Videogames and Legitimacy

There was an article that was recently published on titled “4 Ways Your Are Being Aged Out By The Gaming Industry” that’s been having a lot of talk among people in videogames lately. I considered making tweets but I decided it may be more important for me to write a post and hopefully add a useful voice and supplement to these conversations that can go over some new ideas in more detail.

I have a rule about reading lazy, pessimist and unexamined bad takes generalizing video games as a form. I don’t read them and I don’t share them. And so I don’t necessarily want to respond to the Cracked article as much I want to talk about the genre of writing in which it pertains to, and also discuss some ideas and assertions that have been floating around it.

I think because videogames as a form and a contained culture visibly and openly struggle with general problems, some writers believe that writing bombastic, overarching takedowns makes them an enlightened and self-aware critic in what they believe in a monolithic and ignorant culture. After all, the issues in the form and the culture are frequently vocalized by many people, and decades-old stereotypes and conceptions of videogames and the people who play them are long baked and deeply inscribed into mainstream culture and media. Writing an article generalizing what’s wrong with video games is as easy as writing a grocery list. What better subject to frame oneself as being intellectual with the least needed intellectual effort?

What I want to say is that if you identify with videogames in any small or large way and these kinds of articles irk you any way, then I think it’s okay to be irked, and I think it’s legitimate to be annoyed. I don’t think this kind of writing is meant to open perspective as it is to recycle the ego of the author, to reconstitute them as individuals in relation and distance to a culture of individuals they conceptualize as a bubble, for rhetorical effect. Unless you’ve seen your peers wildly changed or enlightened by this kind of writing then you may or may not have noticed it doesn’t do anything. It offers nothing to the reader; if it doesn’t re-establish readers with any wider rhetorical sense or language it’s because it isn’t designed to do so. It seeks to undermine an artistic form in the expense of the intellectual elevation of its author. And in doing so the “video games suck lol” bad take is deliberately ahistorical. It’s a punditry that relies on the obscuring of videogame art history to justify its often short-lived existence. Although it is meant to create feelings of self-satisfaction and a sense of political enlightenment and superiority about The Big Problems for a very specific subset of its readers, unlike art criticism — which I believe is written to calm the existential anxiety to communicate ideas — this sort of writing depends on exploiting the anxiety of the present that is so characteristic in internet-heavy cultures. And so it’s only real use is forwarding short-sighted reactionary politics. And it’s for that reason I think this kind of writing more dangerous useless then, well, the regular kind of useless.

Before we get further to this kind of writing, I want to move into other things I think should be addressed along with this. Let’s talk about legitimacy for second, videogames being legitimate. Are videogames really a credible form of art worthy of respect? Have they earned the right to be understood and respected as art? That I’m even posing this question should be strange, but I want to continue with some points I think are useful to keep in mind:

The first thing I think is important to understand is that legitimacy and prestige in art, and respect of an art form, in Art, has nothing to do with the average quality of its repertoire, of a form’s entire history of work, and everything to do with institutional capital. What this means is that the way an art form becomes prestiged and respected is a political process, not an artistic one. And it’s consistent too, one that has been repeated many times over for various forms of art during the 20th Century.

Remember that “capital” is a Marxian term that isn’t really about ‘money’ as it is about resources. Resources, processes, and how money works within social and economic systems. In that sense, the role that institutions play in the legitimization of art forms can’t be understated. Art institutions, educational institutions, private institutions from Criterion Publishing to the Cannes Film Festival to the National Book Award to even something as tasteless as the Grammys, and publications of media and criticism, all play a role in the legitimization of an art form. They do several specific things I want to note: they tie together shared and consistent historical lines of work, what is basically “drawing lines,” creating self-contained mini art histories between regions, genres and styles; they build and develop a generalized language verbalizing and articulating art works and our experiences; they create a “library building culture,” meaning they normalize the act of curation and preservation, both casual and professional. Think record stores and indie bookstores. Or the Criterion DVD Picks. This one is mega important, I can write essays on the importance of libraries but I have to ask you take my word when I say library building culture absolutely contributes to the legitimization process.

And institutions do something else too: they’re responsible for elevating and placing into the public eye the most shining artistic examples of a form, and dumping the rest. It is institutions and social organizations of all kinds — commercial and non-commercial, public and private — that are responsible for keeping the cream of the crop continually visible and available, and letting the tasteless, the unartful, and the vulgar, sink into the wayside of history and into cult culture and small subcultures. I know that in the age of pop culture crit this doesn't seem very true or even a big deal, but I think it’s worth considering why it has become so easy to name the great and artful classic films of the 20th Century, from Citizen Kane (lol), to Taxi Driver and The French Connection, all the way to Magnolia, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump etc. That isn’t a coincidence and it doesn’t occur naturally.

Phillips Konnick, Flat Landscape, 1655, is a good example of the dutch panoramic landscape

Let’s get an even more specific example of what I mean when legitimization of an art form has little to do with the quality of art. In 16th and 17th Century Europe, the genre of landscape painting was having its own struggle to earn its share of respect within the visual arts. Landscape painting, a genre that emerged in the Netherlands and would later find a place in Germany, was broadly characterized as a lesser genre: indulgent, superficial and unsophisticated. Historian Nobert Wolf describes that as the visual arts “grew increasingly confident of their ability to compete with most noble human sciences, genres like landscape, which seemed to require less intellect, were relegated to the second or third rank.”

This wasn’t because there was anything wrong with Landscape Painting, they weren’t poorly made or crafted to further extent than anything else. It was because the landscape didn’t fit into the standard or aspirations of the Italian academic establishment. To Italian Renaissance scholars, the human figure was the staple of complexity and depth in art, the “measure of all things,” and by comparison the Dutch landscape, figureless and interested in the sublime relationship with nature, was not on par. Landscape was pleasing in a shallow and escapist sense, not satisfying in a true intellectual manner. One of those scholars, Leon Battista Alberti would explain the growing popularity of the landscape as a result of the form being “low,” and “beneath the earnestness of public life […] Labour for the purpose of survival can be depicted only with the amused smile of the comic, charming or grotesque,” that is to say, the commercial solvency of the landscape is proof of its lack of artistic depth. A form which only pleases the eye, but “does little to occupy the mind.”

For nearly half a millennium after the fall of the roman empire, “Dark Age” theatre, although mostly unrecorded would be defined by travelling nomads who were essentially circus-people: jesters, animal-trainers, jugglers, dancers, etc, putting on what most historians I read understand as tasteless, vulgar shows for entertainment. It wouldn’t be until about 900 A.D that theatre would properly integrate into the the church in the form of “liturgical theatre,” and until then it would be forbidden and excommunicated from the christian institution. And not even the rise of modern sculpture after the second world war can be attributed to some proper artfulness but to its increased presence in prestigious events, least of which the creation of an International Sculpture Prize by the Venice Bienniale in 1948, but also at more general art exhibitions and public showings during a time when art exhibitionism would go through a peak rise, both in Europe and North America.

The point to bringing these histories up is not to say that videogames are the equivalent of landscape painting, but to give some perspective when I tell you that respect in art, respect of an art form is not and has never been ‘earned’ by being artful. Respect of art is built (slowly), and quite frankly it is fought for. There has never been a point where a bunch of people got together and said ugh, you know, there are these op-eds saying our thing is really dumb and shallow, we all just need to start making good, meaningful artful work from now on, and then they did and the form they work with suddenly received all this respect and admiration as a form of expression. It doesn’t happen. And so when one makes the claim that videogames cannot be respected or do not deserve respect because Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed exist, then there’s something very strange happening that doesn’t make a lot sense.

There is no Art Meritocracy. And any person who claims that there is some series of artistic standards or trials that videogames must pass in order for the form, the practice, the history of work, and the experience players have with videogames to earn respect or to be valid is, quite frankly, full of shit. I mean it’s just a straight lie. Those who claim to own the goalpost of validity and believe they can move it back and forth at their leisure to determine artistic deservedness of a form are the most intellectually impoverished kind. That goalpost has never existed.

And so what I want to ask is that when one asserts “Video Games” as some single monolith are somehow not good enough, what I think is important to ask oneself is on whose terms, exactly, is this massive body of work suddenly not up to par? On what basis does this standard exist that is often conjured out of thin air? And whose history is being used as standard, if any history at all, in order to impose and erase the detailed and extensive art history of videogame art?

Communicating art and art history as this pure garden standard of good meaning and artfulness in which videogames do not measure up is dishonest and it’s cowardous. And to go back to the Cracked article, it should go without saying that claiming videogames do not change your perspective or outlook on life as a criticism is stupid and ignorant thing to say. Even if that was remotely true, I don’t go to art galleries and walk out a changed man. There is no binary between something that changes my whole perspective on life, and mindless trash. Art often changes us in ways that are small, particular, and difficult to articulate until we recollect our experiences at a later time. Art often trains our senses, opens our senses to different places, people, sounds, images and representations, and haptic responses. All these things, which compose a videogame represent “ideas” that affect players with every new videogame they play. And that’s before one can get into the more textual devices of story, character and plot. What a ridiculous thing to conjure up as a standard! A standard, by the way, that no one uses in any form of art, high or low, because it’s kind of vacuous, grandstanding, pretentious language that the art market has used to justify itself, and that artists of all kinds have been trying to distance themselves from for decades. This is the kind of bullshit that pretends to act as enlightened criticism, and it is the height of laziness.

I want to start closing this piece by saying a couple of things:

  1. I think that articles like the Cracked article are written on the expectation that the audience has the same low expectations of videogames, and are convinced of its inherent limitation. Because the article is written in the personal, exposé style of confessional writing, it allows one to deflect any questioning of the claims made into the abstract group of “insecure” rabid videogame defenders (this is the function of reactionary politics). As Scott Benson notes, it is the way that Wolinsky builds this rhetorical wall around himself that reveals his own insecurity.
  2. And so if the only conditions on which this article can exist is on the silent assuredness of the inferiority of videogames as a form, then the ways these bad takes stop being written is by the audience expecting better than what is assumed of them. And so that means means when an article like the Cracked article is published, I think it is appropriate to say “No, videogames are self-evidently much more than this, and I expect critiques that are better.” Because as Benson also notes, these articles are not actually for the “casual audience.” Casual people, normal-ass-people, play video games, and similar to the prevalence of landscape painting, they don’t actually care what writers think about videogames because they don’t engage in The Discourse. They don’t care.
  3. A form of self-respect is learning when you don’t need the respect of others. The point of me bringing up the artistic goalpost is that those who enjoy waiving the pretend goalpost have no intention of seeing anything cross it. When someone asserts videogames aren’t [x] enough to be deserving of respect as an art, they are offloading the responsibility of their ignorance of art onto you. The goalpost is a projection of one’s emotional alienation. And so realizing that you don’t actually have to prove anything to someone can be quite liberating.
  4. I know that there are lots of nerds who expect you to have played every video game on the planet or something to be valid, but if videogames being a form of art means, almost by definition, that good reference is expected. And so when a writer asserts that the problem with videogames is they don’t change your perspective as a person (?) and then references “Fallout” (all of them??) and Bioshock, then yes I think it is appropriate to respond with “sorry no, these are terrible references to make that assertion, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You are full of shit.” If I write a piece about how comic books need to stop being so goofy and derivative and only reference “marvel comics” I would be rightfully dismissed as ridiculous, and so no, doing the same with videogames does not warrant the respect of one’s opinion. If expectations are high enough you can’t do it in comics, or film (high and low), or visual high arts, you shouldn't be able to do it in videogames.

All of these values are embodied into the above tweet by Christine Love, which is why I think the tweet seems to have resonated with so many people and why I find the tweet quite inspiring. I think it embodies the attitude I aspire to hold. These points are written mostly for myself, and writing them down is a way of expressing my feelings and reasoning with them, but I’m putting them here thinking they may be useful for others who may have had the same response to the article that I did.

The relationship between videogames and art history is actually very complex, and so is the place of videogames within the larger history of what has constituted good art and ‘artful’ art from the 20th into the 21st Century. And it’s something I’d like to write about in the future. Hopefully I’ll get the chance.

Thanks for reading.

Addendum: I didn't expect this to spread as much as it has, so I want to make a formal thanks to critic and friend Austin C. Howe, who presented to me his assertions of videogames and a self-respecting culture. Without the perspective and the ideas he brought to me as a critic, I would not have been able to write this post.