Video games as opera

Hey, let’s see if we can do something fun with an ongoing argument. Are video games just a glorified skinner box? Will some of them one day be considered canonical works of art?

In a lot of these “are video games art?” debates, attention tends to be given by both the pro and con camps to the interactivity of the medium. The resulting experience is to some degree out of the creator’s hands, because it depends in part on the player’s choices. For the con side, it seems to remove the key notion of the creator’s vision – she provides the raw materials and will try to point you in a direction, but it’s up to you to make the experience happen. On the pro side, this is not necessarily a bad thing; it can even enhance a game’s artistic value by imbuing it with polysemous potentiality.

But I don’t think that interactivity is a particularly interesting angle to look at the question. For one, although games are interactive, it is a highly controlled sort of interaction. The rules of the game are less like the rules of a sport where we voluntarily agree to be bound by them, and more like physical laws which limit what is possible as a consequence of the nature of things. And even the most open-ended games want you to have a certain kind of experience. With the exception of glitches and other programming oversights, the choices that you have available are under the control of the creator, and so you are always experiencing what she wants you to experience. It isn’t the case, for instance, that a very clever player can play Megaman 2 like a western RPG.

Secondly, other media often invite a degree of skill and interactivity from the audience. On one end would be something like television, which is often a very passive experience that does not demand much from the viewer. Wagnerian opera, on the other hand, requires a certain set of ears. A person whose listening is entirely conditioned by pop music will hit a brick wall in Wagner’s lack of conventional song structures. It takes a degree of patience and discipline in order to transform the experience from one of meandering vocals and orchestra into something coherent and moving.

And books, well, depend upon the reader for any sort of movement whatsoever. And the reader has a rather high degree of power when it comes to his experience. There is nothing stopping him from reading the pages out of order, of reading it silently, or out loud, or just listening to someone else read it. And it is up to the reader to visualize what the author is describing. Yet it still remains the author’s artistic vision.

So I don’t think that interactivity in itself is salient in picking out what is unique about video games. Their uniqueness in this respect comes from their dependence on electronic technology for interaction, and in requiring from the player the development of a different set of skills (hand-eye coordination, strategic thinking, etc.)

That still leaves video games as an unusual artistic medium, which leads me to my post title.

‘Opera’ is the Latin word for ‘work’, and I believe the story goes that opera was called opera because it seemed to unite so many disparate kinds of artistic expression (or works) into a single passage. There is drama in the action, visual art in the often lavish art direction and set design, the rarefied forms of art music, etc. The resulting gesamtkunstwerk is a unique beast in its own right, which at its best pushes the limits of expressivity.

Similarly, a video game is a work which is essentially constructed out of other works. Programming and technical power, visual art, music, storytelling (and sometimes just pure cinema) are brought together to make something unique. Indeed I think video games are at their worst when they merely attempt to simulate a movie.

And the result in both cases is highly stylized. People don’t normally speak to each other in recitative, nor do they often engage in turn-based combat. But features like these are often celebrated as being essential parts of the experience, rather than compromises with the limitations of the medium.

My point here is to undercut the criticism that games are poor art because they are parasitical on other artforms. We already have some cultural recognition of art that employs various kinds of arts in achieving its end. And while this approach can go horribly wrong in the wrong hands, it doesn’t seem intrinsically deficient. The potential is there, even if the vast majority of video games don’t live up to it, and even if there are structural problems with the video game industry that actively inhibit it.

Anyway, I’m not a professional video games theorist or aesthetician. Those of you who are can savage my ponderings in the combox if you are so inclined.

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Video games as opera

  1. jubilare says:

    “So I don’t think that interactivity in itself is salient in picking out what is unique about video games.” I agree. All art is at least somewhat interactive, a spectrum rather than an either-or.

    And I agree with your assessment of the medium, too. There are games out there that, like good art, take advantage of their tools, and other mediums are, by no means, free from “crap.”

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