Saturday, August 7, 2004

Are computer games art?

I've had bits of a post about this tossing around for a couple of months and may finish now that Slate has chimed in with a piece about John Carmack. Not the same thing exactly: Slate is mainly concerned with whether there's a recognizable personality behind (among? betwixt?) the game. In other words, find the artist first. I'm more interested in whether games produce something that could be called an aesthetic effect, either in conventional terms or in creating new ones. The basic question gets asked of most if not all new forms; the resistance to jazz, the novel, free verse, movies, comics, etc are well documented. A key difference is that computer games don't come from an obviously "art" lineage (jazz was clearly music whether it signalled the end of Western civilization or not) and in some aspects not really from anything else. I've read attempts to explain chess as an art form and know there is such for sports like baseball though in the latter case I have no idea whether the writers are serious or simply trying to justify an inherently pointless activity. Gamers have developed, if not quite a vocabulary to talk about this (though "immersive" is a useful term) then at least the rudiments of an approach to sort the experiences and communicate to other gamers. One thing that might work against games as art, at least in a conventional sense, is that to a large degree responses of players to a game aren't quite as individual as for, say, a book or song. Basically if you like the genre you tend to like the most highly regarded examples. This may be because genres are still strongly formal in games but on the other hand American comics are dominated by the limited genre of supeheroes but if you walk into a comic store right now you can find political drama (Ex Machina), police procedural (Gotham Central), psychological morality play (Daredevil), a bildungskomik (Ultimate Spider-Man), celebrity culture satire (X-Statix, Noble Causes, She-Hulk, Powers, dunno this must be the mood of the moment), fatherhood for dummies (Green Arrow), chase techno-thriller (The Hulk) and all sorts of other things that may pop up for a storyline. Maybe games are too functional to ever develop this kind of diversity in a teacup: Can Doom 3 really be about anything other than being scared and shooting things?