Insomnia | Commentary

Can Games "be Art?", and other Childish Nonsense

By Alex Kierkegaard / March 3, 2008

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality", while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness", the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

George Orwell


As some readers may have gathered, one of my goals with this website is to clear up a number of grave misunderstandings in the field of electronic games, so that we can then begin to build a body of criticism based on solid principles. As is only natural, given the highly technical nature of the field, these issues are rather involved and complex, and require quite a bit of specialized knowledge to understand. When I analyze the essence of arcade gaming, for example, I presume that the reader has played a number of arcade games in his life, and is at least somewhat familiar with the way a real arcade establishment operates. When I write about the issues a reviewer faces when treating ports and compilations, I expect the reader to already be aware of and familiar with at least some of these issues. When I delve into the subject of sequels in videogames, I am assuming the reader has played many sequels in many different genres over a period of many years. In other words, all these articles are written with people who play games in mind, and this is how it should be. It is not possible to delve too deeply into a matter of technical nature for the benefit of those who are completely unfamiliar with it.

But as for the subject of "art and videogames", this will be the only controversial subject I am going to deal with for which no specialized knowledge is necessary. It is such a simple, trivial issue that any mildly intelligent person off the street should be able to understand it, even if he has never touched a videogame in his life. It's basically an issue of semantics. The question "Can games be art?" is nonsensical, and therefore any answer one might come up with for it will also be nonsensical. Put another way: the question is not a question and the answer is not an answer. It's kind of like asking if the "sky" can be "sad". When you ask such a "question" you are using language in an improper way, and the only solution to the "problem" posed by the "question" is for you to simply STOP ASKING IT.

The problem lies with the words "game" and "art". If you type these words into a number of online dictionaries you will get several dozen definitions, which fact should immediately make you suspicious of whether there is any generally accepted definition at all. The short answer is there isn't. Some of mankind's greatest minds have tried defining what a game is and failed, while on the other hand the word "art" is used in so many different contexts that the only thing we are expected to understand when someone refers to something as art is that they are praising it. Like "democracy" and "terrorism", two other popular words that have yet to be clearly defined (and probably never will), the word "art" is often used in a consciously dishonest way. Again from Orwell:

"The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning."

So getting back to the question "Can games be art?" (which to make sense of we now read as "Can games be good?"), the only acceptable answer to this question would be, "Of course, and so can anything." Music, movies and even food can be art (but only good music, movies and food). Books can be art (but only good books, and we even have a fancy name for them: we call them Literature). War can be art (The Art of War). Sex can be art (The Art of Love). Even my cock can be art when I am in the right mood, et cetera, et cetera.

The next question of course would have to be, "So which kinds of games are art then?", and the answer to that question should by now be obviously, "The good ones." So Deus Ex is art, Elite is art, and Ketsui is art. Wing Commander and Pikmin and Master of Magic are art, et cetera, et cetera.

So this is all that needs to be said on the subject of games as art. But why all the hoopla in the gaming press these days, if the issue is so trivial? Well, the hoopla is due to the fact that practically everyone who writes about games today is a slobbering, uneducated, mentally retarded fuckwit, and therefore incapable of grasping the simple facts I just explained here. Today "serious" game writing is all about little kids desperate to have their little hobbies validated by their moms and dads in order to feel good about wasting so much time on them, instead of going out in the world and doing, you know, something useful. "Yes, little Johnny, my angel, it's okay to keep playing your favorite videogames past your bedtime, because they are art. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a grown man spending a whole freaking week as a plumber who frolics around a happy pretend mushroom kingdom, killing off cartoony animals by jumping on their heads -- nothing wrong at all. Carry on, dear."

Now I have explained here the problem with the word "art" in very plain and crude terms, but those of you who are still puzzled by it should realize that for many centuries it used to be a philosophical problem of the first order, until it was effectively dealt with by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the most important philosophical works of the twentieth century, first published in German in 1921. Beginning with the following introductory remarks:

"The book deals with the problems of philosophy, and shows, I believe, that the reason why these problems are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood. The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather -- not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought).

It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense."

... and ending with these statements:

"6.5 When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked. For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.

6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science -- i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy -- and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- this method would be the only strictly correct one.

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

... Wittgenstein's book reveals how language works and why its poor understanding and misuse often leads men to ask, and allow themselves to be tortured by, nonsensical questions. Thus it is, as I have explained, with the whole "Can games be art?" nonsense. Now since the Tractatus is one of the most difficult books yet written, I don't expect anyone to rush out and buy it and read it and understand it. What I do expect, however, is that from now on everyone will leave me and my website out off all the artfagottry nonsense that has today infected every single other serious publication that deals with electronic games. I had indeed hoped to stay away from this subject altogether, but was recently dragged into it by several people in the forum, and was therefore left with no choice but to sit down and clear it up once and for all. If you have some questions to ask you are free to start A SINGLE thread in the forum on the subject, in which I will do my best to help you understand what I just said here. But please note that, as trivial as this subject might seem to people like me, to many others it will doubtless forever remain an impenetrable mystery, and my ability to explain things to them can only go so far. After all, as Wittgenstein himself later noted, "Explanations come to an end somewhere."