On Games and Art

post co-written by Gabriele and Hartmut

“There needs to be a wordwrites British journalist Jonathan Jonesfor the overly serious and reverent praise of digital games by individuals or institutions who are almost certainly too old, too intellectual and too dignified to really be playing at this stuff. Gamecrashing? Gamebollocks? Spiellustfaken?”.

The occasion for Jones’ invention of the “gamebollocks” neologism is the recent announcement that computer games will be acquired and displayed alongside more conventional works of art at the MoMa museum in New York. Similar events, including The Art of Video Games exhibition hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, have already been organized in the past.

Jones’ main counterargument in the “are computer games art?” debate is that artistic qualities derive from an Author’s personal elaboration on a certain subject. But, he argues, games are interactive: their authors have delegated some of their powers to players, who peruse the system like children in a park. No real Author, no personal perspective, no art – claims the British journalist.
Jonathan Jones is not alone in this theoretical position. For instance, influential film criticist Roger Ebert recently argued against computer games being Art because they are phenomenologically unstable: the same game, repeated twice, can generate different plots. At the 2007 Hollywood and Games Summit, Clive Barker argued that  Roger Ebert’s problem is that he believes that art is impossible if there is malleability in the narrative. Ebert concludes “I consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”.

Such claims generated a lively online discussion reminiscent of the past debate between narratological and ludological perspectives in Game Studies. While, in our opinion, the earlier discussion was based also on terminological misunderstandings, Jones’ and Ebert’s current arguments are more ideological and convey a partial definition of what is Art without debating the alternatives. Several objections are possible, many of which have already been proposed by other scholars, designers, researchers and gamers. However, we will contribute three more possibilities that have not entered this discussion yet.

First of all, if we accept that a single, identifiable Artist is needed for a work of Art, we arbitrarily exclude several influential pieces. What about the great number of paintings and sculptures from the Classical Antiquity or the Middle Ages for which we do not have a clear attribution? And what about epic poems, chansons de geste and folk tales whose modern editions derive from centuries of collecting and editing of oral versions? Jones writes that “[..] there is no artist, and therefore no work of art”: if we agree with him, we should reject the Odyssey and the Chanson de Roland because they emerged in their current forms only after incorporating contributions by countless unknown authors.

Roger Ebert claims that Art exists when an Author – known or unknown, single or collective – is fully responsible for the actualization, the mise-en-scene, of his work. Users’ choices are incompatible with a work of Art, he argues. It could be interesting to hear Reader-Response theorists replying to this claim. Also, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco formulated the notion of Open Work already in the ’60s and continued to revisit it in the following years. In 1962 he examined not only Luciano Berio’s experimental music but also the “Art Informel” movement for painting and “Kinetic Art” for sculptures and he claimed that some works of Art are “Open Works”. Their openness and dynamicity consist in being available to be not only interpreted but also integrated, completed by their intended audience. Simply put, some works of art require to be acted upon (mentally or even physically) to be fully enjoyed. What is the difference, in principle, with interactive digital environments?

Even more to the point of a malleable work of art employing modern technology, Roy Ascott’s 1964 article “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision” already urged artists to shift their focus away from creating finished “objects” to dynamic systems with which the audience interacts: “The artist, the artifact and the spectator are all involved in a more behavioural context. […] A feedback loop is established so that the evolution of the artwork/experience is governed by the intimate involvement of the spectator”.
It should be noted that Ascott’s reason for this change of perspective is clearly not one of the naive artist stumbling upon the toy store of modern technology’s creative potential. Rather, he urges artists to find aesthetic responses to the massive shift caused by the technological (“cybernetic” in his words) revolution he sees happening already in the 1960s. Finally, Ascott’s vision comes with a warning, as he has no illusions that it will take time for artists to adapt to the new perspective of systems and participation and cautions that during a “transitional period” many artists will “contrive to force the new sensibility into old moulds.”

Ascott’s warning extends to critics as well. Ebert and Jones force interactive works into the old moulds of object art and the linear medium of film. It is entirely unsurprising that these perspectives find interactive works to be inferior to the established “gold standard.” As we have argued earlier for the case of narrative in interactive media, this judgement is a result of the lens through which the critics watch interactive digital works. We might further argue that neither of these established moulds fit but they are applied for reasons of convenience and because we lack a fully developed descriptive arsenal of theoretical understanding and terminology. However, many pointers and theoretical explorations do exist.

Finally, Ebert and Jones agree that interactive practices lack the authorial control that characterize their view of a work of art. Without evoking bards, folk storytellers and Commedia dell’Arte artists, it is possible to counter this argument by citing Janet Murray’s works on procedural media. Current digital technologies are “procedural” because they allow their authors to write not only a linear, stable text but also the algorithmic rules governing its behavior. In other words, authors of procedural works create the contents of their works and establish the rules and conditions governing the system’s interaction with its audience. This feature is not an inconvenient byproduct, as Ebert seems to think, but a central characteristic of this medium: digital works of art are constitutively interactive. The meaning of an interactive piece emerges from its procedural rules as well as from its static contents and this meaning has every potential for being artistic.

“Once video games have been dubbed art [..], shouldn’t we have bigger, more interesting aspirations for them?”, wrote Ian Bogost. Indeed, as theorists, designers, artists and players, we have high expectations for the future of videogames. We see great potential: a medium with unprecedented popular success, continuous technological advances and relatively easy-to-use development and publishing tools. The potential for a more developed “video-ludic” and cybernetic art form has existed for a few years, but the breakthrough is slower than expected. We need more artists exploring the original affordances of interactive digital media, we need more game designers creating new conventions for gameplay. Also, video games as an artistic endeavor need programmers and hackers willing to look past technical problems and to help improving its expressive capabilities.
And, finally, we need a new vocabulary to describe, understand, criticize, study and explain what interactive digital media has to offer as an artistic form. As a research group our contribution is on both sides, theory and practice.

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