Click Bait #1 – Video Games Are Not Art or: Active vs. Passive Experiences

Click Bait is an on going column addressing lame popular topics meant to get hits, but in an analytical (hopefully) way.

The old video games are not art debate. Suggesting that video games are not art is enough to send overweight mouth breathers everywhere into a tizzy, prompting them to waddle over to their keyboards and furiously type a storm of juvenile expletives with their pudgy cheeto stained fingers. The truth is, calling something “art” is about as meaningless as receiving an Academy award, or receiving whatever the video game award equivalent of an Academy award is. Sure, it feels good in the moment to be able to say firmly that something is “art” but time is the only thing that really determines what is “art” and what isn’t.

Wait, you thought that winning an Academy Award meant something?

The definition of “art” is a fluid one, and is redefined every time us human beings come up with a some new creative means of expression. There are so many things that can be classified as “art”, that providing any number to quantify the shear number of things that the word “art” has to cover, just wouldn’t be hyperbolic enough. I mean, just a few years ago, Gifs would never have been considered “art”, but now there is a considerable amount of examples that suggest that making a Gif is a legitimate form of creative expression, and thus “art”. And then, there is the argument (ARTument) that things not deemed “art” today could be deemed “art” tomorrow, so making the argument that something is not “art” is really just a waste of time, because, after all, the definition of the word is fluid.

So now you are thinking, everything is art, everyone gets a gold star, everything is equal, well not so fast. I still think that there is some room for solid categorization when it comes to “art” but not in how we define creative expression, but rather how we experience it. It is my belief that “art” can be logically categorized as one of two possible experiences.

For myself, “art” is either a passive experience or an active experience. Examples of passive “art” experiences would be film, or anything that you might go see in an art gallery. I categorize these experiences as passive, because once they are finished and either projected onto a screen, or placed in an art gallery, the creative act is finished. If a film is started and it plays to no one, it will still play. The act of watching a film is nothing more than being shown something. Yes, in order to glean something from a film one might have to actively interpret it, but on a base level, watching a film does not require anything from the viewer, aside from simply watching.

Exactly when will the art be starting?

The other categorical experience is an active “art” experience. Video games and the written word are “art” that falls into the active experience category. To experience a video game, one has to actively engage with it. Buttons must be pressed, rules must be learned, and so forth. If a video game is started and I just sit there starring at it in a passive way, I cannot experience it. The same goes for reading a novel. A novel exists on a shelf, but the art of the written word cannot be experienced unless I pick up the book, move my eyes down the page, and turn the pages. I must be active, must literally perform some function, in order to experience both video games and the written word.

When thinking about these two different types of experiences, my first impulse is to try to destroy the two categories, by thinking of examples of “art” that merges both categories. Examples of active experiences merging with passive experiences are much easier to come up with (more on this later), than passive experiences merging with active ones are. Thinking about film exclusively, which is the passive “art” experience I feel the most knowledgeable about, the first film that comes to mind is Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt. Twixt is a little seen film (for very good reason) that Coppola intended to take on tour, with him sitting in the audience, and performing a live edit of the film, based on how the audiences were reacting to the film. In 2011 Coppola debuted this more active cinematic experience at the San Diego comic-con, but the roadshow planned to showcase the live editing technique never happened. There have been a couple other films that have tried this out, Sufferosa being one that comes to mind, but none have been successful beyond some bookings at film festivals. There is a very good reason for the failure of passive/active experiences (a passive/active experience is different than an active/passive experience, but again, more on that later) and the reason is our expectations for passive “art” experiences and the popular perception of “art” in general.

The most popular perception of “art” is that “art” is meant to convey the creators feelings or thoughts to other people. Passive “art” experiences do this more effectively than active ones, because of the creator being required to do all the work in passive experiences. When I go see Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, the experience is entirely controlled by Michael Bay himself. When in the audience, I am unable to affect what is happening on screen, even if I dislike the obnoxious American patriotism, and choose to loudly voice this in the theatre, to the chagrin of the rest of the audience. The final product is on the screen, and that is that. This, “that-is-that” idea is how it can be easy to claim that video games are not art, because when playing video games, we do get to affect the experience.

That is that. It ain’t something else.That is that.

But of course there are always exceptions, so now we get to the point where we discuss active/passive (video games) experiences that strive to be passive experiences. There are a fair number of games now, mostly indie titles, that have successfully morphed the active experience of gaming into a passive experience, but for the purpose of this write-up, I am going to focus on Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, though feel free to substitute the name of a similar type game. While we are coming up on two years since the third act was released, and still waiting for the final two acts, Kentucky Route Zero is a game I think fondly about, and this is entirely because it was a passive experience. I had played the first Walking Dead Telltale game, which is an incredibly passive experience, despite it’s decision making mechanic trying to convince use otherwise, but I had never played anything quite like Kentucky Route Zero, in regards to how passive the experience is.

Kentucky Route Zero is an incredibly stripped down point and click game, with the act of clicking basically just engaging events that you then have no control over. I would equate it to basically physically turning a film projector in order to watch an old 16mm film. The whole experience of the game is pretty much just sitting back and trying to take in all the magic realism and moodiness of the game, which results in the impression of not playing something, but rather experiencing something. The Too Late to Love You sequence is one of the high points of the game, and illustrates the passive nature of this “art” experience. Despite your getting some incredibly minor input by choosing specific lyrics of the song, you basically just kick back and watch the surreal scene play out, as you listen to the song being played by the band in its entirety. It’s an experience that can no doubt be considered artistic, and in my opinion would fall into the “that-is-that” category, so necessary to quantify “art”.

So there you have it. Next time you find yourself at a dinner party and someone says video games are not art, get those hands going with aggressive air quotes every time you say “art”, and unleash a pseudo intellectual smack down by explaining that “art” is much too big a category, and then drop the hammer by giving them the old passive vs. active “art” experience spiel.

FilmApe is an overweight mouth breather who furiously typed this write-up with his pudgy Cheeto stained fingers (over a course of three weeks). You can find him doing nothing else, nowhere.


“Look into the eyes of a FilmApe and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.” - Werner Herzog

1 response

  1. AlexRogansBeta says:

    I feel like it would be hard to argue that there isn’t a serious artistic element to every game. Especially with those who aim for their own graphic style (eg. White Light), rather than ultra-realism (eg. The Division).