The question, "Are video games art?" is a philosophical and critical conundrum that almost sounds too goofy to ask. But it is a question that its industry tries its hardest to answer in the affirmative. It has good reason to: With the advent of the Sony Playstation 2 and Microsoft Xbox in the early part of the 2000s, the industry finally gained the commercial foothold necessary to gain acceptance in the mainstream culture. But it remains a young form of media of which any form of criticism and interpretation has yet to solidify. Thus, the industry harbors that teenage insecurity of not being taken seriously, and thus makes every effort to say, "Yes, here is an example of what we can do as art." And it is here where things start to go askew, for such insecurities display the lack of real experience and understanding that come from being relatively new in any situation, which video games as a concept truly are in the scope of history.

In December, Ben Kuchera, a gaming journalist whose credentials have earned him enough respect amongst the gaming community and industry to run the reputable Penny Arcade's side publication the Penny Arcade Report, attempted to answer this question in the affirmative, citing by example the works of Harmonix Music Systems, in particular its original flagship product Rock Band. His attempt at answering the question was probably one of the most thorough efforts to come out of the sector. There was clearly some analysis and investigative research put into this article, of which we will get into later. From a gamer's perspective, it may be seen as the one of the better critical pieces on the matter.

But that is its greatest flaw: From a gamer's perspective. While Kuchera has some understanding of criticism, anyone with a basic understanding of art criticism and theory will look at it and immediately pick up that something is amiss, and in his defense of the medium, he is merely defending its existence as a concept, rather than explaining the artistic values of it. From this standpoint, his argument begins to unravel. Furthermore, while his research is impressive, blind spots emerge in further analysis that indicate either an ignorance towards anything non-gaming related, or contempt of the non-gaming world. In the end, we see not that Mr. Kuchera attempted to affirm video games as an art form, but attempt to redefine art in terms that could make video games fit into the definition.

Reading through this, one can gain an epiphany leading to a much greater question. Mr. Kuchera's words do not suggest arrogance towards art and the mainstream culture, but rather an incomplete understanding of art at best, ignorance of the entire field at worst. This problem seems to extend to every other affirmation from gamers. Which leads us to this: Do gamers understand art? There are many reasons why we must ask this question, which will come in future stories. But mainly, this question must be asked, for otherwise we cannot ask the related question "Are video games art?", for we cannot take the medium seriously to ask this question, and thus we cannot take a truly critical viewpoint. Before we get into this issue, though, let us first examine the inherent flaws of the current model of confirming video games as art, as demonstrated in Kuchera's article.

Favorable definitions and analogies

PhotobucketBarring a rather jarring and somewhat arrogant brow-beating of renowned critic and journalist Roger Ebert, Kuchera starts off soundly in his essay, making the point that understanding the reasons why people enjoy video games is more valid than simply dismissing them outright. Where he goes astray is how we are expected to understand this notion in the following paragraphs. The analogy he uses in this case is eating food:

"A meal from a master chef is considered art, but we value neither the presentation nor the ingredients as much as we like to pretend we do; those are simply a means to the end. The value comes from what we feel and experience as we eat the food. I’ve enjoyed meals made of multiple courses that create a sort of multi-sensory narrative. In some cases these meals have created a story much more compelling than many books. For that food to mean something, however, it needs to be experienced. You must look at it, smell it, and ultimately eat it. Everything else is secondary."

This analysis is problematic. We see food as a consumable good and need, and while we can place certain aesthetics on both the experience of eating it, and presentation and service that went along with it, there exists an obvious variable which can make the experience biased on a regular basis: Hunger. If, say, I were to not eat anything for a longer period than usual, every sensory aspect of the next meal would be enhanced greatly. The converse would happen if I were to shorten meal periods. In essence, placing an experiential (and thus aesthetic) value on a meal requires preparation and a certain mindset on the eater's part, so as to limit such outside influences. Otherwise, their judgment on the meal is to be taken with a grain of salt.

PhotobucketKuchera uses this strained analogy to bring up the point that art, like food, is a consumable good, and it is here that he stretches the definition of consumption in a way that tries too hard. He considers art inert unless the person interacts with the piece. But that is not what a person does when they consume art. Interaction, by definition, requires an active participation on the viewer or listener's part. But we do not need to interact with an art to assess it properly, for interaction is irrelevant. One does not need to touch Jackson Pollack's paintings to judge them, nor should they. What is done in the consumption of art is a passive participation through interpreting the work. We only need one sense or two to truly experience music or painting or film, and those experiences do not require us to react or participate in any way. Nor does an artist need an immediate and present audience to react to his or her work in order for it to contain an aesthetic value. We simply need to accept what is before us and define it in our own terms. If we react to the artwork, that is not participation but interpretation. This is the basis of criticism, and Kuchera's blindness to that aspect is unfortunate.

However, one senses Kuchera's desire to conflate interaction with interpretation in the consumption of art because of the mainstream means of consuming video games. One typically has to interact with a game in order for it to function, and without that function it supposedly lacks meaning. There is deeper fear running in this conflation, of course, because of the immediacy of making a critical assessment: Gaming, as a mass medium, has a commercial value that is generally higher (i.e., more expensive) than other forms of consumable mass media, which invokes hesitance on the consumer's part. Thus, Kuchera places a precedent on interaction over interpretation, because this is the only way he is capable of seeing it.

PhotobucketBut that is not the only way one consumes a video game. One can simply view the action from the sidelines and make their own interpretations, thus passing the requirement of consumption. How many significant others of gamers have watched their loved ones played a game? Are they not consumers of the media by being there? Are they critics when they say something about it? There is also the expansive community of those who record play-throughs of video games, be it a Let's Play, speedrun, or demo. When we watch Matt "medibot" Thompson or Mike "slowbeef" Sawyer play Kirby's Return to Dream Land or Snatcher, are we not able to be passive consumers of that game, and interpret the games with or without their commentary? When we see a group of gamers break Super Mario 64 to the point of completing the game in approximately 8 minutes, are we not acknowledging the aesthetic values of the game through its coding on top of the performance of these gamers? One could say that, in all these cases, there is a case for consumption, interpretation, and thus criticism that can be on equal level with playing the game.

Along with this, there is also the matter of the past, of games whose commercial values have long disintegrated due to the lockstep forward motion of technological progress. These games are not suddenly non-art due to a reduced level of interactivity in comparison to current games, or their supposed inaccessibility (which has been mostly addressed, as we will discuss in later stories). But the subject of history and video games is a delicate issue that must be focused on in depth. For now, let us focus on the aspects of history that Kuchera chooses to omit when discussing Harmonix Music Systems.

Whitewashing the Narrative

PhotobucketKuchera creates an interesting narrative about the creation and culture of Harmonix Music Systems, and not a bad one at that. He highlights the meeting of Alex Rigopulos and Eran Ergozy, goes over the history of the products prior to their breakthrough game Guitar Hero, and leads into the development of Rock Band itself. In each of these events, there is a certain depth that can be appreciated, in particular examining what got them moving from making quirky music games to games that had a potential for commercial success. From this, we can get a clearer vision of where Harmonix was going on a commercial level, and to some extent understand the efforts made to get to where they are now.

The problem is that the narrative feels hollow, missing something. In Kuchera's narrative, the only people mentioned outside Rigopulos (who takes up the bulk of the screen time in Kuchera's history) and Ergozy is current programmer Ike Adams and a former developer who works at Twisted Pixel. This would not be such an issue if it were a small developer of more than a couple dozen people. But Harmonix is far larger than that, and carries a significant staff culture that Kuchera refuses to even mention.

Culture in any situation is formed from the people inside it, and Harmonix's staff roster carries individuals whom, as musicians, know exactly what that means. One needs only to take a look at the company's Wikipedia page to see the numbers of people. Gamers may have some familiarity with Eric Brosius, a composer who was behind the music of the Thief and System Shock series (with his wife Terri playing a major role in the latter series as the voice of SHODAN), and was involved in creating the music and sound for Bioshock as a consultant. The name that will trigger the most familiarity to people in general is Ben Carr, whose band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones have been champions to Boston's music scene and scored mainstream success during the ska revival of the late 1990s. There are others that carry significance as well: Pitchfork readers and hipsters will immediately recognize Brian Gibson's band Lightning Bolt, one of the great noise rock acts of the last 20 years and a descendent of Providence, Rhode Island's Fort Thunder collective; and Rhode Islanders with their dials tuned to rock will have heard songs from Jason Kendall's rockabilly band The Amazing (Royal) Crowns at some point.

Still, even with these names thrown out there, what is important is that these are not just random hires. Rigopulos and Ergozy, in their vision of creating a high-quality music game that people enjoyed, surrounded themselves with musicians from Boston and Providence's music scenes through their hiring practices. In so doing, Harmonix became, and remains, an important part of these two scenes. I myself, who was born and raised in Rhode Island and went to college in Boston, personally know people who have worked with or have been employees at Harmonix, and are either musicians or heavily involved in the local radio industry. One can see the influence the company has instantly.

Just as well, as being entwined with these scenes gave benefits that contributed to the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The most obvious example of this came from Guitar Hero itself: because the music industry, in its corporate nature, was less than enthused on the idea of incorporating their songs into a game where players would attempt to replay them on a guitar controller, they withheld the recording rights for many popular rock songs, or set a ridiculously high licensing fee that Harmonix could not possibly clear. As a result, Harmonix had to rely on its staffers to make up for the loss: All of the mainstream "main setlist" songs were meticulous covers done in-house, while members and friends contributed their works as bonus songs. This trend continued in Guitar Hero II, even though a few mainstream bands like Primus and My Chemical Romance saw the potential of the game and provided master recordings for their hits.

In addition, there is little doubt that many of the development ideas that Kuchera mentioned, from drunk testing to the instrumental layout, came from these musicians that Rigopulos and Ergozy hired. They thus became key to its development, shaping everything from the interface design to the feel of the guitars and drum kit. Could a bunch of normal gamer-inclined programmers and designers have developed such products? Possibly, but unlikely. In addition, Harmonix as a company did not shy away from this aspect of their staff, either: Harmonix holds podcasts where they chat with their staff members about their work, both on stage and behind the desk, and takes pride in hiring people with a music background, as evidenced by recent job postings.

So why would Kuchera, in his otherwise in-depth history, drop out this extremely important aspect of the company, not even mentioning that they hired musicians on a regular basis? It is hard to say with absolute certainty. Given that, in my research for this essay, my attempts to contact staff members through my connections as a music journalist were met with resistance due to Harmonix's PR apparatus (one staff member even admitting as much), I am willing to give the writer the benefit of a doubt and a chance to correct the record in that the issue was a simple lack of access (for which nobody is at fault here). But in presenting his history, Kuchera showed either ignorance or disinterest at even mentioning the musical aspects of the company, even in those they spoke to with that sort of history, which leaves that possibility doubtful. His heavy focus on the gaming aspects makes it sound like he cared little for the music. But what it is particularly telling is a statement from the Twisted Pixel developer Dan Teasdale, which really runs contradictory to Kuchera's overall thesis:

"[…] he explained that they actually de-emphasized many game-like aspects to focus on the music. 'We tried not be gamey about things, and allow the game to be representative of how it feels [to play the music.] A lot of things we tried early on, like power-ups and stuff, they didn’t make you feel like you were part of a band, which was the goal,' he said."

It seems, then, that Rigopulos' and Ergozy's vision was less to create a music-based video game, and more to create a musical experience that just happened to be a video game. Such an idea makes Rock Band and Guitar Hero games that you could not exemplify in the "Are video games art?" debate, for they are outliers in the overall design and intent. In addition, through the inescapably deep connection Harmonix has with its musicians, one can credibly make the case that the company's game would have no impact or take the shape in which they exist without the complete piggybacking of another art form. In such a situation, Kuchera's thesis falls apart, because he is relying on a video game that is not intended to be a video game.

PhotobucketKuchera closes out his essay by going at length on why Rock Band should be considered art, and notably not other games. It is telling when suddenly the subject matter has shifted completely, but in a way that it is hard to notice at first glance. First, he wants us to take a game as an example of video games being art. Now, he wishes to exemplify the game alone as art. Even the media he uses, in particular the quaint contrast of a game controller not representing a rifle used in shooters with the Rock Band guitar representing the electric guitar used in its game, makes for a sudden determination that Rock Band must be segregated from the rest of gaming. After initial reading, one can even pick up this in the beginning, when he casually dismisses other examples used in the debate, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. We will get to more on this sudden turnabout in a moment.

Interestingly, of all the people who can make a compelling case against Rock Band being a fine example of video games as art, it is Alex Rigopulos himself who does it in Kuchera's essay. In his closing statement, Rigopulos points out the irony of calling Rock Band, in Kuchera's words, "a triumph of artistic expression," when much of the music itself was licensed (the successes of Guitar Hero and its sequel allowing them that luxury). But he then follows with this sentiment:

"In a way, we’re just taking the emotional content that already exists in this incredible music and presenting it to the player in this interactive context where it amplifies the emotional power. They have access to the emotionality of that music on a level that they wouldn’t as passive listeners. It’s almost like an art amplification device as much as it’s own artistic statement.”

Kuchera sees this as Rigopulos selling him and his products short. Such thinking is narrow-sighted, and Rigopulos comes out the wiser man in this situation. Rigopulos knows and understands the one thing Kuchera tries his hardest to ignore: that Rock Band is a music experience, not just a video game, and that the music came first and foremost before the game. He attempts to resolve the inherent contradiction to his new thesis here by reiterating his points on interaction being the key to the artistic endeavor. But the problem is that this artistic endeavor is now music and not video games, and more importantly, the players themselves were creating none of it, just re-creating it. Rigopulos saw that, as an "amplification device," Rock Band serves as a vehicle through which we learn more about music. That cannot be art in and of itself. When Ben Kuchera says, "As you learn how to play the game…you slip into a state of bliss that is deeper and more satisfying than just listening to the song," he is not giving an artistic assessment of a video game, but is simply gaining a better understanding of music.

Rock Band is a fine example of what anyone can do with a medium if they choose to ignore or subvert the conventions of that medium, and by all means Harmonix deserves every bit of accolade, credit, and profit that they have received for doing something so unconventional, and for hiring the incredible staff to make it happen. But there lies the problem with video games, and with people like Kuchera: with the medium still so very new, it is still learning to define itself in terms that people can relate to. Gamers, in trying to validate the medium's existence, rely heavily on the conventions that it has not even confirmed to be canon. This would be fine, if one were to then make adjustments, acknowledge these shortcomings, and utilize other forms of art and media criticism as supporting evidence if necessary.

Ben Kuchera, however, makes the same mistakes that many gamers do when faced with the question "Are Video Games Art?" He sees it from the gaming angle as much as possible, and never tries to look at gaming as though he were not a gamer but someone who barely understands the medium. This would be forgivable were it not for the fact that, by placing a precedence of interaction over interpretation, he was redefining art into something different from most people's understanding of it. The cause is one of validation and vindication: his words heavily imply that not only should video games be considered part of the fine arts, but it should have its own elevated place among them. This implied insularity makes one wonder, with all the effort he made, if he understands the meaning of art, independent of video games, thus seeing the question as it meant to be seen. Perhaps he does, but he does not make that case in his essay.

When we address the matter of video games being art, this is the issue we face: gamers with no understanding of art self-validating their medium. It is akin to a factory owner with no understanding of OSHA compliance self-judging its safety. This insulating factor, contributed by the overall culture that has developed through gamers and game developers, can make for a circle jerk of self-congratulation that deludes their sense of reality, and greatly endangers the expansion and development of the medium by creating an artificial standard. We will look into these cultural issues next time.