To the Editor:
In his article “Games People Play” (Winter 2012), a look at the nature of today’s video games, Robert VerBruggen makes some rather lofty claims for their importance as a new artistic genre. VerBruggen says that while this pursuit was “once a pleasant diversion—merely a game—[it] has become a fascinating form of expression, worthy of serious commentary and criticism.” He goes on to suggest that there are serious artists at work here, and that the current excellence of their creations is due to the grand leap in modern processors and their capabilities for precision and expressiveness. I will assume that it is indeed possible that very fine artists/craftsmen are so engaged, and I agree that technology is just grand. But we will need to apply certain longstanding criteria to determine if these endeavors are really “art.”
It could be safely said that great craftsmanship has gone into the making of cartoons and film music. But in all true art objects we must deal with the issues of content and the individuality of the creator. The cartoon genre just doesn’t allow for much artistic depth, and since most movie music is of a purely subservient nature to the visual, it rarely does either. Hanna-Barbera is not Picasso and John Williams is not Stravinsky. All great art must manifest a high degree of individuality, a quality that video games, by definition, lack.
VerBruggen makes the analogy to the film media. There are only a few great movies, and those that we can agree on have the stamp of the auteur, the director’s individual genius. Is it impossible that these relatively new genres will produce true greatness? The existence of the graphic novel Maus would suggest otherwise. However, instances will be exceedingly rare.
With regard to music, VerBruggen makes the case that since the London Philharmonic recently recorded a CD of video game music the genre is now to be taken seriously. This radically confuses commerce with art. Just because the LSO thinks they can make money in this way doesn’t mean that one should take this incredibly mediocre music seriously.
VerBruggen also suggests that video games have taken over the role of expressing beauty to counteract the ugliness in the real art world. This is again to confuse an issue in one sphere with a supposed answer in another. The art world’s travails at least exist in the realm of aesthetics, where real beauty resides in the object itself. There is indeed beautiful art being created—one just has to seek it and find it. And by the way, such objects are usually beheld and contemplated for their beauty, not “played with.” Video games reside in the world of kitsch, where beauty lies completely in the eye and emotional response of the beholder, especially of boys and young men. (VerBruggen makes much of this being a man’s world.)
VerBruggen closes with “there is emerging a subset of games that demand to be considered alongside movies, books, and other forms of art. Serious critics ignore video games at their peril.” I think not. Life is too short to spend much time studying this supposed new art genre, because finally it lacks the one other aspect that Jacques Barzun noted years ago: that for something to be studied it should have a degree of “seriousness.” Mr. VerBruggen has not persuaded that this new form or genre, either in its content or mode of interaction, in any way suggests this quality. He may enjoy playing these games, but let’s not equate this pastime with those of a more elevated nature and content.
Professor of Composition
University of Arizona
Robert VerBruggen Responds
Prof. Asia addresses two different questions—whether games are “art” and whether games deserve serious criticism—though he apparently sees them as one and the same. The first question, as I wrote in “Games People Play,” is ridiculous; the answer simply depends on how one defines “art.” Under Prof. Asia’s definition, video games evidently do not qualify. Fair enough. But I see no evidence that anything like Prof. Asia’s definition of art sets the boundaries for serious criticism, and no reason that it should.
Along with video games, Prof. Asia would apparently exclude from consideration all works of animation, all pieces of music that were composed to accompany films, and even the vast majority of films themselves. Indeed, if one sets the bar just below Picasso and Stravinsky, no video game will clear it. But there are no “longstanding criteria” dictating such lofty standards—in fact, respected critics comment on a wide variety of art forms, from literary classics all the way down to summer blockbusters. (See, for example, film historian Jeanine Basinger’s fascinating brief essay on Michael Bay’s Armageddon, of all movies.) My argument is that the best video games deserve to be included in this mix.
Further, Prof. Asia’s criticisms of “cartoons” and the individuality of video games do not survive contact with reality. Regarding “cartoons,” as Heather Mac Donald explained in her December 2009 City Journal review of the animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, “animation displays a director’s understanding of human emotions more vividly than does working with live actors, since nothing an animated actor does happens spontaneously.” A similar phenomenon is apparent in video games—every pixel appears the way it does because an artist decided to make it that way—and no gamer would take seriously the argument that games do not bear the stamp of their individual creators. Bioshock could not have been made by anyone but Ken Levine, Psychonauts by anyone but Tim Schafer, Braid by anyone but Jonathan Blow, or Metal Gear Solid by anyone but Hideo Kojima. Even the classic Mario games bear the indelible stamp of Shigeru Miyamoto.
If Prof. Asia believes our keenest minds should not be wasted dissecting the most prevalent, interesting, and widely discussed art forms of our time, that is a valid opinion. It is not, however, a straightforward application of the criteria normally used for judging whether a body of work merits a serious critique.