A lot of videogames really are dumb, but not all of them have to be

Taylor Clark doesn’t think there are many intelligent videogames. Or, as he put it in his recent profile of Jonathan Blow,

“Video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb.”

Here we go again. Another “respected” media outlet taking shots at a medium it doesn’t understand, and probably never even tried to.

This was not taken well by some readers. Many gamers especially, felt as if their hobby, passion, and in some instances livelihood, was being derided by some “mainstream” rag that didn’t know the first thing about videogames. 

Those feelings are understandable, to be expected even, but nevertheless completely toxic. If you, dear reader, have similar ones, please unload them now. At least for the time being. Upon further, deeper reflection you may take them back up again, at which time and with any luck they will be more measured and less motivated by primal territorial instincts.

Because the negative reactions to Clark’s May 2012 cover story in the Atlantic are mostly defensive. If the profile of Jonathan Blow had been published, word for word, by any gaming-centric outlet, I very much doubt the responses would have been so dismissive. Instead, it might have been an invitation to discuss further what video games should try to do and how consumer expectations might be managed in order to open up the market to greater diversity. Perhaps, rather than decrying all of the “great” games Clark failed to mention, more people would have listed such titles and put them forth for critical scrutiny.

But because a seemingly non-hardcore gamer who is writing for a general issues magazine is being extremely (and I would say dutifully) critical of what we feel are our games (our hobby, our love, our obsession), some of us are inherently resistant to the arguments being made, no matter how valid or worthwhile they might actually be.

It is important to remember then that at the end of the day it’s not “videogames” that Clark or Blow is commenting on: it’s the incredible lack of diversity among their mainstream iterations. Why should games that strive to do something more than just excite and delight us be relegated to a small “indie” scene? The market drives videogame creation, but we, consumers, players, and writers, drive the market. If we don’t expect more videogames that seek to elevate and engages us, and challenge our assumptions and values, then we won’t get them. 

In no uncertain terms, the creator of Braid explained his current frustrations with the medium as follows, “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity. There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”

Harsh, yes. But certainly there is at least a grain of truth in what he says. But I would go even further, and defend Clark when he much more antagonistically claims that

“It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.”

Whatever you’re feelings about the tone of Clark’s article, the above statement is hard to refute. Take the most “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” video games and compare them with their counterparts in film, theater, or literature. I’m not sure any figurative scale could accommodate that level of discrepancy.

That doesn’t mean that videogames can’t achieve similar cultural merit, artistic achievement, and philosophical value one day. It just means that day is far off, and, if Clark and Blow are right, may not arrive for some time as long as the majority of developers continue to mine the depths of what can only be referred to as the “figuring out ways to kill things with guns (and sometimes swords)” experience.

Braid is but one member of a small group of games that tries to do something more. It is wonderfully crafted, aesthetically delightful, and severely intelligent. Most importantly, the game makes a statement that is open to interpretation, but not one so broad that it becomes vague and uninteresting. Plenty of games tell stories, but that’s not the same thing as having a message, as making a critique: as thoughtfully reflecting on the human condition.

Attempting to do these things, and then doing them well, sometimes amazingly so, is not what makes a video game art. Most videogames could be called art. Rather it’s what takes a video game from just being art, to being great art. It’s not a matter of a videogame expressing something, of making players feel something. I can take a hike through the wilderness and feel something, but that doesn’t make the wilderness art. At least, not until I or someone else takes that aesthetic experience, mediates it, and displays it for a potential audience to reflect on.

Of course, few want to engage with this aspect of Clark’s piece. In fact, some writers find the “games as art” discourse “tired.” Besides, say they, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry and extremely popular. Well so is porn.

But the profile of Blow isn’t simply re-asking the question, “Are games art?” It’s asking us to confront the reality that most videogames, even the intoxicatingly fun and addicting ones, are at best extremely bad art. Too often they don’t have a deeper meaning or message, and even when they do it is obscured and undermined by extraneous or artlessly employed tropes like fetch questing, loot collecting, point scoring, and boss fighting.

Now people don’t like hierarchies of this sort. Indeed, the last decade especially has seen the rise of popular art like comic books, video games, and genre fiction to staggering new heights. Reading and loving Harry Potter isn’t just accepted, it’s cool. We celebrate it. None of this is to say that any of these things are unimportant or unworthy of our attention. I spend more money going to the theater to see movies like Real Steel, reading comic books about a man who dresses like a bat, and playing ungodly amounts of Call of Duty multiplayer than on anything we might traditionally think of as high art.

But at least in other mediums such options exist. I can go to the library and pick up Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky whenever I like. Tree of Life is streaming on Netflix. And museums are one of the most affordable places for a first date.

With videogames however, I’m left with very few options. Mass Effect’s potentially complex NPC gameplay is most developed when it comes to getting laid, and those themes which the traditional narrative gestures toward have been more elegantly and extensively explored elsewhere. Braid on the other hand utilizes the novel opportunities afforded by modern digital game design to comment on time, causality, and revelation. I could read Hume or Whitehead instead, but their writings would be incapable of offering me the unique perspective on these subjects that Blow’s game makes available. Too few games achieve or even attempt to do this, which for Blow and Clark is a problem.

Whether developers should devote most of their time to making high brow art rather than annualizing franchises isn’t the issue. Whether a share of the development scene should try more vigorously to explore the boundaries of the medium, and whether videogame lovers should be more open to and supportive of these endeavors, is question. And it is one I answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

There is already plenty of room for highly commercialized art. It’s what we often speak of “consuming” rather than engaging with or reflecting on. Entertainment is wonderful. And if it gives way to a feeling of something profound, that’s even better. But at the end of the day it’s still just that: entertainment. Entertainment is fun, often addicting, and sometimes overwhelmingly so. And people are free to spend, waste, or “kill” their time however they wish.

But if we are to justify videogames as something more than just entertainment, we need more of them that go beyond just being fun.  We need to invite more people to try and do what Jonathan Blow is doing rather than smearing them as “pretentious.” Clark’s critical take on videogames as a whole is brutal but informative. And it should be taken as an invitation to hold the medium to higher standards; to expect something more than glorified paint-balling or medieval fantasy wish-fulfillment emerge from it.

We can have cake, eat it, and do whatever the hell else we want with it too. In other words, we need not choose between popular games and artistic ones; between fun games and intellectually provocative ones. We can support both, and call on others to do so as well, rather than let the discussion devolve into a series of petty fights motivated by in-group/out-group tribalism. Part of taking videogames seriously is taking valid criticism of them seriously as well. The gaming community has become masterful at the first, but there is apparently still a lot of work to be done when it comes to the second.


  1. I don’t understand. This is in the penultimate paragraph: “But if we are to justify videogames as something more than just entertainment, we need more of them that go beyond just being fun.” The final paragraph is a call to a critical discourse about games that flattens the two domains and calls into question the dichotomy between “entertainment” and “something more.”

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t, on one hand, say that games are at some kind of baby stage now and should develop while at the same time claiming that games are already there and we just need better critical mechanisms to analyze them.

    I’m also not sure why we need to draw some kind of distinction between high and low art. I am frustrated that games journalists and writers have not learned a single thing from art debates that came out of the 20th century. These distinctions are silly. Can’t we all just get over it and say games are games?

  2. Thanks for commenting Kunzelman.

    To your point, I’m maintaining that relative to now, we need more challenging and intellectually provocative games. At the same time, I’m not arguing that people must only support that kind of game, but rather pointing out that a middle ground clearly exists and people can be supportive of projects like Blow’s, and call on other developers to work on similar ones, without forfeiting their Call of Duty or Skyrim.

    The last paragraph is an admission that the non-commercial and even commercial spaces are large enough to accommodate both kinds of videogame, while also noting that achieving a more balanced (read: diverse) landscape of videogames will require that players/writers/consumers take criticism like Clark’s seriously.

    As for the the distinction between low and high art, I’m happy to argue that further, but you’ll have to be more specific than telling me an entire century’s worth of discourse proves me wrong. Give me the shorthand of why you find such a distinction baseless.

    • Thanks for the clarification. I think you should have written that in the article.

      To start off with, I don’t want to have a long discussion about art in the comments. The only thing that I mean is that the distinction between high art and low art is, at best, irrelevant. Critical thinking and contemplation are not accessed any better by T.S. Eliot than they are by Jackie Chan. The only thing that distinguishes high art and low art in the contemporary period is price tag–affective and intellectual responses are shared across categories.

      • I’m not sure I understand your point. Surely whatever their access to critical thinking they can still use it on more important topics or not, more artfully or not.

        If we admit that not everything is art, and that it is a descriptive category with exclusionary criteria, then certain instances will fall truer to that category than others, and will thus better/higher than others. Perhaps I’m misusing “higher/lower” and they have discourse-specific meanings with which I am unfamiliar.

  3. I think I see what you’re saying, and I agree. It’s easy for people in gaming to get defensive since it feels like games were kind of a ghettoized art form for a while (like in arcades? or in kids’ hands? I think the ghettoization is exaggerated but there is definitely that feeling). Bring on the pretentious games! I love them all.

    • Thanks for reading Rachel! And good point about ghettoization/arcades.

  4. Seamus Poopdeck

    There’s too much that could be said here for one comment alone, so I’ll start with this…

    Braid is an overrated and exaggerated platformer made by a pretentious indie developer, who much like Fez, has suddenly become so arrogant due to fairly decent success with an overly glorified and mild budget game. Blow boasts about the cover of the game being “intellectual” because it’s a metaphor for some gameplay element; he touts “Art” simply because the level backgrounds look like paintings. Really? He’s actually that proud about that metaphor gig? Sorry, but the guy is an eccentric blow hard. There’s absolutely nothing intellectual about that game. If you want to call it “art” you’re basically admitting that the only way games can actually be that is if the levels look like they’re literally trying to be paintings with water color effects, because so far it seems that is the underlying factor which determines the obvious “art” in a video game(ie Journey, Flower, etc). The game hasn’t done anything that thousands of other basic platformers haven’t done a million times over.

    I mean, just look at that first quote…”It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.”

    No one who’s actually been playing games that long could take such a comment seriously. Mr. Blow thinks that Braid has somehow thwarted the norm and created some highly intellectualized experience in the form of a game because he had pretty looking backgrounds and some nice music. And the story? All the “story” was were just little written blurbs between ultra-clever puzzling levels…It’s a good game, but that’s all. The guy has his head up his behind.

    • Andrew McDonald

      I’m having difficulty remembering any popular games whose story was a deeply personal examination on the author’s frustrations and regrets onto what brought him to where he is in life. Could you give me some examples please? Or at least a game that uses symbolism and metaphors for reasons other than shock value?

      When indie developers talk, they are bound to express some opinions that large studio developers are careful not to express. This is because they do not have to worry about getting fired or breaking contracts with the people they work for. Is it better for them to keep their opinions quiet in fear that this will hurt business or risk saying opinions they have kept quiet and hope that people will overlook those bits where they say really stupid things.

      I’m not sure the Fez comparison is really accurate, as what he said was said before the game was even released and therefore was not yet successful. Also, Fez is not a game with any real philosophical or emotional relevance. Does Fez even have a story?

      I think your complaint about “art” is flawed, as in context of the article it has more to do with meaning and expression than style. Think more about games like The Path, which is pretty much interactive art, in that they are there more than just gameplay and story for the sake of gameplay and story, but instead give you something to think about.

      Blow is a man looking for meaning. Not just in videogames, but also in his life. He is how he is because of this drive. He sees the lack of this in gaming and wants to change that. You may call it pretentious, but I feel a better word is desperate.

      • Seamus Poopdeck

        Chrono Cross, Mother 3, War of the Lions, Vagrant Story, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. And they all do it 10x more effectively than Braid in it’s entirety. Braid doesn’t even come close to a successful narrative because quite frankly, there really isn’t one to begin with. The game and the story aren’t even interconnected to flow with each other in any kind of coherent sense; they’re placed separately. You can ignore the books altogether, similar to how you can ignore the logs in FFXIII. If the greatest achievement that Braid made is that it managed to stick a little bit of symbolism and metaphorical notations into those blurbs, Blow has a long way to go.

        The game is simply overblown, much like Journey and Flower, by fans incredibly desperate to pursue that “games are art so shut the hell up ebert” endeavour. I stopped caring about that argument after I saw Jim Sterling and other “journalists” rant about Bioware/EA for “damaging it’s artistic integrity by altering elements of ME3’s ending to please fans” which to me clearly demonstrated how silly the critics of the gaming medium are.

        Also, what is there to think about while playing The Path, really? Nothing that Silent Hill or Bioshock didn’t imply a million times over already. To me all The Path did was pretentiously throw eerie FMVs into your face to send a message of “Hey look I’m trying to be interactive art” but at the same time sacrificing any kind of fun factor. It’s similar to Flower; yes it looks gorgeous, but who actually sat down on their couch to play that game for more than 10 minutes? There’s ways to incorporate many of these elements subtly and more fluently than simply what many indie developers have been trying to do which is design a game that looks edgy and colorful to proudly tout it as “art.” I think Braid is a nice attempt and it’s good to know there’s developers working in that direction, but it’s still a long way from being anything spectacular.

      • MichaelD

        “I’m having difficulty remembering any popular games whose story was a deeply personal examination on the author’s frustrations and regrets onto what brought him to where he is in life. Could you give me some examples please?”

        This seems silly on two levels. Popularity of the game should have nothing to do with it first off many works of art are or have not been popular so popularity is irrelevant.

        I also find you’re criteria to be strongly favoring a specific type of art. If I take a beautifully performed latin dance it does not need to portrait anything of the dancers life. Or in a more cinematic format Star trek 2 the wrath of khan is a deeply personal story of obsession and revenge touching on several notable works like paradise lost. The Dark Knight dealt with themes of escalation and morality. As the current games market is geared towards a more action movie closer to these in style. So a game doesn’t have to conform to a specific set of themes.

        I also wonder if you’re not missing some of the value of games by focusing on rigid stories. True a film or book must be far more rigid thing then a game and this allows for a greater focus on expressing the authors views and intent. But games as an art are different from movies or books and there is artistic merit in this difference as well. Many of my most profound moments in games came from my actions in them. These revelations about some of my thoughts and values are something that are much easier to achieve in a game where the player is an active part of the story compared to the book where the reader is a more passive entity.

        Also on the subject of the path while I enjoyed it and had some fun with it for a few hours I’d call it a failure as art. It left very little of a lasting impression on me and I have trouble actually recalling anything enlightening coming about from my wandering of the path. I guess in the end it was more interesting in what it tried to do that anything else. Braid was at least a far more memorable experience. I have not played blow so I won’t comment on it.

        As to some games I might suggest I’ll add Odin sphere, and persona 3 to the list. I spent far more time contemplating that new years decision in persona then from anything I saw in the path.

        • Andrew McDonald

          Blow is short for Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, just to clear that up.

          The “popular” thing was a response to the last two paragraphs. I was attempting to say that Seamus was saying he had his head stuck up his ass without giving any examples to show that Blow was ignoring games he couldn’t possibly not know about. And Seamus returned with a solid number of answers.

          Perhaps my “art” argument was not clear. I was saying that when Blow talked about “art” he was not talking about the music or graphics of his game but about how they came together with the story to give it deeper meaning, or that there was a meaning at all. My criteria for what “art” is encompasses a great deal of things, I just felt that Seamus was misinterpreting his words.

          About the rigid stories comment, I have never seen a game do something storywise that someone else hadn’t done better in a different format, except maybe Ultima. I have had no deep thoughts provoked by a game (I’ll get to my experience with Braid in a second). Most of the messages I’ve seen were blatant and overblown, with as much subtlety as Bay’s Transformers.

          The Path is one of my favorite games. I like what it says and what it doesn’t say. I like that it is about the story and characters instead of a game with a story and characters added for incentive. I shouldn’t have said it gave something to think about. I think a better thing to say was that it had a discernable point that it never told you.

          A big reason I like Braid is that it resonated with me. I felt a connection to Blow when I figured out what he was saying (or at least what I think he was saying) that I’ve never felt with anyone on the other end of a video game before. It reminded me of The Great Gatsby of Citizen Kane in that way. My initial reaction to Seamus Poopdeck was too strong, as I have a tendency to overreact to what I see as aggressive attacks on things I like.

          Yeah, Blow is probably pretentious. But I don’t just view his pretentiousness as “I’m better than you” but rather “why don’t these things seem to bother other people?”

          Hopefully that all makes sense.

          • MichaelD

            If Braid’s the first game you’ve felt a connection to maybe you’re just playing the wrong games ;p (I kid).

            I’ve had a good handful of games that have resonated with me quite strongly. Though at the same time they’re not the always the ones that resonate with everyone else. I’m still not entirely sure why everyone still feels so strongly about silent hill 2 but ah well. Art is very subjective in such regards.

            Anyway while I personally don’t feel like gaming has been a big wasteland of story telling the average game really could use better writers. On a recent note I’ve seen several people eager to play Dishonored and aside from the setting I have no idea why. I can’t say I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to play a former prisoner seeking vengeance. I’d love to see fewer games with revenge as the plot. But yes, I guess I just wanted to add that while I don’t entirely agree with you on how barren games are in the plot and thematic department I do agree that there is a lot of room for improvement.

  5. Fantastic article Ethan. Some great points, but maybe I’m just saying that because they run parallel to my own opinions.

    I agree that gamers are very territorial and resist any criticism towards gaming. I’ve noticed a trend in the game community where people think that coddling games and putting them on a pedestal will somehow result in games growing and flourishing. However, if anything is to grow strong (art, athletes, entire species) it needs to be given rewards and restrictions, praise and criticism. If it only gets rewards then it grows fat, lazy, and weak.

    I think gamers need to understand that there is a difference between an intelligent game and a game that does a few intelligent things; a difference between a game that is art, and a game that contains art.

    • Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Nathan

    I agree that gamers are too sensitive to criticism and that many games as of late are growing stale. However I think you’re missing the forest from the trees on this one. A game is about teaching patterns and skills through its mechanics, not about necessarily trying to make an artistic statement or a meaningful emotional impact with its player. Games will never compete with traditional art, books or movies in this regard. When a game glosses over its mechanics to serve a story or setting (Skyrim being an example) it loses its value in what it does the best. I’m not saying good narrative or creative art direction aren’t important, just that they are subservient to gameplay itself. Braid was good because of its refreshing take on platforming. Its themes are fostered from the time bending mechanics, not the other way around. If it kept everything else exactly the same but was a standard platformer it wouldn’t even be a game worth mentioning. On the other hand chess is arguably the greatest game ever designed but it holds no story at all; it’s certainly not a commentary on war but simply a vague simulation of it. It’s impact, emotional or otherwise stems from its mechanics and nothing more, but it is no less valuable because of it.

    • “A game is about teaching patterns and skills through its mechanics, not about necessarily trying to make an artistic statement or a meaningful emotional impact with its player.”

      Could you clarify your argument on this point?

      For instance there are plenty of games that make the narrative a part of the gameplay: Braid, Portal, Bioshock.

      Why do you think a videogame must prioritize gameplay rather than put gameplay in the service of narrative or meaning?