A letter written as part of the Republic of Bloggers to the artists at the Sandbox/Fair events in Edinburgh. The letter is crossposted here from the Sandbox site. Replies from anyone at the event – or anyone reading this letter afterwards – are welcome.
Please accept my apologies for not being able to attend this event in person, but alas my wife will be going into labour any moment now and that has placed rather stringent restrictions upon my activities! I would like, however, to express my thanks at bring invited to talk to you on the topic of games as art, a subject dear to my heart and one that Edinburgh has graciously extended its welcome to me previously. That I am able to do so on this occasion within an art gallery is an especial point of pride, and helps bring into focus the importance that galleries possess in maintaining and exploring the values of art.
Although a game designer by profession, having worked on over forty games over the course of my career, I am now liable to additionally describe myself as 'a philosopher by vocation'. Even when I was studying astrophysics, my interest was in the questions that the sciences brought into focus more than the experimental practices. Yet I never anticipated being thrown feet first into philosophy, and much less philosophy of art which is a long way from my earlier interests!
Before I can discuss the role of games in the context of art, it may be prudent to touch upon why it might matter whether games can be artworks – and this question in turn hinges upon why art is worth talking about. There are many serious matters in urgent need of attention in our world – is it frivolous, then, to indulge in discussions about the status and boundaries of art? My view is that free discourse about art is a luxury that we in the United Kingdom (and other, not dissimilar nations) both can afford and equally cannot afford to lose. It is the question of the value of art that I want to address before we can explore the value of games as an artform.
Why is art valuable?
Oscar Wilde famously claimed that “all art is quite useless”, and when asked to expand upon this he wrote (in a letter to Bernulf Clegg): “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.” Later in the same letter he added: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.”
Many critics of Wilde’s remark have engaged with this claim by demonstrating how art can be useful, which indeed it can be in a whole host of ways. But Wilde’s point should not be understood as denigrating art but as attempting to draw a line between art and purportedly ‘useful’ activities such as engineering, or medicine, or transport, or even entertainment – thus defining ‘art’ in opposition to the kind of values that organise such fields. The whole concept of 'utility', now the guiding principle of the national and corporate bureaucracies all around us, came to the fore in the Victorian era that was Wilde’s own time. Placing art in opposition to that kind of functional practicality gives art an important kind of power, the capacity to reveal a world beyond utility – a world we lose sight of all too often in the need to justify everything via claims to usefulness.
The grim vacuity of ‘utility’ as the sole value against which all other things must be judged was the nub of Einstein’s complaint that we had lost sight of our purposes. He wrote in 1948: “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age and it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity, that technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal, and that the attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.” Art is a chaotic, indefinable bulwark against our obsession with means, precisely because (as Wilde remarked) it is not for any specific purpose beyond its own experience, even though the experience of art can and does change us, and thus art does paradoxically acquire a certain kind of usefulness, one quite beyond the reach of our unruly mega-bureaucracies.
This way of defending art as valuable has the distinct benefit of not requiring a specific definition of ‘art’ – which is exceptionally convenient, since no such definition can adequately take into account both the array of practices that can lay claim to producing or entailing ‘art’ and simultaneously the nebulous universality that would allow us to call, say, a 40,000 year old cave painting ‘art’ without any access to the specifics of the practice that created it. We instinctively recognise certain artefacts as ‘art’. Speaking solely for myself, I instinctively recognize games as ‘art’. So why do so many people have difficulty similarly recognising games as art?
Why are games art?
I began to discover that I had been tasked with defending games as art in the wake of the now infamous announcement by film critic Roger Ebert that games ‘could not’ be art. But Ebert’s Fence, as I have called it, which attempts to make a demarcation between games and art is not solely a problem created by outsiders looking in. A shocking number of supposedly well-informed gamers have enforced this boundary by, for instance, refusing to accept that the British-made Dear Esther is a game. “Art yes, game no”, this knee-jerk response states – while failing to notice that this attitude is precisely that which attempts to deny to games their artistic status. “You must be either a game or art”, the fence demands, “you cannot be both.” Sadly, many of those who claim to passionately defend games have become the greatest obstruction to recognising games as artworks!
What eternally destroyed this dichotomy between games and art for me was Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of representation, a model from philosophy of art that explores how we imagine. Walton suggests that what has often held us back in understanding ‘art’ has been our failure to recognise the role of fiction in all representational artworks, as well as many other things we do not consider as art. He suggests that the way we encounter a representation (including an artwork) is by playing an imaginary game with it – one parallel to (but more sophisticated than) a child’s game of make-believe. We see sunflowers in Van Gogh’s remarkable painting because the bold brushstrokes prescribe a fictional world containing sunflowers, and our experience of the painting comes via the game we play with it that allows us to enter this world.
As a game designer, I could immediately see that this model completely flattens Ebert’s Fence since there can be no question of the artistic status of games if all artworks already entail games (namely, the games of make-believe we play as we experience them). The attempt to prise games away from art (or vice versa) then has to deny that the free imaginings of children constitute a game, despite this being precisely the word that is naturally deployed to describe such an activity! I developed this argument in my first book of philosophy, Imaginary Games, which would go on to be the first part of a trilogy on the role of imagination – in art and games, in science and religion, and in ethics and life. The last of these books, Chaos Ethics, will be out later this year.
However, let us not be too hasty in attributing artistic status to games! That games are art does not make all games into great artworks – nor even all great games into great artworks. The films of, say, Akira Kurasawa, are widely and justifiably celebrated as great artworks, but this does not make all feature films into great artworks. We have all seen terrible movies, after all. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (made in Scotland, I might add!) is a great game that I would hesitate to defend as a masterly work of art, and not only because it operates primarily as a juvenile kind of wish fulfilment. The ambiguity surrounding both art and play is never entirely eliminated, and the personal experience that is central to the value of art creates considerable space for debate.
What are the boundaries of games-as-art?
The enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reconciled the conflict between the apparent subjectivity of taste and the stridency of objective claims to beauty by suggesting that in aesthetics our subjective judgements are ones that we treat as if they have objective validity. So if I view, say, Pac-man as a masterwork my judgement also entails the expectation that others also have to view it that way. This helps explain why arguments about art – and, for that matter, games – can get so heated! Like our moral judgements, our aesthetic values can have a normative force that we expect others to conform to.
But in dealing with the idea of games as artworks we must also defuse the problem that our enjoyment of games causes us to valorise what we adore about those experiences independently of any artistic values entailed. Indeed, that is precisely why self-appointed defenders of games had to exclude Dear Esther as a game: it is a game that intentionally avoids the obviously rewarding aspects of challenge-oriented play. That alone is enough for some to brand it ‘not a game’ – and for me to single it out as a game of particular artistic value.
What I find especially fascinating in the question ‘what is a game?’ are the parallels with discussions in the art world over ‘what is art?’ Monroe Beardsley, for instance, flatly refused to accept that Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ – such as the urinal signed by Duchamp and gallery-displayed in 1917 as “Fountain” – could possibly qualify as ‘art’. I suspect that Beardsley’s principled rejection of this work did more to validate modern art as worthy of valorisation than anything said in its favour! Similarly, I view Ebert’s rejection of games as art to be the harbinger of an era no longer able to deny games artistic status, and for this I am immeasurably grateful to Ebert for deciding to talk about the artistic status of games, even in the negative. This watershed was long overdue.
Now, however, the problem faced by us brave few fools interested in the aesthetics of play is how to establish what is worthy of valorisation (or even denunciation!) in the context of games as art. It has been easy for me to support the artgames of Belgian developer, Tale of Tales, to give a simple example, because their work builds upon practices well-established as art against those practices that are well-established as games. These in turn inspired games whose footing is further from traditional artistic practice, such as thatgamecompany's Journey (featured – in a particularly novel way – as part of this exhibition [as pictured above]), which owes an acknowledged debt to Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest but still feels unashamedly like a videogame for all its uniqueness. There is a vector of artistic expression at work here that is worthy of praise.
The task I am hinting at here is infinite and in need of support – I hope and trust that a few of those I am speaking to today, or who read this afterwards, will think it worthwhile to identify strands of practice in game design – art movements, specific aesthetics, communities of players or creators – that are worth valorising not just as games or as art but as games-as-art. The artist may resent the comfortable advantage of the critic who, after all, avoids taking the personal risks an artist must accept, but it usually falls to the critic – or to the gallery – to create and sustain the discourse that rings true with authentically artistic values. Those values are open to perpetual dispute – but the need to recognise aesthetic values is not. It is integral to our existence as imaginative beings.
Life, I am inclined to suggest, should be played, and as such we should strive both to play it well and to encourage others willing to go beyond the stifling demands of consumer conformity and ‘usefulness’ to play at living well. Be unique, create wondrous things, let your imaginative powers take you far from the inevitabilities! Make new worlds from old practices, and make anew the worlds of our oldest and greatest practices, including those we praise as ‘art’. This is the value of art, even if it is also why that value is always necessarily in flux.
With unlimited love,
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