Jul 012008

I didn’t intend to write a separate post on this topic. I’m no authority on philosophy and can’t claim that I adhere to some superior standard of rationality in daily life. I wanted to leave the “just a game” thing alone, and let my comments on the relevant post at Dan Bruno’s site be my final word. But then someone left a comment at my Tin Man post, attempting to blunt the criticism with the idea that it was just entertainment. Now, despite the fact that I happen to think that some things really do fit into this category, the use of this phrase as an argument annoys me, because it is no argument at all. So here’s my position. It’s probably not art, but you might be entertained.

“It’s just a game,” or “It’s just an action flick,” and other statements of their ilk almost always betray a mental sloth, an unwillingness to actually engage the arguments presented. When someone responds to an argument in this way he displays a fundamental disinterest in the discussion, but also a foolish pride in that disinterest. Because he does not view the subject as worthy of discussion, he concludes that this viewpoint must be valid for everyone else, and proclaims it as a fact. However, even if it is true that some games are “just games”, then that must be proven, not simply asserted. The statement incurs a burden of proof, and anyone unwilling to try meeting that burden probably shouldn’t be saying anything at all.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of just how that statement can be proven, everyone ought to know that proving it doesn’t put a close to the discussion. That a particular game is “just a game” doesn’t preclude meaningful and interesting discussion about the way the game is made or the values that went into it. An example of this came up in the comments to Dan’s article. Few people would dispute that a golf simulator is “just a game”, and I am not one of them. Nonetheless, Michael Abbott says some very interesting things in comparing the presentation of the Tiger Woods games to Hot Shots Golf, and about simulations generally. Of course, we can also address the quality of the entertainment experience, i.e. its artisanship, which I tried to do in the Tin Man piece: I thought it didn’t actually do a very good job of entertaining me because of its inconsistency. Even if everyone in the universe agrees that Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is so far from being art that it might not even deserve italics, we can still discuss whether the boom mike drops into the scene and what that does to the entertainment value of the film.

This brings me to another point: the failure of a piece of media to achieve anything artistically is a valid criticism of its entertainment value. We all accept that different people are entertained by different things. Gamers, whose tastes are often fragmented along genre (or even subgenre) lines should be especially aware of this. The other night I came across this fundamentally fair review of Baroque, which sent commenter Gen Eric Gui over the edge. His problem was that the author did not judge it strictly on its merits as a Roguelike, and he really likes Roguelikes, and thus loved Baroque. Everyone who has ever discussed games with any regularity has had a conversation just like that.

Well, here’s what I really, really like: games that do something interesting artistically. That plays a significant role in deciding whether a game (or book or movie, for that matter) entertains me. There’s not some mystical wall dividing art on one side from entertainment on the other. Art does entertain, or at least it can; otherwise we probably wouldn’t have it. So when considering whether a piece of media succeeds as entertainment, it’s reasonable to ask whether it has some artistic merit that can help entertain people who get turned on by that sort of thing. Tin Man didn’t have it, or at least not enough. Neither, in my opinion, did Baroque.

So does it matter that something is “just a game”? I think it does; achieving some kind of consensus on that point gives us a good idea of where to direct our mental energies. If it is true that a particular game (movie, etc.) is entirely without artistic merit then we ought to focus our discussions of it on the artisanal aspects of its construction. Halo probably isn’t art, but it contains art, as well as artful design, from which much can be learned. Shadow of the Colossus is art, and we could do worse than discussing its artistic qualities, in addition to or instead of studying its artisanship. Directing the discussion into a particular area, however, shouldn’t exclude efforts to see whether there is some merit.

Here we get to the question of how we can prove, or at least support, the statement that something is “just a game”. I have to admit, I use a pragmatic rather than an analytical standard here. My experience is that it’s virtually impossible to prove that a particular piece of media (let alone an entire medium) is art. My standard therefore is not analytical proof, but simply whether the premise “X is a work of art” leads us anywhere interesting. In plenty of cases, including Halo (Roger Travis’ view notwithstanding) and sports simulations, I think it doesn’t. We can say very interesting things about these games, but those things don’t need the premise that the game is a work of art. In contrast, I think you would need to accept that No More Heroes or The Two Thrones are art in order to fully appreciate them. That doesn’t mean that we have to uncritically accept every attempt at artistic discussion, but we are obligated to reply, with more than just “nuh-uh, it’s just a game”.

Sometimes a game is just a game, and I honestly don’t have any problem with that. Plenty of games (and other media) are very entertaining without having much artistic merit at all. But the statement that a work is just entertainment is not a rebuttal of reasoned argument to the contrary, nor is it a valid way to deflect criticism. And really, because artistic content is (or at least can be) part of the entertainment value, it’s not any kind of response at all. “It’s just a game” isn’t a response that’s automatically invalid, but saying those words doesn’t make them true. It’s a statement that must be substantiated and shown to be relevant, just like any other argument. If you’re not willing to go through with that, then perhaps you don’t really have anything to say at all.

  4 Responses to “It’s just a _____!”

  1. Thanks for expanding your thoughts on the topic. It's an interesting and potentially important one.

    I can definitely see your point about some games being seemingly devoid of artistic merit. While I'm inclined to disagree, I think that issue is a red herring here. The real issue is this idea that games are not worthy of critical analysis because they're "just entertainment" (or "not art," or however they are dismissed). It seems that we agree that such a dismissal is unwarranted. Whether the discussion hinges upon discussing artistic or artisinal merit (or something else) is, I think, immaterial; the important thing is that we're willing to have a discussion at all. Unfortunately many people are not, which is what prompted my original post.

  2. What's your take on games such as Wii Sports and party games? These games are little more than mini-games strung together where more emphasis is given to the interaction of the players rather than the content of the game. Are these something you would consider just a game?

  3. I wouldn't consider the class to be "just a game" per se. As for particular instances, I would probably say that Wii Sports and Mario Kart really are just games, because I don't think the assumption that they're art gives you an angle on any further insight. But, I think it would be possible to use a game along these lines to create interesting dynamics among the players. To expand our discussion into another kind of gaming, I think you might be able to make a case that a game like Diplomacy is art, because the dynamics induced among the players could convey meaning. So, simply being multiplayer, or even being a collection of minigames, doesn't necessarily make something just a game.

  4. Ian Bogost says some interesting things about gameplay reaching out into the world in this essay. Something to consider.

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