Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Computer Games are Art ?

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.

Art requires great emotions. Great emotions require loss. Loss is what all computer games try to avoid like the pest. I don't think it is impossible to make a computer game great art. But we aren't anywhere close.


  1. Whose loss? I didn't lose anything from that excerpt. But a character did. Clearly PvP games can be art, since someone, usually someone else, is always losing.

  2. Uh, whut?

    What loss is involved in the Mona Lisa? How about the 1812 Overture? The Sistine Chapel?

    Your argument breaks down completely on the assumption that great emotions require great loss.

    Loss can help sharpen other emotions (love is all the more potent if you've also lost, for example), but those aren't the only emotions possible.

    Normally I find your arguments at least reasonable, if not always compelling. This, frankly, is silly.

  3. Talarian, assuming that you actually consider the Mona Lisa beautiful (and not just art, because everybody says so), the fact that she is just a picture and not 'your girl', is part of it. Desire depends on loss, the possibility of non-possession.

    But you are right. I had narratives in mind when I wrote this, not beautiful music or architecture.

    Although you can probably make an argument out of the transience of music, the sacrifice required to build the Sistine Chapel and generally the uniqueness=non-availability which leads to loss.

    Klepsacovic: I am talking about loss, not about 'losing' a arbitraty PvP match, come on :)

  4. Loss is relative. If you based it on the emotional response, as measured by my swearing, a single death in PvP is a major loss. Or, PvP just makes me swear a lot, far more than PvE.

  5. Great emotions require loss.

    [citation needed]*

    By the way, this is art. So is this. If those can be considered (great) art, so can any computer game no matter how easy, how coddling, or how impossible it is to lose.

    *Unless this is one of those baseless assertions to be ignored in informal writings.

  6. Azuriel, stay calm ;)

    One of the most powerful reasons that pictures/drawings/etc. are considered art is that there is only one original. And this means that most people cannot own it. As I said: The possibility of non-possession.

    It would be far more constructive to argue that rare epics are art, than to argue that loss (in the broadest sense) isn't required for great art.

  7. I would agree with the sentiment that art does *not* require loss. Then again, poets going back to like ... well, forever ... have always drawn a link between pain/joy, beauty/death, etc. My favorite is Kahlil Gibrahn:

    "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

    The idea being ... you can't really understand joy until you've experienced grief.

    ALL THAT BEING SAID - and this is all very philosophical for games - I think games are, and always will be, about entertainment more than art. Art is created to be appreciated; that appreciation manifests as joy, as beauty, as whatever - it's meant to be perceived, analyzed, interpreted.

    Art is ultimately about communication.

    Can games be that?

    Maybe. But I think that as a medium, games are about entertainment above all else, making them very different than art.

  8. I would quibble differently than the above. I claim your are discussing "great (good?) art" not art.

    A book, drawing or film may be very commercial and successful and be described by critics as pandering, banal, commercial, ... but can you really say it was not an artistic attempt?

    Is the art drawn for a greeting card, a multi-million selling romance, a formulaic feel-good blockbuster film not art merely because they aimed so low?

  9. I think it might be more accurate to say that great *stories* require loss. I can't think of many works of literature in which the protagonist doesn't suffer any setbacks at all. (I don't think the same applies to painting and music). So I assume you're talking about games as a form of narrative.

    But some games do include scripted losses, like Aerith's death in Final Fantasy 7 or Floyd's death in Planetfall. And in fact, gamers have reported these to be particularly emotionally compelling moments.

    There are also some games that include procedurally generated losses like falling into lava in Minecraft or getting podded in EvE, but for some reason players don't seem to take unscripted losses as well as the scripted ones. So it might be interesting to ask whether games can generate emotionally compelling stories without heavy scripting.

  10. "Talarian, assuming that you actually consider the Mona Lisa beautiful (and not just art, because everybody says so), the fact that she is just a picture and not 'your girl', is part of it. Desire depends on loss, the possibility of non-possession."

    Ooh, hetero-normative assumptions. Delicious ;)

    The Mona Lisa is a gorgeous painting, as are many paintings of vistas and landscapes. The Mona Lisa is not a person I'd care to "possess", though. Transience is different from loss, as is uniqueness. Loss implies you had it to begin with, and non-availability, within static works of art such as music, paintings, movies and the like, is about to be abolished in our age of technology (if one couldn't argue it's gone already).

    Even within a narrative, loss doesn't define art. Take, for example, the monomyth, otherwise known as the Hero's Journey ( This is a very typical archetype for literature for thousands of years, as far back as Beowulf. The central theme of a monomyth is not about loss, but about gain. The hero goes on a journey, gains insights into the world and becomes a different person, and eventually comes home as a more powerful/experienced person. Loss is often involved at a micro level, but the main theme certainly is not loss, and to argue as such demeans the accomplishments that the hero's journey is supposed to represent. If you want to argue that there's some loss, ergo its art, well, I could go and make the same argument about gain, since gain is required before one can have loss.

    If one describes that the loss of time occurs in the creation of art, then one could equally apply that to Effort, which is required to expend time on art, but as such Effort (and Loss) are then described in Logic as Necessary but not Sufficient for art (, as Effort expended does not imply Art (nor does Loss in of itself imply Art in your argument), but as mentioned before, I still dispute that Loss is Necessary, citing a Monomyth as counter-example.

    tl;dr There are historical examples that are considered art which don't involve loss.

  11. @epic.Ben

    Agreed that loss is involved in many pieces of work. I find the idea that entertainment and art must be mutually exclusive odd, though. Would you consider Shakespeare's plays art? Romeo and Juliet, Othello, etc.? Because at the time, they were very much entertainment, put on by a bunch of men in wigs and dresses on the stage to entertain the masses and rabble to make Shakespeare and his troupe some money. Yet today we consider the narratives pieces of art beyond compare.

  12. Well, Talarian... lots of people lost their money going to see those plays back then, which only proves Nils' point. :P

    Nils, I'd argue that art, much like beauty, lies in the eye of the proverbial beholder. That person might be you, or even me. You're not really trying to restart the whole Roger Ebert thing, are you? That went on for like five years, if it's over yet. It's like Sæhrímnir, we get to eat bacon again today!

  13. @Oscar

    *slow clap*

    I'll admit it, I laughed :) Well played, sir

  14. This is really not my field, but are there any examples of the monomyth in which the hero doesn't suffer serious setbacks along the way? All of the practical examples I'm familiar with involve serious losses. Gilgamesh loses Enkidu, Arthur loses his wife and kingdom and is fatally wounded by Mordred, Luke Skywalker loses his family and mentor, etc. Obviously loss doesn't have to be the main theme, but are there examples in which losses are not an important part of the work?

  15. Talarian, assuming that you actually consider the Mona Lisa beautiful (and not just art, because everybody says so), the fact that she is just a picture and not 'your girl', is part of it. Desire depends on loss, the possibility of non-possession.

    Going by that interpretations, computer games definitely qualify as works of art. Mona Lisa is not 'our girl', but our adventures in games are not our life.

  16. @ Tolthir
    Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne. No deaths, loss of limbs or life. At worst, the loss of wits on occasion, the destruction of a raft, and not actually getting to the center of the earth. To be fair, it may also not fall strictly under the mono myth, but it does provide for a decently solid counter example to Nils' claim around loss, narrative, and art.

  17. Sorry, stealing the comments section here. One last post.

    After thinking about it some more, I still think you're strictly wrong, Nils, but you're much closer than I gave you credit for. You're just looking too closely. Loss is but a symptom. What truly defines great narrative isn't loss, but conflict.

    Journey to the Center of the Earth, man vs. Nature. Moby Dick, also man vs. Nature. The mono myth is often Man vs man, or vs Destiny.

    Narrative without meaningful conflict is dull, and rarely evokes strong emotion. Loss just happens to be an outcome of conflict the large majority of the time.

  18. Once you switch from loss to conflict, however, video games have the stuff in heaps.

    Video games are also full of loss in the same way that novels are. Tons of games feature sacrifice and loss on the part of the main characters a big part of the storyline. A few games that pop into my mind: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, Starcraft, Infamous, Prototype, Dead Space, Deadly Premonition, Braid.

    Of those I would say I was tangibly emotionally connected to the loss involved in three. I would say Braid is a great work of art. I don't know if I would say Deadly Premonition is a great work of art (though supergreatfriend's playthrough is a great work of art and makes me feel like the game might be).

    I don't think there has been any movement to try to take loss out of video games. I think a proper study of games involving loss as a central plot element would find there are more now than ever as people try to tell more grandiose stories. There is an effort to take losing out of video games, but as you note in your comment to Klepsacovic, that is different. The fact that most video game makers can't tell a good story doesn't mean video games can't tell a good story. I would wager heavily that the majority of fiction written in the same era as Moby Dick was very bad.

  19. I spent a lot of time a while ago going over what art is. I came to the conclusion that art is something that is made to have an emotional effect on the viewer.

    The works of great cathedrals and classical masterpieces are art. I know so because when I see them I feel something. When I saw the Mona Lisa I felt something (not as much as other works, but it was still significant to me). It had a presence. As far as I was concerned it wasn't trying to say anything, that isn't necessarily the point. When you look at a great work of art it strikes you in some way. When you enter a great cathedral you feel it, the craftsmanship, the balance of forms, the movement upwards, the power, grace and precision.

    I spent a lot of time seeking realism when I was starting off. Many people have a disposition to look down on realism because they feel that art has to be obscure in some way, it has to have the artist there next to it explaining why it's so important.

    I'm of the opinion that works of art should be able to stand alone. When I see a beautiful drawing that captures the human form perfectly it causes me to appreciate that form, all of the miraculous details and nuances, and to feel awe and wonder at the graceful precision. Nothing needs to be said, it would just cheapen the effect, the feeling.

    As far as most modern/post-modern "art", it's almost all trash. I don't feel anything when I see it (maybe a bit of irritation), and the fact that I need some heavily contrived explanation about it the majority of the time shows how weak it really is. It takes advantage of the fact that people often don't know what to think about things.

  20. I think what you mean, instead of "loss", is "change".

    Art tends to change us. It leaves us affected and impacted.

    Loss is certainly a change. But so is understanding, hope where there was once only sorrow, insight, a sense of wonder, etc.

    WoW has certainly changed me. But I'm still unclear as to whether that's because it's art, or whether it's twinkies for my brain.

    But Warhol might argue that the better the Twinky, the greater the art.

  21. Talarian, about the Hero's Journey.

    From Wikipedia:

    1) Miraculous conception and birth
    2) Initiation of the hero-child
    3) Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
    4) Trial and Quest
    5) Death
    6) Descent into the underworld
    7) Resurrection and rebirth
    8) Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement


    I will agree with you that loss is not strictly necessary. But if we limit our view on narratives, I think that it is such a dominant theme, that you really have to try really hard to come up with a narrative without loss.

  22. You really need to play through Planescape:Torment, to see that computer games can indeed be art. Alternatively, The Longest Journey is also damn good.

    They both are emotional rollercoasters and are guaranteed to evoke some sort of response, even more so than 'regular art'.