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Analyzing the artistic merits of video games

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What It’s All About: Defining Art

Posted by Nick Dinicola on October 3, 2008

Since I’m going to be  writing about the artistic merit of video games I should provide some definition of what I consider “art” to be.  I think a work of art has at least two main qualities to it.

1. Art is emotional.

I think emotion is a major part of art; if there is no emotional reaction from the audience, it’s hard to justify a work as “art.”  This, I think, is the biggest difference between entertainment and art.  We can be entertained without having to invest any serious emotion into anything, but a work of art forces us to have an emotional reaction.

This opens another can of worms though: What exactly do I mean by “emotion?” Games can make us scared, fear is an emotion, so there, proof games are art.  Not quite.  I don’t think making people scared can be considered an artistic endeavor because fear is such a primitive emotion, it’s part of a person’s natural instincts.  In short, it’s an easy emotion to invoke.  All one needs to scare someone is a loud noise and unexpected timing.

So what emotions are “artistic?” Psychologist Robert Plutchik created a wheel of emotions with eight basic emotions.  I think we (almost) go though these basic eight in some way when playing any level in a game: fear of an enemy, anger at losing, joy at passing, expectation of a new level, surprise at new things, though I think sadness, disgust, and acceptance are harder to pull off.  It’s the “deeper” emotions that art invokes: Grief, regret, love, envy, shame, terror. (I want to defend terror here.  I think terror is a deeper kind of fear.  Fear is a “boo” moment in a B movie, terror is the kind of psychological horror that gives us nightmares.)

So art invokes a deeper emotion.

2. Art reflects life.

When Roger Ebert and Clive Barker traded jabs over games as an art form, there was one point that stood out to me.  Barker said, “If the experience moves you in some way or another…it is worthy of some serious study.”  To which Ebert responded, “Many experiences that move me in some way or another are not art. A year ago I lost the ability (temporarily, I hope) to speak. I was deeply moved by the experience. It was not art.”

I agree with what Ebert said in that quote, that his experience is not art, but I think his example is a bit misleading.  He took an example from his own life.  Life is not art, life is a source of inspiration for art.  If one were to paint a painting or write a song that produced the same emotions one might feel after losing the ability to speak, that would be art.  If one were to write a book or make a movie chronicling the hardships one has to face while adjusting to a life without the ability to speak, that would be art.  I believe that if one were to make a game chronicling the hardships one has to face while adjusting to a life without the ability to speak, that would be art as well.  But the actual act of losing the ability to speak is not art.  Art is something that’s created, it’s not something that happens.

So a work of art will put the us in the shoes of someone else and make us feel whatever emotions that person would be feeling at some given point in time.

3. Art contains some Universal Truth.

This is not the idea that there’s only one real truth to the world.  Instead this is the idea that there are some truths (experiences) that are universal across time and cultures.  A story about someone losing the ability to speak contains a universal truth about loss.  People who have lost limbs, hearing, or sight would probably be able to identify with the hardships of the person in that story.

This point is generally reserved for works of art with a narrative; movies, books, and games.  The first two points were all about emotional experiences, how a work of art is supposed to make one feel.  This third point is all about how an emotional experience is portrayed in a narrative.  It relates very closely with the second point.  Whereas the second point suggests that art should reflect some emotional event in life, this third point takes that idea further and suggests that that event has to be significant, it has strike upon some universal emotion.  It’s not enough to write a story about a man who loses his keys and gets mad (one of the basic emotions).  But if the story tied the loss of keys to the loss of a loved one, a significant and universal emotional experience, it becomes closer to art.

I say closer here because when one is dealing with emotions there’s always the chance to get melodramatic.  I think a work of art will have these three qualities to it (though point three doesn’t really relate to music or paintings), but good art is not created simply by following a list and checking off things that “art” should contain.  The melodrama throws all sorts of emotions out there at once and hopes something sticks, while the true artist knows just what emotions to invoke at what time and by how much.  It’s a skill in subtlety.

So those are three main qualities I think a work of art should have.  Using these three points, I’ll analyze games as serious works, not simply entertainment.  I’ll look at their themes, and how well I think each particular game was in supporting its themes.  Not all the games I mention here are games that I consider to be works of art, but all of them will have some aspect, whether in story, design, gameplay, art direction, etc., that I think has serious artistic value.  So now that the definition is out of the way, it’s time to start on the games.

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