Focus Tested Art

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by Kyle Ackerman


If It's Focus Tested, It's Not Art


OkamiA lot of breath and plenty of text has been wasted debating the issue of whether video and computer games are (or even can be) art. Participants in the debate range from angry teenagers defending their favorite pastime on forum boards to established members of academia and the press with graduate degrees in areas like film or art history making their arguments on... well... forum boards. (And sometimes in established journals and newspapers.)

The problem with these arguments is mostly in their loose use of the term "art." That's a debate that's been raging since the word itself entered language. And a debate that rages anew every time a new medium emerges. In the context of the debate about video games, it's also usually poorly defined. Arguments that claim video games are art are often as well reasoned as claims that a particular console beats other consoles. Different reasonable people (even high-powered academic types) have different definitions of art, and so will disagree on whether video games can be art.


I don't care whether you are a relativist or objectivist, I think the problem is what we're examining. In the early 1980s, a game might have been the creation of a single individual, crafting as that person pleased. Now, a game might be constructed by hundreds &ndash or possibly even thousands – of people, with business and marketing personnel taking a hand in the game's creation.

Halo 3Now, one might argue that despite the fact that early painters and musicians may have had myriad assistants and apprentices who took large roles in the creation of their works, thanks to a single, strong guiding hand or overarching style, the work is still credited to single artist. But even a game director or publisher who rules with an iron fist must bow to corporate pressures. Publishing executives and marketing may demand specific features, marketing bullet points, or even a gratuitously hot, but extraneous, female character. (Many films suffer from a similar problem.) Games are part of a carefully orchestrated business plan with millions of marketing dollars behind them, often springing as much from the minds of salesmen as from designers. Games are more likely than a novel, symphony or documentary to be exhaustively focus tested. The opening levels of Halo may have arrows on the floor to help you figure out where to go thanks to early testing – but did Van Gogh feel the need to draw arrows on his painting to let you know which sunflower to focus on first?

With hordes of focus testers in on the design in some capacity, and a game crafted for millions of fans, many games are really the creation of millions, rather than the product of a single "artist." A game often represents a sort-of economically savvy zeitgeist – a construct combining elements that invoke impulse purchases, with lasting brand-building. And sometimes a touch of something artistic slipped in.

But can something be art if it's the brainchild of a huge industry's most dedicated sales and accounting teams?

I think, if it's focus tested, it isn't art.

Yes, reasonable people can disagree here, and some definitions of art easily admit a focus-tested golem alongside accepted masterpieces. I demand a measure of intentionality from my art, and I don't believe that a creation focused primarily on economic viability, assembling appealing bullet points in the manner of Frankenstein's monster, can truly be art.

But I also don't think that makes games and art mutually exclusive.

Let's Reframe the Question: Is It The Whole Construct, or Are Parts Enough?


Grand Theft Auto IVJust because a colossal construct isn't art, that doesn't mean no part of that construct is art. Look at Grand Theft Auto IV... the game models an alternate version of New York City – Liberty City. Asking if Grand Theft Auto IV can be construed as art is like asking whether New York City is art. Obviously, New York contains art. They must be keeping something in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But is buying a hot dog "art"? You can do it in Grand Theft Auto IV, just as you can on a New York street corner, and it's an integral part of the game. Is the hot dog vendor the single factor that determines whether Grand Theft Auto IV is art? Of course not.

Regardless of your definition of art, something within the game might strike you as art. It doesn't even matter whether the context is important. The question is, does a piece, in its intentional entirety, have to be art to "count?"

I don't think so. A gargoyle on an otherwise pedestrian cathedral might be art. A single piece of graffiti in a colossal scrawl might be art. A single page in a middle-schooler's sketchbook could be art.

Shouldn't we give up on looking at games as discrete units and focus on finding art where we can – be it "found" art, the plinth on a single column or an inspirational character model in an otherwise drab game?

Many critics of video games as art insist on looking at a game as a whole, and then dismissing the whole as a commercial monstrosity. That's a straw man argument. The backdrops in Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter can be inspirational without elevating the game itself beyond a pedestrian Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawl.

BraidSome games have strong enough direction and little enough corporate interference that they can be examined as a single work. Some small, independent developers can develop games that are an absolute cohesive whole. But with most games, we are looking at the work of dozens or even hundreds of developers, augmented by a bevy of businessmen, catering to the needs and wants of millions of potential customers. When a game is successful, it's often an organic construct shaped by a million hands and limited by technology. Let's stop asking ourselves if a game is art, and search for art where we find it.

You may believe that Ico or Nethack is art, but be clear – if you choose to debate games as art, let your partner in debate know whether you will only consider the game as a whole. Perhaps the game was mediocre, but a single level designer or audio programmer created something that struck your soul and made you experience something that you would consider art. If we define our parameters and make our expectations clear, then why shouldn't some games be just as artistic as some films, paintings, plays, or mass-produced but clever home design items sold in Target? Who's to say such items carry less soul than a single painting labored over for decades by a master painter? (Well, several art historians would say exactly that, but that's why we need to be clear in our arguments and the parameters of those arguments.)

A relativist might argue that a Rodin sculpture is as much a socially constructed conception of art as what video game publishers do for their consumers. I'm not arguing that point. But I am saying that a boxed game or SKU isn't the right unit to look at when considering games as art, any more than a museum should be judged as art (or not) based on the totality of its contents, judged together. Exhibitions like Into the Pixel are capable of looking at portions of games, both in and out of context. Why can't the rest of us?

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 28, 2009 9:13 PM.

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