Cave Painting

“That deaf, dumb, and blind kid / sure plays a mean pinball!” the Who sang about the eponymous hero of their rock opera Tommy. And when the audience responded too rowdily to one live performance, the drummer Keith Moon is said to have yelled back, “Have some respect! It’s a fucking opera!”

Tommy was widely understood at the time to be campaigning for the aesthetic dignity of rock and roll, a battle that has long since been won. Less apparently, this was also the opening salvo in a similar battle on behalf of games: “arcade games” at the time, and computer games as we know them now. Computer games are the latest cultural form to benefit from the collapse of the old and now embarrassing categories of high-, low-, and middlebrow. Once a slightly seditious form of loafing in teenage wastelands of the ’70s, games have won ever greater cultural legitimacy in our own unibrow period. Their promotion has followed the by now predictable trajectory of the post-’60s transvaluation of values. First games cast off the vaguely masturbatory funk of shame that came with fiddling knobs, buttons, and joysticks while doing stuff mostly inside your own head. “Everything bad is good for you,” Steven Johnson declared about the digital games that displaced the analog ones, celebrating games “that have no fixed narrative path, and thus reward repeat play with an ever-changing complexity.” These games, vastly more sophisticated than Tommy’s pinball machine or the Atari consoles of the ’80s, made children smarter, Johnson claimed, and prepared them for the competitive and insecure labor market they would enter as adults.

A next level of respectability required infiltrating academia. The easiest way was to go through the perpetually crisis-ridden, terminally confused literature departments. Under the heading of “New Literacy Studies,” Palgrave, an academic imprint of Macmillan, brought out What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003). The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Future of the Book sponsored Ken Wark’s Gamer Theory (2007), a book of many brilliant insights, complete with an online supplement of responses and comments, but not a book about books or their future. Finally, the New York Times, having dropped the “Leisure” from its old “Arts and Leisure” rubric (everything was art now), started running video game reviews instead of stories about whether Grand Theft Auto induces teens to kill.

Yet a certain outsider sense of grievance, part of the avant-garde script from Courbet to Keith Moon, still prevails among gamers. Writing in the London Review of Books, the critic and game aficionado John Lanchester complained that “from the broader cultural point of view, video games barely exist.” He was referring to the arts pages of dead-tree newspapers and journals, which, true, don’t cover computer games in proportion to either the hours or the dollars we spend on them. In China and other economies less moribund than our own, you can even get a factory job as a gamer, acquiring “virtual gold” and special virtual weapons, which your company then sells for actual dollars to other (recreational) players from once wealthy nations who are looking to save time on their way to the top of one or another virtual hierarchy. And what do the gamers-for-hire do during their downtime? The Times tells us that they blow a lot of their money on arcade games. Only, here, at last, they play for themselves! That kind of irony has yet to make it into any computer game, no matter how avant-garde they are.

Lanchester allowed that computer games would never tell us as much about character as other forms of narrative, but pointed out two great virtues of the form: “The first is visual: the best games are already beautiful, and I can see no reason why the look of video games won’t match or surpass that of cinema. The second is to do with this sense of agency, that the game offers a world in which the player is free to act and to choose.” And both points are right. The best games do look great, and we do have a lot of choice, not just inside game worlds but among them. Raised on the flashing cursors of Zork, we’ve learned to adore the newer, pert, pretty avatars, so much sexier and more powerful than we’d ever dare imagine ourselves. We too have played the games with lush graphics inspired by Breughel and Bosch and Kurosawa; the first-person shooter games; the strategy games in intricately wrought alternate worlds or ages past; the Sims; the online worlds of Warcraft and Second Life; the sports hero simulations and guitar hero simulations. Even the Beatles (if not yet the Who) are a video game now.

We have sometimes played these games until dawn peeps through the airshaft window. Go and lie down, and the game replays itself on your retina. Part of your brain is now imprinted, perhaps forever, with a map of feudal Japan, and the exact position of your armies at the moment you decided—unwisely—to chance your band of samurai against a much larger group of peasant spearmen. Another bad decision was to spend your allotment of rice recruiting 10 samurai instead of 200 peasants. Elitist! Worse yet was the moral debate, before the console, about whether to reboot at the moment right before disaster—or to samurai on, in the lifelike knowledge that things weren’t working out exactly as planned.

But do these games, in fact—as Lanchester and many others claim—amount to art? What Lanchester doesn’t seem to notice is that the two traits he names, of beauty and goal-oriented participation, work against one another. Or so, once upon a time, most philosophers of art would have claimed. For Kant, disinterestedness was the hallmark of aesthetic experience, which temporarily suspended the private desires and wishes of the viewer, reader, or listener. And the experience of playing games is nothing if not interested, the desire to win being almost the definition of an “interest.”

This naturally has consequences for beauty. Art-beauty is not the same as being good-looking, or else Bond movies might be the most beautiful films ever made. The beauty of an image within a story depends on its place within an irreversible narrative. A famous example: toward the end of Lolita, Humbert Humbert hears the cries of children playing (non-video) games outdoors. A nice sound no matter what, some would say. But the beauty is changed if you find yourself thinking, as Humbert does, “The hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.” The contemporary video game, no matter how technologically perfect, has no capacity for the beauty that comes from the unrebootable.

There is a moral difference too. A tragic video game would require that you never cheat, turn off the computer when you’ve screwed up, or save the game at a point when things are going well. Even then, the tragedy witnessed would only be the tragedy of your second life, not the life of an independent entity in whom you could take a disinterested interest. Video games encourage you to identify rather than sympathize—That’s me! you say, not I feel for him.

So from the standpoint of Kant’s “purposiveness without a purpose,” the answer to the question Are video games art? appears to be an emphatic no. Kant’s was a theory of spectatorship, not participation. An art object allows our minds to play freely over it, not with it; it may fill us with joy or terror for somebody else, but these impersonal feelings are no spur to any action or skill-set enhancement. Not that this musty question of aesthetics would matter much if only video games were at issue in the issue of video games. But the preference for identification over sympathy pervades the contemporary reception of nongame narratives too. What’s a more common complaint about a novel these days than that its main character isn’t “relatable,” i.e., available to readerly identification? Meanwhile, attempted defenses of artistic “difficulty” succumb to the utilitarianism of a Steven Johnson: a few years back, Ben Marcus championed difficult fiction for the workout of the brain’s Wernicke’s area that it provided. On these grounds, you might consider Cortázar’s Hopscotch usefully difficult—but not as much so as the Saturday crossword puzzle. If video games have turned out to be art, then what has art turned out to be?

History has given Kant’s “pleasure without interest” a beating. In German philosophy, the rout began with Nietzsche’s felicitous borrowing of a phrase from Stendhal: “Beauty is only the promise of happiness.” “Who is right?” Nietzsche asked himself, “Kant or Stendhal?” Since the ’60s, American (which is to say global) culture has opted for Stendhal, or at any rate for an aesthetics of pleasure and gratification.

The post-’60s culture consumer no longer wants to be a passive spectator or a mere appreciator, neither of the free beauties of nature nor of autonomous human endeavor. Perversely, the more Nietzschean we’ve become in our attitude to the arts, the more a certain telltale ressentiment shows itself. Like an insulted gentleman, the public now demands satisfaction from its art. We want to be the ones doing it—whatever it is. We don’t want to be left out! Let us play too! Behind every gamer’s love of the game lurks a hideous primal scene: watching other children at play.

And really nothing could be more legitimate than this disconsolate playground feeling, this frustrated desire to participate. It’s at this point that computer games’ bid for dignity (never mind the “art” part) starts making some sense. The specific activities most games imitate are those associated with what has come to be called “the military-entertainment complex.” And it’s often proposed that the dignity of games therefore lies in their future utility: play Doom now so you can pilot a Predator drone later, or learn to reduce your workforce with a click of a mouse. But the most potent allure of games surely lies in their fantasized, not their realistic, relationship to work. Here, control is angstless, effortless, and enormous: you can watch rioters take to the streets of your Roman city for two minutes of gametime, send out the police, cut taxes, shelter the rich, and watch your city blossom with gentrified villas some five minutes later. There is no game, at least not yet, in which you accomplish the mission only to learn you’ve been torturing an innocent man, or get passed over for promotion. Neither is your guitar heroism cut short by an overdose of heroin or rooted in coping with your abusive father. Here is a very un-labor-force-like experience of meaningful activity.

For the best writers on video games, games are not art and don’t need to be. Games are, by design, what Plato believed epic poetry to be: ethics manuals for inhabitants of the cave. Games like Warcraft or Vice City or Civilization teach us a certain relentless, captivating logic. The logic goes like this: It doesn’t matter how beautiful your city, or character, or civilization is, so long as it dominates. We, the game masters, have given you many chances to spend your time and game resources unwisely—to build beautiful things, and to train your samurai—but the wise player knows that the winning strategy is of the scorched-earth variety. Don’t cultivate, or build, or train into expertise lots of the lowest and cheapest items on your market menu. Conquer, overpopulate, overpollute, or the computer will do this to you! These actions have clear beneficial consequences for your side, even if only sociopaths and corporations would consciously take them in real life.

The games are paradoxical. Succumbing to total self-interest, you can forget the particulars of yourself for a few hours; adapting yourself to the ruling global order, you can be the one giving orders for a while. The accompanying feeling of chagrin mixed with grandiosity, of absorption more than fun—this is more like drugs than art (not for nothing are games called “nerd crack”). And as with drugs you never know how much you might still need them in better society. In an achieved utopia, would we would still be playing these games? Would even the citizens of a happier planet—or they especially—need sumptuous regular holidays from morality, homeopathic plunges into narcissistic devastation? It would be interesting to find out. In the meantime, it’s pretty suspicious how closely the logic of game worlds resembles that of our world-system. With only the difference—a big one—that in games alone can you identify with yourself and your world at one and the same time. Your interest can be your world’s; its interests, yours.

For now we don’t need a new Parnassus in which games take their place alongside novels, poetry, film, and opera. But one can also always hope that something of the antiquated aspiration to high art will resurface among future game designers and that this will make games more morally complex as the technology advances. One day—not so far off if we believe the tireless futurists of Wired and the designers of virtual-reality suits—it might be possible to commit a virtual murder in real time that will look, sound, and perhaps even smell exactly like killing someone. That is mere technique. But maybe some designer will also be able to make us experience something like this:

Just at that moment a shaft of sunlight fell on his left boot; on the toe of the sock which protruded from the torn boot there seemed to be some stains. He took off his boot: “Yes, those are bloodstains! The whole toe of the sock is soaked in blood!” He must have carelessly stepped into the pool of blood on the floor of the old woman’s room. “But what am I to do about it now? How am I to dispose of this sock, the frayed edges of my trousers, and the pocket?”

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