Games Are Not Art


“For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” – Vladimir Nabokov

When we, as gamers, are faced with this claim, there is a tendency to close ranks, and – beyond the regular fallacies of debate – point towards the logic of trends and patterns. We argue that the medium is on its way to an art form by virtue of some providential design, imitating the trajectory of cinema and, going even farther back, the novel. We assert that there are a few games that can be considered art. We even provide lists: Bioshock, Journey, The Path, Shadow of the Colossus, and, lately, Spec Ops: The Line. Then we bring up the emotional response: the fairy-tale loneliness of Wander’s journey, along with the sense of sacrilege that comes with the end of each colossus; the profound sense of shock when Ryan destroys Arcadia; the dark double-audience of Konrad’s “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero.” Fine.

To my mind, the only valid argument is that last litany of examples – and yet we do them injustice by simply tossing their names out there, as though the artistry of these games were self-evident. The truth is that we can never know anything concretely unless first we narrow our scope sufficiently. We can never prove anything, save for using individual pieces of evidence. The general is useless; the particular is essential. It is only when we have the single and singular points of data that we can draw a graph. When we list of specific games, we only take the first step.

Let’s use Bioshock as an example. Why is Bioshock a work of art? Certainly, there are critical complexities that raise it above the crowd of vapid power fantasies, that being the touted critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Certainly there are dramatic moments in the narrative that demonstrate the disconnect between objectivism and morality – the chief example being that brilliant moment in Arcadia, where Ryan tells the player of a forest he once owned. But so what? It’s not as though these features are inherently artistic.

Let’s back up a bit. How am I defining art to begin with? Look to the first epigraph.

Firstly, Film Critic Hulk’s (aside: he is one of most enthusiastic, intelligent, articulate, and all-around brilliant critics around) definition rightly emphasizes the notion that the cohesiveness of the themes at play in a work make it art. For an example, let’s look at Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. While the book has something of a tarnished reputation in common culture, what cements its claim as a work of art is the final arc, where the little details that have been seeded throughout the rest of the book come to bloom. They are mostly predicated on a betrayal of common expectations: for an “immoral” novel, there are no crude turns of phrase or four letter words; the foreshadowed murder the protagonist commits is not that of Lolita – and this despite the references to the opera Carmen, the doggerel pop song, the repeated mention that the protagonist is currently on trial for homicide, and so forth – but rather that of a character who is cryptically referenced throughout narrative; the fact that the book is, at its heart, a (twisted) love story is only cemented with any real believability in both the final scene with Lolita, and in the last, lovely lines of the novel: “I am dreaming of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” The doubling of details and the deception of the reader are further linked to the book’s meditation on the nature of art, which itself reaches an apotheosis in the narrator’s desperate hope that his story might reach such heights. By briefly and insufficiently summarizing different themes in the novel, I am trying to show the way in which they feed into one another and support their mutual development. There are other details, such as the beauty of Humbert’s prose, but these are of secondary importance unless they are shown to seamlessly slide into cohesion with their fellows. It is this rich complexity that gives the work a claim to the status of art.

To tie this bit back to Bioshock, we can ask whether the game presents any instances of thematic cohesiveness. Indeed, we can find hints thereof in one of the most dramatic points of the game, where Andrew Ryan reveals the puppet-master’s strings, and says “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” The story’s narrative is revealed to have been completely out of our hands from Atlas’ first “Would you kindly…” In this fashion, the player is shown to be a slave to both Fontaine’s thirst for power, and to the very structure of a linear first-person shooter. Indeed, our enslavement to the game doesn’t end when the curtain’s pulled aside, as we are forced to continue on a linear path to end Fontaine’s rule over Rapture. Certainly, it’s a dramatic moment, and it adds a level of depth to an already thematically complicated shooter. But at the same time as this theme of enslavement is revealed and expounded, the other side of Ryan’s statement remains fairly hidden. After all, the player has had one choice that is presented repeatedly throughout the game: do you harvest or save the Little Sisters?

The dictum “A man chooses; A slave obeys” is transformed when we consider its application to the moral choices we make while playing the game. For all the flack dichotomous, black-versus-white moral choice mechanics receive, its absolute nature is appropriate in a game where the nuancing of ones choice matters less than the fact of its existence. We can choose to save these little girls, or we can be ruthless in the quest to unseat Ryan. Regardless of the justification, the fact of the choice is important, as the game thereby presents the notion that, regardless of your state, you can always choose to do the right thing. Narratively, we are enslaved; ethically, we can always choose to do right.

Of course, this detail neatly fits into the rest of the game’s thematic concerns. Regarding Andrew Ryan’s Objectivism, it points out a rather large blind spot – he is ostensibly forced into increasing his control over the city via increased legislation, capital punishment, and, finally, via a subversion of free will all because he thinks he has no choice. He passes the moral event horizon simply because it is necessary, and that the ends justify the means. In this way, his own choices mirror the players when they’re faced with the little girl crying over poor Mr. Bubbles: do you do what is unconscionable for an immediate and obvious benefit, or do you do what is right, despite its relative difficulty? Ryan cannot think in those terms, as he relies on a philosophy where what is good for the self is good for all: “In the end, all that matters to me is me. And all that matters to you is you. It is the nature of things.” To take this point to the game’s end, this is why the two endings have you either becoming a new Ryan as you take Rapture, or abandoning that city for the sake of a family. The (ideally) selfless love of a parent is anathema to the self-love of Ryan. Depending on your choices, you either adopt Ryan’s philosophy, or you chose a more ethical one.

Furthermore, the ending reinforces what I would argue is the intellectual and moral opposition to Ryan’s objectivist morality: the morality of the family. That families are an ever-present element in the narrative of Bioshock is a critical point. The player’s relationship with Atlas begins as the latter begs the former to help his family escape from Rapture. Among the many audio diaries are those of Mariska, which all detail the horrors that have befallen her daughter:

“The minute we came here, Masha started screaming, “Mama! Mama! What is that? What is that?” I thought she was having some kind of seizure and then I realized – trees. Trees! Never saw one before, thought they were monsters. Oh, Sammy, maybe we never should have come to this place.”

Similarly and equally conspicuously are those of Anya in Hephaestus, whose attempted assassination of Ryan is fueled by the transmutation of her daughter into a little sister: “And my girl is gone, worse than gone, one of those things. So am I an assassin? Well, only one way to find out.” Even the names of the ever-present Little Sisters and Big Daddys reinforce the familial theme, though the perversion of these names is a particularly transparent bit of ironic advertising.

Finally, we have the way in which Fontaine and Ryan relate to the player: they cast themselves as his father. In the same breath as Ryan tacitly acknowledges you as his own – he calls the player “my child” right before they come face to face – he names you a slave and treats you as a dog. To him, a child is property. Meanwhile, Fontaine acknowledges that “you were the closest thing I ever had to a son.” But, in his last lines, he tells the player just what that means to him:

I had you built! I sent you topside! I called you back, showed you what you was, what you was capable of! Even that life you thought you had, that was something I dreamed up and had tattooed inside your head. Now, if you don’t call that family, I don’t know what is.”

For both men, families represent different people they can control. For Ryan, his son is simply a literal part of his greater selfhood; for Fontaine, his adopted son is a tool in the long con.

The ending – the good ending, at least – represents the triumph of familial morality over Ryan’s objectivist morality. Here are Tenenbaum’s lines:

They offered you the city, and you refused it. And what did you do instead? What I have come to expect of you – you saved them. You gave them the one thing that was stolen from them – a chance – a chance to learn, to find love, to live. And, in the end, what was your reward? You never said, but I think I know – a family.”

Note the language: the player saves and gives, thereby becoming a father. The selfless morality of the family, where the parents give all they can to their children, then becomes the ideological – and more importantly, moral – opposition to Ryan’s objectivism.

But this grand struggle between two ideologies is boiled down to a simple choice: when faced with a little girl, do you save or harvest her?

Here we get to my second epigraph: “For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Now, I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Nabokov’s definition of art by describing it as substantive in nature. That is, it has the technical ingenuity of execution or conception (as with piano playing or painting). Or it is beautiful. Or it reinforces some moral point without being moralizing. Or any other positive-sounding point. By substantive, I am fumbling about for a pithy phrase that expresses meaningfulness, which is equally vague. I am trying to touch the finger that pluck at our hearts, to feel the wind that moves our souls, or other such maudlin poetic phrasings.

Let’s try an example, and focus on the idea of morality as an example of this substantive imperative. By morality, I do not mean that art must have a moral (wretched things), or that the more positive elements and archetypes must triumph over their negative ilk (i.e., the good guy wins at the end of the story). By the moral imperative, I mean that the work must engage with questions of morality on a satisfactory and thematically consistent level. In Lolita, the last part of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s moral awakening, which evokes a series of plangent responses to an act that can never be atoned for. In Blood Meridian, you have the spectre of morality present only by way of its absence in the face of the diabolic and dionysian Judge (grammatically, amorality and immorality are understood only by the relation of their respective prefixes to the root word). In Bioshock, you have the entire gameplay function of choice linked to a greater thematic, and more importantly, moral function within the work. It’s one thing to create a complicated series of wheels-within-wheels for the sake of the design; it’s far better to make this design have a substantive point. A purpose. That being that, even if you do not choose morally, the option is nevertheless always there.

Does this all mean Bioshock counts as art? My first thought is to look back on my two qualifications, and say “yes.” But that sounds suspiciously like ticking off a list, thereby making the whole definitional process a binary one. And that kind of criticism is transparently abhorrent, and it makes my two qualifications or descriptions absolute prescriptions of the worst, most inchoate sort. Instead, I’ve merely fixated on a few details to try and orient an argument for one facet of thematic consistency. I haven’t even begun to consider how the mechanics of the First Person Shooter genre or the sui generis retro character of Rapture support or undermine my thesis. But the smallness of my own examination demonstrates nicely the breadth of the question at hand, and its impossibility in addressing it in any real sense in a single essay.

So here’s the point to my writing: while video games are not art, just as novels, films, or whatever generalized title you give your medium are not art, certain games deserve to have their claim to that title examined. I think the question “is Bioshock art?” then is poorly worded. A better formulation would be, “does Bioshock have a claim to the title of art?” My answer is “so far, so good.” But that’s not a definitive yes.

But this question, and criticism in general, is not meant to be a rhetorical monologue. Ideally, it is dialogic in form and function as well. And, for the most part, the question is also frustratingly unanswerable with any absolute certainty – hence the provocative title. But we’ll see how we do as we go along.