Video Games are not an Artform
The Apotheosis of Pornography (Updated version)
Video games are a sophisticated form of pornography. They are not, despite many protestations to the contrary, art. To understand this unfashionable claim we need to first understand what art is, which is impossible to do literally. In fact art, great art, is the answer to what art is—what beauty is, truth, goodness and so on—but it’s not a literal answer. It reveals these things metaphorically, which is why we might find a story funny, but why the joke literally explained can only ever be appreciated, which means given a cheerless value.
An explanation of what art is can therefore never quite work, never quite ‘envelop’ it; will always sound incomplete and unsatisfying, but, with this in mind, we can still ‘gesture’ towards what art is, even if the necessary vagueness of what we have to say leaves us exposed to complaints that this or that example has been omitted.
One such ‘gesture’ is that, as James Joyce put it, where pornography moves, art stills. Pornography makes us want—it dangles sex and victory and sensory satisfaction before our eyes—or not want—it revolts us or terrifies us or even bores us. Art makes all this momentum stop, so that we see, or hear, or feel through to the truth of life; which is why after a wonderful artistic experience, like a wonderful natural experience, we feel we can ‘see through the veil’ of the illusory world—which has stopped for a moment—into something enigmatic, something eternal; yet not at all fantastical or imaginary.
Art is, we could say, the mystery of the actual, while pornography is the entirely unmysterious attraction of the unreal, or invented. Art uses invention to guide us back to our own experience, which is why there is a sweet sense of familiarity about experiencing magnificent music or myth, a sense of ‘yes, of course, I always knew this, but could not say it’, while pornography is bound by invention, by the possibilities it offers for escape, or for power.
With this sketched gesture in mind—and perhaps a rough, provisional definition; ‘art is a manufactured self-stilling form’—let’s take a look at video games, often claimed to be an art form by those who are addicted to them.
The difference between video games and art is, firstly, in the isolated nature of the former. Great art is part of a tradition, stretching back in time, and part of a wider, contextual culture stretching out, as it were, in space, which the great artist embodies and which, to a greater or lesser degree, those who enjoy the art are part of, albeit unconsciously. Video games, by contrast, are a closed system; they may base their technical aspects on games which have gone before, they may ‘reference’ wider culture and use cultural ‘artefacts’, but they don’t have to, and neither does the player, who is primarily enjoying the puzzle, the quest, or the fight within an entirely self-contained world. It is no coincidence that as video games consume more and more time and energy, so culture dies, the manifold filaments connecting it to the past, to the future, and to the rest of the world burn out, leaving, effectively, cultural cancers, black holes into which the isolated me pours its mind without ever having to come out and participate in anything which we have in common.
You don’t have to imagine you are living in a virtual world; ‘reality’ is a video game.
Secondly, video games are usually made by corporate committee. There is very rarely a single consciousness behind them. Not that art cannot come from groups of people working together (‘jamming’), but that system-embedded committees do not and cannot put artistic truth or beauty first, or do anything meaningful to discover an immortal expression of that truth. They have to put profit, popularity and system-approved convention first, they have to test and retest their games for popularity, for efficacy, for utility. As with all culture manufactured in this way—Netflix television shows, k-pop, BBC Radio 4 Drama, trade paperbacks—offensive, inappropriate, upsetting, radical, extreme, genuinely profound and difficult content has to be edited out long before it can reach the production line, and long before it can reach the minds of those tasked to find it.
Video games are system-generated objects, created in order to make users spend money on them and to continue to attend to them. The system demands constant consumption and constant distraction. This means, like most products manufactured in the system, video games must be addictive. This is the third difference between them and art.
Vast amounts of time and money are spent by powerful corporations on learning how to addict users (‘user’ is a word we use for the operative end of computer applications and of narcotics) to their products. Making games easy to learn and difficult to master, posing clear problems which must be solved to ‘progress’, making rewards intermittent and unpredictable, addressing our thirst for myth, adventure and the satisfaction of certain virtues (such as faith, self-sacrifice and courage) and making games constantly replayable (‘permadeath’ is an unpopular ‘game mechanic’ and must never get in the way of replayability; imagine a game you could only ever play once, even if you died after a few minutes!). None of these techniques are to express artistic truth or inspiration, they are solely the means to make users want to play them.
Art is not addictive in this way; in truth it is the opposite of addictive. In art there is often a sense that I want to find out who committed the crime, or a sense that I want to reach the culminating passage in a symphony, but I am not primarily motivated to get something, to achieve a certain score, or rating, or status, or acquire a valuable item, or solve a puzzle (or to cooperate with others in a degrading parody of sensate socialisation). This is why great writers and artists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Oscar Wilde, have stressed the utter uselessness of great art; its ‘stamp of its authenticity’. With great art I get nothing but the significance of what is happening.
Take, as an example, the multi-award winning ‘masterpiece’, Disco Elysium. This is one of many games about amnesia, the appeal of which is much the same as that of one of the lowest forms of literature, the detective story (or the ‘what on earth is going on here?’ sci-fi story). In both cases, piecing together the situation relieves us of the pressure of confusion. In lieu of meaning and joy, such relief is taken to be art (cookery is exalted for similar reasons) which teasingly reveals itself through the detective’s sterile quest for things.
As in other role playing games the protagonist, in Disco Elysium, is marshalled down a thin stream of shallow avenues, allowed to make one choice after another, the success of which is impossible to gauge, in order to increase a score, or series of scores. The totality of human consciousness, embedded in a self which responds with quality, is reduced to a quantitative interface, with a library of attributes and faculties, such as ‘savoir faire’ or ‘agility’ or ‘authority’ which are arbitrarily improved or degraded by the choices the player makes; to try and pick up a shoe, for example, or ask an in-game character the time, which may or may not improve one’s rhetoric, or reduce one’s composure, or put an ‘insight’ in the ‘thought cabinet’. It’s no surprise that the self is conceived by video game designers as a discrete series of knowable faculties which must be managed in order to achieve scores, because this is how video game players live, how we all must live in a world which makes such games possible.
Such a world also engenders extreme boredom, the tedium of having to wade through all the data of digital experience in order to get points. Conversations in games like Disco Elysium are almost unbearably monotonous, as is walking from one place to another, then back again, to pick up a handkerchief or a mongoose or whatever. In life we partake of an infinitely subtle and seamless context, while in art, which limits our sensory experience to the pages of a book or the rhythm of a drum, everything extraneous is carved away, to reveal the fateful point; a point which, in a ‘realistic’ video game, inevitably drowns in an ocean of trivia and the laborious act of shlepping around to get things.
This central element of video game ‘mechanics’ (we never speak of novel ‘mechanics’ or symphony ‘mechanics’), getting things, dominates the experience of not just RPGs, but also shoot-em-ups, platformers, beat-em-ups, survival games, strategy games, sport games and simulations; in most video games players have to collect coins, clothes, power-ups and other artefacts. And where getting things is not central, beating other people, acquiring points or virtual money, gaining access to higher levels (another kind of acquisition) and passing tests of cognitive ability are; none of which would have been considered an ‘artistic experience’ by any great artist of note.
Imagine reading a story or epic poem from someone like Shakespeare or Dostoyevski or Wu Cheng’en or Vyāsa, about a young man who picks up various objects, gets richer and richer, solves various logical puzzles, gains access to different rooms or zones, defeats enemies in combat, dies several times, but is resurrected and, the whole time, remains fundamentally unchanged, only being added to. Occasionally there is ‘narrative’, or ‘dialogue’, but the principle purpose of this is to direct the protagonist to more objects, puzzles and enemies until, finally, he ‘wins’. The spiritual poverty of this ‘tale’ speaks for itself; although not to those habituated to a video-game world. For these shadowy creatures, life is a series of choices that must be made in order to get things. They are unable to recognise the degrading insentience of artificial intelligence, because they are as artificial as it is. As Philip K. Dick recognised, ‘The only way to determine whether someone was an android was empathy. What separated humans from androids was that androids had no sense of empathy. The difficulty was that very few humans did either.’ 1
None of this means that video games can’t contain art. What if, for example, ‘Deus Ex’ used Mozart’s requiem as its score? Does that make it art? Obviously not, no more than if someone stuck a Klimt in Tracy Emin’s tent. Or what if Disco Elysium contains some wallpaper that references Kubrick or Fallout a bit of (rather crude) social commentary; does that make the game art? No more than if a director of hardcore porn had one of his actresses recite a beautiful haiku or wear a fake Marx beard.2 Consider the character design behind this little fellow…
Note the slight chubbiness of the arms, the fact that the nappy comes up to the nipple area, the dimples at the side of the mouth and the aesthetically pleasing balance of the figure, including its colouring. Someone with taste was behind this; but this is craft. Although it would take us far from our theme to explain the delicate difference between art and craft,3 a merely tasteful image like this is no more art than a good croissant is, or a nice pair of shoes.
There are video games in which open-ended experience is supposed to be a guiding principle, or in which the ‘beauty’ of the ‘art’ is—which usually amounts to slick, featureless, symbolic characters drifting through a landscape coloured with a carefully-chosen pastel palette. Putting aside the fact that such games are few and far between, putting aside the fact that there is still nearly always some motivating thing to get in such games, putting aside the fact that they reward exploration with titillating surprises, there is no actual significance to these ‘experiences’, no meaning, any more than there would be to your house suddenly glowing pink. It gets an appreciative ‘wow’—but so what?
Actually, if your house suddenly glowed pink there would be some actual meaning to the event, as such a strange experience in real life would, as all surprising events tend to do, propel you into your senses, more fully into the here and now. But this is what the ‘beautiful’ video game is unable to do. One focuses on the isolated image, through the screen, while sitting immobile in a darkened room. Art—meaning, here, great fine art—has a sensory context. It is part of a living space, it is an embodied, sensate experience.
This is the fourth difference between video games and art. With the latter the whole body is involved, in both the experience of creating and of enjoying the work. This is particularly evident in song, dance, sculpture and the crafts (a word which is completely debased in video games; as if ‘craft’ can come from anything but the sensate body), but even an author, sitting in a darkened study, and his reader lying in bed, are evoking a colossal, almost infinite, range of subtle physical experiences, completely denied to the essentially non-physical focus of the gamer. Stories also come to us primarily through [imagined] hearing, which allows us to experience paradox, mystery and silence in a way that the far more abstract and rational sense of sight denies us.
The fifth, final, and by far the most important difference between video games and art is that the ultimate and foundational purpose of the latter is meaning, a meaningful experience; which is to say an experience beyond self. When watching a film (even in the theatre) we also sit staring, sense-dimmed, at a square of light; but with genuine narrative art—myth, literature or story—we are being guided towards truth. Video games aspire to, and must aspire to, the truth of myth, literature or story, but they can never fulfil this promise. For where stories ask us to identify with, ultimately, an elemental human need to understand and overcome one’s self and one’s society—through love, sacrifice, acceptance and so on—video games force us to abnegate this need through one of their central, defining, characteristics; the fact that I control the main character. This fact automatically precludes that which gives myth meaning; a sense of fate and a sense of individuality.
The fate and individuality we experience in great stories, novels, plays and films, or myths is founded on unity, which is to say on the oneness of character. The harmonious totality of a character’s body, mind, situation, fears and desires are all, in the hands of a master storyteller, one with the action, a ‘oneness’ we experience, and experience pleasurably, as a sense that what happens must happen—fate—and a sense that this happening is absolutely unique—individuality. Fate and individuality combine to form endings which are, paradoxically, both inevitable (fateful) and yet surprising (individual).
The fateful individuality of art is a function of its capacity to express eternity. The choices available to any artist, at any moment, are as infinite as the universe he is feelingly part of. Although this choice is constrained all the way down to a singular, choiceless fate (which makes us feel, with great art, that each gesture, each note, each word could be no other), inspiration is only possible through the fact that at any moment the artist can say or do anything. Not so the gamer. His world is bounded (or if it is infinite, its procedural generation, even if random, is fundamentally iterative), his experienced is flattened,4 his movements constrained (by the mechanics of the game and the sensitivity and range of the pad or VR suit), his speech and all his forms of communication are limited (ludicrously, appallingly so). Compare the greatest ‘conversation’ with a character in a game to the greatest dialogue in a play or script; compare the digital art of the highest resolution screen with what an artist can do with paint; compare a dance game or a music-making game or a farm-simulator with actual dancing, singing and farming. Only someone blind to reality could claim such things are equivalent; only someone who lived their lives wearing goggles that made the world monochrome could claim there is no difference between a black and white version of Van Gogh’s wheat fields and the coloured original.
The crack in the artistic unity of fate and character is the one the civilised mind introduced between mind and body and which, by the time computer games came to ‘express’ whatever it is that their creators intend, is splintered into the available, in-game, options a player makes; decisions about one’s avatar (one of the most depressing selling points for computer games is that it is possible to ‘express yourself’ through the ‘characters’ you control in them; again, only someone with no character could make such a claim), routes one can take through a virtual terrain, items one can ‘craft’ or acquire and so on and so forth. All of this shatters unity. The totality of character presented to us by a great artist does not and cannot exist in video games because the player gets to choose what the character does, choices which leave most of his world, except for the few events in his programmed ‘arc’, unchanged. (‘The author is dead’ as the postmodern thinker tells us, although it takes a video game to actually manifest this hateful expression of nightmarish solipsism.)
Video game characters can just as well be tall or short, black or white, Canadian or Iraqi, men or women, with no effect on the game. In more ‘serious’ games, those that aspire to tell a ‘story’, the total impossibility of meaningful fate, arising from the uniqueness of a character, is substituted for a mimicked, signposted fate, in which a ‘surprising reveal’ or a ‘plot twist’ or a ‘happy ending’ is engineered though constraints in a player’s choices, bottlenecks in the ‘narrative’ through which players must pass—comprised of tedious, stilted, expositional dialogue—so that a ‘deus ex machina’ can periodically descend and direct players this way or that before letting them get back to what they really want to do; shoot things, collect things, solve puzzles and look at coloured lights.
Deus ex machina, or ‘god in the machine’ was, if you don’t know, a clumsy plot device used in ancient Greece to resolve complicated stories. The problems of the play would all be cleared up in the final scene by a god, descending from the heavens, and magicking everything alright. Second-rate storytellers have been using a version of this ever since, producing the same feeling in the audience; of being cheated. The difference being that the god—the author—does not literally appear, but artificially manipulates his pawns to achieve the desired effect, an effect which cannot move us any more than an explained joke can, because we are, in effect, being told to feel happy or sad or inspired or whatever.
The video game scriptwriter is forced to continually descend, god-like, into his narratives because the player’s gamepad is continually sending that narrative arbitrarily hither and yon. This is why the reveal, or twist, or denouement, or end screen of the in-game story always leaves us cold, or least those of us who are not strangers to unity, those of us who can still feel genuine surprise and delight and don’t need to be told to do so. Those working at tasks that anyone with a little training could do, living their lives in entirely mediated worlds built entirely from information, raised on a diet of novels in which characters are basically interchangeable, cannot create or recognise unity in art, and so they believe that video games are delivering fate and individuality to them.
Video games can no more give players an artistic experience than King Lear could if the audience were allowed to choose his actions or his speech. All they can do is all the second-rate scriptwriter or novelist can do to hide his or her lack of insight, craft and depth; cover the emptiness with special effects, sex and violence, pretty images, ‘fun’ and a variety of signposts telling the audience to feel this way or that. This is why no memorable insights ever emerge from video games, nothing that one can absorb and express to someone else. One can whistle a lovely song one has heard, and give pleasure to someone else, or retell a great story, or share a joke or an observation about the human condition in much the same way as one can share something that has actually happened. Art thus spreads through our culture organically, because it speaks to our organic experience as human beings and it is connected with our shared culture. Compare that with what one absorbs from a video game—nothing.
Imagine falling asleep and waking up in a video game, something like The Long Dark, an extremely popular survival game in which a lone protagonist wanders around a frozen wasteland trying to eke out a solitary existence in a completely hostile ‘natural’ world. This is one of an enormous number of appallingly bleak end-of-the-world games (Inside, Stela, The Last of Us, Amnesia, Stalker, Stray and so on) which mimic the emotional state of most gamers, utterly alone in a dead, hostile nightmare. Minecraft, the best-selling game of all-time, is similar; players explore and create a world of cubes, periodically haunted by demons. Sound familiar? That’s right, it’s your life. But imagine that you were literally stuck in a world like The Long Dark or Minecraft, forever. You might, if your spirit hadn’t been extinguished completely, find such a prospect one of almost unimaginable horror, those dead, digital masks sliding up to you, lips clumsily syncing their recorded scripts; but you forget that if this did happen, your consciousness would also be digitised, quantised. You wouldn’t know what you had lost.
As I say though, you don’t have to imagine living in a video game; you are living in one. We all are. Everything I have said in this account applies to the ‘gamefied’ virtual reality we call ‘the real world’, a sham shadow-realm, isolated from any kind of natural context or cultural tradition. It too is designed by committee in order to meet the needs not of nature or culture, but of itself.5 It too demands constant participation and total engagement; nothing must be left beyond its reach. It too is hostile to the body, particularly to woman’s body. It too, most terribly, is fateless, unconscious and utterly meaningless; a living death of utilitarian data points and use-values in systematic, mathematical space, utterly bereft of context and therefore of the consciousness required to experience a context, in its qualitative totality. It too is haunted by demons; hostile automatons and absolutely ruthless freaks. This is why there is so much speculation about whether or not we are ‘really’ living in a simulation. Those who ponder such matters — emotionally stunted adolescents — have no access to consciousness, to lived experience, which is why, like madmen, they question whether it even exists.
It’s also why we think and speak of ourselves in much the same way we would of a video-game character, like Master Chief or Lara Croft, because we are projected avatars in a flat, empty simulacrum. Just as the language of machines, engineering and institutional organisation colonised the individual’s experience of herself, as a collection of systems and faculties, which might feel ‘stress’ or require ‘maintenance’ and ‘management’, so we now conceive of ourselves as abstract, ‘hackable’ avatars in a fabricated three dimensional world — the arbitrary viewpoint of an entirely artificial perspective — with various discrete ‘powers’ which much be ‘levelled up’ or ‘cheat-modes’ which must be ‘unlocked’, in order to defeat ‘bosses’ before you ‘rage quit’ or get ‘pwned’. This is not the innocuous borrowing of one field of activity to better explain another,6 but a symptom of the degradation of reality, whereby the immeasurable quality of conscious experience, integrated with an equally rich context, is reduced down to an algorithmic interfacing of one programme, the digital self, with another, a digital society into which it is nightmarishly fused.
Nothing that comes from a hundred and forty hours of Zelda can be shared with friends and family without sounding impossibly sad; because it is not experience. It is unreal unexperience. This is why three years of, say, reading classical Russian literature improves the mind and the heart, while three years of playing Call of Duty, or Hollow Knight, or Eurotruck Simulator (yes, it exists; there’s also a ‘homeless simulator’ and an ‘unpacking simulator’) drains us dry, stunts our emotional growth and makes us unfit to interact with our fellows. Take a look around you at the millions of young people (and not so young people—sometimes thirty and even forty-year-old men; I don’t mean the occasional game of Mario or Cuphead or what have you, I mean mature men playing video games all day and all night! Women too, which is even more depressing, although still thankfully rarer; women tend to be more addicted to social media). Take a look at all those today plugged every waking moment into a manufactured digital realm. Would you call them cultured? Wise? Bettered by their long experience with this so-called ‘art’? What about the makers of these games? Take a look or read an interview with one of them; do they sound like great artists, like geniuses? Or do they sound like computer men?
These people are denatured, decultured lab-monkeys, and the reason is that video games are not an art form. They are irreal porn. No coincidence that so many addicts of one are obsessive users of the other.
This essay originally appeared in Ad Radicem.
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Actually, on second thoughts…
Literally: the image is inherently spatial, cutting man off from the context more radically than speech. See ‘The Humiliation of Speech’.
Using the word ‘default’ to refer to a basic state, for example.