Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Against my Better Judgement, I Discuss Citizen Kane and Maybe Art

The video-games-writin' set has an odd set of preoccupations, and many of them hinge on the question of legitimacy. The is-games-art debate, the Citizen Kane o' games question, they're all about the stature of games in the cultural marketplace, where they stand in the artistic pecking order. (Here's a hint: pretty fucking low. It's lonely at the bottom. Hence the contest between video game and comic book enthusiasts, the “Saddest Fight on the Internet.”)

One of the major problems with this discourse is that the are-games-art conversation almost never goes anywhere. I'm not denying that some good work has been done in this line (N'Gai Croal's reply to Roger Ebert is maybe his finest piece), but I've never felt the conversation produces much. As soon as you pose the question the whole issue becomes a definitional wrangle over what art is; one party or another begins lobbing stipulations at the other and a substantive issue becomes a semantical one. Comment threads allover the internet are overstuffed with useless arguments of this very form.

The pervasive error here, which Wittgenstein warned against, is the presumption that there is one or more properties-- authorial intent, emotional depth etc.-- the possession of which unerringly discriminates art from nonart. The Philosophical Investigations (supposing you try to understand it, which I cannot in good conscience recommend), will disabuse you of this misguided idea that there's a criterion to be had when it comes to applying concepts like “art.” There's a wealth of interesting historical and anthropological observations to be made about how we use the concept of art-- what it means for us to treat some portion of our culture the way we treat Pride and Prejudice, say-- but we're not going to unearth a metaphysical truth, an occult rule, that will magically decide the question for us.

Leigh Alexander, in partnership with games-crit mandarin Ian Bogsot, recently launched a salvo in a neighboring dispute, the Citizen Kane o' Games question. Their point is that we should put the whole issue to bed, as the dynamics of cultural legitimacy presupposed by the question are outdated and irrelevant in the new-media landscape. “we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy,” Bogost remarks, “but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore.” There's a lot of truth to this; the critical discourse on games, like all other cultural discourse, has become more and more fragmented and specialized since the advent of the internet. The scattered condition of our critical polis is ill-suited to king-making. Artistic legitimacy is a social phenomenon, something that we create ourselves-- a fiction, as Bogost says. It's necessarily bound to the forms of media that sustain and disseminate it.

The problem with all this is that we're asking the wrong question. The “are games art?” question is boring. The “will there be a Citizen Kane of games question?” is equally so. While we can make some more-or-less intelligent prognostications about the the new economics of cultural capital in the internet era, even this is a purely speculative.

The interesting question, to me, is what kind of art games are. That is, we should be asking ourselves what kind of formal dynamics and pleasures are inherent in the medium, and be able to identify when these formal capacities are used well. (This is another way of posing the question: how are games fun?)

And this is one area where thinking about what Citizen Kane achieved (rather than what it represents) is genuinely important. The reason that Kane has the kind of cachet it does is because it displayed such a consummate command of the formal capacities of cinema, as a medium. (I think Alexander and Bogost do Kane something of an injustice; the article reads as if its cultural status is an accident of history, and underplay the role of its superb artistry in its achievement of that status) It wrought a novel marriage of form and content by creating a visual language that complimented its thematic preoccupations.

There's a brilliant bit in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay that captures this. They've just come from the movie, and Joe is trying to explain to Sammy that Welles' masterpiece holds the key to their own nascent, illegitimate medium:

It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had seen, the total blending of narration and image... Without the witty, potent dialogue and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have been merely an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventuring of the camera, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was much more, than any move really needed to be. In this one crucial regard-- its inextricable braiding of image and narrative-- Citizen Kane was like a comic book

Now, cinema is much more akin to comic books than games. Let's lay this aside. It's this braiding we should be thinking about. We should ask ourselves whether a game can achieve a relevantly similar kind of synthesis.

To tip my hand a bit, I think this would involve exploiting the fact that games are both rules and fiction, form and content. The game creates a certain space of possibilities for the player to inhabit and the fiction invests those choices with meaning. The genius of Bioshock, for instance, was the way that the game's upgrade-mechanics (acquiring ADAM, a scarce and morally hazardous resource) played off against its thematic concerns with the costs of untrammeled self-interest. It lost its way on this point, but Bioshock offers (along with Portal, and maybe Braid) something of genuine use: not a cultural monolith, but an example of what videogame art might look like.


Andrew Doull said...

It's good to see I'm not the only one groping for Wittgenstein when it comes to the games vs art debate. (My thoughts were at ).

Tom Armitage said...

Shit, I'd forgotten that bit of Kavalier and Clay but remember it having such a potency at the time, and yes, you're right.

I get annoyed with Kane-as-benchmark, but I think exploring the "how" you describe is at least useful, as it forces you to consider the criteria you're using to judge things, and now at least I'm less sceptical of Kane-as-benchmark, even if I'm not sure the argument always applies to games.

All in all: jolly good, sir.

(Also: "Now, cinema is much more akin to comic books than movies." - is one of them mean to be "games"? I ask because, to my mind, comics and games share a whole bunch of interesting overlaps beyond the "saddest fight on the internet"; namely, the inherency of the juxtaposition of images and words and Important Other Things (in the case of comics, layout and linearity; in the case of games, mechanics and rules) to their art)

DeeMer said...

The best way to go about this, I think, is to consider the difference between an artist and an artisan. An artisan can make a chair or a table or a ceramic pot, and through the mastery of his craft may create something that can be deemed a work of art. He doesn't build a chair to convey a message, or to promote a cause, or to push a pet philosophy. He builds a chair so one can sit in it, and if it is a beautiful chair, all the better.

M. Ashley said...

Literature has a one-dimensional relationship between author and audience: I as the observer follow a single line of text from the front cover to the back, and it's only on this line that the artist has control.

Paintings and drawings can be considered two-dimensional, as the artist-observer relationship is bound by the length and width of the canvas.

Film, while two-dimensional visually, adds the dimension of time to that artist-observer relationship.

I would say videogames are most akin to sculpture and/or theater. A sandbox game is sculpture, where the artist has established control over the three spatial dimensions but given the observer (general) control over the temporal. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time resembles theater, where all four dimensions, both spatial and temporal, are defined-explored in the artist-observer relationship.

What makes videogames unique, however, is the obliteration of the limitation of reality within the medium. All other arts are bound by what the observer can realistically physicially accomplish: we can only see so fine a detail on a painting or a cinema screen; we can't shrink down and crawl inside a sculpture; we can't at all experience the physics of Escher. And they are further bound by the material resources of the real world: the artist has only so much stone to sculpt, only so broad a stage to play. Auguste Rodin could never have shaped a moving, emoting colossus for his observers to climb. Ueda Fumito did.

Videogames (and digital interactive media in general) are presently the best opportunity for art to do what art has always wanted to do: imitate life more truly, and surpass its bounds more greatly.

Ian Bogost said...

Very good points. Questions I might ask, even while I don't know the answers: is the "maximize formal affordances" method of legitimacy still predominant in art of any kind? Is it a feature only of cinema? Why should the rules be the "form" and the fiction the "content"? Is that too a cinematic conceit? Even if it is so, it's one of only a specific kind of cinema, which troubles things further.

All that notwithstanding, we agree about the "boring" part.

Charles said...

I agree with Mr. Bogost. I think it isn't necessary that the 'braiding' in games involves rules and fiction (read: story). This is just something that a certain very popular kind of film does.

For instance, dance is a braiding of movement and music.

What's to say that games aren't a braiding of other types of experience? Perhaps of coercion and improvisation?

Ben Abraham said...

This was fantastic and I will tell anyone who asks me as much.

Simon Ferrari said...

Lovely toward the end, but I think the middle relies a bit too much on Chabon's misunderstanding of Kane.

The truth is, it *is* what Kane represents, and not what it is, that had it at the top of Sight & Sound's poll 7 years ago. Kane flew in the face of a decade of soft focus and short takes. It is impossible to watch this movie now without your experience being tempered by the fact that "this is the one."

This pinnacle of form and narrative in the cinema that Chabon celebrates is really only one of many: Bazin's love of long takes and deep focus. In fact, Renoir's Rules of the Game is a superior example of this paradigm.

Ian's right, this idea of maximizing formal qualities is falling out of popularity across all media (following postmodernism, generally). Early on in film we had (this is only a few of em) French Impressionist, German Expressionist, Montage, Bazinian, New Wave, and American Pure cinema. But the only significant formal theory advanced in the past 35 years or so has been Dogme, and that was probably more socio-political than it was artistic.

I really like the question Charles raises about what exactly we're braiding. This stuff about Bioshock at the end really doesn't square for me. You're talking about a game where the gameplay and story are so separate that you receive most narrative information from fucking audio logs. You know, those things we all keep on our desks... if we're secretaries in a medical or law practitioner's office. Even the oft-criticized Braid features a much tighter coupling, or braiding, or whatever.

I think you were much more on track with the Frankfurt school aesthetics discussion.

thesimplicity said...

Great argument. I highly recommend Matthew Wasteland's take on this if you haven't read it before.

For me, "what is art?" has never been the question; "what are games?" seems more appropriate. I've been thinking about this topic more and more after playing the Path, which is perhaps the fist commercial game that was intended to be a work of art. And, of course, the brainysphere (jesus, I hate that term) adored it while traditional gaming outlets were stuck trying to figure out what numerical value to assign to the game's "sound."As time goes on the quality of the message increases, it becomes more and more apparent that video games as a platform have been appropriated from the mainstream. That is where I see the connection to comic books.

Dynamic Equilibrium said...

"To tip my hand a bit, I think this would involve exploiting the fact that games are both rules and fiction, form and content. The game creates a certain space of possibilities for the player to inhabit and the fiction invests those choices with meaning."

And immediately your description conjures to my mind the art of architecture. The relationship of form and function, habitable sculpture, an emotional experience crafted by the use of spatial and temporal elements...

Perhaps an answer to your question "what kind of art games are"...

Grobstein said...

That word "braid" in the Kavalier and Clay quote. . . .

Nels Anderson said...

I think the "Are games art?" question is actually worse than boring, it's deceptive. Even if there was some arcane calculus through which one could prove, indisputably, that games were art, it wouldn't change anything. The quality of being "art" doesn't transmute existing games into something more enjoyable, compelling or meaningful. It's a red herring at best.

Iain Simons' interview with Tom Kim (I think) laid this out even better.

I find some game analysis to be in a very similar vein. It's interested, I suppose. But after reading, I can't help but think, "This doesn't help me make a better game." Making better games is ought to be what we care about, not lining up some constellation of media properties that demonstrates games are art.

Maybe that's just my bias. But I can't imagine Orson Welles was sitting on the set of Citizen Kane, eating Buckley's peas and wringing his hands about whether or not he was making "great art." I think he was concerned with making a great film and knew the rest would align itself.

Also: It's this braiding we should be thinking about.You, sir, are a fiend =)

Nels Anderson said...

Addendum: @Dynamic Equilibrium

Iroquois' already on board. I am too, FWIW.

The similarities between games and architecture, especially in that they're functional things that people must "use," is very accurate. Most of the time, I think it's more accurate that comparing games to film or literature.

Dynamic Equilibrium said...

@Nels Anderson

Ah, my apologies to Iroquois for being such a part-time reader.

[goes off to read referenced post]

Simon Ferrari said...

@ games and architecture:

Nobody likes to read Henry Jenkins? "Game Design as Narrative Architecture" is an oldie but a goodie.

Celia Pearce also writes about it in connection to the Uru Diaspora and her experience transitioning from working as an attraction designer for Disney to game design.

Simon Ferrari said...

Oh, I just saw somebody already linked Jenkins in the comments section of IP's old post on the subject, and then everybody promptly ignored it and kept on commenting.

Long form isn't dead, y'all.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@andrewdoull: hey that's a good post you have there. I'm on board with the prototype theory on the concept-use front but I have some serious reservations about using Wittgenstein to fund a empirically-based theory of concept formation. When it comes to the games-as-art debate tho we are in fundamental agreement!

@tom armitage: thanks for pointing out the typo there. This is what I get for editing posts into the wee hours. Typos aside I meant to highlight the idea that Films and comic books share similar formal properties (use of framing, in particular) however, I think your point that the juxtaposition of mechanics and images/words is essential to games as a medium is right on.

@deemer: as I indicated in a previous post, I think that game design has the artisan flavor you mention. Moreso than some other arts, games have this functional aim, which is to craft a "fun" experience. However, I don't think this prevents a game designer from trying to achieve an artistic vision within these constraints.

@M.Asheley: hey thanks for the thoughtful comment. while I agree with the spirit of your point here, I wouldn't want to say that any one art form is "more true to reality" than another. I think each art form has its own set of tools for expressing thought and emotion, and I don't think any one set of formal capacities is superior to another.

@ianbogost: Holy Crap! It's Ian Bogost! Thanks for stopping by. Here's wot I think

1) I don't think the "maximize formal affordances" imperative, which I lay out here, is oriented towards legitimacy per se so much as it's oriented towards goodness. I know this sounds hopelessly retrograde and maybe Platonic but I come from a philosophical aesthetics background. My view is that a game that maximized these affordances would be excellent, in itself, regardless of whether it achieved any Citizen-Kane style cultural recognition.

2) this is not unique to cinema. You could look to the use of terza rima in Dante's Divine Comedy or the use of the free indirect style in the novel, which both achieve the kind of form-content synthesis I point to here.

3) As a Hegelian, i should be more wary of defending the form-content distinction, but here goes: generally speaking I don't think game mechanics or rules bear any semantic freight , taken is isolation. My idea is that they mediate the meaning of the fictional/representational elements, and that is why I think they are formal rather than substantial. (like, you remove the colors and the title from Rod Humble's "the marriage" it no longer means the same thing.)

4) no, the form/content (or image-narrative) distinction is not unique to cinema-- I don't think it's a uniquely cinematic phenomenon. As I said above, you could draw a similar analogy to games by thinking of the juxtaposition of meter and imagery in poetry.

@charles: I knew you would object to the distinctions I'm drawing here, you incorrigible formalist! I deliberately avoided using "narrative," (opting for the more neutral "fiction") because I didn't want to prejudge the aesthetic issue in favor of the linear, character-based story.

I wanted to leave the nature of the rules open; all I care about is that the fiction complement the rules and mechanics, whatever they might be.

@simon: like I say a above, I don't intend the Citizen-Kane analogy to favor any one style of filmmaking (or game-making); all I care about is the interplay between the game mechanics and the fiction. Even if the delivery of the narrative in bioshock is clumsy/implausible at points, I have to say that it sought to achieve a kind of tight coupling you point to. (how are text snippets between levels in Braid any more "natural" than audio logs?)

@nels: You're totally right. I don't think that practicing artists waste much time trying to make 'art." I think they're mostly consumed with thinking about the micro-level concerns: what "works," what doesn't "work."

Also, i deliberated about exploiting the "braid" pun but decided against it.

Simon Ferrari said...

@ IP:

Maybe because the text snippets in Braid actually have something to do with the mechanics? In any case, I think diaries are slightly more common than audio logs.

Were the audio logs about Rapture's descent into madness actually indicative of your mental state or actions in the game? The decision to harvest Little Sisters or not wasn't about power corrupting. It was about choosing from the beginning whether you were going to be a dick or a saint. Were you ever actually hurting for ADAM? They make the choice too easy for you.

The domination problem you've mentioned before hits games like Bioshock harder, for me, than in god games. This game (on hard) was a series of:

1) Run into a room
2) Hack everything
3) Shooting everything
4) Listen to audiologs
5) Solve simple physics puzzles with a Gravity Gun derivative

Anyhow, as to your combined reply to myself and Ian... you're talking to two other people with a background in classical philosophy and aesthetics (I only read Latin, but Ian can slang some bad-ass Greek). I don't know if falling back on our beloved Germans and Greeks is enough to answer the problem posed by postmodern (or in Bogost's case, unit operational) critiques of these top-down formalizations.

The idea that mechanics don't carry semantic freight has been contested repeatedly. See Janet Murray versus Espen Aarseth on Tetris. See Braid (apparently the text was added to the game as an afterthought... somebody call me on that if it's not true).

In general we're actually wholly in agreement, but I'm always questioning myself about being too naive. To be honest, I see any thought that goes into making a game as more valuable than not thinking at all.

Simon Ferrari said...

@IP: Thinking more on my dislike for Bioshock, I realize that I haven't thought enough about how incredible the transformation into a Big Daddy is at the end of the game, or how it changes everything that I'd seen and done throughout the course of the experience.

If you know of anybody's articles or blogposts on this subject... please link!

Simon Ferrari said...

I just realized we could pretty easily test your statement about The Marriage by mocking it up in black and white in Processing, sitting people down to play it, and then asking them what they thought was going on. It's essentially what a lot of people in my interactive design class did when they prototyped a microworld with no narrative information and then explained what it meant.

Because what we're really talking about there strikes right through to the essence of the argument against authorial intent. Summer projects!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@simon: I certainly wouldn't want to defend bioshock all across the board. I don't think it achieved a synthesis across the board, or that everything worked. I think the problems you mention are totally valid (in fact they're the centerpiece of Hocking's critique, which I pointed to).

Oh, and I know you guys (or at least Ian) have a background in classical aesthetics and know that stuff well. All I meant to say is that Bogost has made a set of principled arguments as to why we should reject the framework of classical aesthetics and so would probably disagree with the "maximize formal affordances" view I front here.

As for the semantic-freight issue (I'm stealing the terminology from Persuasive Games) I think it's pretty clear that the meaning of a game would totally change if you kept the mechanics intact but changed the representational elements. (like, take Flower and keep an identical set of mechanics but change the gust of wind into a stuka divebomber the flowers into Polish civilians and so on, this would be a different game.)

Gene Koo said...

Perhaps a related topic you might pick up: if games are art, how might you curate a museum exhibit? Some preliminary thoughts posted on my blog.

GunBlade said...

(Jumping late into the discussion) @Iroquois Pliskin in continuation to your example, would you say that if Flower would had lesser graphics (last gen or even before), it would also be completely different to you?

steven said...

It seems to me (as I've written elsewhere) that the simple answer to "Are games art?" is: "Yes, but not as we knew it." The point is that whenever a new form is invented, the definition of "art" - which was only ever a post-hoc abstraction to describe the forms already known - has to be stretched to accommodate it. This happened with the novel, opera, cinema, etc etc...

Hyde said...

whatever happened to Versus Clu Clu Land?

mtvernon said...

@Hyde: I stopped by to ask the very same question.

@Iroquois Pliskin: Whatever happened to Versus CluClu Land?

Grey said...

We've got a new medium with new possibilities and a real chance to change things. We can take inspiration from the "right stuff" and instead we harp on about how great Citizen Kane was. It isn't even close to the apex of that medium and it never was. I agree that it's what it represents and not what it is. This:
"In fact, Renoir's Rules of the Game is a superior example of this paradigm."
is correct. Technical bravado impressed critics, but there was nothing human about it. Strip Kane down, pull apart the meaningless, mechanical cinematography, ignore the aural bridges and you'll find a hammed-up performance that leaves us wanting.

Still, as you've implied, it's dishonest to try and figure out which art form we should imitate, but it's equally as cheap to wonder about which techniques we should append to interactive works. It's true that there's a different language spoken by each of the arts and that we should find our own, but it's crucial to note that there's another language spoken by each individual practitioner of that art. James is not like Joyce who is not like Faulkner just as Renoir is not like Tarkovsky who is not understand.

I lose faith in these ideas frequently. Perhaps all we really do care about are basic mechanics. The state of film criticism for the past century seems to admit as much. My most cogent appeal would be to ask why we seek something more meaningful than what we have here, with Bioshock and Mario and other structurally sound, often entertaining games. These past 3 or 4 decades of basic mechanics and limiting rulesets have obviously left us dissatisfied. Why are we trying to find a way to legitimise these artificial rules through artificial narrative or worse, semiotics?

I ask because I truly, deeply hope that you've felt, at least once in your life, so overwhelmingly human that you know you're alive. I'm not talking about some junkie's adrenaline rush, and this is probably one of those things that you'd take a skeptical stance towards until you've felt firsthand, but the feeling is real. It's neither rare nor associated with life-altering experiences but it may require one to tune in in order to appreciate. There's no doubt that true art makes you feel this way. Do you think a videogame, crafted for the sole purpose of making money and helping you get your jollies deserves a greater deal of respect than what we give it today? Because as far as videogames and the utilisation of their inherent attributes go, Tetris is probably king. I don't recall narrative or fiction being inherent to Chess. In fact, I see this whole discussion as people trying to break free from the shackles of videogames and what videogames connotate. It seems like we're on the verge of moving into something incredibly more fulfilling and valuable. It would be something that we will remember and learn from, not something that we will be entertained by briefly. I think we all understand the value of a videogame - we wouldn't be here if we weren't enthusiasts but we also wouldn't be here if we didn't know there were more important things in life, or at least higher aspirations for the interactive medium.

I apologise for the obtuseness, but when there's something of value out there, you'll just know. It won't be because it adheres to a marriage of form and content or other arbitrary boundaries. It will be because the creator has made an honest work that comes from inside him, has not misused the medium as a soapbox, and the work has resonated with you and the emotions you feel, as opposed to the ones you think about.

Grey said...

That brings us to something I've said before: The Marriage was insulting. This is the sort of thing that makes art a dirty word. It's infuriating that people fell for Humble's schtick and it doesn't merit any consructive criticism. Is anyone here married? What about your parents? Does anyone truly, honestly think that the fragility of a marriage is done justice by Humble's idea of making the game easy to end? Do we experience things through abstract metaphors? I've nothing against the style - all styles are simply a filter for the individual expressing the emotion, but you've got to have actual emotions to express. Try A Woman Under the Influence, which I hesitate to praise in case my abrasive attitude influences your perspective of the film.

There's too much to say about all of this, and I don't think a comment on a blog is the right place to say it.

"It seems to me (as I've written elsewhere) that the simple answer to "Are games art?" is: "Yes, but not as we knew it." The point is that whenever a new form is invented, the definition of "art" - which was only ever a post-hoc abstraction to describe the forms already known - has to be stretched to accommodate it. This happened with the novel, opera, cinema, etc etc..."

This isn't going to cut it. The fact is that it hasn't happened to games, which have been around for far longer than you and I.

Lyndon said...

@Simon Ferrari: Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Andre Tarkofsky would all beg to differ about cinema not producing any formalist movements in the past 35 years. Certainly they're all as mainstream as soviet montage ever was.

Fun fact: 90% of people who say they like Citizen Kane have no idea why Citizen Kane is actually an important movie.

Hint: André Bazin

Lyndon said...

Gosh I can't believe I misspelled Andrei Tarkovsky's name. How embarrassing. My kingdom for an edit button.

Gujjar said...

That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.
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Who wants a stylus. You have to get em and put em away, and you lose em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus.

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