Life, Death, and Pacman

Could Pacman one day become a great classic?

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Since art’s inception, we have always found ways to arbitrarily limit its scope. As there’s been no agreed definition of art, the most popular answer to the question: ‘is it art?’ is ‘who cares?’. This, argues James Tartaglia, is a mistake. Articulating a response to this question is crucial for the development of our culture, the livelihood of many artists and understanding new artistic breakthroughs in the virtual world.

 

The most popular answer to the question ‘is it art?’ is ‘who cares?’ All that matters is whether it’s good, or whether people like it, and since there’s no agreed definition of ‘art’ anyway, pursuing such questions can only lead to bickering. That’s an attractively conciliatory stance, but a mistaken one, I think.  ‘Is it art?’ is both an influential and important question.

Consider Tracy Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, a tent with 102 names inscribed on the inside, which was exhibited at the Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London, 1997. I was there, and witnessed a long line of people queuing in front of Emin’s tent, patiently waiting their turn to bend down and poke their heads inside to peer at the names. I don’t think anyone would have done that if it wasn’t supposed to be art. Emin wouldn’t be rich if it wasn’t supposed to be art.

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Asking ‘is it art?’ when the answer isn’t obvious is part of the process of developing the concept of art – and conceptual development is very important to society.

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Asking ‘is it art?’ when the answer isn’t obvious is part of the process of developing the concept of art – and conceptual development is very important to society. It’s only in the last couple of decades that the concept of marriage has developed to include gay marriage. Answering ‘is it marriage?’ in the affirmative made a big difference to people’s lives. Similarly, answering ‘is it art?’ determines who can pursue a career as an artist and what kinds of artworks are produced. People consented to the tent by being interested, however outraged they were, and that kind of art now fills our galleries.

The stakes are similar with the question of whether video games are art, except that games will thrive whatever is decided. If Emin hadn’t expected the art establishment to back her proposition that a tent can be art, she wouldn’t have gone to the effort of adding all those names, I’ll warrant; but video games are loved by millions regardless.

Still, if they can indeed be art, and that’s a conceptual development we’ll embrace, then it’ll affect how games develop, and how art in general does too. It will encourage the kind of young person who might now be aspiring to become the next Picasso, Coltrane or Woolf to consider going into game design as a career, and so the next generation of games will show greater artistic aspiration.

In 1983, Video Games Player magazine boldly proclaimed that video games were ‘as much an art form as any’. I turned 10 that year and loved to play them on my BBC Microcomputer (32 kilobytes), but I certainly didn’t think they were art, any more than that my model aeroplanes were. Art was things like the Mona Lisa. Many grown-ups were also unsure whether they could count as art and the issue has been debated for nearly 40 years now.

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I do think video games can be art, but I have sympathy with the side that doesn’t

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On the one side there are the video game defenders who see only snobbery and elitism in the suggestion that they should be excluded, pointing out that new art forms are typically resisted by reactionaries; a classic example being Roger Fry’s post-impressionist exhibition of 1910, which included Manet, Cézanne and Van Gogh, and was denounced in terms such as ‘pornographic’ and ‘evil’.

The other side, by contrast, sees evidence of cultural decay in even raising the question, finding the idea of childish and commercial trivia being classified alongside the high culture of our societies as demonstrating lack of artistic appreciation. In order to judge that Pac-Man is art, it might be urged, you’d have to think that ‘art’ simply means ‘good’, or ‘something I like’, with true art such as Wagner being entirely beyond your purview. In short, you’d have to be a pleb.

I do think video games can be art, but I have sympathy with the side that doesn’t, because counting surprising new things as art, such as tents, is often just a knee-jerk reaction by those eager to prove their open-mindedness, daring, and opposition to traditionalists. But if anything can be ‘art’ then the word doesn’t mean anything.

The blocky graphics of Space Invaders provide an iconic and unforgettable image of the 1970s, to be sure, but then so does John Travolta’s dancing in Saturday Night Fever, and that wasn’t art. For video games to be art they must have some special ingredient, akin to what distinguishes art music such as Coltrane, from popular music such as The Rolling Stones. My willingness to make such distinctions shows I’m not worried about being elitist.  I think if we'd paid more attention to maintaining artistic standards, we might have kept tents out of our galleries.

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Unlike games like chess, the process of ‘playing’ a video game invites you to imagine yourself into a fictional world, such that if the activity of shooting aliens is taking place anywhere, then it’s in the fictional world you’ve imagined yourself into – a world in which you’re inside the laser cannon and so will die if the aliens manage to hit it.

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Yet the arguments for why video games can’t be art are very poor, I think. The most noteworthy I’ve discovered are as follows:

Firstly, they’re games, as the name suggests, so there’s no more reason to count them as art than chess or blackjack.  Secondly, they cannot be used as an artistic medium to convey an artistic vision because the player determines what is experienced, rather than an artist. Thirdly, they rely on game mechanics, such as timing jumps over chasms, which have no significance beyond their contribution to gameplay, reminding us that games are made for fun, not art.

These arguments overlook the essential nature of video games, namely that they provide virtual environments with which the player can interact. Unlike games like chess, the process of ‘playing’ a video game invites you to imagine yourself into a fictional world, such that if the activity of shooting aliens is taking place anywhere, then it’s in the fictional world you’ve imagined yourself into – a world in which you’re inside the laser cannon and so will die if the aliens manage to hit it.

And as today’s gamers know only too well, ‘game’ and ‘play’ are often misleading terminology anyway, especially in the case of ‘open world’ games in which there’s no final goal (like real life), and in which trying to develop capital and expertise in pursuit of medium- and long-term goals can be a frustrating, time-consuming and boring process (like real life).

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Once you grasp the essential nature of video games, then it’s natural to think of game design as akin to world design; and then the potential for artistic input resembles that of a creator god!

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Once you grasp the essential nature of video games, then it’s natural to think of game design as akin to world design; and then the potential for artistic input resembles that of a creator god! If the world incorporates mechanics solely for your enjoyment, you can put that down to divine benevolence, rather than lack of art. Once a creator has placed you in the nature they’ve designed then they can’t control what you do anymore, it’s true, but that’s just because part of their benevolence was to endow you with free will.

Immanuel Kant, the originator of philosophical aesthetics in the modern era, considered the natural world the primary source of artistic value, with works produced by people of only secondary value. In the virtual worlds of video games, however, the distinction between the natural and man-made environment breaks down.

In Elite, the space simulator first released in 1984, and now a virtual galaxy of around 400 billion explorable star systems, there’s a certain kind of starport called a ‘Coriolis’. They’re cuboctahedrons, and in the original game were drawn, like everything else, with white lines against a black screen. They’ve remained an integral part of the game environment, but are now filled in to look like real structures. While you’re flying around them, as I was last night, you can take in the incredible detail on the surface, but it’s all fake of course; you’re not looking at real pipes and vents, they have no function in the game, they’re only there for the art.

One day I hope to observe a Coriolis station by means of a virtual reality headset and I expect the experience to be breath-taking. There’s a lot wrong with video games, they waste time and they’re too focused on violence, but it’s a sensible conceptual development to acknowledge their potential as art.

 

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