I’m still reading a bunch and my current book, Extra Lives, is essentially critical theory on video games as literature. This divide between what makes something ‘art’ is something I’m kinda big on, so it’s a fascinating read. There’s one thing that Tom Bissell says which struck me: that because video games must be, by nature, fun, they’re seen as being less artistic or literary than other mediums.
Which, well, kinda has a point. When was the last time you went to an art museum and had fun? And not the sorta fun you get from the unintentional humor of some paintings, but actual ‘fun’ (which is really hard to describe, has few cross-lingual analogues, and was explored heavily by Huizinga, but bear with me). Chances are slim that unless you’ve seen a particular statue of a man punching a horse in Vienna, you haven’t, and even that monument to equine assault was probably intended as serious. See, ‘high’ art is meant to inspire ponderings, not for you to have plebeian fun. You stand there, think, say a couple ‘mmhmm’s for good measure, and move on to the next one.
But that’s art, like art art; what about, say, books? The divide is even more stark there. No one’s gonna argue against Ulysses as a literary masterpiece, but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as being truly ‘fun.’ Enjoyable, maybe, but much of that pleasure probably stems from a mixture of latent masochism and the sunk cost fallacy. That and, y’know, trying to sound intelligent. But besides Ulysses (which I legitimately love), there are other Great Works by, say, Hemingway or Melville that you’d be hard pressed to describe as being legitimately enjoyable in and of themselves, especially when compared to ‘lesser’ genres like science fiction and fantasy. Point is, the Great Works can’t bother with the frivolities of fun-ness.
You even see this in comics, arguably already a ‘lesser’ form. Watchmen is heralded as one of the best comics ever and is all doom and gloom. Compare it to Sex Criminals, which is much brighter, much funnier, and much cruder, but takes its story no less seriously. Though Criminals is held in some esteem (TIME named it comic of 2013), it’s seen as being nowhere near as literary or iconic as Watchmen, perhaps due to its adult subject matter and relative newness, but probably also because it’s so goofy. Never mind that it deals with depression, intimacy, and a host of other things, it’s too silly and too fun to be considered serious art.
Which brings me to games. If a game’s not fun, you’re not gonna play it; plain and simple. Games have to be enjoyable on some level to maintain player involvement. Thus gaming becomes a very visceral experience, whether it’s your curiosity that’s been piqued by Gone Home, the sheer beauty of Journey, or the exhilaration that comes from fighting Covenant in Halo. It’s experiential on a level that no other medium is, and thus has to make the audience want to experience it for the sake of the experience (as opposed to, say, the story or visuals).
And here is where video games run up against the brick wall of literary merit. Games are, like Sex Criminals, seen as being simply too fun to be real literature. No matter how serious they are, by virtue of being leisurely they can’t be art. The Last of Us is a gripping story about fatherhood, loss, survival, and so much more that the player is forced to experience rather than just observe. Even when it’s at its darkest and bleakest, it remains ‘fun’ to play in the sense that the game works. No, the violence of the game mayn’t be enjoyable per se, but it holds your attention and makes you want to keep going. But because The Last of Us is ultimately a piece of software that’s developed and patched rather than born out of pure artistry like, say, a book; it’s relegated to being mere diversion. And because of that, it can’t really be art.
Which is a bummer. Because I think art should be enjoyable on at least some level. That much of what makes comics, well, comics is that it’s illustrated shouldn’t be a detractor, just as in order for a video game to work it has to be on some level fun. Writing off games because of that would be like lambasting books because you’ve gotta turn the page, or disliking Aaron Sorkin’s work because you insist on watching it with the sound off. Let’s get off our high horses and be willing to afford fun mediums their due; games can have all the mindless glee of Michael Bay (Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel) and the melancholic tenderness of The Fault in Our Stars (The Last of Us: Left’Behind*).
‘cuz hey, let’s enjoy it.
*Writer’s note: The Last of Us: Left Behind is
But that’s a