Interview: The Art of Videogames

Grant Tavinor is a gamer and a lecturer in philosophy at Lincoln University. His recent book, The Art of Videogames is part of Wiley-Blackwell’s New Directions in Aesthetics Series. We caught up with Grant recently and he talked about one of the unique characteristics of videogames: that is, when you play one, you become a direct participant; an actor in the unfolding of an artwork.

The Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write The Art of Videogames?

Grant Tavinor: I wrote The Art of Videogames because I was convinced that this was a fascinating topic that it was worthwhile writing about! I’m a gamer as well as a philosopher and so was naturally enthusiastic about the topic. My interest in videogames and philosophy started when I was writing my doctoral thesis on fiction, where I briefly used videogames as an illustration of a point I was trying to make about fiction and action. Being a grad student, I had the time to play a lot of games, and I inevitably started thinking about all the unexplored philosophical issues that existed in the new art form.

Once I started to see the depth in the issues—and once I got over my hang ups about doing the philosophy of something that some people might perceive as philosophically trivial—it seemed like a natural topic to follow up. Of course, the philosophy of videogames is not really part of the philosophical mainstream, and some people express surprise when I tell them my research specialisation. But philosophers, especially philosophers of the arts, have always written about the cultural developments of their time. Videogames, because of their combination of art and digital interactive technology, seemed of intrinsic philosophical interest to me. I wanted to explore that.

PE: What’s the central concern of the book?

GT: My main objective in The Art of Videogames was to apply the theory and method of aesthetics to videogames. Videogames are now enormous in their cultural influence, and are perhaps the most significant development in the popular arts in the past fifty years. What is the nature of videogames as a form of art?

The role of the player as a character in the worlds and stories of videogames seemed to be a particularly interesting development. In videogames, unlike the traditional narrative and representational arts, you find yourself acting within the world of the artwork. How is this possible? How does it affect the artwork that results for the interaction? In the book I develop a theory of interactive fiction to explain these types of issues. I draw on a number of philosophical theories that were developed to explain artworks other than videogames, adapting them to the situation found in gaming. So, to explain the role of the player-character, I combine discussion of philosophical theories on the nature of our imaginative participation with fictions with a description the graphical depiction the player-character, to construct a theory of how the player-character plays a crucial function in gameplay, acting as the player’s fictive proxy in a gameworld.

In the book I’m also interested in what videogames can add to aesthetics. How might the philosophical consideration of videogames reflect back on our understanding of art itself? I think that treating videogames as art casts new light on a number of traditional philosophical debates. For example, the so-called “paradox of fiction” questions how it is that we can become emotional over events and characters we know not to exist. But with videogames the problem is especially vivid: how can I become emotional concerning something I did not really do? In the game BioShock, for instance, how can I feel guilty for killing a Little Sister when really I did no such thing?

PE: What sort of reaction do you hope your book will get?

GT: Besides hoping that the book would find a positive reception, I hoped that the book would further the philosophical debate around videogames. I suspected there were a number of natural connections between videogames and the philosophy of the arts, and I intended to make these connections clear and provocative. There hasn’t been much written about videogames in terms of aesthetics, and so I thought it was worthwhile to stake out a philosophical position on their nature. Being one of the first people to write about a new topic means that there are a certain number of low-hanging fruit to pick, but it also means that there are lots of initial mistakes to make. I don’t expect people to entirely agree with how I’ve set things out, and I look forward to reading their criticisms, but I think that expressing a clear philosophical position on videogames was a good thing to do at this stage of the debate.

PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?

GT: I wanted to write for two groups: philosophers with potential interest in videogames, and gamers with a potential interest in philosophy. So I had in mind professional philosophers, philosophy students, and intelligent gamers as the eventual readers of the book. This meant writing the book in non-technical and plain English as far as was possible. I enjoyed writing the book in this accessible way, though it was often challenging to set out complex ideas to be easily understood but not too simplistic. To this end I also included a simple combined glossary of philosophical and gaming terms, which itself was a fun thing to write.

It’s also nice to research and write about a topic that is of interest to non-philosophers. I’ve discussed my research with a lot of gamers, written op-eds for gaming web-sites, and presented at gaming conferences. I guess this sort of connection isn’t really possible for a lot of other philosophers, and I really enjoy the opportunity to engage with general audiences.

PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?

GT: I’ve always been a fan of James Joyce, so I would love to have written Ulysses. But then I guess I would have been James Joyce, and not me.

PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?

GT: I have been working on a number of papers that explore some of the issues introduced in the book in a more detailed way. I’ve also written some papers and book chapters on interactivity and virtual worlds. I’d like to write another book on gaming though, potentially about games and morality which is a chapter topic in the book, but which I have been reading and thinking about a lot lately. I never really intended to specialise in the philosophy of videogames, but the more I look into the topic, the more I find that it philosophically stimulating.

Author: Mr Cooper

I am a teacher. I love THINGS. THINGS are the doorway into knowledge and understanding.

8 thoughts on “Interview: The Art of Videogames”

  1. Hi Grant – As the processing power of gaming platforms increases and games get more complex and present more impressive audio-visual content, I wonder what you think about the changing role of imagination in gaming.

    I’ve been playing long enough to remember 8-bit systems with blocky graphics and text-based games. Now, in no way could you call these immersive experiences from a technical point of view, but they were often a lot more engaging – in much the same way that a novel is. I’m playing Final Fantasy XIII at the moment and it’s a fine example of a game that looks absolutely amazing but spoon feeds you every last bit of emotion that you’re supposed to feel – the upshot being that you end up feeling rather uninvested.

    As gaming technologies get more sophisticated, is there a prospect that they might lose their capacity to fire our imagination?

  2. The paradox of fiction connection is interesting!

    I often have sympathetic emotional responses to characters in fiction and film– I get sad when they suffer, get happy when they succeed. But I can’t, off the top of my head, come up with an example of a character in a video game I responded to in the same way. (I haven’t played Bioshock, though!)

    And then I think, there are whole sub-genres of video game that get their appeal almost entirely from our failure to sympathize with the characters on screen. (Grand Theft Auto would be no fun at all if we felt bad for the people we carjacked…)

    I wonder if there’s something about the medium that makes sympathetic responses harder to muster in game-worlds? Or maybe game-writers haven’t gotten good at eliciting sympathy yet? Or maybe Grant and others get more emotionally involved in games than I do? Maybe I’m playing them wrong?

  3. I think that one of the reasons it’s harder to care about game characters is that they rarely display truly human characteristics. Back in the early days, it simply wasn’t possible to convey realistic human characteristics. The early game characters (Mario, Pacman, etc.) were little more than a couple of dozen pixels organised into a barely recognised shape. So gaming began from a situation where it wasn’t really possible to have much empathy with game characters. This seems to be deeply engrained in the experience of gaming despite the way in which current platforms allow ‘realistic’ characters to be portrayed (Heavy Rain, for example).

  4. Hi, thanks for your comments.

    @Rob I do think that it is somewhat true that the depictive richness of recent videogames does alter our imaginative engagement with them, and also sets them apart from other fictive media. Novels obviously call on our imagination to fill out their scenes with detail, so you might wonder what their fictional worlds really look like. But if you want to know what a place or character in a videogame looks like you can simply explore the place or meet the person. Videogame worlds as a result seem rather more complete as world depictions, because it is the player, rather than an author or director, who is exploring the world. This has often been used as a criticism of videogames, in that it seems to make their players imaginatively passive.

    But this criticism doesn’t acknowledge all of the interesting forms of creativity and imaginative thinking that goes into videogame playing. Lots of videogames depict worlds that are puzzling and incomplete, particularly where they use the player’s incomplete view of the world to set up a mystery. Also, because their fictional worlds are designed to pose gameplay challenges, these are often literal puzzles. The game Portal provides good examples of both kinds of activity because it presents both narrative and interactive puzzles. At the same time the player is working their way through the puzzle levels, there is also the mystery of the identity of their player-character and the exact nature of the world they find themselves in. Portal is very engaging in this regard. I also found it quite mentally taxing!

    I’ve never been a fan of the Final Fantasy games btw, there is just too much narrative in the games, and all the characters seem to be some modification of an angst-ridden teenager with a bad hairdo!

  5. @ ianstoner I’ve felt sympathy for lots of game characters, but I would agree that videogame characters and stories are presently not as engaging as other fictive media. Mostly I think that this is just because of the poor standard of writing in current gaming. A lot of it is just bad, and most game characters are incredibly clichéd.

    But I actually think that in their interactivity games have the potential to do things that traditional narratives cannot, in not only engaging our sympathy, but demanding that we act on it. One of the big recent trends in gaming is morally themed games, where the gameplay presents the player with moral alternatives. Initially these dilemmas were pretty blunt, but there is lots of evidence that the writing is getting better and that the moral situations are getting more sophisticated.

    I’ve recently been playing Dragon Age: Origins, and even though it is pretty firmly in the fantasy genre, with all the dwarfs, goblins and potions that go with that, some of the writing and characterization was genuinely engaging. A number of story lines depend on your relationships to other characters, and it does a good job of setting up some dilemmas. (Fantasy spoilers ahead!) In one story you are told of a race of werewolves by a clan of elves who are being continually attacked by the werewolves, and so your sympathies are naturally with the elves. But in your subsequent attempts to destroy the werewolves you find that the elves are implicated in the creation of the werewolves, and so your sympathies begin to shift (well, at least mine did). So far this is a plot device that might be found in any number of traditional fictions, but in Dragon Age exactly how this narrative thread resolves itself depends on the decisions you make, and in the climax of the episode the writers quite expertly craft a situation in which your your sympathies are uncertain but you must make a decision. So in this sense, our sympathy might be more engaged in these games than other kinds of fiction where we are essentially bystanders to the action.

  6. Hi Grant – I have a few questions for you. You may be aware of Roger Ebert’s recent defense of his earlier statement that “video games can never be art” (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html). He concedes that one day they might become art… but not in our lifetimes.

    Ebert (aided by Wikipedia) distinguishes art, which is to do with the expression of ideas (he also adds the ancient Greek view of art as the imitation of nature) from games which he says are different because you can win them. I personally don’t see any reason why it should be given that art can serve multiple functions (e.g. religious, didactic, etc.). I’m interested in whether you think ‘winning’ is really incompatible with art?

    Ebert brings in taste as the measure of an artwork (I’m not certain whether he is implying that things that don’t meet his standard of taste do not attain art status). He does however say: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” Do you think that he may be holding videogames to the standards of Western high art rather than to the standards of popular art?

    Ebert also examines some games listed by Kellee Santiago in a TED talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww) as showing artistic merit. Ebert claims that in considering the claim for art status based on emotional and appeal to senses he found a documentary on Waco to have greater merit in these regards than the videogame “Waco Resurrection” even though he did not consider the documentary to be art. He also jokes about the minimal narrative involved in Santiago’s second example “Braid” as being “on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.” “Flower,” Santiago’s third example, was considered no more decorative than a greeting card. Did Santiago use particularly bad examples here? Is Ebert looking at the wrong art-making characteristics in these cases? Or is he simply being uncharitable?

    One final question: Flight simulators can be used for personal entertainment or for training purposes (e.g. http://www.flightexperience.co.nz/the-simulator.html). Would a flight simulator meet your minimum requirements for videogame art? Or is the narrative element way too thin. If it is art then would an installation used only for training purposes also be art?

  7. Hi Daniel, I actually wrote an op-ed that appeared on Kotaku addressing this issue here: http://kotaku.com/5527281/video-games-and-the-philosophy-of-art

    I agree with a lot of what you say here though. Ebert was essentially trolling the gaming community, and he did a pretty good job of it given the huge and indignant response, but I don’t think that his arguments amounted to all that much.

    I disagree with his claim that because you can win a game or that they are competitive activities that this necessarily denies videogames the status of art. Previous forms of art might not have involved these, but if videogames are art they are certainly novel in some respects. Of course its ironic that a film critic would take up this line of argument, because prior to the invention of cinema, art didn’t involve the moving image. It’s essentially an inductive issue: in videogames we’ve discovered another form of art, and naturally it may have features that are not typical of previous art. But, as I argue in the book, the new form displays enough of the characteristics we see in art to sit quite naturally in the category and alongside the other accepted forms.

    I also don’t think Santiago’s examples were good ones. Flower is basically a sentimental diversion, and I’m really not sure what to make of Waco Resurrection! If I was going to suggest examples of games that are art, I would look to games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto, or the recent Red Dead Redemption (which is great!). They’re popular art for sure, but you can see all the concerns of art in these games, and actually they’re quite sophisticated in many respects. I think that a lot of people who want to claim videogames are art have a rather limited esoteric or avant garde conception of art, and so they look for in videogames the qualities typical of avant garde art (and most often they struggle to find them).

    Are flight simulators art? I wouldn’t argue that they could not be, but my position is that not all videogames really are art because many games lack the sorts of concerns or qualities we find in art proper. Most of the flight simulators I have have played seemed entirely unconcerned with being art, even though their graphics might very well have been beautiful. As you suggest, they lack the narrative or meaning typical of art. What would an artistic flight simulator be like though? Perhaps one that allowed you to fly though surreal or stylized landscapes? That could be interesting.

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