Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trash, Art, and the Games

“Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it.... We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?” -- Pauline Kael, Is There a Cure for Movie Criticism?

When pressed to justify our leisure we run the risk of disavowing pleasure. Because games are almost universally associated with puerile amusement, because they are seen as frivolous where they are not seen as corrupting, the ludologists and the games-as-art crowd are quick to run to the defense of games with the standards of respectable art in hand. Surely a good many games are about nothing more than engineering some empowering bit of badassery, we say, but their potential lies in their expressive capacity for making us reflect on agency, identity, and control. Look past the genre exercises-- your headhopping cartoons and your space-marine operas-- and you will find a medium groping towards works of moral imagination. Games aren't just trashy fun, or at least they won't be forever.

As Andrew Doull argues in a provocative recent article on GameSetWatch, our rush to defend games in these terms betrays a certain “fear of fun.” As a card-carrying member of the games-is-art crowd I am doubtless as guilty of this as anyone. I want games to aspire to the narrative complexity and technical self-consciousness I associate with high art, art for adults. When driven to defend gaming I will cite the pleasures of discovering and mastering the rules of a game-world, an activity which shares a great deal with the sort of learning we do in other contexts. And I believe that games can use the tools of their medium-- control, interaction, and narrative-- in order to interrogate these very pleasures. Games like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus have suggested, each in a different way, that our desire to master the world and turn it to our uses is shadowed-- as The Dialectic of Enlightenment warned us-- by a covert desire to conform and yield to the rules imposed on us by others. We're not in Citizen Kane territory yet, to be sure, but clearly these games are waypoints on the medium's journey towards maturity.

Doull's piece reminded me of the essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, written by legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. What Kael says can be read as a counterpoint to the aspirations I mention above, so I am going to use this post to present her view. She has some interesting points to make about justifying pleasure, and though they are meant to describe the state of film in 1969 they are just as applicable to gaming in the present day. Her response to the demand for justification is to question our very desire to justify ourselves: “Does trash corrupt? A nutty Puritanism still flourishes in the arts, not just in the schoolteachers’ approach of wanting art to be 'worthwhile,' but in the higher reaches of the academic life with those ideologues who denounce us for enjoying trash as if this enjoyment took us away from the really disturbing, angry new art of our time and somehow destroyed us. If we had to justify our trivial silly pleasures, we’d have a hard time.”

In short, Kael counsels that we are best off to overcome our misguided scruples-- divest ourselves of the idea that there is something ignoble about the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure she memorably remarked, is “something a man can call good without self-disgust.” Even a cheap and mindless genre exercise can be redeemed (as trashy movies are) by the presence of some glimmer of real vitality: “The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.” The plot of Ninja Gaiden is insipid, the character design tawdry, and the level design pedestrian. But the combat-- the combat is genius. It shouldn't matter that virtually everything else in the game is trash.

The upshot of her view, then, is that the price of acquitting ourselves of the charge of infantilism is the disavowal of what is vital and compelling about the games themselves. What Kael says of film one can also say of gaming: “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings.” If Kael is right, we do violence to the excellences of games when, in search of respectability, we try to turn Resident Evil 4 into Middlemarch. We are better off celebrating the subversive gesture-- the vengeful and methodical beheading of the undead-- with unabashed relish. As Kael wrote, “we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy.” The challenge of games criticism is one of becoming articulate about what we enjoy. Fun is what we have always enjoyed in games; but saying interesting things about having fun cannot mean leaving it behind.

But I do wish that games tried to be the “really disturbing, angry new art of our time.” As Louis Menand notes in an excellent review of Kael's work, she forged her critical consciousness in reacting to the cineastes and the directors (Bergman, Kubrick) who were contemptuous of the audience's desire to be entertained. In games we face the opposite problem: game creators are too complacent about their ability to entertain us. They know what we like and they know there is money to be made by giving us more of it. And while I don't think there is anything unethical in this, this attitude reeks of cynicism and laziness. I'm not worried about games falling into the hands of pedants, I'm worried it falling into the hands of people who would be willing to exchange creative stagnation for profit. The more this happens the less fun we'll have on our hands.


Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

Nice post, as usual!

Out of curiosity, why can't subversion take place on the BestBuy shelf alongside complicity with the dominant ideology?

Perhaps more to the point, wasn't Middlemarch pretty radical in its day? Dorothea has to ruin a heck of a lot of sacred truths to find her epic life, after all.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi Roger,

Well, of course subversion can take place on the shelf along with the paint-by-the-numbers stuff. I just think the economics can disfavor subversion, and of course there's nothing new about that. The history of culture is rife with artists overturning the accepted standards, and I don't think we are at a loss for examples of this in games either.

I guess what I was more getting at is that games can be sort of cynical and pandering if they figure how to push our buttons right; it can be profitable to pander to our known tastes rather than thinking of new and gameplay ideas.

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

Looking at the landscape, you're right, obviously--but don't we tend to get what we'll pay for? I guess my own point is that we need to change the conversation about what games are capable of, and that, in turn, will change the market. That's where Barber's analysis starts to kick in, I guess, but I suppose I'd point to graphic novels, which IMHO have so much less expressive potential than games, as an illustration of how a market can develop towards greater aesthetic complexity.

I dunno, maybe I just disagree with Pauline Kael. I harbor a strong suspicion that she was being disingenuous about why she liked the trash. My own notion is that she really loved it because it was just good, and complex, the same way Middlemarch is good. She was just lucky enough to find a complex aesthetic experience that was still being marginalized by the establishment, though embraced by the mainstream. Like games, obviously.

Thanks for the response!

Justin Keverne said...

Trash is usually considered as such because it panders; it seeks to be no more than entertainment for the mass market.

But entertaining the masses is hard; consider all the straight to DVD movies that are trashy but not successful. Or the heavily marketed summer blockbusters or "Best Seller" novels that are equally unsuccessful. The mass is a fickle bunch and the cultural zeitgeist a constantly moving target. There is a power and a talent in being able to entertain millions that I think is greatly overlooked. But even work that is unsuccessful is relevant as it defines what we, as a culture, don’t like.

The cultural significance of mass market entertainment is usually overlooked at the time it is created. Only years later when it is it rediscovered and revaluated does it's nature as a key facet of culture become clear.

We are defined as much by what we praise as what we vilify. We need trash as much as we need art; we need to appeal to both high and low culture. We need it so we can define the boundaries of contemporary culture, if not for us then for future generations.

Michael Abbott said...

Great post, Iroquois. Kael, as you say, was clearly responding to the auteur-theory critics and directors of her time that were trying to move the cinema in a new direction. Her voice was probably a necessary counterbalance, but one might argue American cinema's creative rebirth in the 70s was more due to those artists than Kael's sensibilities.

I personally don't trust Kael about half the time...and the other half I find her brilliant. Sometimes I think she liked to indulge her inner provocateur. And why not? She was so very good at it. ;-)

I hope games give rise to a critic like Kael someday. When that happens, it will mean the mainstream popular games are seen as in need of critical defense. At this point, a contrarian personality like Kael would probably be writing about games from the other side of the fence, defending artistry and aesthetic ambition.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi guys, thanks for the generous comments:

@roger: I agree with you that Kael the movies Kael liked the most (like the Godfather) were just good, tout court: you don't have to sacrifice entertainment for complexity, even though we sometimes see it as a zero-sum game. My own guide on this issues is Mr. Edward Kennedy Ellington, who said "there are just two kinds of music: good music and the other kind."

@justin: I think you're right that we underrate the amount of skill and artistic craft that go into making mass entertainments; there are plenty of great movies-- your "it's a wonderful life" or your "Wall-E" that are capable of entertaining everyone but are no less artful and worthwhile. There is so much prejudice, self-deception, and poor aesthetic judgment behind the highbrow/lowbrow idea, and as you point out getting past that idea is the first step to a useful cultural criticism.

@michael: Like you say, I also find Kael most useful as a provocateur, especially because she has such different ideas about art than I do . I also tend to approach games with the sort of high-art approach she criticizes so I find it challenging to think along with her and figure out what I agree with.

I'm also with you that the mainstream AAA game is not in dire need of critical defense these days. It's really the auteur and the games-as-art visionary who need the support of critics (and consumers) today, and the state of games as a medium is not the same state as film in the late 1960s (we should be so lucky!)

i also hope that a critic like kael would come along in games, but for a different reason. I do hope a critic with a prominent place in the public imagination came along and presented a strong, extreme view about what constitutes excellence in video games. (Maybe the closest thing we have to this is N'Gai Croal.) I think such a critic would help advance the critical discourse, since having a view out there in the common language of criticism would give us all something fixed to argue about, and this would be a good thing.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

Well, yeah, she's right. Perhaps we should not consider ourselves infantile or puerile because we enjoy something almost completely devoid of any kind art/moral/philosophical sense. At the same time, there needs to be a balance. The game spectrum needs to range in between both crowds.

I haven't really taken stories or messages or context in games seriously until recently, because that's around the time when those things became prevalent in games. But now that they're here, I take them into consideration.

Oh, and Justin above says that work that's unsuccessful defines what we don't like as a culture. Philosophically, this is true. But in reality, it could just mean the company didn't do good publicity. Or the first shipments of software had some terrible bug, etc.

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