Art vs Entertainment

This may be somewhat repetitive considering some of my recent posts, but I have once again run accross a popular video game designer who bristles at the thought of video games as art. At GDC, there was apparently a "Rants" panel where various guests ranted about one aspect of the industry or another. Some of the rants include concerns about the way people write about games, metacritic scores, character diversity in games, and the uselessness of the old "hardcore" and "casual" labels. However, the most controversial and most-discussed rant was made by Heather Chaplin:
She argued that games' age is not the correct source of blame for the often insultingly juvenile nature of games, the tiresome prevalence of space marines, bikini girls and typified young male power fantasies. Her point: Games aren't adolescent. It's game developers who are a bunch of, in her words, "fucking adolescents."
Obviously, this raised some eyebrows (to put it nicely) in the audience. Game designer David Jaffe (perhaps best known for his work on God of War) wrote a long response on his blog and among many points, he included this (emphasis mine):
I think a mistake folks make- in any medium- is assuming we all want to be artistically relevant and important in the eyes of the intelligencia (sp?) of the world. I have to tell you: I think THAT desire is adolescent and spews from a place of need and want and lack of faith in ones own creative powers. And- most important- it gets in the way of creating truly great work (be it film, games, or books).

I don't WANT to be an artist. I don't WANT to make REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: THE GAME! I don't want to be the Bob Dylan of games or make the Citizen Kane of games. I want to entertain people and I do not apologize for that. I don't NEED or WANT to go lecture at MIT or USC or any of these other game colleges that have been cranking out some amazing game makers who truly are key in the 'games as art' charge. As much as I love the work of THAT GAME COMPANY (and very much enjoyed your NPR interview last week with them) and as much as I admire work of Jonathan Blow and all the other folks who make the quirky, arty, and yes- perhaps- more meaningful games, I do not want to BE them. And I think I speak for the majority of game makers everywhere when I say that.
This is the third time I've come on this blog and pointed to a renowned video game designer who has basically said that the games they create are not "art". What's going on here? One of the things each of these guys has mentioned is that their true goal is to make games that entertain people. The struggle seems to be that for whatever reason, art is not equated with entertainment... indeed, it seems like most video game designers are worried about art ruining the entertainment value of their games.

This is an interesting conjecture. When it comes to the Are Video Games Art? debate, movies are often brought up as a comparison point (perhaps due to the visual and auditory nature of both mediums). And in the movie business today, there also seems to be something of a schism between "art films" and "popular films". I'm not sure when this happened (perhaps I'm only now coming to this conclusion after a lifetime of watching film and seeking out new and different material, including foreign and so-called art films), but it seems to be very pronounced today, particularly in the independent movie world. A lot of mainsteam Hollywood fare is focus-grouped to death and neutered to a point where no one can be offended by the result (I don't think the degree to which this happens is as large as most though, and think there are plenty of examples to the contrary). You end up with something bland that is made to appeal to everyone, and as such, it appeals to no one in particular. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your typical independent or artistic film which often seems to revel in the freedom to be provocative and controversial (these are often studio pictures too). These are films that revel in self-loathing and "challenge the popular paradigm of dominant culture" or something along those lines. As such, a lot of these films come off as being pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap. Yes, yes, you're exploring non-traditional narrative structure whilst deconstructing the nature of capitalism and the suburbs, but your film is boring. In other words, I don't think it's an accident that Jaffe used "REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: THE GAME" as his example.

What I just described as mainstream and independent or artistic films are basically stereotypes. Most films probably don't fit much into either category, but I think the stereotype does hold a place in current public perception of the film world. I find this interesting, because video games are similar in a lot of ways. There is an indie movement in video games, and they are roughly analogous to the indie film movement. So perhaps it's not surprising that mainstream designers like Jaffe don't want to be called "artists". For whatever reason, "art" has been equated with pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap. Who wants to be that?

The comparison of video games to film also brings the usual questions, most famously, where is the video game equivalent to Citizen Kane? In a recent article, Leigh Alexander wonders if that's really what video games need.
There's nothing wrong with craving watershed moments for video games, of course. But problem with the Citizen Kane question, as with other similar demands, is that it's begun to reverberate wildly without any practical follow-through on what the answer might look like.

Being dissatisfied with the status quo is easy -- proposing practical alternatives or concrete answers isn't. ...

"It's a red herring, because we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy, but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore," says renowned designer and academic Ian Bogost.

If more internet commentators did a quick Wikipedia check before leaping into the debate, they'd see that the Citizen Kane issue is moot, anyway. Although its cinema technique helped movies fully come into their own, films were generally considered "artistically legitimate" right off the bat, so there's really no translatable parallel for games.

"The world doesn't work that way anymore," says Bogost.
I think Bogost has hit the nail on the head here. Back when movies began appearing, "art" hadn't been deconstructed to death, so it wasn't really a question. But since video games were invented after people started challenging the nature of art (and painting stuff like Campbell's Soup Cans and calling it art, to pick an entirely arbitrary example), they're held up to extra scrutiny.

It's also interesting to consider that Citizen Kane is not very entertaining by itself. For film enthusiasts, it's an extremely important and fascinating film because it gathered a bunch of existing techniques, invented some new ones, and mashed it all together to tell a story in a new and exciting way. However, if you're not a film history buff, you'd be bored to tears. What made Citizen Kane great has been appropriated, improved upon and contextualized over the years to a point where most people won't see anything new and exciting in the film. For example, audiences at the time were wowed by Orson Welles' use of flashbacks and deep focus. Today, you won't even notice it because those things are a part of the standard movemaking toolkit. You've seen it a thousand times. So to me, Citizen Kane is an important movie because of the techniques it used, not the story it told. To truly enjoy Citizen Kane, you have to really be invested in the cultural and historical context in which it was produced. Video games have most probably had a series of Kane-like innovations over the years. Perhaps they were spread out over a multitude of games, but when you consider the evolution of games, well, we've come a long way. I'm probably not knowledgeable enough about video games to say for sure, but stuff like Wolfenstein and Doom (popularizing the FPS format) and GTA III (with its open-ended sandbox world) could very well represent Kane-like leaps.

Honestly, I still don't understand the people who question the legitimacy of games as art, and I think all that questioning has driven a wedge between art and entertainment. To be sure, those are two different things, but to me, the best art is entertaining too (and vice versa). The problem is that when you equate art with pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap (as many people apparently do), it drives designers who are interested in entertaining people to eschew art. The question I'm left with is this: If there was no question that games were art, would game designers be producing better games?