Is it a video game?

Recently I underwent a brief and mild addiction to the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. Now why might this be worth writing about? Well, in truth video games never held out much charm for me. I was never inclined towards puzzles. I detest card games. The dynamics of chess are almost Chinese to me. The neural pathways that register pleasure when faced with pointless enigmas and logical challenges simply don’t exist in my brain. Furthermore, kids of my generation would remember very well Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons so any flirtation with nerd culture would immediately bring the fat unattractive comic book store owner to mind. (This is a mental reflex that has sadly died out these days.)

Video games were only ever an extension of other interests. My great affection for the cutesy anime Pokémon led me to the Gameboy game it was based on (or rather, it reeled me in, considering that the TV show wasn’t intended as anything other than promotional material). I eventually took on the maturer childhood passion of football and so my video game collection expanded to include every year’s edition of FIFA as well as Football Manager, the latter often considered the most addictive game in the world yet I always got quite bored of it. I couldn’t resist restarting every time I lost a match, or creating new head coaches for rival teams and running them into the ground. I played these not for the sake of overcoming recreational difficulties but purely to live vicariously as the coach of my favourite team, or in the case of FIFA a single spirit or consciousness that exerts itself on any player of that team that happens to possess the ball.

These desires finally petered out. My young mind grew into more respectable pastimes. When you’re reading Ulysses at the age of 15 you’re quite impressed with yourself and the idea of picking up an XBox controller seems more demeaning and mentally unhygienic than accessing the more sordid strains of darkweb pornography. I keenly maintained this haughty contempt for the medium until, perhaps, last year or so. I became more and more aware of Red Dead Redemption 2, the blockbuster Rockstar-produced game that cost $644.2 million to develop (nearly twice the amount of the most expensive movie ever, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which cost $376.5 million). I’d been more or less immune to the media fanfare surrounding its heavily anticipated release, but two years after it came out the slow filtering of its expansive world through social media eventually drew my interest in. Perhaps it was just due to the constraints of lockdown but the prospect of touring such a beautifully realised realm from the comfort of my small apartment.

After a few drinks one evening my intrigue got the better of me and I bought the game to play on my phone via Google Stadia, a newish cloud service that bypasses the need to splash out a few hundred quid on console hardware. You have to complete a few missions (mostly shooting some nefarious Irish clan) before you’re permitted to roam free through the game’s extensive terrain. Here is where my addiction locked in. The missions I found tedious. As aforementioned, accomplishing tasks isn’t my idea of fun, exploration is, and that’s all I intended to do. So as soon as I could I began exploring the immense varied territory designed to be a microcosm of the Western, Midwestern and Southern regions of the US as they were in 1899. No more missions for me… Rather I wanted to admire the play of pink light on swamp water at sunset or travel from town to town inspecting the architecture and wondering if this or that building was post- or antebellum.

RDR2 is of course rated 18+ for a reason, which is the extreme violence your character, Arthur Morgan, must regularly inflict upon his fellow computer sprites. But this is only necessary within the formal storyline that I completely boycotted. Outside of missions harming others isn’t the done thing — an “honor system” operates within the game that rewards you for good behaviour, and shooting up an entire village doesn’t constitute good behaviour. Sometimes I engaged in some recreational violence such as blowing the heads off wild horses or yokels. However all acts of homicide must be committed in absolute seclusion as anyone within half a mile’s distance will witness you committing your cardinal sin and promptly run to the police if they don’t simply take care of you themselves. This then leads to gunfights and mortal chases that I hadn’t bought the game to experience. The only reason I might launch an arrow through some redneck’s red neck is to admire the detailed representation of gore by the game’s developers without having to suffer the consequences and general brouhaha that would be immediately attendant in real life. All I want to do is wander and marvel, not engage in any of the mental labour that video games conventionally task us with. In the tough dog-eat-dog world of RDR2 I have the agency to live life as a Benjaminian flâneur or hippie-drifter.

At this point the term “video game” becomes a misnomer. Video it certainly is (although RDR2, believe it or not, has pretensions beyond mere video and boasts a “cinematic mode”), but is it a “game” when the pleasure you draw from it is chiefly aesthetic? Am I playing a game when I ride my horse into Saint-Denis (a fictionalised New Orleans) and admire the French colonial architecture or walk into its local art gallery and look at the paintings? There is an alternative term to use, which is “interactive media”, but this is horribly clunky as well as ill-defined. We’re restricted to a term that slants our perception of what is sometimes called the “tenth art” purely as a tool of play and not as a medium of expression.

This query invites us to ask a broader and more contentious question: can video games be art? Actually, asking “but is it art?” is always a tedious affair. Asserting that a banana taped to a wall is art doesn’t by extension demand you consider it good art, the same way calling Kinder Eggs food doesn’t make them either nice or nutritional. A better question to pose might be: can video games be worthwhile art? Can they run through the same neural pathways that paintings, music and literature run through? Can we respond to video games the same way we respond to more traditionally esteemed art?

Stephen Spielberg was asked when and how video games might reach their maturity as a medium of renown and prestige. He said, “I think the real indication will be when someone confesses that they cried at level 17.” Well of course such an arch sentimentalist would say that. But has any video game cleared such a high bar yet? In the wake of the game’s release social media was awash with the testimonies of players’ grief upon the death of their horse, a mere flux of brown pixels given shape and motion by the algorithms of a central processing unit. Yet perhaps it’s more understandable to cry over a pixelated horse in a video game whose death was preventable than a pixelated horse in a film whose death is prewritten. So by Spielbergian standards we can make a reasonable argument for the artistry of video games, but surely there are other criteria beyond those of Hollywood’s tear extortion rackets?

Which brings us to space. Space as in the spatial, not outer space. But this will probably be terra incognita for people inclined to only judge video games by their storytelling abilities. Space is, needless to say, visual. Hence it’s naturally a concern for filmmakers, or at any rate should be. But for video game developers space is more than just a concern: it’s the primary characteristic of the medium. Whereas a filmmaker just happens upon space video game developers are creator gods with the job of creating a universe ex nihilo. Weaving terrains and constructing architecture is their very first priority. Not only is this a creative task but one that takes an immense amount of consideration and labour. The experience of traversing these expertly realised spaces and admiring them is how RDR2 sells itself — at least how it managed to sell itself to me. Whereas so many video games, structured as they are around chronometric progression, are a kind of analogy of the fundamental demands of life (doing this and that within the eight hours of the working day every day in order to eat and have shelter), RDR2 allows us to remove ourselves from its game loops (as the industry calls the series of objectives that structure games) and explore. To momentarily step back from the breathless pace of life is the basic function of art.To reiterate the question above, surely the pleasure of walking through the aforementioned Saint-Denis and gazing at the French colonial architecture isn’t much different to going to my local cathedral in real life to admire its gothic arches and stained glass windows. Is the latter an aesthetic endeavour? And if it is, then surely a more curated and endlessly varied version of this should be lauded.

I look back to my own experience growing up in video game environments and I wonder whether they didn’t greatly enrich my childhood. Were I born a generation before I was, the spaces of my childhood would be restricted to the apartment complex I grew up in, the surrounding inner city area, the trips to my grandmother’s second home in the country and not much more. As I grew up with Pokémon Blue I also have those minimalist but greatly suggestive towns and cities that populated the game’s fictional rendering of Japan’s Kanto region. The extremely spare detail given to these digital spaces, which were rendered in monochome 4-bit (an odd thing to consider: that black-and-white persisted in mass entertainment products well into the 90s), were hypnotically fixating. The magic of this world was that it could be reconstructed with the ease and accuracy of tracing paper by your memory and endless things could be grafted on by the childhood imagination. The imagination feeds off lacunae and elipses, and such things were central to that very Japanese essence of Pokémon. To this day I can walk the entirety of the Kanto region in my head. Whereas so many games, like neoclassical art, strive for photographic realism and are always doomed to fall short, the reductivist world of Pokémon Blue was a world created perfect.

Beyond that, the names were also important. There’s a good reason Proust devotes so many pages in the early volumes of In Search of Lost Time to the complex relationship between places and their names. In contrast to the Irish placenames that didn’t mean anything to me (what can ‘Dublin’ mean to anyone?), the Kanto region was garlanded with gorgeous literary names that I couldn’t have appreciated fully at the time but nonetheless made an impression on me. Pewter Town, Viridian City, Cerulean City and so on. As Proust notes, there is always a sharp dissonance between the feelings and imagery the names of the places conjure in your mind and the physical reality of them. How cerulean or viridian can an 8-bit black-and-white video game town really be? Again it’s the suggestion and then the initial frustration that excites our imagination as it seeks to reconcile place and name.

If I can have such a strong aesthetic reaction — no matter how retrospective — to my favourite childhood video game does this not weigh in favour of the argument that video games can indeed be worthwhile art? The question of space in video games is a well-trodden path when touching on this issue. Googling “video games poetics of space” will throw up any amount of articles by academics and culture writers analysing games through the lens of Gaston Bachelard’s seminal work. Bachelard was concerned principally with our relationship with space in memory, but there exists an endless amount of games that use space as sophisticated cultural critiques: as parody, satire, idealism and, most commonly, dystopia. One of the most prominent examples of this in the last few months is Cyberpunk 2077, a game set in a dystopian California city-state governed by megacorporations. Among the most notable aspects of the game’s dystopian vision is its imagined architecture, one that reportedly draws from Entropism, Kitsch, Neo-Militarism and Neo-Kitsch. With such a scholarly panache Cyberpunk 2077 is as meaningful a piece of art to our society and our consideration for the future as 1984 or Children of Men.

Or is it? In a recent article about Cyberpunk 2077, one of the few pieces so far to critique it in terms other than how fun it is to play, in The Architect’s Newspaper Ryan Scavnicky laments that “[t]he game’s criticism of contemporary culture mostly falls flat”. It simply has nothing to say beyond “inadvertently” reflecting the uglier aspects of contemporary architecture. He goes on to write “[l]ike architecture, video games struggle to make provocative criticisms of contemporary life. Both disciplines are tethered to an inescapable responsibility — video games to entertainment and architecture to service.” Well this feels almost like praising with faint criticism. There might never be a Ulysses or an 8 ½ of video games, yet if the tenth art is unable to aspire beyond the same artistic rank of architecture that’s no reason to denigrate it, and to subject Cyberpunk 2077 to such an informed excoriation already concedes it — or at least its artform — the valour of meriting such a criticism. Yes of course video games are obliged to sell themselves on satisfying the physiological need for play, but it would be a blinkered view to assume that play is its sole value. Similarly, we don’t judge architecture solely by how well it serves its function, otherwise we would have long torn all historical buildings.

Besides, the tenth art is still in its earliest youth. Cinema only hit its stride sixty years after the Lumière Brothers’ first film. It took at least two hundred and fifty years for the modern novel to be considered to be on par with poetry. The first video game, arguably, came in the form of Pong in 1972. As late as the 1980s the idea of a three-dimensional game would have been considered as inconceivable. The next decade could bring about an even greater quantum leap in evolution that the 1990s saw. With the proliferation of open source design software video game development is becoming easier and easier for any teenager in, say, Seoul or Riga or Caracas or anywhere on the planet. It’s conceivable that worlds that approach the level of granular detail found in RDR2 could be built by lone creators with the same ease and lack of financial demands that one can write a novel. Fantastical worlds that only the most daring novels can envision could be made walkable realities in the digital ether. The literary capprici of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities might one day be built for everybody to explore.

Thinking even further down the line, just a little beyond the horizon of our present technological capability, it may be possible to create universes as complex as our own, but as fantastical as we (or, say, Artificial Intelligence) want them to be. The Matrix essentially but any amount of them. This is the view held by computer scientist Rizwan Virk. If this ever becomes possible it would of course nullify the special position of our own reality, which we would reason is in all probability a video game designed by higher beings. This reality wouldn’t be much more to us than an original reference point for thousands of other realities, all vastly different to each other. In such a future these monstrously vast games could be produced by teams of creative geniuses. The immeasurable scale of achievement of such works of art would relegate the Sistine Chapel to the level of cave paintings.

Alas, this is extreme futurist thinking, and we’re on securer ground concerning ourselves with things as they are today, and today video games are still oppressively narrow experiences. It’s true that, particularly during the hellish confinement of present lockdowns, the ability to simulate travel doesn’t seem particularly unhealthy. Especially for those people who are at the best of times imprisoned in dull, cramped environments the idea of visiting some artificial paradise of scenery should be considered a very positive development. But there’s a danger that the value of such things are illusory. They bring to mind the warning futurologists make about the threat sex robots are to humanity: for all the obvious things they might be far, far more than many people could otherwise hope for in a partner, and yet the idea that they might function as life partners is profoundly disturbing. We know this instinctively. Similarly, the prospect of digital trompe l’oeils being considered acceptable surrogates and even replacements for real world spaces would without a doubt depress any human being.

This is among the reasons I retain an instinctual wariness of video games. More so than “play”, it seems to me that the principal aim of video games is escapism—a far preciser and more useful word — which is an aid in withdrawing us from the real world. Well, you don’t need me to say that the whole point of escapism is to avoid engaging with the real world. Serious art on the other hand draws us in to the real world. Whether it happens to be social realist fiction or piano solos it furnishes us on some plane of understanding with insights into the universe we inhabit. I find it difficult to imagine even the most passionate gamers experience what Nabokov calls the “telltale tingle" of the spine (essentially, the ecstatic flooding of that neural pathway devoted to art) when playing their favourite titles.

If video games are art they aren’t a particularly enlightening one. One can make an analogy with The Lord of the Rings and other popular escapist fantasy stories which may boast limitlessly elaborate worlds with their own unique languages and landscapes and religions but in the end their elves and dwarves and sorcerers don’t do much to enhance our engagement with the real world.

Scavnicky may be right to dismiss the artistic pretensions of video games on account of their primary function, which in the end is the only one that’s commodifiable. Video games may be an art but they’re a trash art and arguably even an inimical art. The effect of video gaming is similar to the feeling of being stuck to social media: you feel the muscle of your brain atrophying and you’re all too conscious of the time you’re burning through, time you could be investing in far more pressing tasks, yet you can’t budge from the screen. Various MRI studies have shown that video game addicts throw up a similar map of half-ruined brain activity to that of drug addicts. Instead of social media I was going to compare the experience to injecting yourself with heroin but even with heroin you can focus on other things, and you also probably succeed in coaxing yourself into some form of elation. The pleasure I drew from RDR2 was at best quick and furtive, a quick fix of diminishing returns that rapidly pass into increment anguish. In contrast, reading a reasonably literary book, as MRI scans attest, is one of the few cerebral equivalents to a full-body workout.

Of course the world changes. It’s always changing, and at an ever-accelerating pace as well. Elon Musk is threatening to render language obsolete within the matter of a few years through machine brain implants. Such things, whether realisable or not, mean that the human experience a mere two decades from now is deeply unknowable, so there is every chance our engagement with video games will be far more enriching than now, depending on how both games and we evolve. But for who we are now the tenth art is still the lowest art.

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Alsander

Alsander

Irish writer. Some digressive essays on film, literature, etc. Contact: alexanderbyrne95@gmail.com