Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 21

Are we there yet?


I've purposely avoided the "games as art" debate lately. I hit the topic pretty hard in the early days of the blog because at the time it seemed like a fresh conversation worth having. It's still an interesting subject, but I find myself growing weary of the familiar pleas for cultural validation, many of which strike me as essentially defensive and a little desperate.

Leigh Alexander recently suggested we tend to overvalue artsy games like Flower in an effort to prove games have finally reached the promised land of cultural legitimacy. I think she goes too far when she describes our responses to Flower as somehow forced or unauthentic. I purposely reigned in my enthusiasm for Flower when I wrote about it, fearing my affection for the game would be seen as lavish fanboyism. But I think her general point is well taken. We often seem to fall all over ourselves in praise of games that emerge from the cookie-cutter mold of mediocrity, and I'm probably as guilty as anyone on that count. I tend to avoid writing about games that make no impression on me (that's most games, actually) preferring to focus on the ones that provoke me in some way, which probably skews my attention toward games I like.

Lots of us are invested in arguing the case for games - as art, as a subject worthy of academic study, as learning and literacy tools, as cultural artifacts worth preserving, etc. - but I've come to believe games make their case most persuasively when we enable people - doubters and believers alike - to play and discover them first-hand. If we can then persuade them to take just one more step: to interpret their experience in a personal way, I believe we've gone as far as we're likely to go in making that case.

Two games prove this point to me most clearly: Flower and Far Cry 2. In the case of Flower, I introduced the game to a group of people, gamers and non-gamers alike, at a recent house party. I loaded up the game with almost no introduction and simply handed the controller to a person standing next to me. Over the next hour we all played the game, or watched it being played, passing around the controller, and talking as we went along. Most had never seen such a game before, and within minutes people were describing how it felt, comparing it to other experiences (both game and non-game), and ascribing meaning or emotion to various actions.

Leaving aside the question of whether Flower is a "deep" game, a "zen" game, or even a narrative game, these players clearly formed their own impressions of what Flower was "trying to say" and what Flower was enabling them to do with no encouragement from me. They responded to it much like one responds to a painting or a poem. They dug into it for beauty, for emotion, and for meaning because they felt sufficiently provoked to do so. Under these circumstances, asking "But is it art?" seemed ridiculous to me.

My experience with Far Cry 2 was more interesting and personally valuable. I wrote about the game because it had exasperated me, and I wondered aloud if I had somehow missed the point or focused on the wrong things. The answers that came back fascinated me because many of them strove to account for deeply personal experiences derived by persevering through situations, environments, and gameplay that express an overarching nihilist philosophy. As Mitch Krpata put it:

What Far Cry 2 does is embrace the vacuum at the core of your character's personality, instead of trying to conceal it as so many other games do. This is something that I personally found refreshing. The reason I cared is because the game didn't try to fool me into caring. I wasn't trying to fix this place. I was getting destroyed along with it. That's a brave angle to take.

Nels Anderson put it this way:

FC2 is a bit confusing because the environment is so real and tangible, but the people that inhabit it are (hopefully deliberately) not. They're shallow, replaceable and don't behave realistically. But they're not supposed to, because they're archetypes or foils instead of simulacra of real people.

These cogent responses (and others I could have noted) are both personal and richly interpretive. They differ from my own, and they challenge me to reconsider what this game means and why my experience was so different. Most importantly, these interpretations are largely based on experiences received and deliberated on via gameplay. In other words, while both commenters were affected by the formal narrative aspects of Far Cry 2, most of their interpretive reflections on the game were derived from being in the game and driving their own experiences.

Mitch and Nels aren't trying to explain the meaning of Far Cry 2's story. They're trying to convey a significantly more personally derived meaning drawn from a collection of experiences that occurred inside Far Cry 2's game world. This kind of individualized subjective reflection is characteristic of how we respond to art. And these responses suggest a particular reception to art that is unique to video games.

If we want to make the case for games as art, this is how it must happen, in my view. We can endlessly theorize and contextualize games - and I think we should - but precious few souls will be converted by reading passionate apologia for games detached from the uniquely personal experience of playing them. That is how we know things, and that is why all art is interactive.