In my original Additional Pylons, I introduced the idea of distance. I haven’t stopped refining my understanding of the concept since then, and so today I’m going to share some of my thoughts regarding its ramifications and investigate some incredible artistic possibilities that gaming’s naturally low level of distance opens up.
To that end, I am going to begin by identifying an important function of art that is often simultaneously a signifier of quality art: the critique of structures and styles of thought, and the offering of a fundamentally different perspective. I am going to stand on the back of Jarrod’s post on art way back when, as well; read it if you haven’t already, because it is quite good, and I see no reason to trek back over the path that he’s already laid down.
Art That Burns Down Your House
Art is a slippery thing, and its traits are notoriously difficult to define, but what I have to say here shouldn’t be too controversial. I suggest that most fantastic art causes us to revise our knowledge of the world, as opposed to just telling us what we already know. In other words, good art is revelatory, if not to us then recognizably revelatory to an other. Art tends to smudge contemporary boundaries, and art often plays a part in the re-drawing of boundary lines. Dickens challenged aspects of industrial London’s social structure; Van Gogh painted a world of such vibrancy that changed the way we view starry nights; any poet worth anything offers startling insights about the nature of an experience, drawing connections so perfect and subtle that we can’t help but see and feel differently about his or her subject.
An artist, and an artist’s work, must often destroy something in order to offer a new view, or the experience, when it becomes art, must involve a revision of one’s perspective. The “victim” can be as simple as genre convention, or as complex as a massive social and cultural assumption about the state of the world, but generally speaking good art will crack a viewer’s understanding of the world, even if just a little and just to make space for some new, minor insight. Good art changes the way we view the world.
A piece of art need not engage with social issues or timeless human struggles in order to reveal. A great deal of poetry does just fine by examining a single, intense experience. In fact, the video game medium, like poetry, is uniquely capable of rendering intense individual experiences. Where video games most clearly diverge from poetry is in “reader agency,” and in ideal length. Poetry shares insight; the author takes the reader by the hand and investigates a single (or small series) of thoughts and images, but it is ultimately one, pre-determined path. The reader does not have agency, even though the reader’s experience of the poem will be unique. Video games (as they exist now, due to both industry and stylistic expectations) are more suited for lengthier investigations of broad experience, similar to what one would find in a novel, and yet the focus on a single avatar character resembles the merging of “author” and “reader” that occurs in poetry. This is partially because agency has a lot of importance in stories that feature character development, and giving that agency to the player can be an incredibly powerful experience.
However, as I noted before, not all games have such lofty aspirations, and they don’t need to. For instance, the interactive experience found in Guitar Hero is enough to make the player feel a little bit like a rock god; its a huge portion of the game’s appeal, discovering that you’ve got bits of Clapton or Hendrix in you, then capering about and showing off in front of friends. Guitar Hero offers little narrative trappings; any narrative is mostly provided by the player, or by the social context in which the game is being played. But what is there is enough to place the player in the shoes of a guitar player on stage. Is it enough to spur a revision of perspective? I suspect yes for some, no for others. Art isn’t necessarily universal.
World-view and Art
To focus this discussion a little more closely on the subject of video games, it is worth addressing what makes video game art different from any other form of art. The current state of video games means that the target demographic are young American or Japanese individuals (mostly American males on our side of things; I don’t know nearly enough about the Japanese market to make any statements on their demo), at least for the sort of high-profile, A‑list games, which, incidentally, is where most of the development dollars for pushing the boundaries of the medium are likely to be found. This is not to say that startling games-as-art won’t be found elsewhere; in fact, one could make an argument for certain Indie games as some of the most influential and startling examples of games-as-art in the last few years, but generally speaking those games have budgetary limits that form an insurmountable wall in certain areas of development.
What this means is that the most high-profile games that have the most potential of reaching the status of being good art are also intended to be appealing to the young American male demographic (so they can sell, so the game publisher gets a good return on their huge investment), and the priorities of those pursuits are sometimes mutually exclusive. This means that certain risks are down-right dangerous for publishers, and that certain perspectives and tropes within game genres become virtually universal.
This can be problematic for video games, since presenting the same perspective over and over again can get stale, and can thus hamper the quality of the overall experience a game can offer. Here’s an example: When was the last time you encountered a first-person shooter that doesn’t place you in the shoes of an American or an American ally? Now, most FPS games are made in America (I will just ride on the coat-tails of Extra Credits here), so there’s good reason why game developers make their protagonists fit that mold. But presenting the prototypical everyman/hot-blooded-American tough guy with a heart of gold/granite without fail means that the experience has become a little stale.
I’d like you to play a quick game of pretend with me, so bear with me and withhold judgment. The American FPS protagonist is a tried-and-true model, so let’s do our best to invert it; what if an FPS had you play as an insurrectionist fighting the American or pseudo-American forces? This could make for some interesting art. Imagine intense scenes of warfare, punctuated with the ills that a large occupying force naturally generates. Homefront made an attempt at working in similar themes, and I have no idea how successful they were, but I think we can all agree that it’s a little strange that the insurrectionists in their story are Americans.
Let’s take this one step further: what if an FPS featured an honest-to-god Muslim insurrectionist? What if the game tried its best to realistically portray the effect of an American occupation on Iraq? I’m going to ignore the fact that a political storm straight out of hell would consume this project and, in all probability, result in actual violence, and focus only on the “game” here; the reality of the market and the society isn’t exactly what I’m focusing on here, though it is important to the discussion. Such a game need not take sides, nor actually support violence, but rather seek to humanize innocents and the “enemy” side of the conflict. The important part of such a game would be to recast certain archetypes and characters, causing us to consider the assumptions we have about such characters, and thus about such people, even if our conclusions are the same. That’s what good narrative art does. Of course, this is an extreme example, and there’s a great spectrum of other experiences the player can have between the Terrorist game and the FPS games of today.
A game need not even be a first-party title or have a high budget to encourage this reconsideration (though it can certainly help). The game Spent is a phenomenal example of a simple game that produces empathy and understanding of a life that is somewhat alien to most middle-class Americans. Regardless of sociological outcomes, such a game reveals a different sort of life to the player, and that alone can make it a worthy experience.
On a side note that is partially related, one issue that video games rarely (never?) tackle is religion, or if they do it is through a surrogate, non-existent faith. It’s a strange decision, especially since a character’s nationality is hardly ever up for debate and in some cases actually implies faith. For instance, it is a fact that every conflict in the Middle East right now, and every conflict portrayed in games, has religious over-tones, but games have failed to engage with it, probably because it is a risky endeavor. I understand, but would also note that some risks are worth taking.
I have just scratched the surface of investigating how the revelatory power of art differs or is the same in video games. I’d love to hear your opinions on what I have written here (and I’m sure you’ve got some, some of it’s a little volatile), and am especially interested in further suggestions along the same lines. What big themes do you think are absent in video games today, and what themes are well-represented? Why do you think that is?