Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Playing with faculties

A few months ago Roger Ebert poked video game players with a stick, arguing that computer games could not possibly be art. His argument was stupid, as he himself has since realized, because he quite literally did not know what he was talking about: he had not played any of the games he was discussing, and so hadn’t had the kind of experience necessary to form a judgment on them. Dismissing computer games on the basis of video clips is, at best, like dismissing cinema on the basis of reading screenplays; the entire dimension in which the medium’s distinctive aesthetic effects work is absent. Ebert’s ignorance of computer games explains why he produces such a weak argument; this gives him an alibi which the editors of n+1 don’t have.

The editors conclude, on the basis of their own experience of computer games and a spritz of Kant, that games cannot be art because they cannot be disinterested: they always focus on winning. Here the n+1 editors confuse interaction with interest, but it is the former, not the latter, which is the hallmark of computer games (note the slippage when they quote an argument about games offering  “a world in which the player is free to act and to choose,” which they then paraphrase as being about “goal-oriented participation”; the goal orientation is introduced, without argument, by the editors). The distinction is made clear by the existence of games which, although you can complete them, you can’t win: Rameses is probably the most conceptually perfect illustration of this, although Photopia is a more aesthetically successful example (both games can be played directly at the pages linked to, and only take something like twenty minutes each to complete, which I highly recommend you do).

The problem with n+1‘s regurgitation of Kant is that they don’t consider how the construction of an experience of interaction might require that Kant’s arguments be opened up and rethought. They don’t ask how “purposiveness without particular purpose” might be modified when the purposiveness exists in the spectator as well as in the object; they simply apply prefab Kantian categories and, finding that contemporary aesthetic appreciation doesn’t fit, conclude with an ostentatious snub of the contemporary world.

How to make a post about a three-month old controversy more relevant? Perhaps with references to a nine-year old game: Metal Gear Solid 2, with its plot hinging on a faked oil spill being used to further all kinds of elite conspiracies, suddenly seemed relevant after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently playing the game, it struck me that it is an interesting example of the relationship of games and art because it presents a quite passionate argument for the importance of artistic expression, and it does so by frequently sabotaging the more utilitarian aspects of its own gameplay. The neatest example of this occurs when, after a fairly long cut-scene, the villain approaches the hero and control is returned to the player while a timer counts down frenetically in the corner of the screen. The player is thus encouraged to try increasingly hard to find away to avoid the villain, but the trick is that the only way to avoid capture is to avoid drawing attention to oneself, that is, to do nothing until the countdown is finished: the game doesn’t merely illustrate, but forces the player to discover, the zero-degree of interactivity.

This takes place on a rather larger scale throughout the second part of the game as key choices are gradually taken away from the player as the constructed nature of the protagonist’s existence and experience is revealed. This culminates in a bizarre and, from a straightforward game design point of view, untenable, 30-minute cut-scene that occurs just before the finale of the game which involves, among other things, two different explanations of the plot being put forward and overturned. What makes this strange game-design decision work, however, is the interplay between the ideas being put forward in this period of enforced noninteractivity, which concern the possibility, if any, of self-creation and self-determination, and the experience of different modes and degrees of interactivity which surround it. The game effectively puts forward a justification for its own status as art, and for the value of art as a practice of self-objectification and self-externalization, which is moving precisely because of the experience of a world of choices in which it is embedded.