“Video games are the only form of art which you can be bad at experiencing.”
A friend repeated those words to me a couple days ago, echoing a popular statement among game developers, game journalists, comedians and grumpy people who hate Ninja Gaiden everywhere. They represent a common viewpoint in video game culture, and a pretty challenging conundrum from a game development perspective, where game devs desperately want their product to be valued and taken seriously as art, but still want to present a challenge to their players.
It’s rough out there for a developer/artist.
Upon hearing my buddy’s statement for the first time, I had a gut reaction that just said, “Nuh-uhhh, you’re wrong! I don’t know why but you are!”
But I kept thinking about it, and there’s an unfortunate grain of truth to the statement. Video games are an art form. You CAN and often DO suck at them. And often, that suckage can keep you from experiencing the full glory of the artistic goal that the game has presented to you.
That’s where the grain of truth ends.
Video games aren’t the only art form you can suck at experiencing. I’m a professional musician, and I talk to people regularly who suck at experiencing music. “Wow, a 45-minute piece? That’s so boring.” “You mean there’s another movement after this one?” “Is he going to do anything besides just play the piano?” I just want to grab them by the shoulders (maybe accidentally dislocate one or two), and sit them down next to a couple who has been listening to classical music all their lives and openly weeps at the end of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I want them to see that and I want them to understand that they, in fact, suck at experiencing classical music, and that their suckage keeps them from experiencing the full glory of the artistic goal that this troubled, deaf, dying genius brought to life.
Let’s move on before I have an aneurysm.
A lot of people also don’t get visual art. They suck at experiencing it.
“But, Isaac, people can’t be bad at experiencing visual art. You just have to LOOK at it,” says you, the grumbling, insulted reader. And you’re partially right: you CAN experience visual art just by looking at it, but if your critical analysis of a piece of art ends at “It is/isn’t pretty”, then you’re missing the point completely. I am by no means going to shout Rapunzel-like from the top of my gigantic ivory tower soapbox that if you don’t like a piece of art, you just don’t appreciate it, but there’s often a lot more to be understood about a piece of art than can be gained at first glance: what colors are used? Brushstrokes? How is the subject framed? What’s in the background? What specific things might the person be wearing or holding that gives you greater insight into who they were, what they loved and what they were known for?
There are a ton of questions that can lead to new insights about a piece of art from nearly any era, but the important thing is that you’re not born with the ability to ask them. Appreciating and experiencing visual art (and music) is a learned skill.
Okay, but it seems DIFFERENT than video games. I know that. The reality of it is that the only difference between these forms of art is how you comprehend how much you suck at experiencing them. With other forms of art, you get abstract feelings of boredom, confusion, disgust, and even hilarity when a painting or piece of music just seems too outrageous to be serious. With video games, you get a big, fat “GAME OVER” slapping you in the face until you realize that you are not quite as good at experiencing video games as you need to be. It’s discouraging, and that discouragement is the reason why many people don’t play skill-based video games. It’s also a big reason why people don’t go to art museums or classical music concerts.
But whose job is it to solve that problem? The good news is this: it’s only your job as a gamer if you want it to be. Game developers, like other artists, by and large know their audience. People like Schoenberg and Ligeti knew they weren’t playing for center field, and that most people wouldn’t be able to experience their music fully. Same thing with people like Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt and their art. Many game developers provide difficulty settings to reach as broad an audience as possible with their artistic efforts. One of my favorites which tastefully explains this idea is for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Not all gamedevs function that way, though. Some games, like Ninja Gaiden, Dark Souls, I Wanna Be The Guy, and FTL, pride themselves on being really, really challenging, and they’re going to keep making those kinds of games no matter how much we whine about how they’re too hard, and if they want to be artsy-fartsy about their game development, they should make their game easy enough so a mentally challenged barnacle could make it to the end. It’s just the truth.
And it’s okay! For three reasons, it’s perfectly fine: First, he existence of Twitch and YouTube Let’s Plays means that you can see even the most challenging game played start to finish, flawlessly. It’s how I enjoyed Five Nights at Freddy’s and Amnesia, even though I can’t stand horror games. Second, you can always get better at playing games. You can learn the set of skills that allows you to approach a new game methodically and become good at it as quickly as possible, and you can enjoy more games with less stress. Third, if you don’t like the first two options, there are tons of games out there (like Journey, for example) with a very gentle learning curve, that still have great artistic merit.
So yeah: video games are an art form (hooray!). Like any art form, you have to learn how to be better at experiencing it. But I don’t think that ever stopped anyone who enjoys playing them from getting into a game and trying to understand it… and if you’re really interested in doing the same thing, you won’t let it stop you, either.