The Art of Criticism

This is a significant deviation from what I normally write about here, and for that I apologize. However, I felt so strongly, and devoted so much thought to this that I felt compelled to comment. I thank you for your indulgence.

A few months ago, a well-known critic stated, in no uncertain terms, that video games are not art. More specifically, “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form”. And while this isn’t the first time he has posited this theory, it is the first time he has expanded upon it at any length. Predictably, gamers, game journalists, and our beloved developers, nearly the entire gaming biosphere worked itself into a bit of a frenzy and yet another round of the endless debate reared it’s ugly head.

I would agree that I’m late to this particular conversation; except for the fact that I’m not going to contribute to that conversation. I’m not going to comment on the “Games as Art is-sue” (as Patrick Stewart would pronounce it). Arguably, I’m not qualified. I have no degree in Art History, Film Theory, or any of the Fine Arts (though a B.S. in Photography does help a little bit). Except that I’m human, with free will, the capacity for (somewhat) intelligent thought, and opinion.

What prompts me to write this now, so long after the fact, is the contents of this month’s Game Informer. I’m a long-time subscriber, and always look forward to receiving my copy in the mail. Though the Web has in many ways usurped the role of traditional print media, I find that the GI editors and staff do a terrific job of providing real value, and good reason, to subscribe to this particular print periodical. In short, I’m a fan.

My concern is that this month, GI devoted eight pages to presenting a counter-argument to Mr. Critic’s invalidation of games as an art form. The article, in my opinion, presents some very strong arguments about the value of games as a form of artistic expression, pointing to some of our field’s best examples – Braid, Heavy Rain, Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Brothers. But this is futile at best, and I found it waste of eight pages; except as a means to highlight the redeeming features of the games mentioned. In their defense, just previous to this article they presented an interview with Ken Levine of Irrational Games, discussing the “Games as Art is-sue”; fortunately, in this interview, Mr. Levine is the voice of reason. He states:

“We don’t owe anything to anybody. The future of entertainment is being envisioned not just by the games industry, but by a confluence of developers and gamers…And we’re just getting started.”

And this is exactly the point I’m trying to make; not that games are Art, or that they’re not, but that we shouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. We don’t owe anything to the developers and critics of other industries, especially not a justification of our endeavors. All GI accomplished was to engage Mr. Critic’s discourse, on his level and by his terms, when the only appropriate response is to ignore him.

Quite frankly, I was astounded. My only thought was, “Why are we talking about this? Are we so desperate for approval that we’ll vigorously take on any and all who level criticism at our field?

The driving need for validation should be obvious; developers invest a great deal of their time, energy, and creativity in producing games, and gamers invest a lot of their time, energy, and emotions in the games they play. This includes journalists, who devote their working lives to something we all love. Like any other field, we want to feel that our time is spent on something of value. What confuses me is why we seek validation from outside sources, when what really matters is how we feel. We can decry him as “out of touch” or irrelevant, but our manic desire for approval is exactly why Mr. Critic has any chance for commentary, and why he gets any attention from us at all; we hand him the keys with a simpering smile.

Art imitates Life...

And while I struggle with whether or not to say anything about Games as Art (besides a who cares? with rolling eyes), I will state this: I would argue with Mr. Critic’s fundamental premise that any of his approved forms of expression are Art. I stand with Plato and Aristotle; The Arts, both those popularly recognized and those that have yet to receive acknowledgment, are derivations at best. Pale imitations when compared to the world that surrounds us and is the only source of true beauty. How can even the works of the Masters compare to the perfection of even the most basic flower, the smile and laughter of a child, or the awe inspired by standing on a beach at sunrise? Let me be clear – I do not prescribe to any formal religion or system of beliefs. But (and not to sound cliche) I do consider myself to be a spiritually grounded person. I do believe in forces beyond our physical perceptions which nonetheless have real influence on the corporeal World, whether they be conscious or not. Nothing we as humans can create even approaches them, we can only interpret.

So we’re left with subjectivity when it comes to defining Art, and again I must ask, why are we even talking about this? If no one can point to a single, authoritative definition of Art, then how does Mr. Critic consider himself even remotely capable of contributing to any conversation about video games? He can’t.

But the truth is, unfortunately, that people are going to have this conversation whether we participate in it or not. Whether we, having invested so much of ourselves in gaming, like it or not. Whether they’re qualified or not. The title of this post has an important distinction that I make very consciously; criticism, not critique. Critique is constructive, and results from a position of informed opinion. Criticism is neither of these things, is far easier, and hence preferable for those who find themselves floundering, or drowning, in the currents of modern culture. It’s easy to sit in the nosebleed section and proclaim yourself an authority. But if you want to be taken seriously, get on the field and show us that you’re a participant, not a spectator.

I have this piece of advice for the pundits who want to classify games as Art: until you pick up a controller or sit behind a keyboard, and put in your time, I don’t find your opinion useful. Unless you’ve invested yourself in experiencing even a fraction of the depth and breadth that video games have to offer, to the point where you can discuss them intelligently, both their strengths and their shortcomings, then I suggest you opt for the better part of valor and quietly bow out of the conversation. When a 68-year-old man, who has admittedly spent less than a full working day engaged in this specific form of entertainment, loudly proclaims its validity (or lack thereof), it is not an informed opinion; it is a grab for attention and a vain attempt to regain relevance which he has increasingly seen diminish.

To my fellow gamers, both developers and players, I have this: the important question is not “Are games art?”. Even acknowledging that question, let alone trying to answer it, only lends credibility to our detractors. You open the door for them by trying to answer, because you give the impression that we care about their answer. And there is no answer to that question. None worth saying.

The question we should be asking is, “Are games something of value?


2 responses to “The Art of Criticism

  1. Oh god, I’m so sick of “that critic” and his views on video games as art or not art 😛

    I think you hit the nail on the head here…really, who cares as long as the individual is having fun? Playing games can evoke all kinds of feelings from us, and if it’s enjoyable then that’s all that matters. And if you ask me, the fact that people can experience games in so many different ways is what makes it art for me, personally.

    • I agree. The fact that he admits to never having even tried video games should discredit him entirely. If I were to try to stand myself up as a film critic, despite having watched countless movies, he’d laugh me off my soapbox. But somehow he thinks he can comment on video games.

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