May 21, 2009

Games: the black hole of art

So much creative talent goes into video games these days, but the downside is that games are something you either do or you don't, so there's little in the way of reverberations in the rest of society.

This isn't just an old fogey picking on young folks' video games either. This is also true of my favorite minor art form, golf course architecture, another game-based art. It has been practiced on an aesthetically high level in the U.S. for a century now, since Charles Blair MacDonald's National Golf Links of America emerged on Long Island in 1909. But, what does any non-golfer know or care about golf course architecture?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

36 comments:

R J Stove said...

Well, sir, you made us care about golf course architecture, in your American Conservative feature on the subject.

clem said...

This is also true of my favorite minor art form, golf course architecture....

Misread that as having to do with the architecture of miniature golf courses, and was genuinely surprised that anyone would want that "game-based art form" to reverberate into the surrounding society.

Sorry--off to see Spinal Tap's "Unwigged and Unplugged" tour tonight, and seem to already be in the right frame of mind.

"Stonehenge! Where a man's a man!"

Half Sigma said...

20 million or so people have experience the art of World of Warcraft, that's a lot of people.

Anonymous said...

The wii thingy seems interesting to me. I dont play video games (time), but have friends that love them.

If I could get up and move while playing them with a "virtual" sword or something......they might be more fun.

Some of the guys and I played paintball for a while a few years ago out in the woods in winter (when the snakes are hibernating), and it was a hell of a lot of fun, and suprisingly good excercise. If a video game could give the same kind of experience, they might be more of a go. It sure as hell would beat watching American Idol or DWTS or Survivor.



Note: I have had the opportunity to be on one of those "NASCAR"-simulators where they put you in a model car that "moves" along with your motions on the virtual track, full of other cars/drivers. You have a steering wheel, brake, accellerator, gears, etc. It was exhausting on certain tracks (you could pick which track: Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona). Your car "moved" according to what you were doing "out there" and would get "lighter" when you were losing traction (taking a curve too fast). What was suprising was how intense you had to concentrate the -entire- time you were out there. Even during the straight-aways, you are having to "race" and think ahead about what you are doing, how you are going to "get high" for the next curve while attempting to screen someone out of the way, and hoping you can draft someone in front of you in the next straight-away so you might be able to pass him, all the while worrying about the cars right behind you trying to pass you. If you weren't careful someone ahead of you wrecks and wastes several laps of good moves on your part...............and you think "damned! I was running such a good race, had plenty of fuel, and a good car, and had a good bump draft partner for the dog-leg part of the track!!!". If video games could simulate that experience at home, I think many more would probably get into the things.

From what Ive been able to tell with my limited contact with them, most games are "shoot-em-ups" where a player "creates" a character, goes into a virtual world on screen and obtains more potions, bulletts, spells, throwing stars, bombs, energy level, whatever, for that character to be able to be competitive at higher and higher levels of the game. Talking to other players with "established" characters eggs the players on through teasing camaraderie, so they "get into" the virtual world and end up going on the internet and "buying" extra potions, spells, bullets, and the like from online dealers who meet them "in game" and help them cheat by getting the characteristics for their player without putting the time in to get the stuff they need. This turned into such a time consuming hobby for a fishing buddy of mine, that his wife ended up putting time limits on how much time he could spend in his "computer-room-dungeon", and futhermore dissallowed him from getting up at 2 in the morning and going in there until 4 AM. He got -that- into it.

M

Anonymous said...

Some magnificent stuff in the (in-game, you can look around and everything! :P) scene-setting execution/middle-eastern revolution video from CoD4.

Having a character under your control being executed is somewhat novel, too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeKq1SMBZ5g

But yeah, videogames - while absorbing huge creative talent, aren't connected to status (other than negatively). So they can't really be considered art.

Also, they have many other social implications, that I think we are just beginning to understand.

Guts Strongman said...

I fail to see the grounds for drawing a distinction between games and other art-forms. As Auden wrote, "Poetry makes nothing happen". To flesh out this post, I'd like to see how culture influences life, as opposed to influencing other forms of culture.

If you're content to say that art influences other art, though, then video games are already influential. Video games have clearly influenced the movies. For example, see your review of "Not Country for Old Men".

More broadly, games influence the people who play them by informing their mindset. They say that violent games make people more aggressive, and I reply "correct, games make people better."

Anonymous said...

try for a (Jane Harrison steal) dromenos- a game that is a done thing.

Steve said...

You remind me of a blog post a while back, where it was mentioned that more people play World of Warcraft in the USA than work as farmers, yet farmers are seen as more authentically American.

testing99 said...

Steve --

A couple of things about Games.

1. They are substitution for entertainment not provided by TV/Movies, which are mostly a female/gay ghetto.

2. They are price sensitive, you've seen no doubt the WSJ articles on earnings pressure for EA and online competitors gaining with no-frills NFL/Baseball style games. In the recession male spending on games is declining rapidly.

3. They are ultimately dependent on demographics just like Golf.

Golf will decline because it's a fairly elite sport/past-time, i.e. it requires disposable income (cheapest round here in OC is Riverview Golf around $39) and middle/upper class status. This in turn requires a fairly large population.

Population declines means Golf in this country will suffer the same fate as skiing (in trouble since the early 1990's, due to demographics), Tennis, and other sports requiring a high base population to get enough upper income folks to participate.

In comparison, games are cheaper. A single video game can be played forever, basically, and can be traded in within a year on various sites or retail places for some $$. Video games are probably more reflective of demographic reality: declining (White) populations with fewer people to socialize with, more solitary activities.

Jokah Macpherson said...

I worked in golf course maintenance on the RTJ one summer but have never played, so I guess I know a little.

Anonymous said...

The supposed art in videogames is highly overrated. The writing is about on the same level as 2nd rate science fiction or 3rd rate manga. The writing is actually limited by the medium itself because gamers are more interested in the gameplay than the story. They do not want to read loads of text even if it furthers the story because it detracts from the proactive aspect of gaming. Gamers want to play a fun game, not read a visual novel.

As for the visuals... Yes, it does take a lot of creative effort to stylize the CGI or draw the anime scenes but again, this is limited by the medium. Innovation is too dependent on technology. A game may have great graphics today and may be praised on its art direction but next year, something graphically better will inevitably come along and render today's graphically superior game obsolete. If anime/manga art is your thing, then you won't find any innovation in videogames but in the original genre.

Appreciation. It is possible to appreciate the art form of golf architecture even if you are not an avid golfer and I assume many golfers do appreciate that art form. The same is not true vis-a-vis gamers and videogames. They appreciate the gameplay and they mostly replay old games for the nostalgic effect. The story may play a role but it is not the most significant. Gamers cannot appreciate the art of the actual game such as the story and artwork. The music can be appreciated and the relative success of videogame OST sales proves this but this too is limited by the medium (e.g. some of the tracks are too short and most are instrumental).

Overall, I would say the problem with "art" in videogames can be found not so much in the fact that only gamers can appreciate it but with the medium itself.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone really care or pay attention to "art" these days anyway? What part of the "art scene" is reverberating across the culture? As far as I can tell the only way art is entering the culture is through movies and graphic design.

Michael said...

But maybe more people should care about the aesthetics of videogames. And maybe more people should wake up to and appreciate the wonders of golf-course design.

William James Tychonievich said...

Aren't reading novels, listening to symphonies, etc., also things "you either do or you don't"? With a few exceptions (architecture, fashion design), art doesn't generally have much direct effect on people who don't choose to involve themselves.

Sid said...

Video games age far too quickly for most of them to withstand the test of time. Pacman and Super Mario Brothers are still enjoyable for their simplicity, but games made even ten years ago are almost unplayable for sheer entertainment value. It's not even a visual matter, either; gameplay from most older games are just too archaic for modern gamers to enjoy.

The major plus, though, with games aesthetically is that actually controlling the hero's actions makes the player identified with the hero. It makes the experiences feel more direct, personal and engaging. It might not make a game timeless, but it explains why games have such immediate resonance for gamers.

Anonymous said...

How many years did it take cinema to fully flesh out into a true art form? Films were created in the 19th century but it wasn't until perhaps D.W. Griffith and others after him that film matured in a fully fleshed out art form.

Topiary Utopia said...

"The supposed art in videogames is highly overrated. The writing is about on the same level as 2nd rate science fiction or 3rd rate manga. The writing is actually limited by the medium itself because gamers are more interested in the gameplay than the story."

This is true. However, it could be argued that it is in gameplay, not in narrative, where the true artistic content of games resides.

"Video games age far too quickly for most of them to withstand the test of time. Pacman and Super Mario Brothers are still enjoyable for their simplicity, but games made even ten years ago are almost unplayable for sheer entertainment value. It's not even a visual matter, either; gameplay from most older games are just too archaic for modern gamers to enjoy."

Mmmm... old games like Dani Bunten's M. U. L. E., while not widely played by the general public nowadays, are still regarded by people in the industry as masterpieces of game design. Also, Star Control II came out in 1992 and it still can played and enjoyed. Ditto for role-playing classics like Ultima VII.

Mr. Anon said...

"Guts Strongman said...

Video games have clearly influenced the movies."

Yes, but not for the good. Special effects are now, for the most part, crap. They used to add to a movie (like the original "Star Wars") - now they subtract from it (any of the new "Star Wars" movies, or "Lord of the Rings" - which just looked like a video game).

There are a few exceptions, however. I thought that the CGI effects in "Master and Commander" were outstanding. Likewise in "Zodiac". You may not be aware that they even used CGI in "Zodiac" - they did - and quite extensively - to recreate the look of San Francisco in the late 60's /early 70's.

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

To flesh out this post, I'd like to see how culture influences life, as opposed to influencing other forms of culture.

That's really one of the more insightful questions I've ever read.

The supposed art in videogames is highly overrated. The writing is about on the same level as 2nd rate science fiction or 3rd rate manga.

And thus you rate manga higher than science fiction? Hmmmm...

Anonymous said...

Games can also be a great educational tool. I learned more about economics, geography, history, from video games than I ever learned in school (pre-college). I'm not just talking about "educational" games either.

pzed said...

apparently you're in the minority steve. according to the npd group, 63% of americans played a video game in the past 6 months while only 53% of them went out to watch a movie. i'd say you need to branch out.

and for those who think there is no such thing as good game narrative, take a look at planescape:torment.

David said...

"from getting up at 2 in the morning and going in there until 4 AM. He got -that- into it."

The unemployed skinhead who lives next door alternates between two activities: listening to hip hop at top volume, and playing his video games at top volume until 6 in the morning.

"I learned more about economics, geography, history, from video games than I ever learned in school (pre-college)."

News flash: the world in World of Warcraft isn't real. You might want to consult actual books about the actual real world. And explore it.

Gameboys. Pathetic.

Robert said...

I don't play golf but I do care and appreciate golf course architecture as art.

Peter said...

It's funny how odd little niches can produce their own specific geniuses that the rest of the world will never know about. I used to fool around with Microsoft's Train Simulator back in the day and at one point got into downloading the many freeware trains and routes that people were developing. There was a guy named Rich Garber producing detailed RR routes with backstory, scenery, activities, and historical detail that were all head and shoulders above what the rest of the hobbyists were doing. The guy was the Michelangelo of the hobby, but in the whole world there might only be a few hundred people who really appreciate the level of artistry this guy was dedicating to this funny little niche. I'm sure you can find similar unsung geniuses in all sorts of odd places if you look.

Mr. Anon said...

" Anonymous said...

Games can also be a great educational tool. I learned more about economics, geography, history, from video games than I ever learned in school (pre-college). I'm not just talking about "educational" games either."

If this is true - and I have no way of knowing if it is - it is less a complement to video games, than a criticism of schools.

"David said...

News flash: the world in World of Warcraft isn't real. You might want to consult actual books about the actual real world. And explore it.

Gameboys. Pathetic."

Seconded. The fan-boy culture of many young white men is embarassingly pathetic.

MacSweeney said...

There's nothing wrong with video games. They are a completely valid creative medium. It is however important to distinguish between good games, and useless games.

A useless game is World of Warcraft; it's an endless grind. You get absolutely nothing out of it. You spend untold hours leveling up your character and collecting items, for the sole purpose of impressing the other players. Another one is John Madden Football, which is as useless as watching sports on TV. I admit, I watch sports and spend time analyzing the stats, but I can't justify it and I feel bad about it.

An example of a good game is Civilization. Now here's something that provides a lot of mental stimulation, and forces the player to apply critical thinking skills. You start with one single settlement in the stone age, and expand throughout the world while researching new technology. Military management, building up your economy, diplomacy, oh my, it's all here. It's no worse than chess.

The second kind of useful game is the kind that provides you with a good story. These are usually role playing games (RPGs). Somebody here already mentioned Planescape Torment. You might say, who cares, Great Expectations or whatever is better. So what? It's at least as good as Harry Potter, and you don't see parents chastising their children for wasting time reading that. The Final Fantasy series is famous for its stories and music. The drama in these games have stirred a much stronger emotional response in me than Hollywood movies. Isn't that the whole purpose of art?

I know that it's too much to ask of you to try these games for yourself; it's not going to happen. But I at least ask you to look at them in a different way. Does your son play video games, Steve? What is he into? If you spot him holding a big hunk of plastic resembling a guitar, pressing buttons in synch to some crappy Sonic Youth song, that's a bad thing. But if you see him building cities and ramping up industrial production to prepare for an invasion, shoot him the thumbs up and remind him that the victorious warrior wins first and then goes to war, while the defeated warrior goes to war first and then seeks to win.

Takahata Y said...

Video games may have stirred emotions in you, but those emotions will always be less than a well-made film. Video games are interactive and won't ever be the same kind of "art" as films or paintings for one to appreciate. I doubt that emotion is being stirred in you while you're playing the game trying to not be killed, so I assume that it was the narrative that was emotional. In that case, a film based on that narrative would be just as, and probably more, emotional than the game. In other words, in terms of eliciting some kind of emotion in the player, a film can always do whatever a game can, except without having to interrupt every few seconds for the player to...well, play the game.

Whoever looks to video games for art in terms of narrative, art, or music is wasting their time. The best video game narratives will never be better than a book or film on the same plot. The best video game music will never be good as art music created for the concert. etc, etc.

The only valid point is the gameplay itself, as someone else said. Playing a well-designed video game with a very interesting concept is like walking through a well-kept piece of nature - enjoyable to experience first-hand. But how many games actually have anything unique on this front...very, very few.

Conclusion: Video games are not worth caring about when it comes to "art".

Figgy said...

Golf course design is awesome when done by the right architect. My big lament is that I rarely appreciate it when I play, so involved am I in simply trying to hit the ball where I can find it instead of weighing the options presented on each hole.

Eric said...

News flash: the world in World of Warcraft isn't real. You might want to consult actual books about the actual real world. And explore it.

Games really are a lot like books. Some of them are serious opportunities to expand your horizons and others are just fluff for entertainment.

I won't argue the benefits of WoW, since it seems to fall into the latter category. But there are well-researched simulations you can learn a whole lot from. Try playing something like Silent Hunter III, or even something like Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space.Granted, there isn't much utility in learning how to plot a torpedo solution 1940s-style. So what? If you have a chance to apply everything you learn in life you're not learning very much.

Topiary Utopia said...

"The drama in these games have stirred a much stronger emotional response in me than Hollywood movies. Isn't that the whole purpose of art?"

Eh... no it isn't.

By the way, the writing in Final Fantasy games (in most games, really, including Planescape Torment) is obnoxious and worthless. If you tend to enjoy it above literary works you have degraded tastes.

There's more artistry in smart level design (what you could call the mise-en-scène of gaming) than in game wrting.

"David said...

News flash: the world in World of Warcraft isn't real. You might want to consult actual books about the actual real world. And explore it.

Gameboys. Pathetic."

Newsflash: not all games are World of Warcraft, and a game can embody a model of the world, if perhaps in a different manner than a book can. Maybe you should play actual games about the actual real world!

I'm reminded of the following passage from Greg Costykan:

"Fifteen years ago, I worked on a game called Imperium Romanum II
(Albert A. Nofi), which was a serious and scholarly attempt to simulate the
Roman civil wars from the conflict between Marius and Sulla to Justinian’s
attempt to reconquer the Empire; the designer’s research and his meticulous
attention to detail was amazing. I maintain, quite forcefully, that you can
learn more about the Roman military, its changes over the course of the Late
Republic and the Empire, and the nature of internal conflict in the Empire,
by studying Nofi’s game than from any six books on the subject."

There's a catch though. I'm not sure how many historical developments can be effectively conceptualized as games.

For example: there's a relative paucity of historical strategy games about WWI, as compared to other historical conflicts. I think this is because, from our perspective, the tactics employed in trench warfare seem irrational and idiotic, while gaming requires following a rational and optimizing -according to some criteria- course of action.

Topiary Utopia said...

Also, I forgot to mention that there are games, like Sid Meier's SimGolf or the minimalist Line Golfer which let you design your own golf course, and then play on it.

Paranoid Bitchy Incessant Whiner said...

Maybe a little off-topic, but there is a rather terrifying thread over at Slashdot right now:

How To Help a Friend With an MMO Addiction?
Posted by Soulskill on Friday May 22, @10:12PM
ask.slashdot.org

Scroll down past the silly stuff at the beginning and get into the serious comments a little further down - it's not pretty.

Not pretty at all.

[And you wonder why teenaged boys' academic achievements are in the toilet these days...]

albertosaurus said...

For much of my adult life I have tried to develop an interest in video games. No luck. They just bore me.

Thirty some years ago I found that I couldn't play Star Trek for very long. In those days the only computer games were written in BASIC. After a few minutes of play I would go into the code and add another feature. After a while I had a nice customized version but I never spent much time actually playing it, except when I was testing my latest addition.

Later I tried to get interested in Baseball games. Again no luck. I was mad about Canseco and McGuire but not the video games.

My brother-in-law owned two PCs that wre devoted to flight simulation. I tried "Battle of Britain" from Lucas Games. I couldn't get interested. I bought an expensive pilot's yoke that attached to my desk in a quest for more verisimilitude.

Still nothing. Maybe it was the fact that I never could manage to shoot down even one damn Nazi. I gave my whole setup to another brother-in-law who had cleared the channel of Messerschmidts in very short order.

I know gamers have fun. I've tried to join them if only to have an excuse to buy expensive video cards and other high end PC hardware. Alas I'm on the outside looking in.

Anonymous said...

This is a very nice online golf game.

wgt.com

Evil Sandmich said...

Gaming sites have several times had the debate over whether or not video games are art and the consensus seems to be: occasionally.

What interests me is the influence that gaming art might have on other mediums. One example brought up is the probable influence the game God of War had on the movie 300.

Even more interesting though is the generalized influence video games may have had on other newer movies like the new Star Trek. The non-stop action and flashy, slicked over art direction makes me feel like I'm watching my son play through a game.

Adam said...

David,
The big advantage to learning via a game is that you internalize the decision making process. Rather than reading why Lee attacked Gettysburg, you're presented with the same stimulii and the choice becomes your own. That's far easier to recall even years later.

Of course not every game consists of a useful subject, but there are a particularly large group of well made historical games that teach far more about why rather than when or where than almost any book.

I should warn you though, that the graphics are pretty crappy for most of them.

A good/bad example is the Stanford Bank Game, it's a simulation, but it's not unlike many games I've played. After you play it, understanding why the Fed adjusts the yield curve to slow the economy becomes something that you've felt rather than memorized.

The same is true for less educational games I've played on 16th century Piracy, moving to Oregon :), Roman and Japanese war, WWII Submarine operations and even running businesses.