Video Games, Art, and the Interactive Spectacle

Van Gogh was an artist; I’m comfortable saying that.  So is Louise Bougeois.  The same goes for James Turrell.  I am pretty confident about Donald Judd, and absolutely positive about Mark Rothko.  I hope more than anything that my professors in the school of art are artists (I am pretty confident about the lot of them) and the MFA candidates are well on their way if they are not already.  Bruce Lee was a martial artist, and Richard Nixon was a con artist.  That being said, I do not know what to call game developers.  If everyone listed has anything in common, it is that they certainly gave the world a show, but I feel like it is more than just something to see.

Art is important.  What can be considered art is a question that can plague those of us who aspire to be artists and are still trying to build the confidence to fully pursue art.  I find my beliefs about what is art and who can be considered artists are likely more conservative than they ought to be.  I think that it is foolish to claim that anything can be called art and that everyone is an artist regardless of talent, effort, or craft.  However, had I been alive around the advent of photography I likely would have scoffed at the idea of such a thing being placed under the same umbrella as painting and sculpture, so I might be a little hesitant but please bear with me.

I do believe that there are some traits that seem to make certain pieces of art successful and enjoyable.  First and foremost, I hold that art must present something to the senses, namely something to look at, and if the art is good, this experience is worthwhile.  One of the other primary characteristics associated with art is a certain level of interactivity; this can manifest itself in numerous ways, such as direct, physical manipulation, or a more subtle dialogue between viewer and object.  Hence we have the interactive spectacle, and I posit that video games are, or strive to be, exactly that.

Prominent and not universally loved art critic Dave Hickey comments, as critics tend to do, about what art he finds fulfilling, and what he finds lacking.  In his collection of essays entitled The invisible dragon: essays on beauty, he details his thoughts on the difference between baroque painting and modern painting and how he believes one is more successful than the other.  Hickey praises the realism and utilization of illusionistic space in pre-modern painting.

For four centuries visual culture in the West possessed these options and exploited them.  Today we are content to slither through the flatland of Baudelairian modernity, trapped like cocker spaniels in the eternal, positive presentness of a terrain so visually impoverished that we cannot even lie to any effect in its language of images (Hickey 37).

Simply put, Hickey is frustrated by the rejection of the potential for interaction that was allowed by the use of illusionistic space.  For Hickey, the depiction of space allowed for exploration and subtlety.  He goes on to claim that modern painting eliminates a certain type of viewer, artist, and object relationship.  “The work-artist-beholder triangle is demobilized.  The bond of commonality between artist and beholder is dissolved.  The presumption that the two parties have equal insight into the mysteries of the work is dispensed with,” this change alters the balance of power between the artist and the viewer, “The bond of a work of art with its artist is now assessed in terms of ‘strength,’ its bond with the beholder in terms of ‘weakness’” (Hickey 40).  These changes, in Hickey’s eyes make a work difficult to interact with and enjoy due to a general lack of beauty and lofty conceptual inaccessibility.

I will readily admit that I have yet to discuss how the previous paragraph relates to video games.  The relationship is rather simple, modern video games tend to rely heavily on aesthetics, especially with regards to virtual or illusionistic space.  This, coupled with the inherent interactivity of games and the often exploratory nature of play as it relates to these games lines up rather nicely with what Dave Hickey would consider good or stimulating art.  Hickey may not think that it is entirely worthwhile, but the highly interactive performance art pieces as well as other art objects of the modern era can act as another parallel for video games.  Lygia Clark, “wanted spectators to ‘participate actively’ in her works, ‘to enter space organically’” (Harris 194).  This sort of more direct interaction with the art object can intensify the viewer’s experience in much the way illusionistic space sought to do.

Video games, in many ways, are just as multidimensional as art.  The pleasure of participation can have a tremendous range.  “While a film audience relates remotely to a film and takes pleasure and meaning from its exhibition without altering its form, the mastery of videogame play is central to unveiling multiple pleasure registers in the game, which are nested within one another like Russian dolls” (Surman 205).  There are simply so many things to enjoy with video games.  There is winning, exploring, collecting, viewing, fighting, and many others.  Central to all the enjoyment is the fact that you are at the helm.  “Moreover, they also give rise to other, more specific terms – among the most prominent being ‘control’, ‘mastery’, ‘game-play’, ‘real-time’, ‘simulation’, and ‘spectacle’ – all of which help us to get more of a handle on the aesthetic character and experience of the computer game” (Darley 150).  There is much the same dance occurring between the player, the developer, and the game, as there is between the viewer, artist, and object.  It does not take very much time in an art gallery or museum to realize that, generally speaking, most pieces of art get only a few seconds of attention before they are passed over for what hangs on the wall a few feet over.  I think that this has two reasons.  The first is that art is generally under appreciated (as an art major I think I have to have this opinion) and the second is that the art in question did not fully resonate with the individual in question.  I for one am not a huge fan of Rococo art, I think that it is gaudy, and on the verge of ugly.  I prefer instead contemporary minimalism.  The pared down aesthetics line up with that I feel is important in art, namely a purity of expression.  In the same way I was not so taken with puzzle games such as Myst, but knew from the moment I saw it being played for the first time that Age of Empires II was my jam (this is not to say that AOE II is akin to contemporary minimalism).  One blogger summed up the experience of trying to determine why he liked a game, and why it was successful.  He began by talking about aesthetics, and then about sound and soundtrack, then storytelling, finally ending his discussion on game play (Geek Studies).  As games have developed as a medium they have come to harness and manipulate certain facets of themselves in order to improve the experience they provide.  I would say that this is a somewhat unique balance and is not the same from game to game.

Art feeds on itself.  It does this in a number of ways but the most prominent is that art is largely a product of the art that came before it.  Simply put, Picasso would not look like Picasso if he had not spent so much time looking at Velazquez.  Video games have operated in much this same manner.  Games that are successful offer themselves as blueprints for future games to re-appropriate and remix.  As with all remixing, you are not limited to things within the medium in question but you can draw on anything that can be applied,

video games strive for cinematic photorealism—pushing processing resources towards rendering lush, immersive worlds that replicate cinematic devices down to camera angles, close-ups, and even lens flares.  Games themselves commonly contain non-   interactive animated movies called ‘cut-scenes’ that narratively frame the game play and serve as rewards for progress through the game levels (Chien 26).

Film has been a massively successful medium, even at its relatively young age. So it makes sense that another budding medium would look to borrow some tricks in order to fast track success.  As far as photorealism goes, most games do fall into this sort of category, which makes sense, as it is easily accessible and simple to interact with.  Even so, I feel that it is only a matter of time before games begin to explore the abstract, and the hyper-flat.  These sort of visual strategies help to create complex environments that are endlessly explorable, “creating a virtual environment in which those paths, and any in-between, could be explored was less about video game design and more about creating a rich world” (Ward).  Interactivity is paramount to maintaining interest.  Whether or not it is simple or complex, the agency of the player is crucial for the experience.  “Someone once said that video games were really just about cleaning, about finding the right tools to scrub enemies from a scene.  In Halo games the vacuum, mop and dust rag have been the gun, the grenade and the melee” (Totilo).  Often enough interaction is extremely simple, as is the case with first person shooters, even being as simple as a point and click interface.  The main point though is control.  It is interesting though how the environment created by game designers can amplify such a simple experience.  Cleaning my house is much more challenging and dynamic than playing Halo, and the game forces me to trade limitless possibility for a fairly rigid story arc, but I would still rather play the game.  This sort of skillful application of style and interactivity can determine which games stay on the shelf and which ones are enjoyed for years.

Video games have become such a part of our culture that they have begun to alter our perceptions of what is real.

For example, many journalists have commented that televised military operations in the Gulf war looked like scenes on a video-game screen.  In situations where the real looks like its simulated version and where the simulation approaches the real to the point of virtual reality, one’s perceptions of the real, of one’s actions and of their effects on others might be substantially altered (Gottschalk 15).

Many might look at this statement and consider how precarious and perilous the position is.  Such discussion is for another time.  For now I think that this statement stands as a testament to the ability of video games to create truly immersive and realistic worlds in which experiences can, at the very least, feel real.  I would claim that fine arts can function in much the same way.  A truly talented painter can capture the sensation of viewing so precisely that the sensation felt upon viewing the painting has nearly the same weight as the original subject matter might.  This being said, I do not think that video games ought to be negatively critiqued for their ability to alter perceptions of reality, because we would not critique a painter as harshly for achieving much the same end.

If you wont take my word for it, perhaps the Museum of Modern Art can convince you.  As was posted on the blog earlier, MoMA has put on an exhibit featuring video games.  “The defining feature of video games is interaction, the three-way conversation among designer, machine, and player” (Suellentrop).  If that sounds familiar to what Dave Hickey said about the artist-viewer-object relationship it is because I planned it that way.  The experience of the player mirrors that of the viewer in the gallery.  The exhibit is meant to, “make a case for the evolution of video games as a new art form that combined older forms like painting, sculpture and story telling” (Suellentrop).  Video games have behaved in much the same manner that the previously established arts do, namely through the systematic adoption of visual and conceptual strategies that were successful in the past.  The specific type of interactivity is very important when it comes to distinguishing video games from cinema and other such mediums, “remove interactivity, the ability of the player to communicate with the machine (and by extension the designer), and you no longer have a video game” (Suellentrop).  The ability of the player to communicate directly with the game firmly establishes the game as separate from cinema, and the relationship between the designer, player and machine provides the subtle interactivity that can be found in much of fine art.

So, does this mean that the game designers should stay on the list I started above?  I believe so.  Through artful remixing of the visual sources that predate themselves, and the establishment of direct and indirect interaction between the game, player, and designer, they have been able to construct the same complicated and fulfilling relationship that has been the cornerstone for much of art’s history.  I will admit that I am still hesitant to allow a new group into the art club (as if I have any actual say) but that is likely more a result of my jealousy that new, slickly packaged mediums can steal attention away from the tried and true methods of art making.

Works Cited

Chien, Irene. “Deviation / Red Vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles.” Film Quarterly 60, no. 4 (June 1, 2007): 24–29. doi:10.1525/fq.2007.60.4.24.

Darley, Andrew. Visual digital culture: surface play and spectacle in new media genres. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.

Gottschalk, Simon. “Videology: Video-Games as Postmodern Sites/Sights of Ideological Reproduction.” Symbolic Interaction 18, no. 1 (February 1, 1995): 1–18. doi:10.1525/si.1995.18.1.1.

Harris, Jonathan, and Tate Gallery Liverpool. Dead history, live art?: spectacle, subjectivity and subversion in visual culture since the 1960s. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007.

Hickey, Dave. 2009. The invisible dragon: essays on beauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Totilo, Stephen. “Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Halo 4.” The New York Times, November 13, 2012, sec. Arts / Video Games. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/arts/video-games/call-of-duty-black-ops-ii-and-halo-4.html.

“Geek Studies » Video Games as Visual Narrative Spectacle.” Accessed January 31, 2013. http://www.geekstudies.org/2007/08/video-games-as-visual-narrative-spectacle.

Ward, Mark. “Looking into the Future of Fiction.” BBC, February 6, 2013, sec. Technology. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21177737.

“Pleasure, Spectacle and Reward in Capcom’s Street Fighter Series | David Surman – Academia.edu.” Accessed January 31, 2013. http://www.academia.edu/168076/Pleasure_Spectacle_and_Reward_in_Capcoms_Street_Fighter_Series.

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