‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!

bioshock screen grab

IMAGE: Bioshock (Irrational Games)

A few weeks ago I was checking in on one of my favourite interwebby gatherings (here) to recharge myself with the spirited and welcoming discussion of the fine folks who call it home.  Them’s good people.

In the midst of one of many conversations about the expressive potential of the videogame medium, one of the contributors referenced a blog, in which the writer, known as J. Shea, dismissed the validity of videogames as art.  Now, of course, there is nothing new there – indeed, at this point that is a tediously familiar drum for naysayers to beat – but I do feel rather compelled to speak to the second half of Shea’s argument, in which, in his misguided attempt to rescue the term from the debasement of videogames, he offers one of the most depressing, and misjudged attempts to define Art that I have ever seen (‘Stories in Games: A Survey of Quality’, from Exploring Believability).

And so – and I mean this sincerely – if you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to the angry spittle of a very grumpy, very rambling man, shouting as if there were kids on his lawn, I encourage you to skip the post I am about to inflict upon you and continue on with your life.  I should also point out that while I am directing this response at Shea’s blog, it is not he himself that I am trying to attack (indeed, I have no idea who he is) – it is instead the mindset that he is espousing – an opinion of Art that I have heard elsewhere before, one that arrogantly disparages the capacity for certain mediums to even be considered Art, and posits that ‘worthy’ texts cannot, by necessity, be pleasurable…

You see, an hour before I was introduced to Shea’s blog post, I had been reading Jane Austen’s Emma and feeling happy.

I’m not teaching a class on it.  I’m not writing an article (well, I’m now about to use it as a petty cudgel, but you get my point…)  I was just enjoying the book.  Indeed, if I were to draw up a Venn diagram of that experience, it would be a perfect circle: Pleasure and artistic appreciation perfectly overlapping each other into an uninterrupted pie.

But then I read Shea’s piece – a piece that reasons (with some extremely narrow examples and some tiresomely reductive presumptions) that all videogames serve one specific purpose; and that logically this purpose does not fit into some his definition of what ‘Art’ is.

You know, true ‘Art’.  …Whatever that is supposed to mean.

It was at that point that I got sad.

I was discouraged firstly because (as all too frequently happens in commentaries like these) the parameters of what constitutes a ‘videogame’ had been so narrowed as to be utterly meaningless except in the unhelpfully specific battleground of this writer’s own head.  Here, the span of the ‘videogame’ medium – everything from handheld games diddled about with on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, to worldwide multiplayer behemoths that give rise to competitive sports, to immersive narrative epics that allow players to invest in and influence fictions across several years, to innovative downloadable games designed to engage their player in as-yet unexplored experiential dialogues between audience and text – had been arbitrarily reduced to Spec Ops: The Line, the first Bioshock, and Final Fantasy 8.

Somehow, all videogame narrative was thereby summarily reduced to nothing more than the pursuit of, and justification for, ‘cool stuff’.  All game narratives are slaves to their designs, Shea argues, and those designs are dictated by trying to load the experience with fun: explosive action, hilarious things to try, transitory playful indulgence…  Cool stuff.*  I mean, I’m sure I need not even bother to make this analogy, but that would be like reducing all poetry that has ever been written down to ‘the pursuit of rhyme’.  It’s a single element, of some verse.

…No, that’s fine.  Be sure to explode a single element out to make sweeping generalisations of the whole form.  That’ll be helpful.

But again, what I find most sad here is not that once more someone is ignorantly demanding that an argument still needs to be made for videogames to sit at the grown-ups table of Artistic potential**, it is that now it seems Art itself needs to be defended as being fun.  Because this piece not only unfairly maligns videogames as being unable to express anything of worth, it also reveals a wholly depressing (and frankly rather juvenile) misconception about what Art itself actually is.

Fundamentally, the blog posits that something fun, something designed to elicit pleasure in its audience, cannot therefore be Art.  Art, it argues, should instead be solely concerned with offering dry philosophical treatises, and compelling its audience to muse upon the deeper, important issues of life.  The example offered by the post is that Art must speak of human ‘isolation’ – a peculiarly specific, and tediously limiting dictate that is never helpfully elaborated upon.

But this notion, delivered in such an earnest, simplistic manner, is so patently ridiculous, and so at odds with the entire history of artistic creation and consumption, that I scarcely know where to begin.  (Literally, I’ve re-written the next paragraph several times now because I am dumbstruck by the absurdity of this concept…)

So if there is anyone out there who needs to be disabused of this notion, please take my word for it: Art is not some sombre, distanced, privileged means of expression intended to tower over its audience, dictating to them from afar what emotions and truths are appropriate to be explored, what experiences are worthy of exploration, nor that those experiences, by necessity, are not allowed to be fun.

At no point did Huxley, when he sat down to write Brave New World, say to himself, ‘Now, how do I make this book as tedious and unenjoyable as possible so that when students are forced to read it, they will know that it is “Art”, and not anything that they should bother to enjoy?‘  And (as my recent experience of reading Emma reminds me) when people gathered to read Jane Austen as a family by the fireside in years past, nobody was cursing their luck, lamenting, ‘Awww… damnit.  Now we have to learn something…’

Art talks with its audience.  It doesn’t condescend to them.  It’s not meant to frighten people away or stare down its nose.  It’s meant to invite its audience  in.  To start a conversation.  And that dialogue begins, frequently, in pleasure.  After all, you cannot delight, bewilder, or excite someone by making them feel unworthy of the attention (unless of course you are trying to make them feel small and unworthy – but not everyone is Ayn Rand).

What this blogger’s argument is essentially positing is that there is an absolute and necessary distinction between Art and fun.  In the Venn diagram of Pleasure and Worthy Artistic Expression, the two circles cannot overlap, because under such a severe definition indulgence becomes the kryptonite of insight.  By this logic, my reading of Emma is really only about me nodding along knowledgably as a young woman comes to know the truth of herself and her misapprehensions about life and love.  I’m certainly couldn’t be enjoying  it.  And Austen must have only written it to act as a turgidly instructive morality tale – definitely not to entertain.  Right?

So how, then, does Camus’ The Stranger – one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – not diminish itself because it injects a detached humour into an examination of human existentialism?  Because that’s fun, isn’t it?  How can there be fun in such a bleak, important narrative?  Surely Camus cannot have wanted to amuse his audience?  That really would be absurd…

What about Annie Hall?  A phenomenal piece of filmic Art – smart, snappy, with a statement to make about human experience and the metatextual potential of film  …Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy that is enjoyable as hell.  Does that not qualify?  Or Fight Club?  Whether you like the message or not, it is a text that speaks to human alienation and the loss of self in a progressively mass-marketed world – but again, it is one spectacularly fun film to watch…

annie hall screen

IMAGE: Annie Hall (United Artists)

Even in the examples that he chooses to (I think rather naively) offer, his argument doesn’t hold up.  His predictable mention of Hamlet?  …Yeah, because Shakespeare never wrote comedies, nor was acutely attuned to the commercial appeal of his work…  Please.  He was the most successful producer of his age.  He knowingly tailored every one of his plays to the dictates of his audience and their pleasure.  After all, there’s a reason that the stage is littered with corpses when Hamlet finally shuffles off his mortally coiled up bits: his audience loved it.  They – and we – loved them some gore, and watching the grand procrastinator go out in a blaze of furious, anarchic double-crosses and slaughter was an almighty ironic thrill.  One of the greatest disservices to Shakespeare’s legacy is this ignorant misconception that he was some cloistered poet genius, hermetically sealed away from his audience.  In complete contrast, the man was a masterful reader of his viewers – one who knew how to sculpt work that dually appealed to fans of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art (whatever those distinctions might mean on any given day), creating something transcendent in the merger.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses might appear (to those who haven’t read it) to be rather daunting – filled with austere allusions and literary reverence – but in actuality it’s hilarious, and (although I’m sure many won’t believe me) actually a great deal of fun.  Joyce peppered the work with a great deal of comedy and smut and farce.  Well before Leopold Bloom wigs out in a brothel, even before his masturbatory jaunt on a beach (set to the percussion of fireworks), he decides to use the bathroom.  After breakfast he retires to his outhouse, where he sits to evacuate himself (in fairly graphic description), and while doing so reads a published piece of fiction.  He finishes the work, considers whether he might one day write one himself, and then tears out a page of it to wipe himself clean.  Art, even for Joyce, was not some remote, esteemed relic; frequently it is made to serve humanity’s most base and immediate needs – just as it does for Bloom.

And that, frankly, is what every artist worth a damn is trying to do: Art has always been inextricably bound to entertainment; artists have always tried to delight as well as communicate deeper truths.  This didactic, professorial notion of artistic statements that Shea (and those who would subscribe to such a premise) is proffering does not actually exist beyond clichés of beret wearing, red wine sniftering, art house cafes fantasised to have existed in the beat generation.

People might yawn now at the stiff pageantry of an ancient fresco, but those sanguine images were profoundly moving to their original, intended audience – not because they made ‘declarations about what life is’, but because they communicated the unutterable sublime.  Should Monet be struck from the record as a failed artist because his imagery failed to speak to human isolation, as this article describes?  He crafted scenes of luminescent elegance and a hyper-real surfeit of colour within which viewers could lose themselves, utterly enchanted – but he never did say anything ‘valuable’ about social interaction, so I guess he sucks too.  Staring into one of Goya’s darker frames can be like making a smoothie out of Saw 1 through 4 and chugging it down for the brain freeze – because it too was designed to affect its audience with a fearful, unnerving thrill.

In fact, the attitude of this blogger exhibits everything that is wrong with the pretentiousness that sours people from engaging with literature and fine Art.  Art is not – and should never be – a chore.  Putting gaming and appreciating Art on two sides of a spectrum that cannot touch, driving a wedge to separate them in the Venn diagram of expression, is dishearteningly ignorant.  Just because something is joyful does not mean it cannot be achieving an artistic end; just as solely because something is delicious doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy.

Such smug divisiveness has no place in legitimate artistic discussion.  Picasso can legitimately be appreciated for using bold, striking colours; Mendelssohn can just be enjoyed as beautiful melodies; Beckett can just be some hilariously weird stuff on a stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Art as entertainment, and nothing wrong with seeing in the realms of entertainment the potential for great Art.***

If this blogger’s argument were simply that games don’t operate like novels, then fine.  No argument here.  In fact: well done on pointing out a basic compositional reality.  I would like to add to the redundant observation pile that it is likewise difficult to paint a sonata, or to rhyme a photograph…  But this commentator said ‘Art’ – and that is simply too wide and magisterial and necessarily inclusive a terminology that it makes such disparaging and choking restrictions hysterically inadequate.****

So the problem is not that games don’t qualify as Art.  Ultimately the issue is precisely what this writer says in his opening paragraphs (without comprehending the irony in his statement): people bring their own definitions of Art with them.  And sometimes (as this blogger does) those people unjustly and naively attempt to dictate to everyone else what those narrow parameters should be.

This blogger not only sets up a reductive, unjust and impossible standard that he arbitrarily declares videogames to have failed, he further goes on to reduce the whole definition of ‘Art’ to such narrow subjective terms, wholly defined by his own ignorance (perhaps it would be kinder to say naiveté), that the entire discussion dissolves into irrelevance.  One ends up arguing with his personal limitations rather than the issue at hand.  One may as well be playing ‘What am I thinking?’

And if he cannot be bothered to even entertain the idea that his understanding of either topic might need expanding, or that his proudly arbitrary dismissal is a dead end rather than the invitation to debate he mistakenly believes it to be, it seems an exercise in futility trying to disabuse him of the several misapprehensions he has embraced.

Personally, I think it’s sad if this writer cannot see the pleasures in Art, or if he views only frippery and indulgence in games, but both are his right.  I would hope that one day he could outgrow such antiquated notions – both in his approach to videogames (which are, frankly, a rather easy target when their history is still so brief, and continues to test the potentialities within the limitations of their form), but even more so in his approach to the possibilities of Art.

Ultimately, however, videogames are far wider and filled with more potential than he seems to be aware; and moreover, Art is not the comically rigid canon of austere anachronism that he has dreamed up.

So considering that he seems to be unable to show any comprehension (let alone definition) of either ‘videogames’ nor ‘Art’, I would think it wise for him to not get so presumptuous in dismissing the possibilities of either.  Indeed, the very fact that he even equated ‘Art’ with ‘Narrative’ in so simplistic a one-to one-ratio in the first place is probably indication enough that his argument at present, has little to add to this debate.  In that Venn diagram his comments don’t even cut a sliver out of the sprawling, multifaceted, incomprehensibly vast pie that is Art…

[EDIT: To his credit, J.Shea responded to this post, and our discussion continues in the comments section below…]

File:Claude Monet - Springtime - Walters 3711.jpg

IMAGE: Springtime by Claude Monet (1872)

* One might well direct his attention to the purposefully dour and laborious game Cart Life to cure him of that misconception.

** Note I said ‘potential’, not unalienable right.

*** Although the music of Bruce Springsteen will in any context, at any time, be considered Art.

**** Indeed, if one wanted to be intentionally petty to this blogger (and perhaps I do), one might even categorise some of the examples he provides of his favourite videogame catch-phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (so hip and surprising and revolutionary), with ‘dramatic irony’ in fiction (one of the oldest and most familiar forms of narrative self-reference in human history).

24 Responses to “‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!”

  1. Hello! I’m glad you read my article. I’d like to take this time to address the points that you made and perhaps help you realize that our views aren’t actually very different.

    The point was that not that fun is bad. The point is that games often feel COMPELLED to be fun, even at the expense of their own messages. Games that are about how horrific violence is, like Metal Gear Rising, still feel COMPELLED to make sure that their violence is enjoyable and exciting and thrilling. Why? Isn’t the point to help educate people about how violence is awful and terrifying? If so, the gameplay is being pushed in a direction contradictory to the reality it is attempting to depict.

    I’m glad you brought up these examples. I’d like you to note that these examples are centered around human interaction and socialization, which games cannot do particularly well. In fact, that was something I addressed. If you looked at my bullet-pointed argument stating that games excel at violence and do poorly with natural interaction and equated this to the idea that I “hate fun”, I can only attribute that to a failure on my own part.

    You’ll also, I hope, notice the following sentence:

    “So they’re “art”, but they’re still not getting to the root of why art is considered to be important and not a waste of time.”

    Games are “art”. Art is a term that reflects on lots of things. But the pursuit of games-as-art is about a form of validation that games have yet to receive in the general media. Why “games” are considered to be a waste of time, a diversion, while “movies” can be a respectable field of study. And when the most well-known games are things like “Call of Duty Black Ops” and “Skryim” and “Far Cry 3”, it’s small wonder. This is why I addressed violence primarily when discussing “fun” in games: because violence is the method by which games most often represent themselves.

    Exploring Believability

    • Heaven Smile Says:

      “Games that are about how horrific violence is, like Metal Gear Rising, still feel COMPELLED to make sure that their violence is enjoyable and exciting and thrilling. Why? Isn’t the point to help educate people about how violence is awful and terrifying?”

      What if ones makes it around the message that, it IS horrible BECAUSE its fun? on how intoxicating, corrupting, empowering, and easy it is to just kill more and more non stop? Imagine a game that, without sheer self control from the audience itself, they will just keep going and murder the entire planet leaving nothing alive to fight and remaining alone until the end of times.

      In that case, having the game be fun will make it more disturbing.

      There is also the non-fun equivalent of that. While it doesn’t get any funnier or better, it DOES get easy overtime to get over.

      • It’s hard to imagine a game commenting on reality at all when it throws blood-filled meat balloons at you and you have no alternative but to slice them open. Especially when those enemies, like the ones in MGR, constantly taunt the player and never do anything but attack even when their limbs are sliced off. Doesn’t really speak well of anything, honestly.

  2. (For comparative reading I’d like to submit my article comparing The Walking Dead to Aliens: Colonial Marines, wherein I note that A:CM is far more “serious” but in a very unrealistic, melodramatic way, whereas TWD maintains a consistent tone and thus has moments of levity that do not break the reality that it is depicting)


    • Thank you for the reply, J. Shea, and indeed, for reading my post – but while I am heartened to hear that you at least allow for the possibility of games to be considered Art, your dismissal of their validity because they fail to meet the standard of narrative one might apply to film, or novels, remains arbitrarily impossible to satisfy. As I said in my blog, if your argument is that games don’t operate like films, then fine – but saying that is as unhelpful as observing that it is similarly difficult to dance a painting or photograph a song. They operate through completely different mechanics and structures, and use an entirely different tool set to elicit an audience response.

      Consequentially, I do think that we are rather speaking from positions too disparate to reach a point of common ground. Indeed, if you read my points and reduced it to an accusation that I somehow think ‘you hate fun’, then I have obviously failed to make my meaning.

      My issue was with the choking limitations that you have chosen to draw between the potentiality for games to make meaning – to be considered legitimate forms of artistic expression – and finding fault in the narratives of a selected handful of big budget games, as if this were somehow the knockout blow to debates about the validity of games as a medium. To point at Far Cry 3 and Call of Duty: Black Ops, and thereby dismiss the entirety of gaming as incapable of being Art is like referencing Transformers 2 and Twilight (both runaway financial successes) and extrapolating that all movies are incapable of producing coherent plots with believable character interactions.

      Indeed, I would (and tried to) point out that even your own examples seem to undermine such a position. You cited Spec Ops: The Line, a game that I would argue gradually and intentionally allows the shooter mechanics that you cite as pleasurable to become grinding and laborious – to make them a noxious chore through which the player must grind in order to divest themself of the desire to gleefully embrace such violent abandon. (It is no accident that players have ended Spec Ops: The Line questioning their very inclinations to play shooters ever again.)

      Also, arguing that games have not been recognised by the wider culture as a valid form of Art, if I’m honest, means very little to me – and I’m surprised to see you invest so much weight in that premise. Games are still in their relative infancy as a medium, and at the comparable point in their history, film (despite crafting exquisite works like Metropolis and Citizen Kane) was still being dismissed by many as a crass diversion from ‘real’ art, like theatre; photography was disregarded as not being worthy compared to a ‘real’ Art form, like painting; graphic novels weren’t enough like novels; novels were dismissed for being too unlike poetry. It’s the same tedious, reactionary argument that has stretched all the way back through history to land on Plato scoffing at Ion for winning a poetry prize.

      I’ve made this point elsewhere, but I may as well repeat it here:

      Any new medium gets attacked for being ‘beneath’ serious consideration, merely trivial ‘entertainment’ that is a silly waste of time. Consequentially its earliest years are maligned and ignored by voices such as yourself until the mass culture realises that it is not going away. But in truth that’s what all art has always been: a beautiful, magnificent waste of time that thereby reflects something profound about we human beings back to ourselves.

      If violent shooters cannot provide anything valid to you (and I agree that for me they frequently do not either) I would encourage you to broaden your horizons. There are innumerable other gaming experiences that might better provide narrative and intellectual sustenance – should you bother to seek them out. As I said in my original post, blaming a medium because you as audience member have needlessly limited your experience (whether because you have subscribed to some notion that all Art must be about human negotiations of socialisation; or because you have sought for complex characterisation in the boundaries of a corridor FPS) seems a highly unhelpful and reductive response.

      Personally, I’d encourage you to seek out works like Enslaved, Red Dead Redemption, Beyond Good and Evil, works that speak to a breadth of genre and storytelling, and that offer more to their player than the momentary justification to pull a trigger. Just as, were I suggesting someone become a student of cinema, I would encourage them to watch The Godfather, The Big Lebowski, or Casablanca rather than the collected works of Michael Bay.

      • Hello Drayfish,

        Thanks for your more courteous response. However, I feel that perhaps you did not quite understand the crux of my argument. Please take a look at the games that you offered as alternatives:

        Enslaved. Red Dead Redemption. Beyond Good and Evil.

        Which of these games offers mechanics that allow for meaningful human interaction? For the development of sympathy and empathy through something other than randomly-played voice files? For actions leading to consequences (which is something that must be embraced if you are so keen to move away from movies – after all, games are an interactive medium).

        Obviously it’d be fallacious of me to say that violence is the only mechanic game are capable of – but it’s something that’s the primary mechanic in the three games you named. Three games that are told primarily through cutscenes, not through gameplay. Three games where the “movie” parts are the primary portions of the game with lasting consequence and effect.

        Now, let me name some alternatives of my own.

        “Unmanned” – a short game where you take the role of a UAV pilot, living a normal life & reflecting by yourself or with others about the nature of your job.

        “Depression Quest” – a game that attempts to put the player in the shoes of an individual with (you guessed it) depression, showing how it affects one’s thinking and outlook in a way that is hard to grasp otherwise.

        “Dys4ia” – a game that attempts to illustrate the process through which the author changed genders, which (like depression) is often alien to those who haven’t been through it.

        These games use interactivity as a way to help the player understand the concepts they’re trying to teach. But, conversely, they’re also incredibly short! This is because “traditional games”, i.e. $60 for 8-10 hours of entertainment (minimum), are essentially stretched out too much to really allow for that much meaningful change. The devs would have to create separate paths for every possible choice! Even a game like The Walking Dead had to make some choices “not matter” or force some changes in order to keep things under control, and that’s a game with the specific intention of being about decision-making and not “action”.

        This is what I was trying to illustrate with my article more than anything else. Literature and movies are respected often because they deal in dialogue and human interaction, they create empathy, they are about PEOPLE. What separates “The Godfather” or “Citizen Kane” or “The Big Lebowski” from a Michael Bay movie? Is it JUST the quality of the writing, or is it the focus on characters, personalities, events, interaction. The point of my article was that those things are hard to do in games, but there’s still these expectations of a certain length or a certain amount of content.

        Here’s a video that I think will help explain my point:

        As one final point: games are more than 40 years old. There were plenty of games in the DOS era and early windows that took things more seriously than the majority of games today – just look at Fallout 1 compared to Fallout 3 (though Fallout New Vegas brought it back around, at least). I’m not saying that “new games are bad, old games are good” – I’m saying that there have been serious, well-thought-out games for decades, and “age of the medium” is not a valid justification.

  3. Once again, J.Shea, thanks for your comments – but I must say, they do rather confirm what I had feared about your position…

    Your comment makes me openly wonder whether or not – in spite of your dismissing them out of hand – you have actually played any of the three games that I mentioned (which were of course meant only to be illustrative of a wider range of gaming potentiality than your original post and follow up responses allowed for). The fact that you simplistically wrote them off as stories told solely through cut-scenes and ‘randomly placed voice files’ rather proves that you are deriding something without even familiarising yourself with what it is that you are attacking…

    (Indeed – you said that all three games are defined by ‘violence’? You have clearly never seen, nor played, Beyond Good and Evil. Despite the suggestive name, Beyond is about evasion. It’s about sneaking and uncovering truths. Its hero is a photographer, who tries to use journalism to rescue a group of colourful orphans from harm.)

    And these games do not use their mechanics to make their meaning? That is so overtly untrue that I wonder whether you have even seen these games in action…

    As I described in a recent article (https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/enslaved-odyssey-to-the-west-freedom-in-a-cage/) Enslaved uses one of the most rote conventions of videogaming – the escort mission – and building out from this fundamental mechanic, offers a profoundly moving mediation on the nature of human communion and protection, exploring the way in which characters require each other for purpose, for meaning. There is, arguably, no better way to tell that story than through the structure of a videogame in which you are centrally responsible for the protection and guidance of an NPC across the span of the narrative. Meaning is literally made by the momentary progression that game asks of you. Not though some ‘audio file’.

    Beyond Good and Evil tells a story of political and social intrigue, in which ‘truth’ is a commodity that can only be exposed by a tenacious reporter willing to uncover (through sequences of sneaking and photography through a stylised parable of a war-torn world saturated by the voice of an indoctrinating media. The action of searching this world, photographing these truths yourself as the player character, invest the audience directly in the action, and make them a participatory agent in this revelation in a far more profound manner than sitting as a slack sponge for a movie to regurgitate its story at you. The fact that the very control scheme you have employed throughout the tale shifts in the final moments (those who have played the game will know what I mean) is itself emblematic of that flip in belief structures that the game builds into it central conceit. Suddenly, in this concluding, revelatory moment, everything that you have come to depend upon throughout the course of the game is subverted by the realisation that you have encountered in your journey. Again: this is a central mechanic of the game structure, not some detached cut-scene.

    Red Dead Redemption remains one of the most expansive and deliberative mediations upon the entire Western mythos in any medium. The frontiersman, a relic of a bygone age, facing the encroachment of a new industrialised age of civility that presses in upon, and redefines a lawless land. Again, even if you wilfully choose to ignore all of the rather overt references to Greek mythology and the retroactive historical redrafting of cultural narratives, the game’s mechanics themselves call these processes out to you. NPCs shout salutations based upon your behaviour in game – the ‘legend’ of John Marsten that your behaviour in the mechanics of the text have indicated: you can be feared as a ruthless monster, or revered as a defender of lost souls.

    Every mission that you undertake across three narrative arcs draws upon a rich tradition of Western film and fiction: from Spaghetti Westerns, to Hollywood heroism, to the epilogue age of weary chivalric knights trying to hang up their guns and make a life of peace. The game’s meditations upon identity, upon the weight of one’s past, and the debate between nature and nurture, play out in every encounter – and playing as a gun-toting Western hero yourself, taming the landscape and facing down foes, is an integral part of that myth-making; one that heightens the audience investment in that they themselves literalise the journey. It is, at its core, about humanity – the ties that define us, the often contradictory histories behind the ‘legends’ we use to define ourselves. That you would ignore this and relegate the work to being an empty shooter speaks more of you than it does the text…

    Once again, you rather confirm my worst fears of your opinionated rejection of videogames as valid potential works of Art. You have decided to merely balloon out your own extremely limited vision of what a videogame is – based upon a number of wrongheaded presumptions about pre-rendered cut scenes and smatterings of world-building colour – and call it fact.

    I’m afraid simply listing a bunch of avant garde indie games to ‘prove’ that you aren’t just swimming in the shallow end of gaming and validate your willing dismissal of the form doesn’t really cut it. (Indeed, allow me to add some more: Fez, Journey, Loneliness, The Bridge, Thomas Was Alone, Little Inferno…)

    If you want to claim that Call of Duty has nothing to say about the subtleties of human interaction, you will hear no argument from me, but writing off the whole medium because you cannot be bothered to expand your playing experience beyond big-budget corridor shooters, and a mistaken catch-cry that all Art must be about ‘human socialisation’ is ludicrously suspect for someone who claims to be an open-minded critic.

    • Drayfish.

      Here is the reply I’m going to leave:

      If you thought the reason I chose those games was “indie” or “avant-garde” then you have no understanding of the facet that unites them.

      For a person who thinks he can lecture me about the “meaning” of games and the “themes” they pursue you’re not particularly informed yourself.

      • Nobody’s lecturing you about anything. Also, you’re doing the exact same thing you did with me: ignore every point made against you and then nit-pick a little non-argumentative aspect that doesn’t matter in the slightest. Grow up.

      • To J.Shea:

        Although I’ve left a more expansive reply to your comment below, I would also invite you to read an accompanying post of mine in which I talk at a little more length about the shifting parameters of Art that videogames present (https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/show-us-your-human-bits-play-and-the-shifting-paradigms-of-art/).

        Much as I point out in my comments, you perhaps don’t realise just how arbitrary trying to judge games by the rules of movie and literature is, but I wish you luck in hopefully expanding this needlessly reductive definition.

    • If I were you, Drayfish, I’d cut it off with him here. I’ve argued up and down the lengths of his blog with him, and learned in the process that he has literally no idea how to form a cogent argument, and instead resorts to ad-hominems and similar childish tactics. His favorite one (the one he’s using right now) is “address no points brought up against me, instead nitpick a minor, non-argumentative aspect of the post that doesn’t matter.”

      You can see it the comments in the link below, where someone takes apart his points in a blog post of their own, and he says “I can’t take you seriously because you brought up comics. Everything you said is invalid.” He then turns it into an argument about superheroes.


      His second favorite is “whine about ‘gamers’ like they actually exist as a coherent culture.” It’s always a laugh to see that.

  4. You’ve done great work here. In one of my heated debates with Shea (which he later came to wipe any trace of off his blog), he genuinely told me that he believed that the Mona Lisa (as well as 99.9% of all paintings, sculptures, songs, etc) are not good art because all the have going for is aesthetic merit, and aesthetic merit is subjective. I honestly wish I was lying about this, but I’m not. I’m pretty sure he’d say it himself, though, so there’s that.

    Basically, though, this man makes me laugh in his hypocrisy more than anything else. It doesn’t even have to be about games. He thinks the Penny Arcade people are scum because they made a rape joke about a fictional guy getting raped by a fiction being, but loves Spoony, despite the fact that he made a joke about chaining one of his colleagues to a pipe in his basement and raping her, something that she didn’t take in good fun.

    • Thank you kindly for the generous comments, Al – much appreciated.

      …And *yikes*. I’ve not heard of Spoony before, nor that particular incident, but (although I don’t want to make snap judgements) I think I might be glad to be in the dark for once.


      • For further information: I disagreed with Spoony’s stance on rape jokes and told him so, and stopped following him until it seemed like he was changing his mind.

        Al’s bringing this up because he thinks I’m a hypocrite for disliking Penny Arcade’s rape jokes but at the same time I talked to Spoony a few times. This is the crux of his argument.

  5. J.Shea.

    I suspect from your tone that we are reaching the end of our discussion – but as I said in my earlier comment, if your intent is to deride and dismiss texts without having any knowledge of them at all (as you revealed with your attack on Red Dead Redemption, Beyond Good and Evil, and Enslaved), then perhaps that is for the best.

    You asked me what possible themes (beside simply ‘violence’) big budget games can explore, and how they can be said to specifically use their game mechanics to make meaning; I gave you three random examples (there are innumerable more) and unpacked their possible interpretations. I am not sure what standard videogames have to live up to in order to satisfy you, but if you choose to limit yourself to shooters and funnelled violent experiences, and wilfully ignore the vast potentiality of this medium, you rather erode your own argument, and alienate yourself from the debate. Sure, in your opinion everything that you’ve seen is violent, illogical mush; but that is because you have chosen to seek out and play violent illogical mush (at least in your interpretation – as Spec Ops: The Line exhibits, I would, and have, taken issue with your analysis). The failure there is in your engagement with the medium, not the medium itself.

    I’m legitimately not trying to ‘lecture’ you – indeed, it is you who is dictating the categories into which all Art ‘must fall’ in order to be considered ‘true’ Art (that was why I responded to your blog in the first place). The point that I have been trying to express here is that videogames – and all Art – cannot be arbitrarily judged by objective, inapplicable standards such as those that you have submitted, and must be approached as a form of human expression on their own terms. You are attempting to castigate videogames for not being enough like movies, or literature, which makes absolutely no sense. That’s like saying Beethoven’s Symphony #5 is a terrible painting.

    Sadly, what you are exhibiting is the same prejudice that Roger Ebert famously expressed toward gaming. He held them to the specific dictates of film, and declared them wanting. Ebert (as he came to admit himself) simply did not have enough familiarity with the medium, and so was clumsily misapplying the ‘rules’ of one Art form onto another. What is peculiar about your stance is that you (unlike Ebert) clearly do play videogames, but are making the same mistake. As I would have presumed you would be no doubt aware, videogames do not operate like film, or literary fiction, or music, or visual art, or dance – they contain elements of each, and fluctuate these aspects in innumerable, immutable ways.

    I’ve used this analogy elsewhere, but any artistic engagement involves some suspension of disbelief. It’s why we can allow Faulkner’s uneducated characters to narrate their lives like Shakespearean kings; it’s why when we watch a movie we give allowances to naff details like 555-I-AM-A-FAKE-PHONE-NUMBER, and internal monologues, and let impossibly beautiful people like Natalie Portman and George Clooney pretend they are just Plain-Jane nobodies. We, as audience, become accustomed to these conventions, and so accept them freely. If your issue is that videogames require an extra level of dramatic suspension to justify some of their mechanics, perhaps it would help you to instead think of playing games in the manner that you would watch theatre. Watching theatre is foremost about forgetting that there should be a fourth wall blocking your view, or wondering why doorframes and backdrops look so shaky; and video games likewise operate under comparable structural parameters, where the demands of the game design sometimes necessitate some funnelling of the fiction.

    Beyond that, I’m really not sure what else I can offer you. And seeing as how you are willing to admit that videogames have the potential to make meaning in short, downloadable titles, or experimental interactive experiences, I truly have no idea why you would then go on to claim that longer games cannot logically do the same. It seems an utterly (almost farcically) churlish line in the sand to draw. Is short fiction Art, but long fiction is just trying to fill up pages? Are only short films Art, while longer films are just trying to justify their ticket price?

    I wish you luck in expanding your playing experience, J.Shea, and hopefully realising the rich bounty of other sensations and thematic expressions that gaming can provide, but it will require sloughing off some of the needlessly restricting demands that you have imposed upon both games and Art, and allowing yourself to appreciate what it is that they themselves have to say.

    • I don’t think he’s ever going to get it. If you go to his Twitter [https://twitter.com/ExpBelieve] and scroll down a bit and you’ll find this:

      “silent hill 2 is Interesting. SOTC is Interesting. dragon’s dogma is Interesting. it’s fun, but not actually deep or meaningful
      it has neat things that it explores but if you apply it to your real life you don’t get anything from it. it’s inferior in that regard”

      I cannot fathom what would lead someone to think this way.

    • Drayfish,

      If you’re going to be polite then I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be otherwise. Despite interference from others I think there’s still a common thread we can reach because apart from some minor differences I really don’t think we’re that different.

      Here is the primary difference between us, as I see it:

      I don’t value art for art’s sake. I think it can be “interesting” or “intriguing” or “entertaining” but I don’t think of it as having an intangible value. Here’s an article I wrote that, in its own way, explains why:


      I looked at 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand, a game that most dismissed as mindless, hateful violence based on its protagonist and its concept. From it, I drew a great number of themes and concepts that most of those people ignored – themes like the relation between a foreign ghetto and our own ghetto, or the way we look at violence, or the concept of materialism. The reason I did this was not because I thought 50 Cent BOTS was a subversive masterwork with a real lesson to convey but because I think you can do that with pretty much any game, movie, or film. All products can serve as commentary because all products are the result of a culture and the result of an author’s views.

      This is why when you say that Red Dead Redemption has a great number of themes beyond “violence” I both agree and disagree. Its STORY has these themes. Does its gameplay? I can remember one part of the game where I shot a person, intentionally, when I didn’t need to, and that was when I was playing as John Marston’s son and I was avenging him. However, this was followed up by an unfortunate event where I got a “mission failed” for shooting Marston’s killer in gameplay rather than shooting him in a quickdraw duel.

      Every other time I shot someone in the game, it took place in “game reality”, which is to say “not reality”. I’d mow down hundreds of people and take hundreds of bullets in return and it’d all be fine. Red Dead Redemption tells a story, but is the gameplay really part of it? Would Hotel Rwanda have been better with 8 hours of Paul shooting Hutus and being shot a bunch without flinching?

      Red Dead Redemption has an interesting story, but the story doesn’t really teach anything. It doesn’t make the player a better person or give them any more information to think about the world. The problem I have with this kind of games is that treating them like they are the pinnacle of achievement results in, well, gamers as they are now: people who feel no desire to learn more about the world they live in, people for whom empathy and compassion are concepts so alien that a game like Spec Ops has to drag it in front of them and tell them LOOK! BURNING PEOPLE ALIVE IS CRUEL as though most people didn’t already understand that.

      The thing about something being “meaningful” is that “meaning” is applied to reality, or else it doesn’t do anything. I actually work with kids for a living and I can tell you that there’s a pretty big difference between building empathy and humanity in people and “making them think”. Games like Unmanned, Dys4ia and The Republia Times are about putting the player IN THE SHOES of someone who does something considered alien by the average player. It allows them to ask themselves “what would I do in this situation” and develop empathy for that position – because they have BEEN in that position.

      Similarly, movies like Saving Private Ryan rely on the intensity of their experience to teach a lesson about war (a lesson that Al didn’t believe when I told him this, but there’s plenty of veterans who will attest to it http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/081598/met_2a1priva.html). The difference between SPR and Spec Ops is that SPR certainly has inaccuracies, but those are perceived as problems detrimental to the film’s overall goal of “making people understand what war is like”. In contrast, Spec Ops The Line teaches the player nothing about war and revels in doing so. One of these helps the player understand the world. The other doesn’t.

      Finally, and this is really the most important part: “art for art’s sake” is self-fulfilling. A person who really thinks that wouldn’t care what other people think. On the other hand, “art for a larger purpose” has a mission to it, and thus its proponents get justifiably angry when someone attempts to impede it. So what’s your “goal”? What purpose do you have? Does it help anyone besides yourself?

      In closing, I ask you to look up the works of Chinua Achebe, especially his perspective on “Art For Art’s Sake”. I think you’ll find my view is a lot less alien than you’d think.


      J Shea.

      • Some miscellaneous extras:

        As part of my job, I had to attend a meeting about reporting child sexual abuse & an in-depth seminar about the kind of damage that can result from it. This interrupted a conversation I was having with one of Al’s friends about whether or not rape jokes are okay (he thought they were okay & people offended by them shouldn’t demand apologies). Was a pretty stark contrast of experiences & thought it was worth mentioning; the split between “art doesn’t need to apologize” and the consequences of real issues.

        This article is pretty interesting because it critiques art for the things it fails to do rather than simply accepting the themes it’s working with as being valuable enough:

        And this artist changed his viewpoint about rape jokes when he realized that they were doing harm, and felt that there was a greater purpose to achieve with his art (ctrl-F “Samoa Victim Support Group”) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/06/arts/music/earl-sweatshirt-is-back-from-the-wilderness.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

        Thanks for listening.

      • “The problem I have with this kind of games is that treating them like they are the pinnacle of achievement results in, well, gamers as they are now: people who feel no desire to learn more about the world they live in, people for whom empathy and compassion are concepts so alien that a game like Spec Ops has to drag it in front of them and tell them LOOK! BURNING PEOPLE ALIVE IS CRUEL as though most people didn’t already understand that.”

        Wow, just like I predicted up there. The endless and needless straw-manning of “gamers”. It really is like clockwork. Also, as many, many, many people have told you, both on your personal blog and now here, Spec Ops is anti-military-shooter-games, not anti-real-life-war. This idea that “gamers” needed Spec Ops to tell them that “war is bad” is something you’ve fabricated yourself. Watch this video:

        Oh, and that James guy isn’t my friend. I don’t know him, and I think he’s a needlessly offensive loudmouth with some points that I happen to slightly agree with aspects of.

  6. Thank you for the more courteous and participatory response, J. Shea, but we still clearly have some points of fundamental disconnect.


    Well, yes, exactly as I previously explained at length, I perceive Red Dead Redemption to have a great deal to say about myth-making, historical redefinitions, cycles of destructive vengeance, and the profound shifting of a culture shedding its ‘frontiersman’ identity and embracing a more ‘civilised’ social order (with all of the hypocrisies and contradictions that such a shift entails). Yes, all of these elements play out in the fiction, but each of these aspects (as I earlier described) are all intimately tied to the gameplay also – how you as the player choose to interact with the text, and how the text enables and engages you the player on your passage through it.

    In numerous and profoundly resonant ways, the game reacts to your participation. There is a reputation meter that determines how people engage with you as you walk the land. There are choices that you can make in game about how ruthless or otherwise you want to be (do you kill the bounties or bring them in alive? do you help out the elderly Sister asking for money or tell her to move along? do you bother doing side missions to help out every wayward lost soul or blaze through the game on your mission of revenge?) Indeed, you cited the revenge that John Marsten’s son takes upon the man who betrayed his father – but this final act need not even be taken. You as player character can choose to avoid that showdown, and let the man live on, fulfilling your father’s wish that you not tumble down that path of criminality.

    (I would also point out – as I did in a previous comment – that no matter how many times you claim that Spec Ops: The Line glorifies or celebrates warfare and action, I would counter that actually playing the game itself rather undermines such a presumptive perspective. Over the course of the game the player character becomes entirely unhinged – crazed, afraid, and broken. This is not some power-fantasy bloodbath generator – it is a psychological account of a soldier’s complete deterioration in wartime, through the projected, expansive metaphor of a city brought to ruin. The janky controls make the game almost unplayable at times, leaving the experience necessarily laborious and repetitive to grind the player down; the story whips and pans into a self-assessment of the compulsion, both in player and text, to play through this nightmare… In comparison, I would argue that Saving Private Ryan, beside cornering the market on hyperbolic gore and chaos, degenerates into a rather generic hero quest that could honestly be swapped out with any ‘tragi-feel good’ war film. Indeed, if you needed a skull exploding in your face to tell you that ‘War is bad’, you may have a problem with your imagination.)


    Disappointingly, at this point you again appear to be fundamentally shifting your argument. You were criticising game narratives for being incapable of matching the cohesiveness of film, but are now saying that games fail because they lack sufficient choices and player input?

    But why? And how so? Does this mean that the only ‘valid’ form of gaming is when the player can do whatever they like at all times (like in real life) no matter what? That game systems and narrative structure must be breakable at every instance and allow for all possibilities, or else the medium itself is forfeit? Forgive me for saying, but that is completely fantastical. Games offer their audience opportunities for engagement and interaction on a scale unseen by arguably any other expressive form, but to declare that this therefore means that the only way that they can be considered ‘true’ Art is if they allow the player to do anything at any time is completely illogical – indeed, almost petulant.

    Nitpicking moments of ludonarrative dissonance (how come I can’t shoot that guy at the exact moment I want to? How come I can’t walk through this door until the game specifically wants me to?), although a valid discussion to have about notions of immersion in gaming, seems highly disingenuous to cite as a reason for why the game cannot be classified ‘Art’. That would be like claiming that Space Odyssey 2001 isn’t ‘Art’ because the monkeys look so fake at the beginning; or that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can’t be ‘Art’ because in its action a clock strikes the hour, and ancient Rome wasn’t so big on the clock-having.

    You seem to be once again imposing impossible standards so that you can declare games to have ‘failed’ to live up to a completely arbitrary, subjective rulebook. Saying that games must in every instance mirror the realities of life accurately or else they have failed to craft empathy is a nonsensical hypocrisy – particularly when films, literature, plays, visual Art, etc., all perform comparable creative allowances that require similar suspension of disbelief, and are able to create moving drama just fine.

    And gesturing toward the vagaries of a notion like ‘Art for a larger purpose’ to validate the wholesale disregard of texts that you subjectively feel have no purpose is woefully misguided. I mean, we are back in Plato’s Republic territory there: anything that might be harmful to the development of the ideal human soul should be discarded as worthless or banned.

    Who exactly is to say what truth a specific piece of Art speaks, and what is therefore ‘worthy’ of discussion? You?

    This is the kind of rote, pompous catch-cry that people have used for countless generations to simplistically dismiss all Art that they see as ‘frivolous’ in the face of ‘genuine’ established mediums and subject matter. It’s why novels were once seen as unworthy, a distraction for the idle. Or why all graphic novels were dismissed as gratuitous nonsense. Or why jazz and rock and rap and on and on, have all at one time been maligned for being vacuous drivel. It is – again – precisely what so irked me about your original post: the arrogant presumption that one person can dictate what Art ‘is’, what it should purport to ‘be’, and why it is possible to systematically dismiss certain works, mediums, or themes into the trash can of mindless entertainment.

    Sadly, such a sentiment, and all of the narrow, generalised presumption that it encapsulates, says far more about you as a critic and audience member, than it does about either Art or videogames.

  7. (My apologies, because I thought that I had already included this somewhere in my previous comments, but reading through again realised I was mistaken…)

    For anyone who is in fact interested in considering arguments for the potential of videogames to be considered Art that extends beyond arbitrary, wholly subjective personal preference, I would encourage you to explore some of these discussions:

    ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’ by Henry Jenkins (http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/games&narrative.html)

    Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, and his infrequent articles at Grantland (http://www.grantland.com/contributor/_/name/tom-bissell)

    Also, one might like to consider the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that engages this question directly.

    A quote from Paola Antonelli, a Senior Curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), discussing their recent exhibition on the videogame medium:

    ‘Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design. In order to develop an even stronger curatorial stance, over the past year and a half we have sought the advice of scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians, and critics, all of whom helped us refine not only the criteria and the wish list, but also the issues of acquisition, display, and conservation of digital artifacts that are made even more complex by the games’ interactive nature. This acquisition allows the Museum to study, preserve, and exhibit video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.’


  8. […] like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously: https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/no-more-vegetables-until-you-eat-your-dessert-why-art-is-fu…).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon […]

  9. Shame the conversation between you and Shea got muddled because I honestly think you have more in common than not. He just has a certain stand-offish tone than can be off-putting but his arguments are fairly sound

    • Thank you for the comment, Ocelotl – that’s very kind of you to say. (And I love the name!)

      I’d like to think that Shea and I could have had a more productive discourse, but I’m afraid I’m not as hopeful about the possibility.

      Despite what some who call themselves ‘commentators’ or ‘critics’ might say, I think the most important point of offering an opinion to the world is accepting that you may well be wrong, but that you are inquisitive and willing enough to accept other points of view if they are convincing. In Shea’s case, I think his combative, reductive style of argument actually gets in the way of that possibility. He seems to have already unshakably made up his mind about any subject he speaks to, and seems more interested in riling up those that disagree than having an actual discussion. So much so, in fact, that he’s frequently willing to boil complex issues down into convenient clichés and deride texts that he’s never even experienced, just because he has some preconceived idea. And that, to me, is extremely poor form for a critic.

      More importantly though, after reading your very kind comment, I did go back to check out his blog, and I say this very seriously: I’m actually a little worried for him. His last several recent posts seem to swing between petulantly confrontational baiting – as if he’s daring someone to bite back at him to prove all his worst suspicions – and something legitimately, despairingly depressive.

      Truly, I’m in no way joking or making light about this: if you are a friend of his, you might want to check that he’s okay. A couple of those posts, in which he’s conflating people playing videogames and watching television with the end of all that is good in the world, are seriously worrying.

      Maybe (hopefully) I’m wrong, but I didn’t read them as playful hyperbole. They strike me more as the product of someone who has so isolated themself from discussion that they are relying upon a reactionary persecution complex as a means of giving themself definition. And that’s terrifying.

      In particular, he now seems to be describing all videogames – and anyone who might see worth in them – as unsalvageable engines of human misery and despair. And that’s a dark place to be. So, unless he’s joking (and if he is, I admit it’s a gag I don’t get), I’m not sure why anyone would want to inflict that upon themself. Especially when the only result of such a crusade seems to be that he is becoming more hostile and paranoid, and more stubbornly convinced that there’s nothing left to hope for.

      But again, hopefully I’m wrong, and it’s just a weird ‘bit’ that he’s doing that loses something in translation.

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