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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The Pier Falls is a skilful short story collection – and the glummest book I've read in years

There's no doubting Mark Haddon's talent, but if his stories are sympathetic, there's not much pity in them.

The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.

Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”

There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.

Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.

“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.

Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”

That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster