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July 13, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

It’s-a Me, Caravaggio!

Art. The very word evokes fear and mistrust, images of a perfectly-groomed elite who are better than you, what with all their gallery-visiting and rampant sex in unusual positions. Well, they are better than you, because they have art in their lives. But fear not! You could already be an art appreciator. Why, you probably arted some time this week!

While it would be too much to say that art is in the eye of the beholder—I don’t trust you that much yet—it is true that the experience of art is where the magic happens. The sensation of being caught up, transformed by art is unlike any other, and you may have had it… while gaming.

Video games have had a nasty, brutish, and short life. They have yet to make it through the cultural hazing that transformed moving pictures into film, or comic books into sequential art. However, the experiences and current state of those media should show us a little of what we can expect from games. As Jerry Holkins, writer of gaming comic Penny Arcade says, “I don’t think that all games aspire to be art… does the entire Marvel [comics] line-up constitute a body of bold works? Probably not, but it doesn’t have to.”

Instead we look at the individual films and comics that affect us in the ways art historically has—2001: A Space Odyssey creates awe, Maus wrenches the heart. Looking at artistic moments on a case‑by‑case basis, we wonder whether the medium may not really be all that important. Yet games still face the opposition that arises against all popular forms.

The distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art had its [euphemism] [verbed] by Bourdieu in the 1960s, when he showed it was just the man trying to keep you down. However, there are those who still attempt to fend off the barbarians at the gate.

Art, they cry, is surely about the authorship of an artist! Perhaps, but Braid was written and coded by one person. Well, art has to be in a gallery! Superflex played Counter-strike in the Govett-Brewster gallery. Art conveys powerful narratives about personal truths! Anything from Passage to Grand Theft Auto IV has you covered there. Art is about emotional intensity! But I cannot be the only one to shed a few tears to the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney theme. Art is about paint! Who among us can say they never huffed a little before a few rounds of Team Fortress 2?

Games have examples that fill any criteria that can be named. They also provide us with landfills of cheap tie-ins, bad ports, and annual refreshes (sports titles, I’m looking at you). As ever, 99% of anything is crap. Art history lecturer Raymond Spiteri says that while art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive concepts, the odds are not good.

“Entertainment is about flowing along.” Aesthetics, on the other hand, is about slowing down and contemplating.

But what about that 1%, those few moments of delight and amazement that do something with their medium?

The folks at Sidhe Interactive, the Santa’s workshop of Wellington, appreciate the unique qualities of video games. Motion lead Reagan Morris says “The use of art and sound allow the gamer to drift away into an experience unavailable in any other medium.” The goal of games like Flower is usually very simple, and is really a pretext for the surrounding experience of image and sound and music that the player is diving into.

Programmer Robert Green argues that video games have more potential to affect the viewer than any other medium. “Where a painting can show a single perspective of an imaginary setting, a videogame can allow the viewer to explore it.” Technical artist Juliann Lum agrees. “The ability to be in control, to discover and to make choices and experience their consequences is what sets games apart.” The connection between the viewer and Vito Corleone is very different to that between the player and the characters in ICO.

Game designer James Everett is unequivocal: “Games are art. There’s no ‘can’ about it.” Speaking as a creator, he says their artistic potential stems from their interactivity, “the point at which we hand it over to the player and say, ‘Go ahead and explore.’”

Games’ artistic potential is developing, says Morris. There’s a distinction between a game that succeeds at becoming art, and one that never intended to try. Although you could look at the big sellers and get little sense of an art form, independent developers are freer to put out smaller, more artistically tuned games. While they get less attention from the gaming public, titles like Flower and Braid push other developers forward in their craft.

Lum agrees that there is a drive towards the evolution of artistic games. “People painted and sculpted for a long time before the Mona Lisa and the Statue of David were created. It’s only a matter of time.”

You don’t have to take the word of a bunch of gamers: Science backs them up! Well, social science, which is still okay. Anthropologist Alfred Gell developed a model of art that let him analyse it across cultures. As Raymond Spiteri says, ‘art’ is a specifically Western concept. The word doesn’t make sense outside of the specific social and cultural history of the West. However, Spiteri notes people have equivalent experiences outside that framework.

The key for Gell is to not get hung up on what one culture considers beautiful or aesthetic, as the next one would have a totally different idea. Instead, he looked at what they may share, a particular experience he called ‘enchantment’.

Gell considered art objects to be a technology, the functional purpose of which is to enchant the viewer. When we look at a Goya painting or read Baudelaire, we are faced with something that doesn’t fit within our existing frame of reference. We, as mere plebs, can’t work out how this incredible thing was created. We are pulled out of our regular level of functioning by the artwork. Floundering for an explanation, all we can do is make something up.

In the moment of confusion, the mind reaches out for explanations that fill the gap. Sometimes it’s magic, or creative genius, or sparkle motion. For anthropology lecturer Jeff Sissons, it can be technology. When he plays games with his son, “I don’t imagine a Da Vinci behind it. Instead, I am captivated by the technology itself. There is a kind of sorcery inherent in it imparted by brilliant game designers who are modern sorcerers.”

Jerry Holkins thinks similarly. “I have had strange experiences with well made, almost psychic bits of technology that I found powerful.” It may be depressing for developers, but many players ascribe their captivating experiences to the mysterious combination of ware, soft and hard, without considering the thousands of hours of work that go into each title. ‘The game’ is a mysterious, compelling thing, operating outside normal rules.

Spiteri says that artistic experiences are inoculations against the traumas of the world. “Art provides a means for us to tame those experiences.” They are practice runs for us to face the real thing in the real world, so our minds don’t just give out on us at the first experience of love, or fear, or awe. Games may even have an advantage here, as they provide ways to live out alternative lives.

The obvious genre is the role-playing game, exemplified by the Final Fantasy series. Sidhe producer Alan Bell remembers when (spoiler!) Aeris dies in FFVII: “This experience still stands as one of the most emotional many gamers have experienced—despite the medium (3D graphics) being extremely primitive at the time.”

But are Not Actually the Final Fantasy’s graphics a problem for experiencing that moment artistically today? The rapid pace of technological development in gaming would seem to have raised expectations for newer games, and lowered them for older ones. Again, the matter is subjective. There is a kind of person who will forsake shininess for unique experiences.

Robert Green counts himself in that small cadre. “Going out of my way to play such games, absolutely, but I’m hardly a typical videogame consumer.” Bell, on the other hand, is a gamer first, and an art enthusiast somewhere much further down the line: “Games, for me, are about fun first and foremost… I’ll still play something like Call of Duty (strong visually, clearly has artistic direction but not remotely art in and of itself) as a preference over an interactive experience that is a ‘game’ in name only.”

Clearly, the game is only part of the whole, and ‘art’ requires a viewer or player that will make something of it. The famed ‘Opera House’ scene from Final Fantasy (there it is again, goddammit) VI leaves me cold and a bit irritated, but makes certain corners of the Internet fall into paroxysms of delight. And few others will understand my reaction to removing shards of glass from someone’s heart in Trauma Centre.

Although there’s no way to enforce an aesthetic experience, good art makes it more likely. Within the canon of gaming there are several touchstones for moments that blow your mind, immerse you in the moment, or sink you under the weight of truth. Flower and Katamari Damacy channel into your forgotten capacity for joy. Rez makes you exist in a way completely alien to the real world. At some point in the wastelands of Shadow of the Colossus you realise you’re the bad guy.

So you see? You’ve been a lover of art all along! Now nip along to the Adam Art Gallery and cast profound looks at the new exhibition. And since we’ve settled this issue, we can get back to the real matter at hand: why your favourite game sucks. God, it’s bad.


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