Games as Medium, not as Art: Performative Beauty in Videogames
Have you ever watched someone play a videogame? I don’t mean in the way that a partner or spouse of a hardened “gamer” watches him or her trawl around Liberty City ad nauseum until 9:00 mercifully rolls around and it’s finally time for Grey’s Anatomy and their turn with the TV, but actually watched someone play a game in the way you would watch a football game or a favorite movie? We like to argue that games are an art form, a fact which many critics (myself included) would say is undeniable, but with all our bickering over the Uncanny Valley we’ve largely overlooked a critical point. As much as visual and sound design, it is the player who is the source of the greatest artistry in games.
In the hands of skilled players, games can take on an artistic quality all their own, with the playing of them becoming a type of performance art.
I recently had the opportunity to watch my girlfriend playtest They Bleed Pixels, the upcoming indie beat-em-up from Spooky Squid. In the midst of the level design and AI patterns and environment art I found my attention latching more firmly on to just the spectacle of her playing. Her skilled hands brought out a hidden rhythm to the game, the attacks and animations taking on their own cadence that was beautiful to watch. Before long I realized that what was interesting me more than the game was watching it be played in such an almost musical way.
This is the same sort of tactile fascination that fighting games hold. In spite of the air of chest thumping machismo that, for better or worse, surrounds the genre or the community, watching a skilled Street Fighter or Tekken player perform complex series of combos in seemingly effortless ways is an almost sublime experience. Watching Justin Wong play Marvel vs Capcom, for example, is not so much watching someone play a videogame; something we like to classically associate as being reactive. It is more like watching a performance; his pokes, plinks, and cross-ups take on the near predetermined ease that you would find in the performance of a play. Like a narrative play, his matches display conflict and climax, and like a play his reaction is so clean and dependable it is as if shot from a script, the (game) players not active combatants, but “players” in the true sense, each fulfilling a predetermined role in a self-contained story.
Tom Bissell writes that while sports may not themselves be art, there is something undeniably artistic about the performance of high level sport. Athletes are revered because at their peak of performance they inhabit a space that is meditative, almost autonomic; it is a sort of melting away of the individual to reveal something that is simply “human” and “motion.” When Michael Jordan dunks from the foul line we do not marvel at him as he hangs in the air, we marvel at the spectacle and the feat, the beauty of the human body pushed to its very limits with grace and apparent ease, which is almost transcendent in its purity and representation.
With that in mind, is not the same true of videogames? The medium is capable of (even prone to) communicating that same feeling of physicality and epitomized humanness as effectively as physical sports. There is something sublimely inspiring about watching a human being maximize the potential of his or her body or his or her mind, and videogames provide us with a medium to accomplish both simultaneously. Videogame players performing at their peak push not only their mental capacity to the limit, but also stress test their reflexes and physical dexterity to machine-like degrees, a fact that requires only a basic level of videogame literacy to deduce when watching these people perform. Even though I may not completely understand what I’m seeing when I watch someone play Starcraft there is that nebulous quality it possesses (it is that same nebulous quality that you recognize in a professional athlete) that what you are witnessing is truly something remarkable.
Even games that are not typically associated with high degrees of skill can, inspire this performative feeling. A game as “mundane” as Super Mario Bros can possess an inherent artistry, with the flow of each jump and each pixel-perfect landing conveying a perfect physicality. In the hands of a platforming expert, Super Mario Bros can become a visual study in flow itself.
Artistry in games can come from more than just displays of skill. In fact, some games seem almost custom designed to encourage players to tease out their performative aspects in visually beautiful ways. Geometry Wars, for example, combines its psychedelic visual style with an incredible tactile feedback system that makes it stunning to watch. Combined with its inherently emergent style of play, the Geometry Wars ‘ship’ takes on almost a life of its own as it dances across the screen, the game taking on a microbial visual quality that is both enrapturing and striking to watch.
Whether serving as a channel to demonstrate peak human skill or merely playing out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to behold, the playing of videogames can, in the right hands, take on an artistic quality all its own. Playing videogames can be viewed as a type of performance art, with the game being not the artistic production, as we typically like to think, but instead the medium through which the player expresses his or her performance. Games are unique as a dual-layered artistic medium, one in which the production of the developer and also the performance of the player can have equal artistic merit, as long as we’re willing to watch.