WTF is Wrong With Polygon?

A new article by the “Polygon staff” titled “WTF is Wrong with Video Games?” has caused quite a stir. (Never mind that the piece is actually nothing more than a chapter lifted straight from Phil Owen’s new book, available on Amazon for one easy payment $2.99!) This lordly diatribe informs us that video games are failing at being art, which is presumably their goal. Owen chides the industry for its childish refusal to “grow up,” and sums up the problem thus:

“Maybe games are art and maybe they aren’t, but if they are, nearly all of them are ineffective at being art.”

Try saying that five times fast.

Owen’s logic is flawed from the beginning. He begins with the premise that video games are an art form. Most of us probably agree to some extent. The problem is that Owen seems to think that video games are only art — nothing more, nothing less. Working on such a flawed assumption, Owen builds his argument that the highest goal of video games is to become more artsy. If they aren’t becoming more artsy, well then they are failing at doing art, which is the entire point. Right?

What is art?

Owen condescendingly defines art for us with an impressive array of terms that could only have been pulled from… well, any high school film camp. One very important thing about art is “foreshadowing.” Foreshadowing is very artsy. So are other artistic devices such as “dialogue, facial expressions, lighting,” or “any number of other visual or audio cues.” Scorcese would be proud.

We then learn that games should be more like films: more focused on story, less focused on gameplay. Owen admits that growing up, “most of the time [he] didn’t enjoy the act of actually playing a game” and was merely playing for the story. No wonder he wishes video games were movies. He explains that even The Last of Us, the “Citizen Kane of video games,” doesn’t contain quite enough “art stuff.” (Yes, he actually uses that term.) He explains:

“It’s as if an art gallery curator constructed a very long obstacle course with the art you came to see sprinkled throughout it. Except that analogy doesn’t really work, because an art gallery curator would probably have some point to make in building the course.”

Yes, Owen’s caricature of an “art gallery curator” would certainly be more enlightened. And he would almost certainly wear a bourrée.

Immediately clear is that Owen’s concept of art as “an idea or sentiment communicated through whatever form that work actually takes” is astoundingly one-dimensional. True, much art is representational. Much art does tell a story. But quite a bit of art bears no resemblance to what Owen describes. Much art does not tell a story or communicate an idea. (What message, pray tell, does Shostakovitch’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor communicate?) Furthermore, a mere back-story does not constitute great art. Video games need not be reduced to mere plot in order to be artful.

Owen shows his hand toward the end of his piece. He does not see gameplay and story as equal parts of a symbiotic relationship. Instead, he sees story as valuable while the actual playing of the game is entirely meaningless in and of itself. He explains that “gameplay is merely a substanceless activity that just exists. In other media, we would say that having a large and prominent, totally meaningless component constitutes bad art.” This isn’t surprising, coming from someone who admits he does not actually enjoy playing video games, but prefers just knowing about their plots.

What are Video Games?

Let’s take a step back. We may agree that video games constitute art without embracing the reductive argument that says video games are only art. I would argue that video games are fundamentally games. This is an obvious point, but one that must be emphasized. We can’t look at a game and think that what is truly important is the backstory or “art stuff.” It’s ultimately a game, and thus what ultimately makes it fail or succeed as a game is, well, the gameplay. So instead of asking, “What makes good art?” we should ask, “What makes for a good game, video or not?” Perhaps we might look to what many would call the greatest game of all time: chess.

Owen would be underwhelmed by chess. The story line is quite thin: something about two nameless monarchies battling it out. There is almost no variation and very little “art stuff.” We don’t get dialogue, foreshadowing, or brilliant things like people sneezing before they get sick. Like video games that highlight “endless repetitive shooting or dungeon crawls,” chess has always focused on the component of gameplay. The story line is completely wooden and linear; it always ends in essentially the same way. The board, the pieces, the rules are all the same. It is within these simplistic confines however, that human brilliance and innovation truly shine.

Unlike films, games require a player to bring them to life. Owen seeks genius only in the game itself, and is disappointed when he doesn’t find it. Yet it is quite often the simplest games, such as chess, which inspire the greatest genius in their players. While the gameplay itself may appear repetitive or meaningless, the strategy and skill of the player are individual and unique. That is what has caused a number of chess experts — Mikhail Tal, Marcel Duchamp, Stuart Rachels, and Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa, to name a few — to claim that chess absolutely is art. Yes: games can be both games and art. We don’t have to subscribe to Owen’s false dichotomy.

Video games expect us to bring something to the table: we must help create the genius through our gameplay. Even in games that lack complexity or depth of story, the opportunity for invention and creativity on the part of the player is virtually limitless. To give a quick example, one of my favorite games is the fifteen-year-old Diablo 2. One might imagine that such a classic is dead and played out. Yet there still exists a strong community within single-player forums where, even today, players are discovering new and creative character builds. Chess players have not yet exhausted the discipline of chess theory, despite it being an object of study since the 15th century. Similarly, Diablo 2 players are still plumbing the depths of theorycraft, and through careful and artful calculation, discovering better, more efficient ways to play the game. And D2 enthusiasts continue to invent their own backstories, such as this four-year-long, fifty-two-episode saga of two Amazon warriors who complete the game entirely untwinked, in hardcore mode, while debating nuances of environmental concern and green grassroots movements through thoughtful and witty dialogue. (Hey, there’s one of those “art stuff” things Owen was talking about!)

Because Owen has forgotten that the player constitutes half of the gaming relationship, he expects to be spoon fed the art. If we play video games in that manner — sullenly plodding through them just to get to the story line — then we’ll doubtless be disappointed just as Owen was. We must remember that we, the players, are responsible for our own gameplay. There is nothing more artless than a terrible chess player stumbling through a game: the art of the game occurs when a great game is united with a great player. In the same way, truly great video games only become great when played by creative, skilled players.

My advice to Owen? Don’t expect the entire gaming industry to change just because you’re bad at gameplay.

Go get better at playing video games.

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