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The Art of Video Games
By Philip Kennicott
"The Art of Video Games," a technologically impressive but intellectually inert exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, belongs in a history or technology museum, not in an institution devoted to art. Despite its title, it fails to grapple with questions about the definition and boundaries of art, questions that tend to make people squeamish in a democratic society that would rather everything be art than anyone feel excluded from the realms of sanctified culture.
Which is not to say that the 40-year history of video games hasn't produced supremely sophisticated aesthetic experiences. Or that the virtual worlds summoned by designers of the best of the 80 games on display aren't every bit as "artistic" as the best scenic design for theater or the movies. Or that people can't have emotional reactions to the events within a game, though it is clear that this aspect of gaming is a work in progress rather than a fully achieved goal.
But is it in fact the case, as game designer Jenova Chen says, that "everything is an art"? Or are there important lines that demarcate entertainment and art? Exhibition curator Chris Melissinos hedges in the wall text that introduces the show: "Using the cultural lens of an art museum, viewers can determine whether the games on display are indeed worthy of the title 'art.' "
Very likely, some of these games, and even more in the future, rise to that level. But the exhibition doesn't address what distinguishes merely entertaining games from great ones, and what models designers should pursue if they want to achieve greater artistic substance.
Instead, it focuses on technology, presented as if the overriding force driving most game design is basic verisimilitude. In one display, we see basic actions - running, climbing, flying - depicted from the earliest era of design in the 1980s to the the past decade in which humans and monsters move with an almost cinematic believability. The goal of ever-improved believability is echoed in video clips featuring prominent designers and industry leaders, though several of them also stress a drive toward moral complexity.
The bulk of the exhibition is contained in two rooms, both ordered chronologically. One features five playable games that trace the gaming history from the simple but addictive graphics of the 1980 Pac-Man to the soothing and seamless experience of Chen's 2009 Flower. The other contains consoles that feature video and audio recordings devoted to particular games over five basic periods of video game history, tracing the evolution of graphics from the 1977 Atari Combat, in which players opposed each other with rudimentary, pixelated tanks, to the cinematic interactivity of Nintendo's Wii, Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. Melissinos says his goal was to include the three "voices" of the medium, the designers, the games themselves and the players or gamers, who were invited to vote online for the games they wanted in the show.
To the extent that aesthetic issues are addressed, it is in the interplay of technology and its limitations with the almost universal ambition of designers to create more fully immersive and realistic-seeming game environments. The exhibition focuses on games created for the home market, for consoles such as the Atari, rather than the more visually complicated experience of the arcade video. And so a subtheme is the compromise and innovation forced upon designers as they downsize arcade games for the more limited graphics of machines that, for many years, used cartridges or tapes.
One obvious question, if you want to nibble around the edges of the broader debate about whether video games are art or not, is the audience's relationship to old and outdated games. No one would suggest that the Masses of the 15th-century composer Josquin des Pres offer an inferior experience to the music of the 19th-century Richard Wagner. But for the bulk of the gaming community, and for many designers presented in this exhibition, game design is about progress, about ever-new and improved products.
There is a good deal of groupthink in evidence throughout the exhibition, which was sponsored in part by the Entertainment Software Association Foundation and is being supported by theEntertainment Consumers Association. Both are nonprofits, and the latter explicitly says it isn't supported by the industry, though it often advocates for policies closely aligned with the interests of gaming manufacturers. A spokeswoman for the museum says all decisions about content were made independently of and after the involvement of the two groups.
But the layout of the exhibition stresses corporate identity rather than artistic or aesthetic themes, and the walls are covered with the trademark TM symbol and familiar brands: Nintendo, Microsoft,Mattel, Sega. The exhibition designers deserve credit for creating a manageable acoustic environment, with each console producing a limited but audible amount of sound. It's a noisy exhibition, but not cacophonous. But it also feels commercial, like a giant Apple store.
Most of the people interviewed for the exhibition stress the same themes. They are largely convinced that video games are a revolutionary moment in culture, that their future lies in narrative and emotional connection, and that the illusion of participation is what distinguishes video games from other arts.
They may all be correct in their understanding, but the exhibition needs to question it more thoroughly. If one examines the history of photography (which struggled to find an aesthetic unique from painting) and film (which worked to define itself against theater), it's not clear that simply aiming at cinematic realism is the best goal for an independent video game art. The fetish for narrative is understandable, given the close connection between gaming and the movie industry. But it's not as if we live in a society that wants for narrative experiences. If anything, we are too much inundated with narrative, from movies, television and the Web, to the point that one author has reasonably asked if we are "amusing ourselves to death."
And while the role of agency - the ability to make decisions and influence outcomes - does indeed distinguish video games from many other art forms, it's not clear that this enhances the form's aesthetic impact. Many of these games leave one with little time to actually look at what the designers have created. The dynamics of play are so absorbing that there's no role for contemplation.
Many art forms are fundamentally resistant to the kind of participation celebrated in the gaming world. The fact that you can't reach into the pages of a novel by Charles Dickens to avert disaster, or assuage the pain in a crucifixion painting from the Renaissance, or save the young courtesan from death in an opera by Verdi is part of the moral and aesthetic project of experiencing them as art. A certain kind of passivity, a submission to the artist's vision, may be essential to art. It's entirely possible that great art disempowers as much as it empowers.
Video games emerged technologically with computers, but they have equally deep roots in escapist entertainments such as science fiction and fantasy role playing (Dungeons and Dragons is cited as inspiration by several designers). The late 1970s and '80s were a time of collective anxiety about America's declining power, the collapse of our industrial economy and the emergence of new cultural and economic forces such as Japan. Video games, like role playing, may well be a compensatory response to broad feelings of impotence, hence their often obsessive focus on the illusion of agency and control over the world.
Fundamentally, there's an argument about consciousness embedded in these games, an argument that hasn't been teased out in this exhibition. In games, the world is often seen down the barrel of a gun, or as if through the window of a human-like machine moving through space. You experience these worlds from a commanding but solitary point of view, and you must actively look for things in order to see them. Actual consciousness is very different, full of distraction and peripheral data, more scattered and impressionistic than anything offered up by video games.
Not all games take the idea of control to the hyperbolic extremes of the shoot'em-up and action and adventure genera. The player is definitely steering the experience in Flower, but it's a meandering sort of power. Nor are all games relentlessly focused on narrative, and some, such as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, revel in a visually pleasing abstraction.
But the exhibition does little to underscore what is aesthetically novel about the best games on display, opting instead for inclusiveness and a broad history of their evolution. And there is virtually nothing about the visual precedents for game design, the longer history of art that must surely be lurking in the consciousness of the best game designers. Nor are classic controversies addressed, such as racism in games including Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, or the purported and widely disputed connection between violent games and violent behavior, a perennial sideshow for opportunistic politicians but still an unsettled sociological question. If the exhibition had been less focused on including large numbers of games, and thus broad publicity for the major game companies, it might have given greater focus to the more positive trends in the industry, the greater role of women in game design, and the increased popularity of games that don't involve combat of any sort.
At the very least, one would like an exhibition that makes critical distinctions, that tells us which games are better than others, and why. What must a game do to become art? And when will the medium itself begin to look more like the art world than the entertainment industry?
I'd propose some of the following: We'll know it's art when old games are as interesting to people as new ones; when particular games play a role in changing the actual world, just as novels such as "The Sorrows of Young Werther," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Jungle" altered ideas of identity and politics; when the best games are richly self-referential to an accepted canon of classic games; and when the contemplation after playing a game is more pleasing than the game itself. They may well be art, and some games may already meet some or all of those criteria - which are by no means definitive of all art.
The problem with "Video Games as Art" isn't that it can't answer these basic questions, it's that it doesn't ask them.