Getting Ready for Artistic Gaming

Since I’ve going on about Skate 3 as a form of dancing video game and since I recently re-read Ebert’s (rather inane) commentary on the “games as art” thing – I’ve been thinking of games and art. Games as art. Art games. Arty games. Artistic play. Whathaveyou.

Thinking about this reminds me of conversations I’ve had about art and elitism. Well, you know, all the “high” art stuff, whether it’s trying to read and enjoy Ulysses, work out what in the hell the latest conceptual sculpture is meant to be on about, or squinting desperately at some contemporary dance, hoping to trap a flake or two of meaning. In the past, my attitude has been rather anti this kind of art, and my parents in particular have argued for a kind of “preparedness” that needs to be achieved prior to “getting” it. And I’ve been all like, “preparedness? Screw that!” But now, as I contemplate the ability to appreciate video games, I find I return to that concept of preparedness.

I’m not referring to the multitude of technical barriers to playing games, like their frightening semiotics or their terrifying control schemes. That’s more like if you were trying to go see the ballet and someone kept throwing you down the stairs outside, preventing you from coming in until you go off and learn karate to kick their ass. After that, you still have to look at the ballet and derive something from it. So, problem not solved.

The preparedness that it makes me think of is in two flavours, I think. One of the flavours is the idea that to appreciate what’s happening in games (and in other art forms) you frequently need to know quite a bit about what the situation is, why it’s interesting, what’s new, and so on. To find something like Far Cry 2 a significant artistic experience, say, you’ll need to have experienced a bunch of other first-person shooters, the general grinding linearity of them, and their propensity for black and white moral universes. With all that background, your “getting” of Far Cry 2 pushes more into the realm of art appreciation.

The other major flavour – the more important one, I think – is the need to kind of “gird” yourself for the experience. It’s all very well to know a bunch about Far Cry 2 (or the Mona Lisa), but if you’re going to go there, you also need to adopt a suitable “art oriented” attitude. This can be one of the hardest things to do with games, because they’re frequently very much in the business of blinding us to their artistic potential with all the goals they immediately set and the quantifications they thrust forward. A bit like if the Mona Lisa kept spinning her head around ala The Exorcist. Fantastic, but distracting.

But no, if we can calm down and approach a video game with the intention to experience it as a work of art, as an artistic experience – that’s when I think things start to happen. Forming that intention is tough, but very doable, and very worth doing. Much as with life, if we can just take our eyes off the prize for a bit, we can see what’s happening.

We can experience the art of it.

22 January 2011
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