Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Category: Responses

Trigger Warnings, Life is Strange, and Art

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault and Suicide

A few weeks ago, Polygon published an opinion piece by Laura Dale on Life is Strange and the possibility of trigger warnings in art. For those unaware, a trigger warning is a piece of text that alerts readers ahead of time that subjects (e.g., rape, suicide, domestic abuse) will be discussed in a work that might bring up their own memories of a trauma, which gives those readers the opportunity to either steel themselves or stop reading and avoid the emotional aftershocks that memory can generate. It is, in essence, a tool of mercy or kindness in a world that does not offer either very often – and it is not, as some critics would say, an example of censorship. Similarly, we can also dismiss accusations of narcissism or excessive squeamishness by agreeing with the principle – yes, trigger warnings, like everything else, can be used flippantly – by noting that they are another tool (again, of kindness) in an essayist’s kit, and there will always be bad writing.

But what works for essays, blogs, and such does not necessarily work for fiction. As Jay Kang at The New Yorker notes, “A trigger warning reduces a work of art down to what amounts to plot points.” We expect our art to have a depth that allows for excavation and discovery; defining every work by its most troubling elements collapses the work to “a single idea.” But here Kang missteps, as we apply reductive labels to art all the time: Moby Dick is about whales, while The Babadook is an Australian monster horror movie. Or, as with Kang’s own example, Lolita is about “the systematic rape of a young girl.” We are always reducing our descriptions of various works for the ease of communication and discussion, even though it is more appropriate to describe Moby Dick as a book that uses whaling as a symbol for engaging with the natural world and meaning, or The Babadook as a movie that uses its monster as a stand-in for how we deal with grief. Or even saying that Lolita is a book about how trauma and cruelty – “the systematic rape of a young girl” – is transformed, uncomfortably and abashedly, into art.

In short, we are constantly using reductive labels and catch-alls to talk about novels, plays, movies, and even video games. Trigger warnings, like back-of-the-book blurbs or reviews, are merely part of the shadow each work casts. To be fair, Kang is only arguing that they serve to limit both our readings and discussions of a work. Dale, however, suggests that there may need to be a place for them in the work itself – and specifically in Life is Strange and the climax of its second episode. And here we get into a discussion of how we expect art to relate to our own lives.

When Life is Strange first appeared, the consensus on the part of reviewers was a combination of optimism for future episodes and snippiness about its use of slang. Polygon’s review said it was “cheesy” while Kill Screen’s review says “Max and company talk the way 30- and 40-year-olds think that teenagers talk.” Without being dragged into a conversation about how believable the game’s slang is, it’s worth clarifying that the reaction towards the game’s language is a reaction to its realism – that is, the way in which the game’s elements mimic our own experience. Having mail delivered on a Sunday ruins that sense of realism, as does – apparently – out-of-tune slang. But realism is, in many ways, a subjective idea: a work is realistic so long as it manages to accord with our own particular knowledge and interactions with the world. To the scientific layman The Rock might appear to be wholly realistic, while NASA employees regularly enjoy eviscerating the many, many mistakes the movie makes regarding asteroids, procedure, or what-have-you. Our sense of what is true in fiction’s mirror is informed by our own lives.

But realism is not reality: every work abstracts and adapts itself to present an image. Life is Strange’s own brand of realism is particular to its status as a video game: in the real world, we do not have icons hovering above items that outline how to interact with them, just as we do not have health bars, inventory space represented by dressed-up Excel spreadsheets, and so on. These features are unrealistic tools with which the player is able to explore the world, unreal tokens that help make the game real. The world of Life is Strange relies on these tokens just as any other game might, and whether Kate commits suicide in episode two depends on how well you have exploited the game’s mechanics (i.e., inspecting all the available objects in her room) with the ultimate goal of treating her like a human being: clicking the icon and reading the accompanying text is a well-worn mechanic in video games, but the real challenge is to show how well you have incorporated the resulting knowledge into a picture of Kate as a real person.

Though the scene atop the dormitories is marred by the awkward splicing of ill-fitting segments of voice acting, it nevertheless represents what realism strives for: a sense that the text is true to the world we know and experience. It speaks of the cruelty of our peers, the tunnel vision of despair, the failure of our guardians, and – perhaps – of the insufficiency of kindness. These kinds of multivalent elements are what constitute the core of what we look for in our art, and their absence is a fundamental betrayal of the connection realism works towards. Put another way, these emotions allow us to understand the work because we are able to see analogues in our own lives. And all the rest of the game’s realistic errata – e.g., ostensibly awkward attempts to mirror the slang of youth – is in support of this emotive outreach.

A work’s ability to define itself and its concerns through the presentation of its subject (in this case, the experience of adolescence) is then tied to its ability to connect with an audience. And this is where trigger warnings have both a place and no place in an artistic work. Though there is no limit to human invention (it would be possible to have a warning that does not force the game’s meaning, in the same way that the loading screen text in Spec Ops: The Line warps from gameplay tips to uncomfortable moral interrogation), a trigger warning preemptively defines the kind of interaction we are to have with a work: before engaging with the work itself, we would be given a pair of coloured glasses that would highlight certain themes while blotting out others. Put another way, the warning would define the text before it has a chance to define itself and connect – in essence, we are put on guard when we need to be most open.

More particularly, Life is Strange with a trigger warning would spoil the suddenness of Kate’s intended suicide. Again, the scene atop the dormitories is powerful because it comes suddenly, fledged with the stress of an unseen crisis and the terrible knowledge – made painfully real to our own quotidian experience through removal of the game’s time-altering mechanic – that you only have one shot at helping your friend. It captures so perfectly the desperation, the urgency, and the brittleness of care and friendship in part because it comes, like many suicides, so profoundly unexpectedly. Since to be forewarned by a warning is to be forearmed, I cannot see how a trigger warning would not but diminish the frantic desperation that the whole climax connotes – even as I recognize that the transfer of those emotions is precisely what awakens particular memories of personal trauma.

If I have put art on a pedestal, such was my intention; if I have inadvertently judged art to be worth more consideration than an individual’s suffering, then I have misspoken. My thesis is simply this: when we approach art, we do so with the intention of allowing it to strike some part of our soul, and realism allows the work to make the needed connection. Max’s voice and Kate’s suffering are all venues through which we may find that connection. Beyond singular moments of ingenuity (exceptions are always exceptional), the notion that trigger warnings have a place in fiction is problematic because it defines how we are to relate to the work before either Kate or Max speak. This is not to say that any text is hyperbolically free and open, as all texts are intentionally limited – they merely hone themselves to the point they wish to make.

All this is hardly a refutation of Dale’s argument. It is merely a counterpoint in a conversation. However, the idea I am advocating – purity of relation – does, when placed next to the weight of someone’s suffering, does seem uncomfortably willing to sacrifice their mental wellbeing for the sake of principle. Nabokov, in his afterword to Lolita, compared the associations his readers bring to the book to guests others have brought to his party; too often these guests are the monsters that have latched onto us earlier in life. I have no answer to this quandary, save for the hope that the two propositions – aesthetics and compassion – are not caught in a zero-sum game, where the triumph of one denigrates the other.

But I can be confident in one thing: the inclusion of a trigger warning in Life is Strange would undo the horrific, crisis-bred connection the player feels to that tragic, rain-drenched moment atop the dormitory. It is as immediate and devastating as a lightning bolt; it cannot bear a lightning rod.

The New Yorker, Evil, and Video Games

Two weeks ago, The New Yorker Online published a short piece that raises the issue of how we can justify the performance of evil actions in video games, specifically in relation to the release of Grand Theft Auto V and its more problematic elements. Now, I am unable to address the game’s inclusion of a bit of malicious dentistry, as I have neither the interest in playing the game nor a console to play it on, and any defense or criticism of that specific event would have to examine its context within the game as a whole. The broader point that this instance of torture is acceptable provided the game’s overall thematic design makes it so – the handy comparison is the use of white phosphorous in Spec Ops: The Line, and the way in which it signifies the beginning of Walker’s moral decay – is safe to make, even though I cannot attest to whether a similar argument can be made for Grand Theft Auto V. To do anything more without a closer examination of the game’s minute particulars would be an example of dishonest criticism. However, the more general concern regarding the place of evil (an umbrella term, we might say, for violence, murder, or similarly sinister actions) in video games is valid. But even here the truism I formulated above – violence is okay if the game’s thematic coherency makes it okay – needs illustration.

First off, there is the need to dismiss the lazy defense of violent games, as it is common in both senses of the word. Yes, it is fair to say that all forms of media – novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and so on – sensationalize violence. But so what? By itself, the inclusion of violence, in and of itself, is hardly a credit to these mediums. When we justify the inclusion of darker details by pointing out their prevalence, we open the medium to the attack that it is no better than the other mediums at their worst. Ultimately, the logic of “if everyone’s doing it, then why can’t I?” is childish. 

However, there is nothing wrong with mere entertainment, and, as items as various as The Three Stooges and Kill Bill have shown, violence can be entertaining. Beyond the token statement that there’s a difference in both kind and concentration between Wile E. Coyote and Kratos, I’m going to ignore the parsing of different kinds and justifications for this kind of cartoonish maliciousness because I am not interested in mere entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, but we must accept the premise that it is a transient thing – a game only lasts so long before its fun is worn out.

In contrast, art is timeless – or, at least, it perpetually strives to chase those goals. Poets would write for the sake of posterity, for the thought that they might find immortality in the continued reading of their work. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) makes this explicit, where “this” refers to the poem itself: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” There is a richness to it that draws readers, viewers, and listeners back to experience and re-experience the particular, poignant beauty of the individual work. The experience is not merely entertaining – few can be find the fun in, say, the ending to King Lear, or The Glass Menagerie. And so, when it comes to the place of evil in art, “entertainment” is hardly a valid defense. There must be more to it.

If we are to look at instances of particularly ostentatious evil, we could do worse than start with the eye-gouging of Gloucester in King Lear. How is the violence justified? Well, it’s a particularly graphic demonstration of Cornwall and Regan’s cruelty – a low note, in fact, in a procession of callousness that starts with the rejection of their father and ends with a double fratricide. But if this were the only justification – a graphic kick-the-dog moment to get across the fact that these characters are really evil – then it would be insufficient. Worse than that, it would be a sloppy manipulation of the audience’s understanding, or cheap one-dimensional showmanship. But the context does justifies its inclusion. At the beginning of the scene, Cornwall explains his actions thus: “Though well we may not pass upon his life / Without the form of justice, yet our power shall do a curtsy to our wrath.” Here, Cornwall notes that he cannot “pass [judgement] upon his life,” or legally mandate Gloucester’s execution for treason “without the form of justice” or legal process, he nevertheless has rights within the law to do some harm. This framework, of course, means that we should read the blinding not merely as a moment of transparent villainy, but as lawful villainy. This concern with the letter of the law ties nicely into one of the play’s concerns: the contrast between those intangible laws that govern social interactions (of the duty of the child to the father, or the duty of a host to the guest) and the iron laws that govern succession and the hangman. Narrative-wise, Gloucester’s blinding nicely literalizes his metaphorical blindness towards his bastard son’s scheming – which leads into the way Edmund toys with different ideas of natural and unnatural laws (laws of succession particularly) bringing us back to the concern with the law that set this scene in motion. And on and on, until a web of associations connects this act with other elements in the play. 

In King Lear, the violence is not simply there for the shock value; it is a moment with important links to the rest of the play’s concerns. The same goes for the violence in Spec Ops: The Line. Though the texture of the action is lifted directly from the thuggish tramping of Battlefield and Modern Warfare, it is the color of the violence that marks the game as interesting: except for the opening pastiche of any other military shooter, the enemies are American soldiers. That the both the player and the character accepts the premise by continuing to slaughter them raises uncomfortable concerns about the morality of the whole game. Within the game’s narrative, the continued murder of American soldiers by American soldiers is justified by Walker’s lovely syllogism: Konrad is the bad guy, these soldiers work for Konrad, ergo they are also bad guys and damn all other considerations; externally, the experience of placing American soldiers in the role of opposition – and the thoughtless acceptance of this role – raises concerns about the way other military shooters frame their petty moral dichotomy.

The most significant moment in the game is also its most profoundly horrifying: Walker has called down white phosphorous on what turns out to be a refugee camp run by Konrad’s men, and all he says is: “We need to keep moving. Reinforcements will be here any minute. We need to make these bastards pay for what they’ve done.” Walker is committed to the binary logic of deluded martial glory, and is incapable of recognizing his own part in the devastation, signalling both the game’s abrupt departure from its archetype while foreshadowing the color of what’s to come.

Going beyond the moral implications of the game as a satire of the petty logic of most military shooters, the Spec Ops‘ use of evil is ultimately aesthetic. It functions on an internal level (within the game’s twisted context) and on an external level (with the player and their expectations) while also connecting to the game’s other elements – the cognitive dissonance of murdering of American soldiers blends with the frequency of inverted, charred American flags, which in turn recalls the blasphemy of an inverted crucifix, all to further the disturbed, inverted context this tale of moral decay requires. The evil is, on one level, necessary because the games it takes its subject matter from are thoughtlessly violent. But the evil is absolutely necessary because we have become accustomed to the kind of action before the White Phosphorous scene, the way one becomes accustomed to coffee or alcohol. Further violence is necessary to show how artificial our acceptance of that violence is, as it forces us to reevaluate our biases and just how we’re parsing the experience. Alternatively, as the folks from Extra Credit put it, the reach of Konrad’s line “You’re here because you wanted to be something you’re not: a hero” extends far beyond lonely, broken Walker. 

My main contention, I suppose, with The New Yorker article is that it treats the interactivity of the medium as its best feature. To my mind, this bears no small resemblance to a common defense of the novel, that the form has value because it exercises our empathy by placing us in the mind of someone else. To which one could ask: how evil should the headspace we share be? Should we read about a pedophile and a murderer with a fancy prose style? Rather, the interactivity that video games promise and provide is merely one element on the canvas. The parallel design in Spec Ops: The Line subsumes the player’s interactivity nicely: Walker’s tale and the player’s experience interact with each other and remain mutually constructive, but at no point does the player’s interaction dominate Walker’s story, just as Walker’s moral decay does not interfere with the player’s own growing sense of apprehension.

A work of art will be as violent or as interactive as it needs to be in the service of its design. All the rest is noise. Not unpleasant or unworthy noise – more like the sound of traffic and pedestrians during a summer afternoon downtown. But noise nevertheless, in contrast to the choir.

Education, Gaming, and Criticism

There are problems with arguments that lump a diverse population into a single, monolithic category. There are problems with arguments that have a self-righteous or condemnatory tone, as though it is the audience that has erred while the writer remains free from sin. But these are problems of rhetoric and presentation, and take a back seat to the writer’s point – yet it’s all the worse for the writer when his readers see red rather than his thesis.

Such is, was, and will likely be the case for Solomon Wong’s article on gamers and art. It depicts the gamer population as an irrational, immature, and choleric. The article’s final line, “Gamers don’t deserve art,” comes across like the last, bitter word at the end of a full-blown argument – bitterness that, given that he cites the more atrocious slurs used against Anita Sarkeesian, is somewhat justified. And so, whether he gives the more straightforward version of his thesis in the title – “Gamers have no freaking idea of what art is” – or its spiteful corollary, Wong does his argument a disservice by distracting the readers most in need of convincing by giving them an emotive way out of the debate. Because he’s right: most gamers, like most consumers of any medium, have no clear sense of how to dissect a work of art for themselves, and so have no idea how to go about approaching anything as though it were art. But I think that the root of the problem lies in a lack of education.

A few months ago, I was chatting with a friend who had just completed her undergraduate degree. Eventually, we got onto the topic of the one literature course she had taken over the course of her education: Women and the 18th-Century novel. I was disappointed to learn that the professor’s lectures merely regurgitated the books’ different plots, rather than a nuanced study of, say, Wollstonecraftian feminism in the literature of the time, or what-have-you. But I was not surprised, because it was precisely the same kind of tepid amalysis I have seen on first-year students’ papers, where plot summary serves in lieu of argument – as though a Wikipedia summary could stand for a thesis! These kinds of one-dimensional analyses showed not simply a lack of understanding with regards to the formation of an argument, but an inability to read the different short stories with an eye for detail – say, the repetition of darkness and blindness in James Joyce’s “Araby,” or even the ideological premise of Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen.”

An understanding of these kinds of details is not dependant upon knowing the context these short stories were written in. Rather, it comes with simply reading the text:

“North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.”

“Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.”

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

My point is not to give a reading of “Araby.” Rather, I’m trying to illustrate the idea of close reading – the process by which both the existence and the effect of individual details (words, images, sounds, meter, and other features of the text) are parsed and understood. Nothing can be known save for minute particulars, and so close reading is a way of understanding by way of small details.

The problem my tangent is getting at lies in the fact that there is a lack of education regarding just how to read a text, or a film, or a piece of music. We do not determine the worth of a work by plot’s broad sweeps alone – it is in little details, whether they be a couplet, a sequence, or the use of a single word. Think of this scene in Bioshock Infinite, and how the simple rewording of a phrase in the spiritual – “There’s a better home awaiting” becomes “Is there a better home awaiting” – manages to exemplify the hypocrisy of Columbia, that gilded heaven built on a downtrodden hell. It inverts the Founders’ appropriation of religious tradition by using an aspect of that tradition to question the official image of Columbia. It’s subtle, it’s clever, and it touches a number of themes present in the game. But, beyond and because of all the above, it’s a beautiful little detail dependant on the alteration of a single world.

Good art develops from these kinds of details moving in concert. Good criticism depends on the critics’ ability to pick apart the threads in order to see how they work. The problem is that it takes a trained or learned eye in order to know how to pick things apart, and to express how these details work, all in order to be understood. I am not arguing for a cabal of elite critics, but rather for the education that allows consumers to become critics. As ever, Film Critic Hulk summarizes nicely a common reaction to this idea with regards to movie criticism:

THE PROBLEM IS THAT WHEN IT COMES TO MOVIES WE HAVE THIS ODD HABIT OF THINKING THAT:

1) WE ALL HAVE A LEVEL OF EXPERTISE JUST BECAUSE WE ARE AVID CONSUMERS.

2) ACTUAL EXPERTS DON’T EXIST.

AND NEITHER OF WHICH IS ALL THAT TRUE. IT’S THE SAME REASON SO MANY PEOPLE JUST ASSUME THEY CAN WRITE A SCRIPT / STORY OR BE AN ACTOR WITHOUT MUCH EXPERIENCE (HINT: THAT DOESN’T WORK OUT VERY OFTEN). AND IT’S JUST A FAILURE TO SEE HOW MUCH OF WHAT THEY ARE ENGAGING IS ACTUALLY TECHNICAL OR BUILT ON EXPERIENCE. WHAT MAKES IT SO FUNNY IS THAT IT’S THE KIND OF THINKING YOU RARELY SEE IN SPORTS. NOBODY ASSUMES THEY CAN JUST RUN OUT ON THE FIELD AND STRIKE OUT THE SIDE (IF YOU DON’T LIKE BASEBALL, THAT MEANS “DO REALLY GOOD”). PEOPLE DRIVE EVERYDAY, BUT NO ONE ASSUMES THEY CAN JUST HOP INTO THE DAYTONA 500 AND COMPETE. BUT FOR SOME REASON WE DO MAKE THIS ASSUMPTION WITH MOVIES ALL THE TIME. WE ASSUME THAT JUST BECAUSE WE KNOW THE END RESULT OF HOW A MEDIA EXPERIENCE AFFECTS US, WE THEREFORE UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKED ON US. AND IT GIVES RISE TO ONGOING HABITS OF OPINION THAT MAY BE TOTALLY JUSTIFIED ON AN EMOTIONAL LEVEL, BUT THEY ARE NOT “RIGHT” IN THE WAY THEY ARE DIAGNOSING WHAT IS GOOD AND BAD. FOR INSTANCE, SOMEONE CAN DISLIKE SOPHIE’S CHOICE BECAUSE IT MADE THEM SAD, BUT THAT DOES NOT VALIDATE THEIR OPINION THAT IT IS “A BAD MOVIE.” IT DEPENDS ON A CRUCIAL UNDERSTANDING OF FUNCTION, NOT MERE EFFECT.

To pointedly paraphrase his last point, we can have opinions and then we can have entitled opinions, where the latter is informed by education, an understanding of context, and, above all, the ability to notice and pick apart bits of data. The idea that a proper critique can be formulated merely by an examination of the broad strokes – the plot, the thoughtless, visceral response, or the more superficial presentation of characterization – is unsatisfactory at best. I am not trying to create an elitist hierarchy of criticism or understanding, but neither do I think that my points are controversial or foreign.

But learning the necessary critical apparatus is a complicated task. To give a few popular examples from my own branch of the arts, Terry Eagleton’s new book How to Read Literature is but the latest attempt in educating the public. Behind it stands Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, any of Harold Bloom’s more popular (i.e., non-academic) books, and others. They’ll talk about items like allusion (a naked girl with an apple is never just a naked girl with an apple), prosody (iambic, dactyl, trochaic, spondee, and so forth), rhetorical devices (synecdoche, metonymy, simile, and irony), literary devices (metaphor, and its deconstruction into tenor and vehicle) and then talk about how they cohere and support each other in pursuing some greater form of beauty. They’ll throw in Greek terms – anagnorisis, hamartia, peripateia – that have served as archetypes and models for centuries. There is a vast ocean of terms, ideas, and details that supplement the dissection of any particular text, and the same goes for different branches of the arts like film, visual art, dance, and so forth. But at its core, any critical analysis requires an eye trained in close reading. And that only comes with practice, just as learning to read sheet music, guitar fingering, or language require practice to the point of internalization. Again, I do not think I am saying anything new here – I am merely trying to make clear the scope of the work that is necessary.

To be fair, I do not think that the problem of education or understanding is specific to video games. As the quote from Film Critic Hulk and other examples indicate, the problem is endemic to our entire consumer society. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series made her wealthy by addressing the concerns of adolescent girls: dating, boys, marriage, and childbirth. But the way in which she addressed these topics is horrifying; in her final book, being pregnant means having this little monster determined to eat you alive inside your body. The formulation of this theme is troubling, to put it lightly. We need to inculcate a culture that has an eye for details like this, rather than one that lazily gets caught in the current of a vicarious plot without examining whether the inhabitants of that stream are any good.

Again, I am not arguing for an artistic oligarchy, or for an aristocracy of critics. Nor am I arguing that there is a ‘correct’ viewpoint with regards to individual pieces of art. The point of a critical education is to better arm consumers, to train their eyes and gild their tongues so that they can form their own entitled opinions. Not so that they can see things my way, but in order to give them a voice of their own. Criticism is not a series of absolute dicta; it is a dialogue, a conversation. But in order to have either of those things people must know how to see, and then how speak, how to use the right words for whatever context they find themselves in.

And so here again I must take issue with Wong’s tone. It’s one thing to note a problem with the way a community views its medium. But righteous anger is not an appropriate way to go about pointing out error. We are not Christ in the Temple, throwing over tables; we are, at the very least, educators, trying to teach a distantly-familiar language. And so we need patience, and the understanding that not everyone can be taught. There will always be idiots, or those too wrapped up in their own selves to think that they might not be the measure of all things – let them mutter hatred or ignorance to themselves. Those who wish to listen will listen, and learn, and add new voices to the conversation, provided we don’t spurn them.