Museum Director Says Games Are Art But Shooters Aren’t Interesting

Yesterday somebody on cable news had a fairly reasonable conversation about video games as an art form.
In the video above, taken from MSNBC’s The Cycle, host Touré sat down with Paola Antonelli, senior curator for the Department Architecture and Design at the MoMA, about the inclusion of video games in the museum. They talked about interaction design, some of her favourite games (Vib-Ribbon and Passage) and why they chose not to include any shooters in the collection. All in all, it’s a shocking example of measured, temperate discourse.

I could have done without the random Marcel Duchamp primer in the beginning, but it’s still a damn sight better than what you normally hear on the news.

Clip via The Cycle


  • I agree with her. I don’t think shooters, mechanically, communicate anything of great literary or artistic value.

    With that said, shooters that employ creative mechanics are obviously exempt to that. Games like Portal and Half Life that use the portal gun and the gravity gun to introduce a new way to approach situations is interesting on an artistic level.

    I still think though that their approach to video games as art is weird. I consider video games art, but more in a literary sense. I try to think more about how the mechanics can be thematic, like in Journey and Ico, how the story is synchronous with and accentuated by the game/level/enemy design, like Shadow of the Colossus and Half Life, and how the sensory impact, so the visuals, the physics, the sounds and music, deliver the game mechanics to you effectively, like in Banjo Kazooie, Devil May Cry (those sword sounds are intense), and Okami.

    • Yeah. Shooters tend to get bogged down with the need to shoot, although that can be said of most games and their main objective (Mirror’s Edge is held back by it’s need to run and jump). The way some of them tell a story with their environment or challenge perspective with twisted mechanics can be quite creative and artistic, but at the end of the day Rapture hammers you with the need to just shoot splicers everywhere you go. Left 4 Dead has a hundred really interesting stories being told in a way that baits the user into seeing as little or as much as they’re interested in, but it’s a bit like a really detailed backstory for a slasher movie.
      I wouldn’t say Half Life’s gravity gun makes up for the fact that pretty much everything in the game is just a backdrop for shooting the same few enemies. It’s a great game but I’d say it’s very bland if you’re judging it on artistic merit.

      I think overall games have huge potential for art. You can rework reality itself in a game and put the user into impossible situations. Granted you lose a lot being limited to TV screens, stereos and experiencing it via an avatar instead of in person.

      • I wouldn’t say Half Life’s gravity gun makes up for the fact that pretty much everything in the game is just a backdrop for shooting the same few enemies. It’s a great game but I’d say it’s very bland if you’re judging it on artistic merit.

        I think that back drop really leaks into the mechanics though. You have to kind of look at it in a symbolic, literary kind of way. Half Life is a heavy dystopian, 1984 inspired, gritty science fiction world that is very anti-authoritarian and pro-freedom. The gravity gun mechanic, in such a context, could be considered to represent, and this is going to sound rather floaty to some but hey, art, a sort of political relativism against an absolutist regime. The fact that Gordon Freeman (real subtle, Valve) uses his wits, compromise and situational resourcefulness through the gravity gun, means that he is approaching situations relatively as opposed to structurally and absolutely. Through structured, absolutist enemies in a conventional placement (which is done intentionally) that can only be overcome through thinking relatively, the gameplay itself communicates political, literary and philosophical themes that the story further accentuates – relativism trumps absolutism. This is what I love about video games; no other literary medium in existence actually communicates themes so directly. They can quite literally challenge you; they can make it so that you can only progress when you understand the message they are trying to convey. In Half Life’s case, unless you think relatively, you’re not going to progress.

        What is cool about video games as well is that, if you find a different way to overcome a thematic challenge like the one Half Life presents, then it holds literary value too. This is the pinnacle, to me, of the interactive medium as a literary and artistic medium; the players can also be the author/artist in some ways as well, as their approach to the text literally manifests itself in the characters they are operating.

        I know people tend to suck Half Life’s dick a bit too much, but really, I must admit, it is kinda hard to place a lot of criticism on the game, especially in the literary and artistic departments.

        • Honestly I think I’m just the one person that doesn’t get Half Life. It doesn’t engage me in any way beyond moving forward. I’m told HL2 is as much a puzzle game as a shooter but I can’t think of a single moment where I felt like I was solving a puzzle. Sometimes you have to move stuff to climb on or open a door but it’s all done with semi-realistic physics so to me it doesn’t feel like solving a puzzle as much as just plugging in the power cord or moving a box out of the way. It’s no bigger puzzle than activating the doors to open them. In that sense maybe I should start referring to my extremely messy workshop as a ‘puzzle’. =P
          I can see the story side of it, and I can tell you what happens, but again it completely fails to engage me. At any point where people aren’t talking to Gordon I feel like I’m just moving a camera/gun from A to B. When I play it so much of it feels like exposition -> walking/killing -> exposition -> walking/killing. It’s fun but in a lot of ways it leaves less of an impression on me than generic action titles.

          It’s weird because there appears to be something specific about Half Life that triggers the disconnect for me. I don’t think the story is bad or shallow. It may be linked to Gordon being mute, but it doesn’t happen with other story driven games where the main character doesn’t talk. Metroid Prime is a fantastic example of a mute character still communicating.
          I think it’s also in part due to acting as myself. Not to say that I’m an action hero genius, but the stuff you say about wits and situational resourcefulness is how I approach every game. In a weird way that makes it so that it doesn’t feel like Gordon is even there outside the story points. Although again, Metroid Prime does the same thing and it works for me. Maybe I just need that visor reminding me Samus exists…

          I guess in terms of games as art that’s actually sort of a positive. There will always be great works that you can recognise the significance of, what the creator was trying to do and what other people see in it, but still you still don’t feel for personally. The game is deep enough that I can appreciate what others see in it even though it doesn’t engage me.

        • Half Life is a heavy dystopian, 1984 inspired, gritty science fiction world that is very anti-authoritarian and pro-freedom.

          I forgot to ask a question that’s pretty much unrelated unless you just want to talk about Half Life in general. In Half-Life 2 did you ever feel like you weren’t totally free? Shooters are mechanically very liberating by default. I’m just sort of interested to know if, as someone who obviously got really into the game, if you felt like you were oppressed and breaking the chains or if you were totally free fighting a force that seeks to chain you.
          Plotwise I’d say it’s the latter, but the gravity gun lets you manipulate the world around you, even if it’s a fake world, so does that make you feel like you’re overcoming things in the real world that tie you down?

          • Plotwise, I agree. It is a very linear game but, I think that is more to do with how the story is told more so than how the game is played. I would have to say that is somewhat of a criticism to be made about the game. I don’t really think the game is perfect, because I feel like the story does take priority over the game in some parts, but I’m not too bothered by that due to the story being fairly exceptional (at least to me – I’m a really big fan of dystopian novels like Brave New World, We and of course, 1984, so Half Life goes down a treat). Personally, I would have much preferred Shadow of the Colossus to win game of the decade over Half Life 2.

            It is also worth mentioning though that Half Life was one of the first games to ever have fully voice acted plot as well as exposition without cutscenes. In a sense, it was revolutionary in terms of how story was delivered through games in that it never really took control away from the player. These days, we consider the Half Life exposition model to totally be taking away your control; I mean sure, you can walk around while exposition is going on but, that doesn’t mean you really have any control over the situation does it? The fact that Gordon Freeman is a silent character as well says a lot about this too (although one could argue that giving Freeman a voice and personality would mean that the player is not free to bring their own point of view to the game). But the point is, Half Life was really one of the first games to tackle this issue; we wouldn’t have this criticism of the game if not for it, as it was the one who sort of gave birth to this criticism to begin with. It is kind of stuck with this model though, so I’d like to see what Valve can do to not change it, but improve it with the next Half Life title to communicate to us that they are still on top of revolutionizing exposition in games.

            I’d say the actual level design, the enemy placement, the environment and the gravity gun though is enough to give you a hands on feel for its political relativistic themes. In combat, I felt like I was breaking chains through my creative will and relativism, in plot, when I first played it, I felt the same. By today’s standard, yes, I do feel chained down by the exposition, but that is due to the developments in video game story telling (that was inspired by Half Life to begin with) that has occurred over the past 6 or 7 years. I think a lot of it has to do with when you first played Half Life, too.

    • A million times this. It’s amazing how one game restored my faith in an entire genre I thought was beyond hope. And Bioshock.

  • “All in all, it’s a shocking example of measured, temperate discourse.” Ha ha ha, it is rare particularly in mainstream american media.

    Honestly though, I hope they don’t just have a blanket rule against shooters, Bioshock would be a great candidate for this and would change a lot of peoples minds.

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