Are video games art? No – but playing them can be

It is only when you appreciate that gaming is an inherently creative activity that you can look at the time, the energy and the enthusiasm people invest in games and not fall to your knees in utter despair.

When Roger Ebert wrote that video games are not art he was right. Art, whether it is a painting, a poem, or a movie, is a statement, a soliloquy, a tirade. There is no dialogue with art, you cannot wipe that smile off Mona Lisa’s face and you can’t take all of Michael Bay’s ridiculous robots, transform them into cars and drive them all off a cliff. That is the weakness of most art, that it is a one-way communication. Even with performance art audience participation is not often a good idea. You start humming along with the Royal Philharmonic, for instance, and they will club you to death with bassoons. That’s what the bassoon is for.

The video game is not the art, it is the medium. The artist is not the writer of the story or the person who designs the characters. The nearest thing to an artist in a game is the player. Whether it is because you performed a perfect evasive manoeuvre or battled heroically against impossible odds, or maybe because you’ve constructed a perfectly efficient city, it is the player who is performing and creating. Is that art? Probably not under normal circumstances, but it is still a product of a creative action just the same.

Understanding this is very important to an understanding of video games, because it is only when you appreciate that gaming is an inherently creative activity that you can look at the time, the energy and the enthusiasm people invest in games and not fall to your knees in utter despair.

A game like Kerbal Space Program is a perfect example of the sort of game that becomes a medium in and of itself. It is a sandbox game par excellence. It gives you a solar system, complete with laws of physics, a pile of space ship and aircraft components and some little green men with funny names willing to pilot the rockets you build. What starts for most players as an exercise in mucking about with rockets parachutes expands organically into whatever you really want it to be, within the limitations of the game, as your own experience and expertise grows.

The level of expertise demanded by Kerbal Space Program is deceptively high considering how friendly and uncomplicated everything looks. You go into the game wondering why shooting rockets straight upward doesn’t get them into orbit but before too long you will have picked up the bare bones of an introduction to rocket science. You might have to do some homework, you might have to read articles, watch videos, ask other people, or obliterate a few hundred eager would-be astronauts through brute trial and error, but however you do it, you will have to learn.

To look at Kerbal Space Program and acknowledge the fact that the game manages to be both educational and rewarding is one thing, but perhaps the greater thing about Kerbal Space Program is not the game itself but the community built around it. This is where we really start to see the beauty of a creative game like this and it shows the communal spirit that games can create, something that is largely forgotten when coverage of gamers tends to be limited to their childishness and tribalism.

If you do a search on Youtube for “kerbal space program tutorial”, you get just over seven thousand hits. A small, independently made game, still in development, and there are over seven thousand videos made by players for the sole reason of helping others. Moving past that, to look at the videos people have made to just show off their efforts, there are many thousands more.

Is Kerbal Space Program art? No. Is playing it art? No. Playing is playing. But here’s the nub of it, when you’ve got a game that is encouraging you to learn, encouraging you to create and encouraging players to share their ideas and their creations with each other, that’s a great thing. It is that engagement with the game that means that a game like Kerbal Space Program, for all the limitations of its budget and the lack of an orthodox story, will typically be played for a very long time indeed. Forget the gaming equivalent to Citizen Kane, what we’re dealing with here is the gaming equivalent to the building block, Airfix kit, Lego set and Anarchist’s Cookbook rolled into one.

But it is easy to talk about the creativity and intellectual engagement using Kerbal Space Program as the example. Kerbal Space Program is the nicest, cuddliest, most loveable astro-hugfest ever to let you incinerate hundreds of funny little aliens in the name of physics. How does this idea of creative engagement with games stack up when you take something as incredibly restrictive to play as Bioshock: Infinite or one of the Call of Duty series?

Even here, in the land of the video game as a sort of digital theme park ride, we still encounter the sort of player agency that makes games so compelling. The choices here are perfunctory compared to those of a sandbox game but you are still the director of the action sequences. You choose the weapons, you choose the methods and it is those choices that turn even a corridor shooter into something fun and engaging, albeit it not for any great length of time.

You can see how compelling player choice makes a game interesting illustrated in the Call of Duty series. Players will cheerfully wade through the single player campaigns, but the bulk of the choice and freedom lie in the multiplayer and that is where the players who play the game the most will spend the majority of their time. There is little functional difference between a single player first person shooter and a multiplayer one, you’re doing the same things with the controls, but the chaos and the liberation that comes when you play with and against other human players makes everything that much more fun, even if you are in effect still just shooting people.

It is because playing games is creative, even in a small way, that it can be so absorbing and so consuming. Games can offer a sense of agency and satisfaction that you simply don’t get from more passive media, or sometimes even from work. It is this ability to entertain and satisfy people in ways that movies, books and music simply cannot manage which has powered the rise of the video game in popular culture much more than improvements in graphics and hardware.

The level of expertise demanded by Kerbal Space Program is deceptively high considering how friendly and uncomplicated it looks.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era