Friday, November 30, 2012

News Kneejerk: MoMA Sez "Games = Art."

Yesterday the MoMA announced that it is adding the following titles to its collection:

Another World
SimCity 2000
The Sims
Katamari Damacy
EVE Online
Dwarf Fortress

And this is only the beginning. If you clicked the link, you'll have surely noticed games like Pong, Asteroids, Chrono Trigger, and Minecraft on the MoMA's wish list.

Oh, good; here we go again. Video games: art?


I enjoy playing video games as much as the next hip twentysomething jerkoff, but this news from Manhattan somehow doesn't sit well with me. I've been trying all day to sort out why.

I've noticed, for one thing, that the more cultural legitimacy games acquire, the less interesting they become to me. This might be a personal problem as much as anything; the griping of an O.G. annoyed that the band that used to belong exclusively to him and his friends suddenly belongs to everyone.

Maybe there's more to it than that.

Nintendo Power -- a magazine whose reporting focused on reviews and strategy guides -- recently went under after 24 years. Nostalgic older players can be heard muttering to themselves about "the end of an age" as they click on the next Kotaku link.

Meanwhile: earlier this year, the Onion A.V. Club unveiled a spin-off site called The Gameological Society, which focuses its reporting on what video games mean. It's some relatively highbrow stuff, reading like some Artforum contributor's examination of Secret of Mana or Metroid. More than once I've stopped reading an article halfway through, thinking GOOD GOD, IT'S A FREAKING VIDEO GAME. GET OVER IT.

Yeah, yeah -- this from somebody who's written a veritable book on Final Fantasy. Call me inconsistent.

(However: two years after playing through the whole freaking Final Fantasy series, one through thirteen, and writing about it, I feel a lot differently about Final Fantasy.)

Truth is -- and I've said before -- video games have become a guilty pleasure for me. An hour spent plunking virtual credits into Revenge of Death-Adder on MAME is an hour I'm not writing, going outside, reading 19th century novels or Greek philosophers, learning calculus, looking at the stars, having sex, doing a crossword puzzle with a friend, et cetera., et cetera.

It's too passive. Which is fine -- were it not for the pet pleasures society affords us, those of us on the lower rungs would have burned down the banks and government offices years ago. Lord knows an hour or two with a fighting game or shmup after work has more than once been the difference between Functional Patrick and Sociopathic Patrick.

But art -- especially the sort proclaiming itself modern -- is not supposed to be passive.

Yeah, yeah -- video games are interactive, you say. That's not what I mean. Mario moves and jumps when you hit the buttons, but it's still so damned easy. That's the point; toys aren't meant to be hard. Games are meant to be played and won, ideally yielding their player as much entertainment and as little frustration as possible. For the most part they are psychic comfort food.

I've always been under the assumption that modern art's ideals are to provoke and challenge its viewers. To upend their assumptions and beliefs about the world in which they live; to force a reevaluation of their values and perspectives. Modern art is not easy. It's best when it drives you crazy because you can't easily resolve it, can't figure out how it makes you feel, can't "win" at it.

Tōru Iwatani made a very neat game once (Pac-Man) and is evidently a career lecturer these days, but I wonder if he has as many interesting things to say about his medium and the world as Kandinsky, Miró, or fuck, even Warhol?

Perhaps I am being unfair?

Maybe. But these might be questions we want to ask, distinctions we want to make when selecting which cultural artifacts have more weight and lasting value than others; which notes in the general cacophony allow the listener to transcend and arrange the rest in a more melodious order.


While typing the last paragraph, it occurred to me that the MoMA's very decision to incorporate games in its collection might be construed as a challenge. The choice itself was made to provoke thought, discussion, and argument.

Video games are not longer just hobby pieces for kids and geeks. "Subculture" is no longer a term that applies to self-described "gamers." The scene has gone mainstream in a big way. And the values expressed by these games, by the people who design them, and in the lifestyle choices of the people who consume them, are exerting an increasingly heavy influence on society.

I wonder if the MoMA isn't implicitly asking us to consider what the values implied by these developments might be? What is the difference between a pre-gaming culture and a gaming culture?


  1. An art form is at its best before it realizes it's art.

    1. The art doesn't realize it's art, the culture around it does.

    2. That's mostly what I meant; though I had the creators in mind more so than the culture as a whole.

  2. Time for rambling thoughts!

    In his video on webcomics (one in particular) ( Yahtzee points out that the art is only as important as the culture that surrounds it. And part of how culture is defined is how it perceives itself.

    The path of video games as a medium towards mainstream acceptance as 'art' necessitates 5,000 word long treatises on the impact of Mega Man on pop culture because there needs to be some form of high-minded, overly analytical examination of the medium and its more notable works. Because appreciating a work for its surface level qualities is not enough for a work of Art. Not only does it need to say something, as you said, but society needs to engage with it in a dialogue. We need to be saying things about it.

    And video games in particular need this, because unlike other mediums such as literature or film the narrative is not conveyed to the audience in a direct, deliberately paced manner. Video games are dependent on the interactive quality that gives them appeal, and this hinders the storytelling process in that any game is dependent on the player being skilled enough and/or patient enough to get through the hardest levels, the most difficult bosses, to see the story through to completion. So it's no surprise the stories (and with them the themes, messages, statements) are very often simplified. The games themselves cannot initiate much dialogue with us, the audience, and so there is a greater burden on us in giving value to the games and elevating to the level of 'Art' that we do not see in other mediums that are much freer in setting the goals they shoot for.

    I do not think this disqualifies games from being 'Art,' because art itself is not (can not be) solely defined by what any given piece brings to the table. The impact of any given piece is as much determined by what the audience brings themselves, and in fact the value of a work can change over time as culture and tastes change (consider the Marx Brothers, only reasonably successful during their careers but considered among the all-time greats in retrospect).

    And there is also the fact that so often 'Art' is determined more by consensus than anything else. The value of the Mona Lisa is just as much based (if not more) on the unspoken acceptance by us that it is important than what it actually is. Just as currency has value only because we accept it does, a work can be declared 'Art' just because we say it is.

    But really, I have long been bothered by any discussion of 'Are video games art' due to the fact that no one ever seems interested in defining what 'Art' is. Like 'Truth' or 'Justice,' it's used as a vague catch-all to describe something that is good and noble, but anything more specific (or specific at all) is always left out of the conversation. Until we have an idea of what 'Art' is, what a work needs to achieve or attempt in order to be considered 'Art,' I find these discussions ultimately meaningless.

    1. Guess I'm expediting this to the front of my reading queue:

      What Is Art?

      It's thick and dense and controversial. (Apparently he's got some unkind words for Shakespeare. Ordinarily something like this would be tantamount to a lilliputian poking Gulliver in the toe, but Tolstoy is Tolstoy for god's sake.)

  3. It seems like you're taking a very narrow view of what constitutes art. Wouldn't your definition disqualify movies like "Star Wars" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" They don't challenge or provoke their viewers into thinking about the world in new ways, at least not to my perspective. They're just well-told stories. "Psychic comfort food," if you will.

    Maybe the "best" art challenges and provokes. But all art?

    1. That fits in with my complaint about 'Art' never being defined. As I see it, there are two possible definitions:

      1) A work that strives to challenge, illuminate, inspire or some other grand Purpose. It wants to Say Something or Challenge Preconceptions. Whether the work needs to be successful at what it tries to do or how it goes about it raises the question of whether bad art is still 'Art.' And if so, is bad art more valuable than great entertainment?

      2) Any work that is of supreme accomplishment within its medium and/or genre.

      I find the second definition to be necessary, because things like cooking or architecture strike me as being valued solely on aesthetics. I find it nigh-impossible to think of those forms of creation as ever saying anything. However, a well-made meal or a truly beautiful building can invoke feelings of awe or reverence if they are exceptionally well done. Should they not be contenders for the title of 'Art?'

      Or, as you just said, works that are in a medium that can produce high-minded Art, but which don't aim for it. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark are both very well made and have influenced film and other mediums. Their contributions to culture, especially with Star Wars, are unassailable. But they are far from the most challenging pieces produced in their medium. Does that matter?

      Or to use an example I was thinking of earlier today: comedy is often used to hold a mirror up to society. Satire in particular is a sneaky way of making people think without them realizing they are being led to question their own assumptions.

      And there are plenty of politically-charged comedians, such as Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Lewis Black. Their work fits into the my first definition in that they are saying something. But must any and all comedy do so to be considered Art? If so, then you are casting aside Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, the Simpsons, Jerry Seinfeld, Conan O'Brien, Mel Brooks and countless other works or individuals.

      Just because All in the Family and South Park commented on the world of their times doesn't mean all comedy must. The cabin scene in A Night at the Opera, the Parrot Sketch, Sideshow Bob and the rakes: all three of those are absolute classics that have influenced comedy, inspired people who came after them, and have earned eternal praise as being among some of the greatest works of comedy ever. To say that they do not deserve the title of 'Art' is madness, and it risks rendering the term 'Art' so elitist and high-minded that it undermines the value of Art as an ideal.

      What good is Art if that very title drives away so many potential audiences?


      On a somewhat related note, I highly, HIGHLY recommend Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. The movie as a whole looks at the question of how valuable art is by itself and how important the acceptance (or just patronage) of audiences is.

    2. Well, Pat did say that modern art's ideals are to challenge and provoke. If modern art is a genre rather than a time period (i.e., not all art being made now is 'modern art'), then I think his statement makes sense. It also explains why I've never been interested in modern art -- I get enough of challenge and provocation already, thank you very much. What I do sometimes need is reassurance, comfort, or even just distraction. If something provides that, I don't see why that should disqualify it as art, or even as 'good' art.

      Why can't any creative endeavor be art? Whether it's any good or what genres it falls into is a different question.

    3. I don't know if you can necessarily define art. To quote Wittgenstein, who was quoting Augustine: "quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio."

      Which in my EXTREMELY rough translation is "therefore what is time? if no one asks of me I know; but if I am seeking an explanation, I don't know."

      Art is something we can give many examples of, talk about, and know exactly what it is, but if we try to define it we realize that it is impossible. We might be able to provide a definition that includes most art, but never one that includes all art.

      There's not one common element that all works of arts contain, but there are many similarities between individual forms of art; all of these art forms are connected, which forms our perception of art.

      Perhaps the best way to define art is to name a few works of art, and say "art is these works and all that is similar."

    4. I probably should have clarified that in the case of something like a museum, we're not so concerned with the definition of "art," but of "fine art."

      The point is moot, though. From MoMA's collection policy document:

      The Museum of Modern Art recognizes....[t]hat modern and contemporary art transcend national boundaries and involve all forms of visual expression, including painting and sculpture, drawings, prints and illustrated books, photography, architecture and design, and film and video, as well as new forms yet to be developed or understood, that reflect and explore the artistic issues of the era.

      Can't say video games don't fit this bill; nor does the document specify "fine art."

      I'm thinking now that my discomfort about this business is founded less on the MoMA's decision than on the implications of the circumstances spurring it.

  4. What I find ridiculous about this piece of news is that we're talking about fairly common consumer products here... easily replicable software too.

    So they added a few games to their "collection"? What, did they just buy a copy on eBay or downloaded them on Pirate bay? The average dweeb can create a bigger "collection" than this in a day.

    Museums are starting to lose their focus as keepers of unique historical artifacts and instead just rubber stamp random pieces of consumer goods with pretentious-sounding babble. But I guess that's curse of the contemporary art museum: having no past to dig into and existing in a present where consumer goods are both easy to acquire and are of higher workmanship than "independent" efforts, it either has to pretend that crap is gold or grudgingly accept "popular" culture.

    It's the old tautology, y'know: we're an art museum, so everything we have must be art, right?

    With that in mind... yeah if they had Spacewar! running on an original PDP-1 or Tennis for two on an oscilloscope, that might be worth a visit.

    1. A friend of mine who's in a master's program for fine arts studies (or something along the lines) said something similar in response to this. He was pissed that they'd stoop to a Tim Burton exhibit in order to sell tickets (so he conjectures). He feels like this video games "stunt" is being pulled for the same reason.

      (And from what I understand, MoMA gets zero percent of its funding from the government, so it's gotta sell tickets.)

  5. Pat, I believe that your passion for the classics (as laudable as it is) is causing you to fall in the trap many others have fell through history: To believe the current artistic efforts frivolous and devoid of meaning and/or cultural relevance.

    Many of the art pieces that we hang in museums nowadays and on which we can prattle smugly for hours or write thousand-page books, were once simply the result of the vanity of some ruler or religious propaganda, or simply an emotional outlet for the artist. However, when we see the big picture after hundreds of years, the art piece is easily recognized both a distilled brew of its zeitgeist and a magnifying lens to analyze it.

    Art is meant to have a deeper meaning, no discussion. But that meaning is an aggregated value; an inherent, but mostly unplanned layer of significance that is a product of the current era being filtered through the sensibility of an artist. More often than not, artists that set off to willingly create something with deep meaning and cultural relevance end creating art that is hard to understand appreciate, basically /failing to communicate/ the very philosophies that can be derived much more easily from less pretentious pieces of art.

    Ultimately, art is simply a piece of work created by a (hopefully) talented artist that has aesthetic and/or intellectual merit. History will for sure expose its relevance, but for the time being you really cannot take from the medium its contribution to art forms: I'm sure you yourself would be hard-pressed not to admit that pixel illustration and 8-bit synth music are not valid art forms, and I'm pretty sure that game design itself is an art form not too different from literature.

    1. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmaybe.

      There's definitely an art to game design. But I can't really compare it with literature off the cuff. I wouldn't be comfortable with it without some preliminary definitions. WHAT IS GAMES? WHAT IS LITERATURE?

      The difference between a game and a book -- aside from the joystick wiggling and the explicit interactivity -- is that one appears on a screen and the other is planted in the user's mind.

      I can't disagree that video games are a product (maybe the product, or one of the products) of our times. But our times is what makes me uncomfortable.

  6. I'm afraid this comment will be read in a tone that I don't mean for it to carry, but so be it.

    I must ask: How exactly is stargazing any less a form of "psychic comfort food" than an hour or two spent playing a video game? I'm guessing the answer lies somewhere in the realm of contemplating the vastness of the universe, enjoying natural beauty, studying the science of the heavens, and so forth. Realistically, however, these things can be experienced in a single night; as an ongoing hobby, stargazing consists of little more than scanning a blank black canvas for little points of light, the sources of which may have died out centuries ago. It's a cathartic activity that in no way directly contributes to the betterment of oneself and becomes wholly devoid of intellectual stimulation unless the individual continually motivates himself to be intellectually stimulated.

    Perhaps I'm missing something, but I fail to see how games are any different. Maybe video games shouldn't be considered art (I don't have the credentials to offer any worthwhile contribution to that particular debate), but I think it's unfair—and a little elitist, to be frank—to reduce their worth to cultural junk food with less value than staring up at the night sky or taking a walk or casually humping someone.

    At the risk of being too presumptuous, it seems to me your real issue isn't so much with the games themselves, but with the players who overindulge in their consumption. You've assigned games the mark of a guilty pleasure because you associate them with all the housebound shut-ins who play them too much to be bothered doing else and allow their minds to stagnate as a result. Might I suggest flipping the old adage on its head and adopting an alternative philosophy: "Hate the players, not the game."

    1. Nonsense. If I'm ever spouting bullshit, do please call me on it.

      I'm not sure I can agree that video games are comparable to stargazing. Stargazing is not as easy.

      It's not usually comfortable, either. Lately it involves going out when it's below freezing, lugging a cumbersome telescope, setting it the damn thing up in the dark and losing pieces, and feeling my fingers go numb while working the dials and STILL not finding what I'm looking for.

      Playing a video game is much easier.

      The Orion Nebula, through a small telescope, is pretty and sorta neat looking. But it just sits there.

      Video games are much more immediately eye-catching and interesting. They're designed to be.

      With a game, you're engaging with something designed by humanity for the benefit of humans. When you look at the Orion Nebula, you're seeing something designed(?) by eternity for the benefit of [who knows?].

      I'm more entertained by video games than I am by the stars. But I don't believe the value of a thing is proportionate to how much amusement it provides me. I find stargazing more edifying than video games, and ultimately more interesting, and much more challenging.

      I feel the same about walks in the woods and coitus.

      (Of course, sometimes I'm not in the mood for nature or challenges. Sometimes we all just need to be tickled. Hence periodic rendezvous with Metal Slug.)

  7. Awhile ago I wrote an essay which touched upon Wagner's ideas for a culmination of the arts into what he termed Gesamtkunstwerk or 'total artwork'. His contention that Theatre was the ultimate art form due to the combined effects of writing, music, architecture and painting, got me thinking about how these criteria could be applied in the 21st Century to the development of video games. I felt sure I was on to something and that I could, with enough thought, research and writing, marry my sensibilities as an Art History student with the fact I have four generations of console wired up to the TV in my room and validate to the world that they're totally interrelated.

    I've since reconsidered, however. You've touched upon this numerous times, and perhaps the best example you gave about the passivity and distractions of video games was back in the 2010 Chrono Question blog post regarding the 'Fiona's villa' sidequest.
    When it comes down to it, the base-entertainment way in which video games engage the player (or rather placates them) overrides the merits of the artistic components combined to create them (music, design etc). I am not so profoundly affected when I beat an RPG as I am when I walk out of, say, a showing of Les Miserables, or a gallery space of Impressionist paintings. From them I glean an intangible sense of meaning and beauty - informed by both form and content. Roland Barthes would probably term it 'punctum'. I don't get any of this from video games, just a feeling of mild self-contempt that I could have spent those 3 hours doing something productive.

    Interestingly, however, about two weeks ago I went to see the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform for the Distant Worlds: Music of Final Fantasy tour and it was awesome. I did feel very moved to be a part of that. I'm not sure whether it's just a rekindled nostalgia playing tricks on me though.

    1. Yes! This is certainly the most intelligent response to the whole "Games = Art?" question I've seen. I have nothing to add, but +1 to you!

  8. Heh heh...when you postulate about the artistic merit of video games, seems the comments roll right in...I won't add much, expect that video games are still in an infancy stage of expression compared to, say, books or even movies, and that I DO think there's merit there to be had. Any medium of expression is art, whether it's good art or not is to be debated, but the question of 'Are video games art?" seems as silly to be as "Are movies art?" If you haven't read it, Pat, the creative director for the game Amnesia wrote a fairly interesting treatise on his thoughts on the subject: