What Does It Mean For Video Games to be Smart?

In recent weeks the argument was put forth that most games are dumb. Writing for the Atlantic, gamer and author Taylor Clark provided an in-depth profile on indie video game creator Jonathan Blow. In so many words, both Clark and Blow agreed that too much of what is produced in the medium is intellectually lazy.

Clark’s claims might have been polemic, but they also got people talking about an interesting and important issue: can video games be smart? And what does that even mean in the first place?

Michael Abbott responded at the Brainy Gamer by accepting the challenge. Working with his readers, Abbott established a “Smart Game Catalogue” to prove Clark wrong. Darshana Jayemanne at Kill Screen responded by arguing for a broader, less constrained notion of art, and one that doesn’t judge videogames by inappropriate narrative conventions.

Weeks later, Clark responded to his critics in a post at Kotaku, eliciting another round of thoughtful rejoinders, including one from critic Cameron Kunzelman in which he argued that Clark confuses subjective preferences with objective criticism. I couldn’t have disagreed more, and so invited Kunzelman to debate the issue with me further here at Nightmare Mode. Directly below is my argument for what makes certain video games smarter than others, followed by Kunzelman’s case for why objective judgments like these are nonsensical and uninformative.

When I was a Child, I Played as a Child
by Ethan Gach

Picasso said “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth.” It might be better to say “a” truth, but the point is clear. As a form of art, video games are lies that engage us, and in doing so, also reveal something more about ourselves or the world. How much “more” and the skill with which it achieves this is what we mean when we say a game is “smart.”

Trying to clarify some earlier remarks, Taylor Clark wrote at Kotaku, “It should go without saying that there are countless smart things going on in even the most outwardly silly games, or else they’d have no reason to succeed. To me, the gameplay of the cartoonish gorefest known as Gears of War 3 is as tightly calibrated as a Maserati’s suspension system…”

However, Clark argues, games like Gears of War 3Vanquish, and even Skyrim lack what his fellow writer Tom Bissell calls comprehensive intelligence. Gears of War 3 might be “tightly calibrated” but only with regard to things like gunplay, cover mechanics, and level design. When it comes to other elements like its story, characters, and writing, the game is “dumb.”

At the end of the day, no matter how central players might be to the overall experience games are still designed. And these designs can themselves be more or less intelligent, while at the same time inspiring more or less intelligence in the person holding the controller. As a result, a title like Gears of War 3 might have a masterfully crafted map where enemy entry points and objectives are placed in a way that poses an intelligent problem for the player. This problem then in turn requires an intelligent solution. When the game shifts to narrative set pieces or character monologues though, it doesn’t do either of these things. When it comes to most of its story, Gears of War 3 neither poses deep, complex, or compellingly ambiguous questions, nor does it encourage the player to grapple with or critically reflect the events that are unfolding.

By all accounts the game wants us to feel something. To be emotionally attached to Marcus, Dom, and the rest of its characters. But so do soap operas. And while our individual subjective experiences of games aren’t necessarily “smart” or “dumb” the sophistication with which they go about creating these experiences can be. Sure, both Modern Warfare 3 and Heavy Rain try to elicit strong emotional reactions, but the former does so by crass exploitation while the latter achieves this through thoughtful nuance.

Storytelling in games is a craft like any other part of development. And if video games are going to utilize it they should be held to the same essential standards as other story telling mediums. Even if we disagree as to which games really are “smart,” we can all accept that some aim higher, and encourage us to think more seriously, and feel more deeply. Engaging players more completely, and on issues that matter, doesn’t necessarily make a game “better”, but it does maker it smarter.

I Don’t Know What “Smart” Means
by Cameron Kunzelman

What is smart? I have read the word hundreds of times since the (in)famous Atlantic article came out, and I still haven’t come upon a sufficient definition. Generally, I get the feeling that “smart” is connected to cultural relevance. “Smart” games tell us something about ourselves and the world. “Smart” games make us better people. “Smart” games possess Bissell’s “comprehensive intelligence.”

I think Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is smart. Spoilers for some of you, but Soap McTavish dies. He bleeds out on a dining room table. The other characters mourn for a moment, then continue the mission–there is a villain to stop. But that moment stuck with me. It opened some doors–why was the conflict being fought? Was it worth Soap’s life to kill the adversary? It also put all of the real lives lost in similar conflicts in perspective– I imagined the repercussions of Call of Duty politics in the real world.

So forget all of the other things about what makes games “smart.” Smartness is arbitrary. Phenomenal stories, beautiful mechanics, or compelling characters don’t have any kind of equivalence to smartness–what is brilliant to me to me could be absolutely moronic to you, and that is fine. Instead of trying to think through “smart” or “dumb” qualities, why don’t we focus our attention on the way that games invite intelligent analysis?

Boris Groys, in his essay “Equal Aesthetic Rights,” claims that contemporary art is “organized around the lack or, rather, the rejection of any aesthetic judgment.” There will always be as many people who like the total art object that is the Gears of War franchise as there are people who are critical of it. We aren’t able to make aesthetic judgments because the aesthetic field has exploded–there is such a massive plurality of cultural biases and expectations that there is no way we could ever reach a consensus on what is aesthetically “good.”

Groys suggests that we instead champion art that helps establish the equality of the aesthetic field. Rather than loving art that attempts to subsume or overcode all other art objects, we should praise art that opens itself, and other art objects, up for criticism. Groys writes that through “criticizing the socially, culturally, politically, or economically imposed hierarchies of values,” art is able to create an equal aesthetic space open for anything to enter into it.

That is how we should see games. Instead of constantly fighting over what is smart and what is stupid, we should value the games that both reward us as players and open up the field of games for more experimentation and difference. Under this paradigm, Anna Anthropy’s contributions to the gaming scene and Skullgirls have equal aesthetic right to exist.

This saves us from “smart” and “dumb.” It saves us from video game journalists and tastemakers telling us how to feel about a game. Play a game; if you think it is smart, it is smart, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Celebrate art that makes the world of gaming bigger, more robust, more strange, most hackneyed, more archaic.

Love the games you want to. Don’t ever feel bad about it.


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  2. CodenameV

    The “smart” debate sounds oddly trivial. Like the infamous art debates, I think any conclusion we derive from these discussions will inevitably be less valuable than we hope. I often engage in these kinds of debates (favoring your side, Ethan), but I must admit my contentions come from a sincerely self-righteous place: I just want people to see what I see. Which is constructive, of course, but the discussions eventually dissolve to a ham-handed skein of nonsense and pompous indignation.
    Which says nothing of you or Kunzelman — you’re both clearly smart, thoughtful, and constructive debaters. Any gamer that reads this exchange will likely benefit. And I guess I agree with both of you. Personally, I think Gears of War comes from a place of intelligent design; its story, on the other hand, is a practice in stupidity. So I don’t know how to accurately classify the game in a single word. Certainly, ‘smart’ would not be a just classification, but Gears is also not dumb. This is, I guess, where the game’s experience becomes difficult to verbalize: a single word, or perhaps even a whole paragraph cannot accurately describe Gears’ conflicting stupidity and intelligence.
    But, as Kunzelman says, that is a subjective analysis. I don’t expect everyone to think the same thing. But what I do expect is that everyone be capable of explaining *why* they enjoy or favor a certain thing. If you were to tell me that you like Law Abiding Citizen or The Boondock Saints, I would certainly as *why*, and I would certainly expect a comprehensive answer. I have found that this is the best way of deducing whether something (or someone) is smart.
    I can give clear reasons to why I love Grave of the Fireflies, Wild Strawberries, or Memories of Murder — reasons beyond “Well, it’s pretty and well-acted.” This leads to a subjective interpretation of each individual analysis — but whatever! Damn near everything is subjective, and we can’t just tip-toe around, excusing every inch of idiocy as we do. Sometimes asking *why* is the only way we’re going to come to a satisfying and comprehensive conclusion.
    Which leads me to ask: why do you put forth Heavy Rain as a narrative achievement in videogames? Personally, I think it lowered the bar.

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  4. CaleBarnett

    I’ve always agreed with the idea that most games are “dumb”. Games have always been notorious for asking the player to destroy stuff for little or no reason, that’s the crux of it. There is a reason why names like Jonathan Blow and Quantic Dream keep popping up in articles like this: its because they are pushing the medium towards “smart”.
    The only problem with all this is that people assume that by calling a game “dumb”, you are actually calling a game “bad”, which is not true at all. Now I love thoughtful and mature games, but at the same time I also love Borderlands. In fact, the reason I do love Borderlands so much (and am so looking forward to the sequel) is that it is COMPLETELY “dumb”. The only reason given in that game for going out and killing/looting everything in sight is written in a quest journal, which, if you bother reading it,  you’re playing wrong.
    We do need more “smart” games, as the gaming children of the 80’s and 90’s are now adults and looking for something more suitable to their intelligence. But “dumb” games are still fun games and are essential for attracting younger audiences also.

    • CodenameV

       @CaleBarnett I still question anyone who puts forth Heavy Rain as a “smart” game.