meandering creativity, symbols and emotion

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Video Games are Too Expensive to Be Art

I've got a few more articles I'd like to write on the subject of video games and art so I'm treating this one as an intro of sorts. I'm also expecting that I'll edit this for clarity and mistakes as I read/re-read it.

At the risk of exposing to the world just how geeky I am, I try to keep most of my video game chit chat to generalities. That means that my musician, mommy-blogger and otherwise professional blog friends can avoid zoning out while I discuss the finer points of my latest game obsession.

A while back Roger Ebert got a lot of video gamers upset when he asserted that video games weren't art. He quickly clarified that they couldn't be high art as he understood it; comparing them instead to sports. I really like video games but have to admit he makes a pretty compelling argument:Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.

I cannot agree with Ebert that there is no potential for games to be art. But most video gamers don't really have a stake in what is or is not art; they're looking for some sort of justification for their chosen leisure activity.
Gamers who are angry with Roger Ebert don't care about art - they just want their wives/girlfriends off their case for being up till 2AM playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Of course, if you're an artists of some sort and you're doing that I'd love to hear you prove me wrong, but other than that - no sympathy!

I believe that games could be art but most lack the sort of intentionality that shapes most art. Art may be able to exist without intentionality but it requires an artist of some sort to shape it that intentionality. So by this definition, the assets in found art may have existed prior to the artist but it is not until they are declared art that they become art.

I started thinking about all of this a while ago when Jon Clark posted the following thoughts about his recent staycation:
So I was able to make about 3 months worth of headway into these games in 5 days. If (big if) I got halfway through all 6, that means that I need to be playing only these games over the next 3 months to 'finish' them. Thats pretty staggering in my opinion. I mean how is a person with a job expected to get through these games? The games industry acts like we need to be playing a new release every 2 weeks, I mean how do people do it? Even if I had no job, It would still take tons of time to keep pace with the exhausting release schedule of only the games I actually want to play..
The game industry is not intentionally making art. When they have to sell a million units they can't afford to be art. They are making the best game they can hoping to sell to as many 12-34 year old males as possible, as often as possible.

Studios force directors to edit their movies to make them shorter. Pop radio will only play songs that are less than 4 minutes long. Game companies add value by making their games longer. All of these decisions are more or less based on what the companies know people want. If you read just a handful of video game reviews you will find complaints if there is less than 10 hours of game to play.

This sounds unreasonable to folks who don't play video games but it makes sense. A new video game made by major publisher for mainstream consoles cost $40-$60; no matter how artistic it is gamers want a decent return on their investment. Which is a strong indicator that most gamers aren't interested in their game being art.

The price-point for experiencing art has to be less than $15. There are clear exceptions to this but if experiencing your art costs any more than this then you are probably not making art, you are running a business. Sure, artists have to make a living but I thought that was where the starving part of being an artists comes into play.

That said, art house theaters and galleries rarely charge more than that for tickets. Rock bands like Pearl Jam and Fugazi have worked for years to provide low-cost ways for people to see their performances.
Forget big budgets and trying to find the next Citizen Kane. We need to be on the lookout for the small studios and DIY ethics.
There might be a way games could be art but like any medium the easiest way to do this is move out of the mainstream and into the fringes.

Starting points?

Jay Pavlina - the creator of Super Mario Crossover

Jason Rohrer - the creator of Passage


  1. pork chop sandwichJune 10, 2010 at 11:30 PM

    "The price-point for experiencing art has to be less than $15."

    So go rent a game for a weekend instead of buying it. There are businesses dedicated to ensuring that consumers can experience this "not-art" for under the "art" price point of $15.

  2. I understand your argument about game companies needing to justify the cost of their product, but it is not different in the world of fine art, really. Bigger paintings, generally speaking cost more than small ones, and famous artists can sell for more than less famous ones. Yet few would argue that just because a painting is worth millions it no longer constitutes art.

  3. pork chop sandwich:
    Gamefly, Blockbuster, and the other rental services help participants get their hands on the games. But often this is in spite of the gaming industry.

    A painter, playwrite or filmmaker partners with galleries, theaters and cinema to get the work out there, but at this point the gaming industry only tolerates the secondary rental/used markets because they haven't had any recourse. EA's recent "Project Ten Dollar" is their attempt to regain some of this secondary market by crippling rental/used games. Their intent is clear: make money.

    It's also interesting that we're referred to as consumer's not participants.

    I may be misunderstanding your use of bigger/smaller but the value of a painting rarely has to do with how much it costs to manufacture. So what makes a painting worth millions? it's not because it took 100s of people 5 years to make... it's because of the artist, how rare the painting is, and the period during which it was painted. And probably the painter is dead.

    So it ends up being difficult to compare paintings and games (as a potential medium) because they are so very different. This is the challenge games has yet to really address - and why I believe intentionality with the game maker is important. If game makers can explain their intentionality - then they may be able to explain how they understand their art independent of a 9 to 5 job.

    Spoiler: I think that games can be art but it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to see how if we only look at mainstream, AAA games.