Recently, Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software wrote a short blog with the ridiculous title “No, Video Games Aren’t Art. We’re BETTER.” The article itself is just about as infantile and pretentious as the title would let on, but I do have sympathy for some of Vogel’s sentiments anyway. The tone of the blog post is exhaustion—Vogel is tired of bickering about whether or not games are art, the apologetic tone many gamers take toward the medium, and the unsightly desperation of pseudo-intellectuals who beg for the medium to be validated by the experts in other artistic media. I sympathize with these points, but Vogel swings too far in the opposite direction and misunderstands art in the process.
Instead of going through the post from top to bottom, I’m going to reconstruct his main points here and then respond to them. I have linked the article in the previous paragraph, so please read it so you’ll know if my reconstruction is fair.
There’s a lot of fluff in the article, which all does nothing to justify the claim that games are somehow better than art. I actually agree with most of the fluff. Here are some examples of agreeable fluff:
- Game critics pay too much attention to story, and not enough to gameplay.
- People are too negative about games as a medium. It’s doing great.
- Gamers are too apologetic about games.
- It’s embarrassing when gamers seek validation of their hobby from other media by trying to have games called “art.”
These points are true, but they don’t say anything about whether or not games are somehow better than art. Here are the main arguments Vogel makes in favor of games being better than art:
- DOOM has engaged him like nothing else has.
- Games offer something “better than art.” Games “offer Experience.”
- Games, more than any other medium, put us “inside” an experience. “We’re not watching, we’re doing…We are, in an indirect way, mediated through joysticks, living an experience.”
- “The Last of Us can trick our brains, for a moment, into thinking we’re struggling for survival.”
- “When I write a game…I can reprogram your brain and take your thoughts somewhere they’ve never been before. This is amazing.”
- “[Games] are tools we creators use to compel and rewrite your brains. We haven’t begun to come to terms with the power we’ve unleashed with these toys, these addiction machines.”
- “They provide consuming experiences. They are compulsions. I’m not going to argue that they’re High Art. They aren’t. They’re SuperArt. They take over your brain and let you get lost in them.”
The main threads throughout all these claims are that:
- Games are very engaging, and you can be “consumed” by them or “lost” in them.
- Games simulate experiences better than other forms of art.
- Games can “reprogram your brain.”
These are the qualities that supposedly launch the medium of gaming so far above all the other old forms of art. Vogel compares playwrights and authors to dinosaurs, and supposedly that list is what makes games the asteroids. Boiled down to the main points without the fluff, without the posturing, and without the vague language, this is what Vogel’s argument for games is. Of course, I encourage everyone to read the article itself and make sure I am not misrepresenting him. However, I think it’s an accurate list.
The first point is obviously not unique to games. Many people find many things engaging, some of which aren’t even forms of art. I’ve heard heroin is pretty fucking engaging, and it can certainly “consume all your thoughts, all your attention.” I’d even argue heroin is objectively more engaging and entertaining than video games. Does that mean heroin is better than art?
In the first part of the post, Vogel says that Doom engaged him like nothing else outside of games has, and he seems to infer that because of his experience with Doom, other forms of art are inadequate. He does not consider that perhaps games are just the form of art that most appeals to him. I am not a relativist, but it is ridiculous to claim that just because he prefers games, then it’s the best medium.
I gathered the second point about simulation from all of his talk about putting you “inside” an experience, and making you “believe” you’re doing what the characters in the games are doing. I think Vogel is committing an error in valuing this in games. By saying games are good because they are better at fooling you into thinking you are experiencing something or putting you “inside” of that experience, he is saying that video games are just simulations. He is reducing systems to metaphors for aspects of experiences. For example, under his description of value in games, the crafting system in The Last of Us is valuable only insofar as it simulates or metaphorically represents some aspect of surviving the zombie apocalypse. Its purpose is to put you “inside”that experience. That is the end result of the idea that video games are valuable as simulation.
This might seem slightly plausible until you provide some counter-examples. What experience is Tetris so great at simulating that makes it a classic? Is Doom really great because it makes you think you’re actually fighting demons? Obviously, no. In those games, it’s clear that systems are the point—they don’t work in service of immersion. For more on why immersion isn’t a great way to talk about the quality of games, I will refer you to Chris Wagar’s post on it here.
His third and final point is that games can “reprogram your brain” or “rewrite your brain.” The problem with this is that games aren’t unique in doing so, and reprogramming your brain isn’t necessarily good. Pretty much any stimulus can change your brain in subtle ways, and it’s true that very satisfying, repetitive stimulus often found in games will be a common way to do so. However, lots of things can change the way you think. Getting an education can “rewrite your brain.” Being in a traumatic event can change your mental life. Getting stabbed in the brain can change how you think. I even think traditional forms of art which Vogel thinks himself above can do so. I don’t think games are unique in the capacity to change your brain.
Those are the best arguments Vogel can marshal for the medium, and they’re all inadequate to describe what makes games great, let alone what makes them better than other art. I think the main problem with the post is that Vogel has let people who say stupid things about art get in the way of his thinking clearly about art. The people he rightly rails against treating the story as the most important aspect games have pushed him away from “art” because he takes it for granted that art must be about narrative or meaning. He implicitly agrees that art must be about narrative, so he wants games to be better than art, instead of going the easier path of noticing that narrative, story, meaning, etc. are all basically irrelevant for games.
So I think Vogel is setting up a false choice. On one side, you have art. It’s stuffy, arrogant, boring, and all about deep meanings. On the other side, you have games. They’re engaging, fun, and without pretension. That’s not really how the landscape looks, though. Vogel has let certain people with bad ideas about art cloud his idea of art. He has a defensive response to people attacking games as inartistic, which is understandable but ultimately misleads him. Games aren’t some kind of Über-art, but they aren’t unter-art either.