February 27, 2024

An Art Form In Limbo: Updating The Great Games Debate


(Screen Shot From Limbo)

Video gaming as an art form? The long-running debate has been rekindled. The artistic credentials of video gaming are being defended by curators at The Smithsonian Museum of American Art who are hosting the first major exhibition dedicated exclusively to gaming. Gamers like Enron (playwright Lucy Prebble) have also voraciously argued for a revision of traditional attitudes.

The fact that gamers have assumed a defensive position is understandable given that gaming continues to receive a lot of slack, despite astonishing recent developments in games design. Things have changed since the days of simplistic distractions like Pacman and Tetris. The demographic of players has expanded to include not just adolescent boys in darkened rooms but everyone from housewives to hip twenty somethings. A rebranding is in order.

However, the sweeping claim that gaming is an art form gives rise to a host of difficulties. Within such a huge industry, it’s easy for naysayers to point to examples of games that clearly fall short of even the most generous aesthetic definitions, without even having to engage the hackneyed debate over what counts as art in the first place. American critic Roger Ebert famously raised hackles last year when he declared in the Chicago Sun Times that, like fans of chess and mahjong, gamers should be ‘content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves’. Illustrating his case, Ebert discussed Waco Resurrection which he brands ‘another brainless shooting gallery’. Waco is based on a real life 1993 stand off between members of a Texan doomsday cult and federal agents in which 86 people were killed. The Waco marketing team tout the game as a new means of exploring the ‘phenomenal possibilities of ideological conflict’, but despite the stimulating premise, a lot more shooting than philosophising takes place during actual gameplay.


Waco Resurrection may be controversial but there exists a yet greater challenge for those aiming to rebrand gaming as an art form, namely the nostalgia factor. Those of us beyond our teens remember fighting out rounds of Tekken in arcades and harassing our parents for change at service stations to shoot zombies. Games designers recognise and exploit this nostalgia, persistently revamping classic characters like Sonic the Hedgehog. In the recently released Sonic Generation, pumping techno beats have replaced the tinny blip blip soundtrack, but the essential format and zany feel of the original Sonic remains. The nostalgia factor also comes into play with military action games like Men of War, in which players direct armies and do battle. To the uninitiated, these look suspiciously like a grown up way to bypass the stigma of playing toy soldiers.


Nonetheless, there exist games that fall into an entirely different cultural category. Limbo,  a beautifully crafted production in which players take on the role of a small child negotiating an eerily rendered black and white nether world, has a clear aesthetic foundation in film noir and as such, satisfies the requirements of what philosopher George Dickie called the ‘Institutional Theory of Art’. On this view, objects becomes art pieces by virtue of conforming to a certain context and background of artistic theory. In short, since film noir is an art form, Limbo by virtue of its  engagement with the film noir tradition, is an art object.


Every Day The Same Dream, produced by Italian company Molleindustria, appeals to those who regard art as a tool to raise an awareness of social issues. Described by its creator Paolo Pedercini as an ‘existential game about alienation and the refusal of labour’, Every Day The Same Dream is a walkthrough in which players experience the grey dreams of the faceless and alienated worker firsthand. Appropriately, it’s freely accessible online.


Viewed from this more experimental angle, the situation of gaming invites comparison with that of comic books. Comics rose to prominence in living memory- the first was published in the 1930s. They suffered a rocky reception and were for a long time maligned as the preserve of children, but have in recent years been invoked to great effect by those with serious culture intentions. Speigelman’s Maus, which uses anthropomorphised mice to tell a story of holocaust survival, is a famous example. Maus doesn’t compel us to reconceptualise all comics as art but it does show us that the tools of the medium can be put to both artistic and non-artistic purposes. Of course, the tools of games design are far more varied than those of comics, and continually in development, which is what makes it such an exciting medium.


Taking into account these examples from disparate corners of the industry, we can see a possible rebranding of gaming beginning to take shape. Games, it seems, should be considered a medium like any other. Pens may be used to dash off crossword puzzles or render line drawings. Cameras may be used to film instructional videos on beekeeping or existential journeys like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia or Terence Malick’s Tree of Life.  Similarly, the tools of game design may be employed to craft a simplistic and entertaining effort like Pacman or something more profound.


In essence, the lines of the debate need to be redrawn. We must ask not whether gaming is an art form, but whether a finished game can be considered an art piece.  Only then are we fully acknowledging the  varied nature of the industry, and way that commercial considerations impact on design.


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