Lisa makes you think - it makes you ask questions. Why does she only have an enigmatic half-smile? Shouldn't she be happy and honoured to have her portrait taken by the greatest living artist of her time? Why does she not seem happy? What would I have to be feeling to make me look like that? Why has Da Vinci not shown her smiling anyway? What is he trying to say about his subject? Art is much more than simply looking at well composed images, or appreciating beautifully structured dialogue.

If you agree to the above definitions, it is clear that very few videogames could be classed as Art. It is difficult to find examples of games that make you question your own nature, rather than simply bombard you with stunning images.

So which videogames are Art? It will no doubt surprise many people, but in this humble correspondent's opinion, Doom is Art. Doom possesses a singular clarity of purpose - to frighten and thrill the player. Doom is horror. Doom is violence. Doom is fun. Fun? How can horror and violence be fun? Immediately cognitive dissonance sets in. The player is thrust into the utmost peril, surrounded by growling, snarling demonspawn baying for your blood. Your only tool is violence, and the swift application of that violence. The only way to save your life is to take that of others. Kill or be killed. Darwinism as a videogame.

Doom is intense, enthralling and exhilarating. Yet it still makes you question yourself. Why is the sensation of mortal danger thrilling? Why is the act of taking life exhilarating? Is the act of killing really fun? Could I actually take a life?

Doom is an exercise in power. Doom recognises the fact that we all want power to some degree, and makes us face our nature by giving us the ultimate power of control over life and death. Doom is Art.

Doom III on the other hand, is not Art. The simple reuse of themes with better presentation does not make Doom III Art. Without trying to say something new, something unique, Doom III is nothing more than a plaything with an astonishing graphics engine. Like the vast majority of videogames (and mainstream cinema) Doom III does not make a unique statement, making it more akin to Pop Art than Art. Despite the name, Pop Art is not truly Art. Pop Art is about creating iconic, striking images for mass consumption and profit. Pop Art bombards the senses without thought or reason, and with scant regard for analysis. Pop Art is emotive, yet does not need to be unique or singularly purposed. Pop Art regurgitates themes without trying anything new, simply presenting itself with greater panache and style. Summer film blockbusters are Pop Art. Videogames are Pop Art.

Instead of asking the question "Are videogames Art?" we should instead consider the question "If videogames are not Art, is that a bad thing?"

The primary purpose of videogames is to entertain. Art may be many things - unique, profound, thought provoking - but few people would consider it mass entertainment. If a medium's primary raison d'être is to provide entertainment for the masses, isn't that medium mutually exclusive to being Art? If so, how can the perception of that medium not having artistic merits be viewed as bad?

Like film or theatre, recent history suggests that videogames can be used to present Art, but that does not mean that ALL videogames or ALL films should try to be Art. Art is not the logical conclusion for all entertainment media. Art is not appreciated - or indeed wanted - by everyone. It should not be seen as the ultimate aim of every videogame produced. If a game provides joy, what does it matter if it is not Art? A few select games will be Art, and will be recognised and appreciated as such, but this is not to say that all other games have no value because they are not.

Before you even ask the question "Are videogames Art?" you should ask yourself the question "Do I understand Art?". Unless you can answer "Yes" to the latter, any answer to the former is ultimately futile.

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