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theory: Curtis Johnson: Art vs Entertainment
Posted on Wednesday, May 14 @ 10:46:21 CEST by julian

Art Games
Curtis Johnson, student of game developer and theorist Celia Pearce, provides us with a few interesting thoughts on the popularly held diametric of Art and Entertainment.

His take on it is that Art itself is already a culturally rarefied form of entertainment and cannot be easily considered otherwise. As a result, this places games, as a self-confessed form of entertainment, well within the realm of art (or at least a little less conveniently separable). I've archived it here for posterity (all copyright belonging to Curtis).

Entertainment vs. Art

By Curtis Johnson, 2008

The distinction between video games as art and video games as entertainment is a tenuous one. To distinguish between entertainment and art is seemingly contradictory, because one cannot exist without the other. What is art without entertainment? It is common practice for people to visit the museum and gaze at various works of art for fun, using art for entertainment. Once within the museum patrons can browse from gallery to gallery and entertain themselves by inspecting paintings individually. Every painting is visually stimulating and offers us a form of entertainment. People use the practice of looking, along with the rest of the senses, to perceive entertainment. The duration of their gaze is directly proportional to how exciting they find the sensory stimuli. If the entertainment value of the image is high, the painting will capture the viewer's gaze, and the reverse is also true. Entertaining video games also capture the player's gaze, but also give the player added sensory stimulus, thus entertainment, through direct interaction. Art is meant to entertain, or it wouldn't be on display and certainly wouldn't garner massive crowds of art enthusiasts. For instance, the Mona Lisa exhibit in the Louvre is filled to capacity with the shoulders and elbows of anxious guests chatting excitedly and snapping photos of the venerable masterpiece. Every day of the year the exhibit is swamped with tourists jockeying for the best view of the painting for no other reason than entertainment.

What is entertainment without art? Besides entertaining yourself with blades of grass or bubbles, every form of entertainment is a creative artistic expression of the producer, reflecting his/her personal beliefs, intentions and distinctive style. That is precisely why we are entertained; the uniqueness of the entertainment draws us into the media form and spurs us to want to know more, to identify with the work and to hold our gaze a little longer. If entertainment was not artistic it would cease to be entertaining. Viewers quickly tire of watching uninspired commercial film productions, reading predictable novels, and even playing through familiar level designs in video games such as Halo. Each of these is a different example of entertainment lacking creativity and inspiration, or more generally, artistry. Consequently, these examples are among the least entertaining. For entertainment to entertain, a high amount of creative art or artistic vision must go into its creation. Entertainment and art are very closely tied together, but how much so? Let's start with a brief history.

Before the rise of human civilization there was little time for anything but survival. All time and energy went to providing food, water and shelter for yourself and dependents. The primitive population had little time for art or entertainment or, more generally, diversions to distract them from their toilsome existence. Artifacts show that at least one of the activities cavemen enjoyed during their precious free time was cave painting. No one knows why these paintings were created, though theories abound(4). Speculation can easily conjure images of a gregarious caveman describing a particularly exciting hunt to his clan as he draws the events on the cave wall illuminated by a flickering fire. Even if oration did not accompany the artist, the aesthetic nature and sophisticated composition of the paintings indicate they were not for utilitarian purposes. They could only have been diversions from the drudgery of daily life, thus cave painting marks the twin birth of art and entertainment forever memorialized on stone.

Only once agriculture rooted itself as the primary means of sustenance did large enough populations congregate to facilitate role specialization. The artist and the entertainer were born out of the new free time afforded by specialization and, most likely, as a mixture of the two. Actors, artists and musicians offered both art and entertainment to the citizens and were prevalent in civilized societies. Art and entertainment have been tied since birth and only in modern society do we force the distinction between the two.

The need for a distinction rose out of the rising commercialization of culture through what Theodore Adorno, prominent member of the Frankfurt School, terms the “culture industry”(7). Adorno believed modern society had produced a popular culture marketing and selling standardized cultural goods to the public. He saw the rising tide of the culture industry as a danger to high culture. This early distinction between high culture and low culture has often been questioned and criticized, yet these value judgments continue even to this day exemplified by the marginalization of alternative media forms (e.g., video games, magazines, radio) as low culture. The contemporary discourse on culture refutes the controversial distinction of high and low culture. Instead, contemporary discourse views all cultural forms on an equal playing field judged on content and independent of the medium employed.

Alas, prejudices persist unfettered by reason and logic. Case in point, on April 19, 2002, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Sr. ruled that video games do not convey ideas and thus enjoy no constitutional protection(2). The level of ignorance required to draw such an over-generalized conclusion is beyond my comprehension. Clearly, Judge Limbaugh has never played a video game, or he would know that every video game, especially commercial games which were in question during this trial, has a solid premise and plot, not to mention creative artwork, player models and game mechanics. One could even argue that video games convey more ideas than any other media form. Consider the number of people involved in the creation of a video game. Not only does the design and development team typically number in the hundreds, but the necessary hardware and program languages for creating the game all had to be developed by people with ideas. The game itself is an outpouring of creative energies of all the programmers, designers, artists, and a myriad of other people with ideas. Unlike movie productions, which have similarly extensive credits, video games allow personal input from a vast number of contributors, each adding their own ideas through their creative input. Movies allow for the transmission of ideas but typically only express the ideas of the writer, producer and/or director. These few people know what they are striving for in their production, and the cast simply follows orders. Video game creation is typically a collaborative effort with great ideas sometimes coming from the lowest ranks. To say video games do not convey ideas is both ignorant and completely false.

This example does shed light on the difficulty video games as art have had in scratching out a respectable position in the artistic community. Video games have long been marginalized as a viable medium for expression, thus video games as art is a relatively new concept and gaining traction fast in both the gamer and art communities.

The art game I played was a Half-Life 2 mod entitled “Everything I Do is Art, But Nothing I Do Makes Any Difference, Part II”(5). The artists meticulously recreated the exhibition space down to the minutest details; from door and window trimmings to digital reproductions of their peer's works within the gallery. The player is free to move about the gallery shoot walls, artwork, and even a few enemies. The gravity gun from Half-Life 2 is used to tremendous effect as the player can use the gun for both creation and destruction. Players can gravitate paint cans towards themselves then hurl the cans at the wall creating a splash of art. Alternatively, players can gravitate other works of art towards themselves then send them flying to shatter into pieces. Through “expressive destruction” the players can fulfill their creative whims. “Everything I Do2” questions our conceptions of reality by recreating the physical space where the game is experienced within the game. This mimesis of the environment allows for especially compelling game play, particularly if played within the gallery.

“Everything I Do” is definitely an art game, although more art than game. The artists place the game in an art gallery and allow for creative expression through destruction. There is no driving narrative compelling players to play the game, the premise is compelling enough because it very accurately reproduces the physical space viewers are in. Most traditional aspects of a video game have been stripped out leaving an avatar and a map with few obstacles or goals, no win-state, no direction and no “conflict,” besides shooting the occasional monster. A more fitting categorization of this piece would be artistic digital media. This label seems to fit even the most commercial video games but is still a more accurate description of this piece than “art game.”

The commercial game I played was a recent purchase of mine entitled “Sins of a Solar Empire.” The game pits you as the leader of a galactic civilization with the mission to conquer the galaxy. The player has many units available for construction, ranging from capital ships to strike craft. The game is unparalleled in scale with up to 10 players vying for upwards of 50 planets spread across various solar systems. Every planet is unique and must be individually upgraded with security, such as turrets, mining operations to fund your empire, research structures to advance your society and civic structures to facilitate a population. Which upgrades to put on which planets is up to the player. Generally, military improvements should be placed in proximity to the enemy or on your planetary frontier, and civic and research improvements should be concentrated near the center of your solar empire. SoaSE is an expertly executed innovative synthesis of the RTS and 4X genres. RTS, or real time strategy, games typically consist of base building, resource acquisition, unit building and a subsequent fast war of attrition. 4X games, explore/exploit/expand/exterminate, typically seat the player as the leader of an expandable empire in turn-based game play. In general, 4X games tend towards macromanagement of an extremely large geographical area over a very long period of time, while RTS's are typically characterized by quick micromanagement of units to destroy the enemy before they can build up formidable opposition. Both long-established genres have remained mutually exclusive, only occasionally thrown together in a poor attempt at melding the genres. SoaSE is the first game I've seen that has so seamlessly executed this monumental feat.

Both games are set in a virtual world and attempt to represent reality in the virtual space. “Everything I Do” takes a more concrete approach and thus comments directly on the depiction of and our conception of reality, while SoaSE gives a cosmic vision of the future ruled by aliens but with a high degree of realism. Both games are entertaining, SoaSE offering a longer, but not necessarily more enjoyable, playing experience. Entertainment is subjective and depends on the interests and literacies of the player, so labeling anything as “entertaining” is a projection of personal bias. Both games employ a high degree of interactivity to facilitate creative expression and create a sense of agency and immersion. Aside from these major similarities, the games are wildly dissimilar.

SoaSE is by definition a commercial game meant for entertainment. The designers, developers and programmers all realized they were creating a commercial game for money and expected to be paid, but that doesn't mean they didn't use the game as a means for creative expression. Some of the most successful commercial games are the most avant-garde, artistically driven games. For example, Katamari Damancy, No More Heroes and Endless Ocean each offer unique and artfully inspired experiences in contrast to the vast horde of typical commercial games, but these games are still considered commercial.

The label commercial should not imply the binary opposition that the game is therefore not art. In many ways, I would argue that SoaSE is more artistic than “Everything I Do.” “Everything I Do” doesn't hold a candle to the amount of creative input that went into SoaSE. The back-stories of the races, the hundreds of ship models and the innovation of melding two popular game types dwarfs the creative input needed to create “Everything I Do”; a Half-Life 2 mod set in an actual museum and reminiscent of the “paintball” cheat in Golden Eye for N64. SoaSE far exceeds “Everything I Do” in terms of creative input. However, in terms of creative expression there is some ambiguity. Is creative expression the representation of new ideas and content, exemplified by SoaSE, or is creative expression the novel remediation and re-appropriation of older media? I believe both are equally viable forms of creative expression, therefore, both games discussed are instances of digital media as art and, as earlier established, engaging forms of entertainment.

Why critics must impose the arbitrary, mutually exclusive label of “entertainment” or “art” will forever be a mystery to me. The difference between the terms is a matter of the creator's intent and the work's presentation, but doesn't mean a work can't be both. “Everything I Do” is considered an artistic digital media because the artists deemed it as art, and they exhibited their piece in a manner classically suited to more traditional forms of art. SoaSE is considered a commercial game because the creators labeled it so with no intention of creating a “masterpiece” or exhibiting their game in a gallery. They distributed the game through the traditional avenues of commercial distribution. Nonetheless, both games are equally artistic and entertaining. As I have illustrated, art and entertainment are forever related, twins since birth and never to be separated. Where there is art there will be entertainment, and where there is entertainment there is already art.

Bibliography/Works Cited

1. Herz, JC. How Videogames Won Our Hearts, Ate Our Quarters, and Rewired Our Brains. New York: Little, Brown and

Company, 1997.

2. Jenkins, Henry. "Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked." The Video Game Revolution. MIT. 19 Feb. 2008 .

3. Pearce, Celia. “Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Interactivity.” Visible Language: Special Issue on Fluxus. January 2006.

4. Price, Matthew. "Underground Art; Puzzles and Arguments Surround the Great Cave Paintings of France and Spain." The Washington Post 17 Dec. 2006, Final ed. Lexisnexis. Georgia Tech Library, Atlanta. 19 Feb. 2008. Keyword: cavepainting theories.

5. Reilly, Chris. "Everything I Do is Art... Pt II." Chris Reilly. 2006. 19 Feb. 2008 .

6. Stuckey, Helen. “Keep off the grass: ACMI Park - A case study of virtual public space. First Monday, January 18, 2006.


7. Sturken, Marita; Cartwright, Lisa. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. London: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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