Synecdoche: games, control, subtext, and art

Recently, there has been a resurgence on question of ‘can games be art?’, with the film critic Roger Ebert categorically saying that they can’t, and the writer Lynden Barber echoing Ebert’s position.

One of the cornerstones of their argument is that are defined as competitive pursuits built from rules and states and goals, and that within that definition, nobody has produced art.  The call, then, is to reframe what we are talking about – that the word ‘game’ doesn’t properly encapsulate the evolution of the form.

Except neither do the descriptors ‘film’ or ‘novel’ or ‘writing’ or ‘comic’.

Every other form has evolved beyond it’s initial frame of reference and  gone on to encapsulate a wide range of expressions and forms – and games and play are no exception.  Should we stop calling what children do when they play at being firemen or are recreating scenes from their favourite shows ‘games’ because their rules are fluid?  Should we say that the story-driven epic-poem Sharp Teeth isn’t a novel because of its form?  Should we say that Koyaanisqatsi isn’t a film because it doesn’t hew to narrative conventions?  Should we say that Bioshock isn’t a game because there is no score as there is in Pac-Man?  Should we say that Braid isn’t a game because the levels can be tackled in any order?  Should we say that Mass Effect isn’t a game because it isn’t competitive?

The traditional elements of games – rules, states, and goals – are elements of what makes all of the above examples work, but they aren’t the only thing.  Play is central to the experience, but it isn’t everything.   Games (and play) are a synecdoche – where a single element of the thing is used to describe the whole.  Other mediums are inclusive, and are synecdoches in their own right, so it seems strange that games should be treated any differently.

Another argument against games as art is the notion of authorial control – games cannot be art because they aren’t guided experiences, the audience takes some responsibility for guiding the experience.  This presumes that the audience has complete control over the shape of the experience or the story, something technically infeasible, or that control and choice can’t be used in interesting thematic ways.  Taking Bioshock as an example again, its central theme of control, of ‘what makes a man a man?’, and the subsequent mid-point reveal that your sense of control and the choices that you’ve made have been an illusion is an incredibly powerful storytelling moment precisely because the player has spent hours making choices and feeling in control.

A game like Mass Effect, again exploring themse of control and power, works because secondary and party characters reflect various aspects of the themes, and those elements are explorable within the narrative’s overall goals – stop the Geth, save the universe – but by giving the player the ability to explore those themes as they want, a greater engagement with the narrative is possible, and some choices carry greater personal weight because you as an individual make them.  If you’ve spent 20 or 30 hours shaping your character as a reflection of you, the choice to wipe out the last of a species is your choice – not the characters, not the author’s, but yours.  The ability of games to communicate experiences, to explore the inner world as a reflection of the outer by giving the player choice and a level of authorial control is an incredibly powerful tool.

But are these games art?  What separates art from entertainment?

Watching the documentary Indie Sex on SBS the other night, one commentator made the point that one distinction between sex in art and sex in pornography is the intent of the sex and whether it contains subtext.  The same argument can be made for games.  How does something like Bioshock distinguish itself from Doom?  Both are first person shooters, but Bioshock  is about more than just exploring Rapture and killing Splicers.  It’s about family, control, about the danger of unchecked power, and about a world built on a precarious philosophy.  While it could be argued that these may not be particularly deep themes, they are there in the subtext of the player’s actions, the presented narrative, the game’s space, and it’s eventual resolution.  The same argument could be made for many of the other games put forward as art – Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Flower, Passage, or The Path.  They all attempt to be about more than what is presented, and about more than the player’s actions.

Games (in their synecdoche form, not their dictionary definition form) have evolved – as film has evolved, as writing has evolved, as comics have evolved – to contain a wider range of creative possibilities than would have originally been possible.   We should, as a broad creative culture, be inclusive rather than exclusive.  We should look at the creative possibilities of choice and audience authorship rather than dismiss it as inferior to other forms.  We should consider that games are made by adults, with adult concerns, and with aspirations to use these new tools at their disposal to create emotional experiences for their audiences.

In short, we should consider them as being art.

1 thought on “Synecdoche: games, control, subtext, and art”

  1. When I saw that post of his I laughed and thought of Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, writing, in the context of art: “The moment a limit is posited, it is overstepped and that against which the limit was established is absorbed.” [translated by R. Hullot-Kentor] The moment you ask whether games can be art or not, the moment you introduce that question of “Can they?” into the minds of artists and people who love art, the more inevitable you make their eventual absorption into the category of art. Does it seem reasonable to picture a sea called ‘art’ running up to the border of a continent called ‘computer games’ and stopping there forever, kept magically at bay by some component of a game that makes it utterly superior to, or alien from, everything else that was once not part of the art world and now is (West African clay heads, Aboriginal dot paintings, abstract expressionists, knitting, a urinal), isolating it in a new category of its own? Games have qualities that are theirs alone, but do those qualities have the power to repel artists? I don’t think so.


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