(This is the beginning brainstorm of a paper I want to write at some point. My argument is still soft skulled and wearing footie pajamas, and at this infant stage it is more of an exploration)
In April 2010, film critic Roger Ebert stated that “in principle, video games cannot be art.” The principle which prevents games from being considered an art form is game play, the ability to complete a challenge. For Ebert, an immersive game without an outcome would ” cease […] to be a game and become a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” Ebert’s promotion of ‘experienced’ media over experiential media harkens back to the values of high modernism, emphasizing submission to narratives and the immediacy of being confronted with a ‘complete’ artistic work. Ebert’s problem with video games is related to a perception of impurity or incompleteness in the construct of a game. A game is not whole without the input and participation of the player. Modernist art claimed a space of immediacy and wholeness, but video games necessitate and dwell openly in processes of mediation and remediation.
The chapter “Mediation and Remediation” from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s book Remediation: Understanding New Media makes complex arguments about the mechanics of new media, and I’m the first to admit that much of it is over my head at this point. I do, however, want to explore a parallel made in “Mediation and Remediation” regarding high modernist art and hypermedia, specifically focusing on the example of video games and perceived immediacy. Bolter parallels hypermedia and modernist art by suggesting that in
emphasizing process, [process meaning both process of the media’s creation and the process of viewing or interacting with the media] digital hypermedia become self justifying. With their constant reference to other media and their contents, hypermedia ultimately claim our attention as pure [“unmediated”] experience. In this claim, and perhaps only this claim, hypermedia remind us of high modern art (4).
Hypermedia, though having the appearance of immediacy, are actually engaged in processes of remediation, expanding and reiterating the mediation of earlier technologies (5). For instance, Bolter describes the hypermedia of immersive gaming as a “transparent medium,” a medium which endeavours to create a sense of immediate experience (2), but which is actually involved in remediation of prior photographic or film media; Doom is “regarded as authentic because it places the user in an action adventure movie” and Myst strives for immediacy with photo-realistic graphics (5). (this article dates from 2000, so we’ll forgive the now quaint “photo-realistic” Myst) Bolter is correct in suggesting the push for the illusion of immediacy in the apperance and experience of gaming – Graphics and “realism” have steadily improved at imitating reality over the past 60ish years of development (first patent for game: 1948). Why attempt a mimetic rendering of actual experience in a virtual medium, when it would be possible to render very alien modes of experience or “abstract” visual environments?
Neither modernist art or gaming is able to create a fully transparent experience. The quest for ultimate immediacy is hindered by the realities of mediation and remediation in the material production of the medias, and by viewer/user engagement. This is a problem particularly in gaming. If gaming is indeed seeking an ultimate illusion of immediacy, this immediacy must be resolved with the necessity of gameplay, the player’s participation, or mediation, as essential to an experience of the medium. The necessity of gameplay makes it difficult to accept video games simply as transparent hypermedia. The relationship between the illusion of immediacy and required mediation is simply too murky to define.
What about the artistic “immersion without outcome” which Ebert does not consider to be a game? In February, 2012, an experimental, narrative and exploration based gamer, Dear Esther was released through Steam. Dear Esther could be described as interactive storytelling – the game requires the player to wander a deserted landscape to discover pieces of abstract narrative, crafting a slow, parabolic experience through player participation. To those who want to cut clear distinctions between art and gaming (an impossible, if not backward goal), Dear Esther presents a conflict – it lacks the pursuit of a game-like goal, but requires direct mediation.