by Jed Pressgrove
For a large part of “No, Video Games Aren’t Art. We’re BETTER,” game designer Jeff Vogel struggles to describe video games in a way that doesn’t sound like a superficial, ahistorical commercial. His confused smugness comes in its purest form when he suggests “we game designers” naturally aim at something higher than art. Like many hype-spinning commentators, Vogel doesn’t appear at first to understand what makes video games different from each other, much less from similar interests.
According to Vogel, video games can achieve “transportation,” which he defines as better than art. He uses the new Doom game to illustrate this concept. In a reference to the comic Penny Arcade (which has some of the worst comedic timing of all time), Vogel is fine with calling Doom something as vacuous as “playable sugar.” Yet he moves away from what that phrase might imply, saying that he was “utterly transported” when he fought three bosses in Doom. He then cites a unique feeling of being “consumed” and “drained” after expending the effort to defeat the bosses.
Vogel’s claim seems to be that art can’t cause any of these feelings, but this notion is easily rejected. A movie can transport you to a different time and place, one might describe a pop song as “playable sugar,” and a rock show can consume and drain concertgoers. Even if we limit the discussion to video games, the first Doom did everything better than the new Doom, excluding weapon design. There is nothing unexpected about doing one arena fight after another in a Mars or Hell setting, but it’s in Vogel’s best interest as a self-important game designer to bullshit readers into thinking the new Doom does something historically significant with a few boss fights. Maybe Doom does accomplish something different, but Vogel can’t explain why with vague terms that are applicable to all types of art.
Ironically, in stating it’s “dumb” to feel proud after beating a boss, Vogel dismisses one of the more distinct things a video game like Doom might have going for it, at least in comparison to movies, songs, books, paintings, and other things that are often labeled art. The easiest way to understand popular appeal of video games is to think in terms of art, puzzles, and sports, with the third term leaving plenty of room for pride after defeating an opponent. But Vogel has already made up his mind that video games represent some kind of magic that has little relationship to anything before it. (One wonders if he would be able to consider that Michael Jordan is an artist who beat people on the basketball court.)
In arguing that the new Doom sets itself apart without showing how it’s different than previous first-person shooters, Vogel fails to acknowledge the history of the very form he praises as singular. Vogel’s flippancy toward serious evaluation of video games pops up several times after his non-analysis of Doom. He says “We offer Experience,” apparently trying his hand at mindless marketing talk. He also says if you are looking for “artistic accomplishment” and “creativity,” you should look at any “Best Games list from 2014 or 2015.” First of all, why should any reader automatically assume a list from a random game critic will identify artistic accomplishment or creativity? Second, why only from 2014 or 2015? The suggestion leaves room for the common misconception that games from previous decades don’t have aesthetics, expression, and messages–that they cannot be appreciated as art, that they are different from art. Later, Vogel says he likes games such as Gone Home, Her Story, and The Beginner’s Guide that borrow “storytelling techniques from obsolete art forms.” Nevermind what these techniques or art forms are. Nevermind whether Gone Home and company actually introduced these borrowed techniques to the video-game form. Vogel again prefers to condescend, not articulate.
Vogel’s take on The Last of Us, which appears in the middle of his post, fares better than what precedes it, if only because he becomes more specific. His main point follows: the “actual game part of” The Last of Us (the action, not the cutscenes) is what makes the game special, as it causes us to be momentarily tricked “into thinking we’re struggling for survival.” This theory aligns with Defender creator Eugene Jarvis’ idea that tapping into players’ “inner Neanderthal” keeps them coming back for more. Vogel excitedly talks about the power of the developer to create “addiction machines” and “compulsions.” It’s even hard to tell whether he is joking when he says, “I want to absorb you to the point where it threatens your marriage and your livelihood.” Vogel’s ideal game is one that transports you, i.e., makes you forget the real world and enter a new world, and turns you into an addict (an effect, I would point out, that many television shows and pop songs have on their audiences).
With this ideal, we see the true colors of Vogel’s misleading post. He claims he is arguing in favor of video games as a whole and as a unique form, when in fact he places more value on “gamey games” and scrambles to articulate how these types of games have no historical precedent. In doing so, Vogel denies the history of art, games, and sports. If you want to appreciate video games, it should go without saying that you have to honestly compare them to each other, whether they came out in 2015 or 1975, and to other things that compel, transport, consume, and addict audiences.