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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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