Wednesday, May 08, 2013

VIDEOGAMES and the Liberation of Content from Medium

Darius Kazemi published this presentation called FUCK VIDEOGAMES, adapted from a presentation he gave in March. Other commentators, like Ian Bogost, have already summed it up, but I'll try to paraphrase it, too, to show that I understood it. What Darius basically says is: "Do not fetishize video games as an artistic medium. Just because there's a lot of new stuff going on in this domain doesn't always make it the right way to express a certain idea. Furthermore, the presence of a certain indie community of sexiness or support should not dictate your choice of medium, either."

This was followed by a response from Liz Ryerson, which reads as rather conflicted about this whole issue. She is a person who is passionate about gaming, and about critical studies of gaming, but here, she is also critical of colleagues who place video games on a pedestal of artistic expression. She also struggles with the question of authenticity in the art-game universe, which she remains uncertain about, right down to the final passage:
"we say we love Cart Life but we don't actually want to play it. it's just there to make us feel good. we'd much rather sink our teeth into some flashy, mass-marketed sludge by an egomaniacal dilettante."
I think Liz Ryerson is conflicted (I welcome a correction on that, if one is necessary). I am not conflicted. I am not conflicted in my attitudes toward art, or toward videogames as art, or toward people who make a creative decision to express themselves through video games. I am not conflicted about loving BioShock Infinite, nor about loving Howling Dogs, or Digital: A Love Story. I am not conflicted about my comparative indifference toward Super Mario 64, or toward Rat Chaos. I am a hardline pluralist -- I accept anything on its own terms, and that gives me space to articulate criticism, and let my personal favorites float to the top.

I realize there is a difference between good art and bad art, and occasionally, no matter how deep you dig, all you find is shit. However, whereas some public personalities are intensely focused on asserting their autonomy in separating good art from bad art, I am focused much more on my ambivalence about it. I recognize the limits of my own radically subjective POV when it comes to art criticism, and when I discuss artworks -- even in a hostile way -- I always tread lightly, keeping my own limitations at the forefront of my mind.

So anyway, let's talk about that: knowing the difference between good art and bad art, and being hung up on that difference. This is an idea that goes back forever, of course, figuring prominently in the concerns of Aristotle and Kant, and frequently correlated with the definition of "beauty." I think it's a distinction worth making... I'd even go into it myself, except I don't have a university tenureship and 15 years to spare.

Instead, I'd like to advance another idea: that the evaluation and judgment of art has taken over our discourse so completely, it's led many of us -- the very people committed to art as an autonomous domain, like Darius and Liz -- to start treating art as a commodity, at the expense of its own integrity. After all, as soon as you get into this discussion of what's good and what's bad, what's working and what's not, whose criteria is the best, who deserves to be heard, who's doin' it wrong, you're slipping more and more into a mind frame where art is reduced to something valued, a token of exchange and utility.

All this talk of whether videogames are "the most appropriate medium to express your idea" is a symptom of commodification run rampant. Communication is not necessarily art; Art can have a message, and express a point of view, and clarify the world, but when the artistic impulse is secondary to the "communication" impulse, then you have journalism or propaganda.

If you take away the idea (I would call it a "constraint") that every medium has some "ideal purpose," a whole new creative landscape opens up. The fact is, there is a long history of artists stretching the limits of their medium. Painters aspire to photo-realism, photographers aspire to abstraction, poets use words visually, and musicians draw the descriptive meanings out of melodies. The sort of prescriptivism that says, "Do not use games as a means of expression if it doesn't provide the ideal outcome" is itself a mild type of formal fascism. Same, on a broader level, with Darius's prescription: "Don't make art in videogame form if you're frustrated with that process." Who says any good art brings peace to the artist?

Note how natural it was to use those terms: painters and poets, novelists, musicians, composers, sculptors, choreographers, filmmakers. Our common language exposes the anemia of all this talk about "what medium is the best for your idea." When it comes down to it, in almost every single case in history, the artist has chosen their medium based on their own personality, their own background and proclivities, their own skills and sympathies. The medium comes first, so that the idea can be sculpted into shape. Perhaps Mozart had many stories he wanted to write... the fact is, he had to find a way to turn those stories into music, or he had to live with them privately. The medium is not chosen because it fits some abstract, fully-formed idea that needs expression.

One reason for this is that CRAFT IS IMPORTANT. Even if you work in Twine, or in some vague postmodern medium like "multimedia installation," you have to hone your skills through years of experience and in-depth understanding of precedent. Emily Short said of Howling Dogs, "I came away thinking howling dogs should be an assigned text of study for people considering writing link-based fictions." This is an attestation: a medium is not just an empty vessel, it is a process and a commitment... potentially, a whole lifetime of study.

Given the demands of any serious art form, I can't really take seriously Darius's idea that an artist who can't seem to fit their idea into a game should just pick a more suitable medium. You may as well tell them to just think of a new idea. Both prescriptions are valid, but trivial... what you should really do is try to make that bizarre game, watch yourself fail, and move on to the next thing. That's the only way to stumble upon success.

It's worth going back to a passage in Liz's piece, which I think deserves to be highlighted:
"an issue that i see underlying the whole piece that is never really expressed explicitly - it's the case with many "gamers" and techies in general that so many who have constructed their lives and identities through videogames often have a hard time accepting that there are other valid means of expressing or legitimizing their own emotions outside of technology. the world of technology is, after all, what they know. they want to make personal videogames because they understand how videogames work (having played them a lot) and that they can express deep emotions through play, but they don't have the kind corresponding experience with other forms of art to understand how those work. this lack of understanding combined with videogames' newness means they get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms."
This parallels Slide 13 in Darius's presentation, where he says, "Some people make games because they grew up with games and always saw themselves as the kind of person who would one day make games. ... I don't think this is a very good reason."

These passages make an important point, but in my opinion, they also overplay it. Liz and Darius both essentially explain how people choose their mediums... they decide to take up a medium that's been an important part of their lives, that they value sentimentally and intuitively, often for totally illogical, circumstantial reasons. Someone who has a true mastery of an art form must have a personal relationship with that art form. Art is personal. The medium chooses its master, not vice versa.

Granted, I don't think you can ever make great art without finding some way to bridge the gap between the personal/anecdotal, and the mythic/universal. Still, I hold to my claim: Art must be personal. There is no art of indifference.

And then, as often happens, both writers get to the point where they start to impugn the motivations of the culture-makers they're criticizing. Darius says, "Some people make games because games are cool, or sexy." I'm sure there are people like this out there, but I doubt there are very many people who would cop to this as their primary motivation (can I see some citations, maybe?), so it's really an assumption about artists' motives on the part of the author. If a game designer DOES say this outright, it probably means they're not serious about games, or about art.

There's a similar line of vague disapproval in Liz's piece, where she says, "making a Twine game does not divorce you from all of the trappings of videogame culture and substitute it with something more pure, and it certainly doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility as the creator." And earlier in the piece, she says that in the mind of gamers, videogames "get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms." Again, who has actually claimed these things? Did they put it in writing? Because imputing these feelings to indie gamers, who usually just love videogames and want to use them as a mode of expression, is kind of unfair. Most game designers I know have not manufactured some theoretical podium and placed video games upon it. I don't think the "art game" crowd is particularly guilty of that, either... even right down to the "egomaniacal dilettante" Ken Levine.

Liz talks briefly about Dys4ia, and that's an almost perfect example of what I'm talking about. Liz gives a vague account of the positive things that Dys4ia has done: "many wonderful things for many people." More precisely, it expressed some ideas about personal experience, identity, and gender in ways that I haven't seen in any other piece of art. However, Liz questions the use of videogames as a medium, saying she thought it needed too much explanation, and asking whether critics are really smart enough to get the big ideas that the game is "about."

Aside: Liz's claim that there are too many captions, but that the audience might not understand the broader message without the captions... put these two things together, and they cancel each other out. Assuming Anna Anthropy wanted to reach some gamers with a clear message about the experience of transition, I'd say that this thing, which Liz might not be sure is "working," is simply what I would call an intentional, effective creative decision.

There are a lot more creative decisions here that we can discuss. You can abstract Dys4ia into a game "about" transitioning and dislocation and frustration, and reduced to that synopsis, there's no particular reason it works better as a game. You might have been able to write a personal essay, or create a series of photographs or illustrations, with almost the same verbal content in the captions, and made something "about" the same thing. But the choice of videogames as a medium has an incredible influence over the whole experience! No matter how much you stretch the limits of personal writing, you never give your audience any agency, aside from reading through to the next word; the ludic Dys4ia gives the player agency, and then when they form a goal, or devise a plan of action, it frustrates them, reducing their agency in the situation to zero in a very immediate (dare I say "phenomenological"?) kind of way.

There's no strict reason it had to be a game. There's also no strict reason it had to be minimalist, or use the musical cues it did, or frame its issues in the intimate biographical way it did. But all these choices are justifiable, if you're the type of pedantic person who demands that... and more importantly, they all work together to create the whole experience, which is unmistakably one of a kind.

Now, in the interest of not being a purely pedantic douche, I'm doing to step back here and revisit Darius's presentation. When I let go of my confrontational impulse, I can see what he was saying, and all the ways I could agree with him. Seeing an echo-chamber of artsy indie game types, all trying to pile into the same creative vehicle... watching the art of game design become a fad, and lose its authenticity and freshness... it makes sense to draw attention to those red flags. If videogames-as-art has become a bandwagon covered in hip hangers-on, it's probably a good idea to shake some of them off.

Still, I think this deserved a response, because it propagates certain negative attitudes that are increasingly infecting all cultural production... for instance, the attitude of pervasive, dismissive judgement and disapproval, and the assertion of arbitrary standards of "taste" that frustrate aspiring artists without really helping them very much. And as I said at the beginning of the piece, I think this hard-assed approach to criticism tends to frame art as value-equation and commodity, and undermine the autonomy of art, its significance as a site of introversion and experimentation.

Maybe FUCK VIDEOGAMES makes sense, but if so, we have to say FUCK ALL MEDIA in equal measure. And this flippant profanity needs to be intoned in the spirit of openness, rather than judgment.

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