July 10, 2010

Video games as art?

The interwebs are angry because Roger Ebert, a film critic who knows virtually nothing about video games, is arguing that video games will never be considered an artform. Grant Tavinor of Kotaku takes a more nuanced approach to the question and uses the popular BioShock video game to make his case:
Finally, and this is my judgment, BioShock is the result of the intention to make an artwork. Intentions can be slippery things, but it seems evident enough in the game that it is intended to be something more than just a game: BioShock is intended to have the features listed above (they are not accidental) and it is intended to have these features as a matter of its being art.

Hence, BioShock seems an entirely natural candidate for art status. It has, in some form, all but one of the criteria. The one it lacks-belonging to an established artistic form-it lacks because of the very newness of video games. BioShock is not necessarily a masterpiece (the last act is problematic) but this is beside the point; the vast majority of art works are not masterpieces. Surely it would be unfair to deny BioShock art status when it has so many of the qualities that in other uncontested art works accounts for their art status?
I agree that part of the problem is the nascent status of video-games-as-art. Pacman never attempted to be artist; Bioshock clearly does. It's still early days.

Moreover, even if you dismiss current games as having any artistic merit, Ebert's claim that they will never be legitimate artforms is suspicious. Never? Really? Not even when augmented reality enters the picture? Or completely immersive virtual reality?

Even more profoundly, a number of years ago I speculated about the potential for directly altering subjective and emotional experience and how mental manipulation could become an art form. In the article, Working the Conscious Canvas, I wrote:
It's conceivable that predetermined sets of emotional experiences could be a future art form. Artists might, for example, manipulate emotions alongside established art forms, a la A Clockwork Orange-but certainly not for the same questionable ends.

For example, imagine listening to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" or "Moonlight Sonata" while having your emotional centers manipulated in synch with the music's mood and tone. You'd be compelled to feel joy when the music is joyful, sadness when the music is sad.

The same could be done with film. In fact, last century, director Orson Welles, who was greatly influenced by German expressionistic filmmaking, directed movies in which the subjective expression of inner experiences was emphasized (Touch of Evil, for example). In the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock, also a student of expressionism, went a step further by creating and editing sequences in a way that was synchronized with subjective perception, such as the quick-cut shower sequence in Psycho.

In the future, audiences could share emotional experiences with a film's protagonist. Imagine watching Saving Private Ryan, Titanic or Gone with the Wind in such a manner. The experience would be unbelievably visceral, nothing like today's experience of sitting back and watching.

The beauty of such experiences is that sophisticated virtual reality technology isn't required, just the control mechanisms to alter emotional experience in real-time.

Of course, some will argue that when artists can directly manipulate emotions, they will have lost a dialogue with their audience, as audience members will simply be feeling exactly what's intended. But this won't necessarily be the case. Rather, audience members will respond to emotional tapestries in unique ways based on their personal experiences, the same way they do now to other art forms.
Imagine this same technology, but in the context of video games. Now there's some scary potential.

Art, whether it be traditional or novel, has always been about transcending the individual and sharing the subjective experience of others. As I've written before, "The greatest artists thrill us with their stories, endow us with emotional and interpersonal insight, and fill us with joy through beautiful melodies, paintings and dance. By doing so they give us a piece of their selves and allow us to venture inside their very minds—even if just for a little bit."

And yes, this includes video games.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is there anything we do that can't be considered as an art form?

I guess I view art too broad perhaps, my simples definition of art currently is anything we do that changes the physical universe in any way can be seen as art to others...

While this broad perspective may include nearly everything, I will even go as far as calling "thought" patterns as a form of art...

Imagine a machine capable of turning our thoughts into sounds and images, bridging the cap of canvas and thought without a single paint stroke. If can think it you can manifest it via image drawing and painting, after all isn't Art the origin of thought?