Boring Art, Boring Debates

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The ‘videogames as art’ debate has gone around and come around. Sure, we’re all bored with it, but is that a good enough reason to drop it permanently?

It’s no secret that videogames struggle for legitimacy. Every gamer has their own personal memory of their hobby scorned, buried deep in their unconscious, waiting for the right moment to erupt and turn them into a blubbering mess of Freudian analysis.

Personally, my own was born of a games journalist. Three years ago, Chris Buffa rightly took apart games journalism. It was inspiring stuff, but the most devastating quote encouraged videogame journalists to “keep in mind that no matter how successful you may think that you are, there’s a very hot person in a bar that’s going to laugh in your face when you inform them what you do for a living (they’ll be sober, by the way).”

Oh.

Can you imagine N’Gai Croal, svelte dreads in tow, getting a rejection line handed to him at the end of the night based solely on his occupation? Can you imagine Leigh Alexander getting the cold shoulder after a long night of dedicated small talk only because she let slip she’s pretty big in the male 12-20 demographic and she’s not a porn star?

Well, yes, actually, I can. All I know is that there are a horde of videogame journalists out there right now – this instant – pretending to be hard news reporters, or graphic designers, or god knows what (mechwarrior pilots, knowing the imagination of half of them) in order to pick up. It’s an amusingly worrying thought.

“Legitimacy” is an interesting thing. As Michael Abbott pointed out recently, if it’s hard data signifying legitimacy that we’re after, we have plenty. A cursory Google search will tell you that most consenting adults now enjoy videogames; that the average age of the gamer is probably older than you are; that the demographics are expanding constantly; that when Jesus returns he’ll come bearing a DS and a Japanese copy of Professor Layton.

Yet your average gamer remains skeptical (as perhaps he should in the case of the last point). Perhaps he is right to be. For the stats don’t stop “regular players”, as deemed by the surveys, still contributing to the “games-as-insignificant-distraction” section of society. The stats don’t stop Barack Obama, a politician usually considerate when it comes to cultural scapegoats, from urging parents to “turn off the Xbox” in order to revive a generation. It’s a cultural touchstone: games aren’t serious. With the introduction of Wii Fit and Guitar Hero, they might be fun, just like they used to be in the ‘80s, but they aren’t important.

It comes down to this: you might play ‘em, but that don’t mean you think they’re art.

And yet it’s this here “art” thing that we most shy away from. Oh, not in the initial years: anyone who was anyone was willing to send a vociferous email off to Roger Ebert in the hopes that the old man would change his mind on the basis of ill-conceived, capitalised arguments from a pre-teen. Games were art. This of all things we were certain of. We even let Clive Barker speak on our behalf, as our head advocate, so confident we were of the self-evident obviousness of our case.

Then something changed. The industry matured, and walked away from the frothy-mouthed flailing of a juvenile media looking for a pat on the head from Daddy. It decided that actions, more than words, would speak for their medium. And perhaps they do. Portal and others have made large steps towards showing how games can be art, and not merely talking about it. In many senses this is far more important than arguments.

But somewhere along the line, we forgot that arguments are vital.

Old Persons Home by Jim Linwood

'Old Person's Home' by Jim Linwood

There are almost certainly those who’ve been reading this article who have begun to cringe involuntarily as soon as I mentioned the word “art”. I know your type. I used to be one. You began by radically supporting the “art” argument. You chatted animatedly, passionately with your friends. Perhaps you were at a LAN party. Perhaps you were among non-converts, and you struggled to get your opinion across. But that didn’t stop you.

You signed up to an online forum. You clearly outlined your reasons. You carefully selected your criteria, and you made one hell of an argument.

And everyone agreed. Except those who didn’t listen. And they were the ones who really counted; the uninitiated masses.

So you went around in circles for some time. Maybe even a couple of years. And then you stopped. You became jaded. “Games-as-art is the most tired, uninteresting debate out there,” you eventually conceded. “It’s not worth debating about any more. There are more worthwhile topics.”

Maybe you were right. Maybe it is boring. It does goes around in circles. It is pointless, in terms of any tangible aim: it is beyond doubt that we’ll ever see an all-persuasive argument surface any time soon.

But we can’t stop talking about it. We mustn’t.

The reason is clear enough, if you take the time to think about it. Why are you here? Why are you at this blog, reading an article on videogames and cultural legitimacy? What was that moment that kicked it off?

I’d wager that it was because you felt that videogames were under-appreciated. I bet that you heard, saw, or read someone talking about your hobby in a serious way. It connected with you. Someone showed you that you weren’t alone in your experiences: other people believed that your emotional experience while playing Final Fantasy VII, or Knights of the Old Republic, or Zelda was authentic and meaningful. They had reasons. They had good reasons. And it was so reassuring to have these reasons validated that it triggered off a whole host of thoughts about videogames. You wanted to talk to others. You wanted to play more. Maybe you wanted to become a journalist.

This is why we can’t let the “games-as-art” discussion die. The truth is that the vast majority of people, even if they play games on a regular basis, don’t necessarily think of them as a serious medium. It isn’t because they’re being unfair on videogames – it’s mostly because they either haven’t had enough playing experience, or the thought just hasn’t occurred to them.

We need to be that thought.

Every time we debate “games-as-art” we can put that seed of a thought into someone else’s mind. Even if they laugh at it, it’ll sit there. It’s the kind of thing that hangs around. Next time they’re playing Guitar Hero or Wii Sports, they might have a think about what they’re doing. Or they might not. It’ll either germinate or it won’t.

But the thought will be there. And one day they too might sign up to an online forum.

And maybe one day politicians like Obama will stop trying to turn off the Xboxs and instead try to reach out through them. Surely that’s worth getting over your own boredom for.


Related posts:

  1. Thank you, Roger Ebert
  2. Self-destructive sexualism
  3. The name of the games

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Daniel Golding

Daniel Golding is a Melbourne-based writer and PhD student, and a founding editor of RedKingsDream. You may follow Daniel on Twitter, or view his online portfolio here.

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13 comments

  1. I’ve always scoffed when people use the example of “could you pick up mentioning you’re a games journalist” because in my experience picking up has never been based on profession, it’s based on two parts charm to one part sleaziness.

    Personally, I’m not a huge fan of putting all that’s labelled “art” up on a pedestal. For me, “art” is a label that shares more in common with physical proximity to certain towering establishments than it does to what’s been drawn, painted, sculpted, played, or developed. In other words, art is only a term useful for describing what’s been hung in a gallery. All hail the institution.

    With that view in mind, I couldn’t give a shit what art is, or isn’t, and whether games are it.

  2. Yeah, that’s definitely an opinion I can sympathise with. Art is definitely a label with certain connotations and perhaps less meaning than ever. What is canonically known as ‘art’ almost certainly has less to do with real, normal people than many other ‘entertainments’. ‘Art’ in its strictest sense to many would only mean ‘visual art’, or more ‘visual art painted by a dead white male’.

    But, to a certain extent that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the other connotations that ‘art’ brings; the ‘serious medium’ connotations that for most people apply not just to visual art but to literature, poetry, some cinema, and most music. The type of ‘art’ that gets people talking, creates a vibrant cultural atmosphere and even gets governments and funding bodies interested.

    Thanks for the first comment, Dan! A thought-provoking one too!

  3. Art as more serious? You mean like the difference between Movie and Film? Maybe people need to stop using the word “game” for what they want taken seriously, then. Game, irregardless of whether it’s board, card, D&D or digital, will most likely always be associated with less serious fare. Sports wouldn’t be taken as seriously if they were called “games”, I don’t think. Maybe a new word needs proliferating to differentiate the difference between mere “games”, such as the big action titles, and the “more serious” ones of which you speak.

  4. Perhaps, but I’ve always found alternate titles to be a little dishonest. They hide what videogames are; ‘interactive entertainment’, ‘digital fiction’, yuck. I use the term ‘videogames’ consciously as one word because to me it signifies a new word for a new medium, as technically the word ‘video’ no longer applies anyway.

    Maybe you’re right, but I’m yet to hear a word I like, and I’m not sure that at this point, any word will catch on.

    Maybe the word ‘game’ will simply evolve a new context as the years go by?

  5. Labels are always problematic. Just as racism doesn’t disappear when the n-word is banned, so people will continue to judge games based on what they think about them, not what they’re called. When people get used to games as an important medium, the word won’t have the same stigma. Words are subjective.

    The reason it’s so hard to sell a lot of people on the idea that games are worthy art, I think, is that they’ve never experienced it. They might have played a great game, but if it didn’t make them feel something deeply, they can’t see why it should be called art. A lot of older people may never be able to get this feeling from a game, but generations change.

    The word art isn’t very useful, because it can have such broad or specific meanings. What we want is for games to be taken seriously. That will happen over time, whether we debate it or not, although having the argument could certainly help hurry the process along a bit.

    (By the way: hi, Dan! We met the other week at the pub with Harry, in case the RMIT URL didn’t give me away.)

  6. Hi Fraser! Good to ‘see’ you again. I saw your ‘Your Turn’ article a while ago; nice work.

    Funny you should mention racism given the nature of an upcoming article. Stay tuned.

    I agree that a major reason people don’t take games seriously is because they’ve never played one. But I also think, as I say in the article, that a lot of people play games and don’t take them seriously just because they automatically lump them in as ‘an entertainment’. That’s why we need to keep talking about them in a serious fashion, and there is no more direct way than the ‘art’ debate.

  7. Good point. I tend to focus on the Roger Eberts and Michael Atkinsons – people who didn’t grow up with games – and perhaps overlook the people who did grow up with games but dismiss them anyway. So many serious articles about games have a comments thread full of “lol who cares its just a game”.

    Here’s to boring them into submission!

  8. [...] Another update Jump to Comments For those of you who are sick of Subject Navigator simply being about boring updates these days, I apologise. The good news is that I’ve started writing about games again. Over at RedKingsDream, I’ve started a collaboration with three other Australian videogames writers. We all know each other well and know we can feed off each other nicely, thanks to our previous work at PALGN and the podcast there. I’m really looking forward to what we’re going to create there, and I hope you pop on over. My first article can be found here. [...]

  9. Men love my profession, even if they’re not gamers, and people I know think my relative success is cool. Even those who don’t exactly know what I do are somehow impressed when their coworkers are familiar with my work, or that they get a lot of results when they google me, or that my company flies me places a few times a year.

    The cold-shoulder-after-small-talk thing usually comes from other women I’m trying to make friends with.

    More common than rejection, though, is incomprehension — fewer people than you’d think even understand the idea of covering games as a business (the financial strategies of publishers, interviews with developers, etc), let alone as a medium worthy of criticism.

    However, I do see the latter one changing. Maybe they’re just trying to be polite, but when I talk about game crit people seem to “get it,” even if they just say “yeah man, wow, games are so complicated now, like movies.”

    Actually, the thing that seems to confuse people the most is that I work online from home. Funnily enough, that’s the bit that requires the most explanation.

    But yeah. Trying to talk about games writing in the real world will always keep any delusions of grandeur (ha) in check.

    I dunno that I’m so much ashamed as it is I just get tired of trying to explain it to people to whom even the idea of internet culture is enormously foreign. Short answer: “I’m a journalist.” Midlength answer: “I’m a tech journalist.” Longest answer: “You know what Variety does for Hollywood? Like, covers it as a business? That’s what I do, only with the video game industry.”

  10. Hi Leigh, thanks for dropping by and commenting. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective on things, considering I was imagining it for you in the article.

    Actually I think the distinction you make of incomprehension is pretty insightful. To me, that fits with what I’m saying in this article more than if you were getting the cold shoulder from everyone. It shows that people are ready to accept games as entertainment, as just being there without being a problem, but not as being worthy of further study or deeper interest. Their preconception is not that games are somehow immoral and a bad influence, as it might have been a decade ago, but that games are superfluous and unimportant.

    I wonder what age group these people are? I’d imagine that it’d be spread, but I’d also wager that a fair few of them fall into the bracket that is supposed to have grown up with games: the demographic that we take for granted when we’re talking about ‘games as art’, or ‘getting games accepted’ or whatever variant on that. I know from my own personal experience, plenty of people my own age are incapable of understanding why anyone would want to write about games, or critique them, or study them. I’m halfway through my second videogames-related thesis and I still don’t know how to answer the “what are you writing on” question at parties. As you say, how do you explain that to people who don’t even understand the idea of an internet culture?

  11. [...] that the debate is occurring at all outside games’ home territory – that has to be worthwhile. Categories: Culture Tags: art, debates, roger [...]

  12. [...] “An Ornithologist’s guide to E3, 2010″ “When the trailer is better than the game” “On inclusivity” “What my television set can learn from videogames” “The year of thirds” “Modern Warfare’s hollow victory” “IKEA, and the logic of videogame design” “Arkham Asylum, and the space of traumatic memory” “Boring Art, Boring Debates” [...]

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