State of the Art – “A Play of Reason”
The years pass, and I keep hearing the same tiresome things – “videogames need to be fun and good videogames are fun”. Such blabber is repeated ad nauseam, as if each and every repetition would grant increased strength to such arguments. When it comes to reason, there is no strength in numbers, I’m afraid. Refined versions of this dogma are constantly discovered and implicitly subscribed by all (for example, the absurd idea that fun would actually be a synonym of a wide breadth of emotion) with very few dissenters shunning this perverse logic of mindless hedonism. The other ubiquitous dogma is that “videogames are art”, and that there is nothing to stop them from being so, since they are the product of human creativity, have aesthetic value, exist in a medium, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc, etc. These two beliefs are usually feverously defended by the same people, though they are rarely discussed in tandem. With this article, I decided to elucidate on why these two are incompatible, using a very simple rhetorical discourse. I am consciously avoiding, as much as possible, the discussion of “what is art” given that it is a hugely complex question which I am more than incapable of addressing without sitting on the shoulders of far greater men than me. And please take this exercise with a grain of salt.
So, let’s have fun with some logical play and see where it leads us, shall we? Let’s start with some axioms!
Axiom 1a. Music need not be fun. Axiom 1b. Great Music isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 2a. Dance need not be fun. Axiom 2b. Great Dance isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 3a. Painting need not be fun. Axiom 3b. Great Painting isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 4a. Sculpture need not be fun. Axiom 4b. Great Sculpture isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 5a. Architecture need not be fun. Axiom 5b. Great Architecture isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 6a. Literature need not be fun. Axiom 6b. Great Literature isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 7a. Theatre need not be fun. Axiom 7b. Great Theatre isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 8a. Photography need not be fun. Axiom 8b. Great Photography isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 9a. Film need not be fun. Axiom 9b. Great Film isn’t so because it is fun.
If these axioms are accepted, then by the simple power of deduction, we can establish the following:
Traditional artistic mediums, also named Art or fine art, have been established as sharing a number of defining and qualitative properties which do not intrinsically possess any relationship whatsoever to the word fun, its semantics or any popular understanding of the word.
Ergo, regarding the following popular propositions:
1a. Videogames need to be fun. 1b. Great Videogames are so because they are fun.
2. Videogames belong in the realm of the arts, to be placed alongside Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Literature, Theatre, Photography and Film.
The first clause, part a, establishes that “fun” is a sine qua non quality of videogames, needed for their definition. Part b proposes that “fun” is also a quality that should necessarily be pursued, as it establishes not only form, but value, and as consequence, function. The second is merely a statement that Videogames should be seen as a new object whose categorization falls in line with the same properties as those of the Art mediums. This assumes that, while not entirely the same, there must be a sufficient amount of similar properties between them, both in form and quality, that allow for the establishment of a pattern that is common to all these elements.
Thus, we can say that either
- Videogames do not belong, substantially, to the group definable as Art, and thus Proposition 2 is revoked, on account of different classification and valuable criteria pertaining to Videogames, namely the “fun” criterion. Videogames should therefore be inscribed in either a previously established category, say ‘play’ or ‘game’, or be presented with a previously inexistent category of artifact, for example, ‘game-art’.
- Videogames, to be Art, are defined and valued according to other criteria that have aught to do with fun, therefore allowing for a transposition of similar properties from previous artistic mediums, in the process revoking Proposition 1. As corollary, much of what has been written in academia and journalism about Videogames would be wrong and should instead have complied to different standards of definition and qualitative assessment, mostly as adaptations and expansions of similar criteria present in Art, completely outside the realm of “fun”. This means that “fun” can be present but its presence or lack thereof is besides any point that can be made about the videogame medium.
- Both proposition 1 and 2 are correct, which therefore must entail a complete overhaul of thinking regarding what is traditionally considered Art, including canonically held properties. Given the stark contrast between those of Videogames and the aforementioned mediums, then the very concept of Art which was explicitly or implicitly contained in the acceptance of such mediums as Art must be revoked. And so, we enter a Paradox, since we established these as axioms in the first place. This does not mean that Propositions 1 and 2 are false, merely that, if they are true, we must re-define Art from the ground up, looking to our past in the light of a new conception for the word and its semantics.
Now, simply take your pick. As anyone who reads this blog might have guessed, my position on the matter is that the second option is my personal answer, though 1 and 3 are equally as defendable.
- is a skeptical and otherwise very wise conclusion, which I feel is typically made by traditional art scholars (among them, if I accurately understand his position, my friend dieubussy), who do not accept that something so enrooted in ‘games’ and ‘play’ could ever be conceived as art proper. There is much to backup this idea, including a lot of ideas from previous articles of mine (some being available in this blog).
- basically revolves around the idea that we must refund all the knowledge on what defines and constitutes value in the Videogame medium, with the consequence of the term videogame itself being obsolete (for a wide number of reasons again previously discussed). Known proponents of this current are the ‘notgame’ movement and probably even some rogue narratologists and simulationists (these are extremely reductionist terms, they merely serve to illustrate what they defend, in abstract).
- as I see it, is the contemporary consensual answer from inside the medium. It is the way almost all scholars (from all areas) and journalists and players perceive the problem. The idea is, to put it in simplistic terms, that the many elites that defined the Arts in the past were wrong, and what we now need is a more open, free, popular and accessible interpretation of what constitutes Art, one which validates Videogames and their ‘fun’ (and most likely, many other mediums).
P.S. I’m sure many of you will find a number of fallacies in this reasoning. Please, point them out.