A Follow-Up on Taylor Clark’s Atlantic Piece on Jonathan Blow

A few days ago I put up a piece about the authorship of games. In that post, I responded to the profile of Jonathan Blow that Taylor Clark wrote for The Atlantic.

The short version of my post is that focusing on single individuals as fonts of creative brilliance is bad for the industry and the art form. Of course, the rest of the internet had things to say, so Taylor Clark has responded to the responses with an opinion article that Kotaku put up.

My impression of his response is that it is a great acquiescence with a gritty tone. While Clark seems to be throwing ‘bows all over the comments to his original article, in reality he is mostly making an appeal for a little room. He just seems to want a little bit of space for his point of “Some games are dumb!” to be allowed. I am willing to grant him that. He never responds to the fact that his original article seems to be a head-nodding mouthpiece for Jonathan Blow’s grand, sea-change point that “video games are stupid when Jonathan Blow isn’t making them.”

The strangest thing about the whole ordeal is how Clark comes off as having no teeth in the whole ordeal. He placates those who were angered by his original piece by listing off a seemingly random set of titles, most of which resemble the total field of games as to suggest that all games are at least fairly smart.

In any case, my small dislikes of the article aside, he makes two specific points in the Kotaku bit. The first is:

My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It’s not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it’s the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.

This is literally nonsense, and if “maturity” is really some kind of quantifiable thing that we can levy against a piece of art, we should probably trash every goddamn thing ever produced by our species. What especially irks me about this point is that there is a distinct air of snobbishness about the whole thing–video games are only as emotionally deep or as smart as you want them to be. We can see this exact same goddamn argument being made around the concept of the readymade art object. It draws meaning, and significance, from a web of historical relations and an implicit acceptance that it “means” something. There is nothing “in” a Kandinsky painting that makes it a beautiful piece of art that beats us over the human condition; rather, we each experience it, and some of us find deep meaning while others do not.

The idea that a video game should be mature and ART at the core is faulty because it means that the masses, the people who are playing the games on the ground, begin to put their faith in tastemakers who tell them what art is. Video games, and video game studies, are in a great place right now because it is fundamentally open to discourses about every kind of game. No games have more inherent worth than others, though some certainly are more rewarding to analysis.

Taylor makes an additional argument, suggesting that playing long, boring segments of games are the equivalent of “wasting time.” I can’t say anything other than stop playing those fucking games. It is not a problem with the medium of video games that Taylor Clark thinks that some games have boring parts that he does not find intellectually or emotionally stimulating. I have a close friend who only reads generic sword-and-sorcery novels. I don’t like those novels. But the project of the written word is not worthless, or even dumb, because of that. The games that Taylor finds “dumb” have their own audience that find them rewarding; there is a reason that generic power fantasy has managed to be popular in every medium since the time before fucking writing.

Clark closes with this:

This situation frustrates me (and Blow, and I’m sure quite a few of you as well), because it’s clear that games are capable of so much more than they’re doing now. The video game, as a creative medium, has the potential to provide us with experiences every bit as rich and meaningful as those we’ve gotten from books, visual art, and film; for all we know, it could even surpass them. At the moment, though, the vast, overwhelming, crushing majority of that potential is being wasted on frivolous digital toys. These toys may be fun to play with, and we might have an especially warm place in our hearts for them, but that does not change the fact that they, by and large, are emotionally and intellectually unfulfilling-which is precisely what I meant by the word “dumb.” Saying this doesn’t give me pleasure, since I wish it weren’t the case, but I still believe it’s true.

I honestly cannot understand why video games are not already at the place where films, music, and books are currently. In fact, the video game industry mimics those industries in all ways: there are big budget productions that a lot of people love and there are smaller productions that appeal to different niche audiences. TransformersThe Da Vinci Code, and Call of Duty: Super Blops 5,000 all have the same drive: a political economy driven by desire and capital. More than that, people LOVE those things, and lots of people find them both “emotionally and intellectually” fulfilling. If Taylor Clark isn’t into those games, fine. But that isn’t to say that they are not full to the brim with meaning and significance and intelligent commentary.

To me, it doesn’t seem to be a problem with the products. It might be more of an issue with Taylor Clark.

For a much better critique of the whole bit, check out Magical Wasteland’s post on it. 

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13 Responses to A Follow-Up on Taylor Clark’s Atlantic Piece on Jonathan Blow

  1. bonmotsandblood says:

    While I agree with your Kandinsky example (Thomas Kinkade sometimes gets my engines going, eh), I think you have to agree that if Kandinsky to Call of Duty is all art we need a way to measure it. If Clark finds segments of games boring he shouldn’t stop playing those games, he should sit down and chart out the reasons he finds those segments boring, why others might enjoy them, and the varying objective and subjective arguments for and against.
    We cannot forgo objectivity.
    But we should be open to empathy.
    And if COD gets someone’s empathetic pulse going I’m willing to listen.
    What I often take issue with in gaming is the maturity of nuance. The clear-eyed care and craft that went into the game, unrestrained by genre or audience expectations (by which I don’t mean non-genre games, but games that acknowledge the world outside video games, the sort of fresh breeze that a fully-realized world like Rapture was the first time we booted up BioShock).
    I don’t believe in a moral goal to fiction or art, but I do believe that the greatest gift it brings is a sort of empathy; the novel, songwriting, and occasionally film allow us to see inside someone, fictional or otherwise. Video games offer this too; I’d argue they offer it in a manner very close to the novel when done right. (The alternative is what I call the “favorite coffee mug” argument: http://bonmots-and-blood.com/2012/02/12/why-i-definitely-wont-buy-final-fantasy-xiii-2-part-two/)
    If someone feels close to Soap McTavish, well I’d like to know why. So long as they look at it subjectively and objectively.
    I often try to do this with my love of the (ever mentioned) Final Fantasy VI opera scene.
    Clark doesn’t seem even curious about this. That bothers me.

    • kunzelman says:

      Yeah, I agree with the last bit about “empathy.” That is largely what I mean when I write about the ability for games to allow us to inhabit new subjectivities. That said, I am pretty willing to throw objectivity out the window. I don’t have any pretensions toward it, and I’m not sure I believe we can even approximate it.

      • bonmotsandblood says:

        like we can’t approximate it to the point of solipsism? if we don’t evaluate objectively then how do we go about making decisions in our lives, much less choosing which HBO series to devote our weekend to?

        • kunzelman says:

          Evaluation and pretending we can be objective are different things–I can make a list of goods and bads, but that isn’t objectivity, just a better reasoning for why I like a thing more or less. It doesn’t make the game-as-object any better or worse, you know? Also, The Wire, duh.

          • bonmotsandblood says:

            I don’t know. Seems to me that critical evaluation moves beyond subjectivity. There’s no collective subjectivity. Except, maybe, on the internet. Where we can all agree to disagree about how we disagree.

  2. Ethan Gach says:

    “This is literally nonsense”
    That is literally untrue.
    “if “maturity” is really some kind of quantifiable thing that we can levy against a piece of art, we should probably trash every goddamn thing ever produced by our species.”
    Why? You present an either/or: either what he says is nonsense, or nothing ever produced by humans has ever been intellectually mature. However, you don’t appear to justify why those are the two choices, nor why the second one might be true.
    “videogames are only as emotionally deep or as smart as you want them to be.”
    Another assertion. Except that readymades, as well as other recent movements in art are, as you appear to note, located within historical, institutional, and formal contexts. As such, their meaning is not entirely subjective or arbitrary. How do you get from “ a web of historical relations” to what you appear to be claiming at the end of that paragraph, which is that it means whatever it means to whomever it is meaning, and that can neither be correct nor incorrect?
    “The idea that a video game should be mature and ART at the core is faulty because it means that the masses, the people who are playing the games on the ground, begin to put their faith in tastemakers who tell them what art is.”
    Where does he claim that all videogames should be mature art? And on what do you base your prediction that if videogames were measured as greater/lesser in terms of intellectual and artistic sophistication, that “the masses” would necessarily be oppressed or at the whims of a few “tastemakers?”
    We give Pulitzers, Booker Awards, and Nobels for literature, and the book market continues being to be diverse both in what’s produced and who consumes it. Have the lit profs and critics, by continuing to judge and analyze books, ruined them in the process?
    “Video games, and video game studies, are in a great place right now because it is fundamentally open to discourses about every kind of game. No games have more inherent worth than others, though some certainly are more rewarding to analysis.”
    But why is this a “great place?” And am I right to assume that there is no room whatsoever for standards or values in this place?
    “Taylor makes an additional argument, suggesting that playing long, boring segments of games are the equivalent of “wasting time.” I can’t say anything other than stop playing those fucking games.”
    Isn’t his point that there aren’t enough other games to play? I read him to be saying, Gears of War has sophisticated mechanics and great fun to play, now wouldn’t it also be great if there were something more complex and provocative going on at beyond that? What exactly do you find so galling about this demand? Certainly you don’t think Gears of War 3 is as important a contribution to artistic, philosophic, and cultural milieu as something like For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Republic, or the Koran?
    “The games that Taylor finds “dumb” have their own audience that find them rewarding; there is a reason that generic power fantasy has managed to be popular in every medium since the time before fucking writing.”
    Again, I have to ask, what exactly would be so damaging about having “dumb” games alongside more emotionally and narrativly challenging ones? Someone somewhere finds it rewarding has never been a good justification for anything. If it were, pedophiles would be justified in living out there lives like there rest of us. There’s room for doing what makes us happy. But there is also the expectation that we try to learn more, better ourselves, and help other people. Playing “dumb” games is certainly justifiable to a point, but after that it is just wasting time. However, you seem to be questioning the very idea that there could be better or worse ways to spend one’s time. And that instead of needing to justify how we spend most of our time, everyone must necessarily respect and value equally the personal endeavors of everyone else. It’s one thing to be tolerant, but another be completely relativistic in this sense.
    Have you made an argument for this kind of relativism that I just happened to miss?
    “More than that, people LOVE those things, and lots of people find them both “emotionally and intellectually” fulfilling. If Taylor Clark isn’t into those games, fine. But that isn’t to say that they are not full to the brim with meaning and significance and intelligent commentary.”
    Meaning and significance are different from intelligent commentary. Something can be meaningful without being at all intelligible. And I can derive meaning and pleasure, be entertained by and have fun doing, something that is neither emotionally nor intellectually fulfilling. Anyone who is intellectually fulfilled by Black Ops needs to elevate themselves and grow past it. Again, you’re asserting a relativism here without justifying it.

    • kunzelman says:

      You’re making a substantive argument here, but I gather that you’re trying to pin me down on two points.

      Question 1: Is there something wrong with having “intelligent” games and “dumb” games in coexistence? Both of those categories are arbitrary. The “dumbest” games are just as rewarding on an affective level as something like Braid. In the end, I am really only concerned with enjoyment. “Great art” is, more often than not, a way of smashing minority perspectives by comparing them to culturally larger and more dominant ones; all of the arguments made about the “Western Canon” are important here.

      Question 2: Is absolute relativity something that I advocate when it comes to art? Yes. Nothing is better or worse, Gears of War 3 is as important as The Iliad. Asserting that games like Black Ops, or Gears of War, or Halo can never have intellectual meaning only serves to make people who like those games feel stupid and to create a false dichotomy between “good games” and “bad games.” Why not just make smart arguments about “dumb” games? Why not make them be smart? Massive amounts of criticism and analysis are produced for every single AAA game–if we can engage with them in this way, how are they “dumb?”

      • Ethan Gach says:

        On the second point, how does your conclusion follow from your position of relativism? If that carries over, there is no way to make “dumb” games smart through good criticism and analysis, because even that criticism and analysis can only be measured in terms of how much enjoyment the one person get’s from writing it, and another gets from reading it.

        So by eschewing the label of smart/dumb for games, we’d have to eschew it from smar/dumb for criticism/analysis.

        What seems to follow from that is that no one’s criticism/analysis is any better, more accurate, insightful, etc. than anyone elses, in which case we should only be interested in which kinds of critcisim and analysis the most people derive the most pleasure from.

        Rather than to continue asking upon what you base this brand of strong-relativism, I’ll ask instead if that’s an outcome that you support or blieve (or better yet, whether that’s an outcome that you “enjoy”).

        • kunzelman says:

          If I’m not being clear, I apologize. The point I am making is that I think the value that people get from art is their own business. Like Skullgirls? Good on you. Think that Anna Anthropy’s juvenalia are the only games worth playing? Sure. Gears of War 3 as the peak of human accomplishment? Wonderful. I am willing to embrace a full relativism there.

          The idea of what a “good” game is socially constructed, just as “the human condition” or “the truth about ourselves” is constructed. I embrace a full relativity where art is concerned because I think that all experiences of the world, and what those experiences communicate, are valuable. That relationship between the two is, for me, the most important thing about games.

          So when I say that we make games “smart,” I am really only using the language that Taylor (and everyone else commenting on this) is using. I am not invested in making the game smart. I am interested in people saying interesting things about games. I am also willing to embrace relativism when it comes to games criticism, though not the the degree that I am willing to grant it for art objects. For example, factual inaccuracies about a game should be called our appropriately. It is the old cliche, you know? You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. But short of that, I can’t think of “ranking criticism.” I have things that I enjoy more than others, certainly, but I have no reason to say that one kind or way of criticizing games is better than another.

          I am really puzzling over this, because I thought I would have a more articulate or complicated answer, but I don’t. Beyond my own proclivities of enjoyment, I can’t imagine what a criticism that is “more insightful” or “accurate” means. Does that mean it gets down to the most specific arguments about the objective realities of the game? Sounds like a technical manual. Does it mean that it gets deeply down into a specific hermeneutic and weighs the game through that? Maybe so, but I there certainly isn’t one king lens for viewing a game.

      • Ethan Gach says:

        For now I would only add that by ruling out the ability to judge, in at least some respects, the larger value of subjective experiences (i.e. their value outside of the subject in question), it seems like we’re rulling out any kind of meaningful communal discourse.

        Basically, what follows from, to each his or her own, is a bunch of:

        “What did you think? Cool, here’s what I thought. Cool.”

        It’s not clear according to a relativistic view how the above exchange could even make sense (i.e. if we aren’t at liberty to judge the value of subjective experiences, how can we judge their meaning?)

        But even more to the point, it seems that such a view rules out any kind of social discourse, not on art, or politics, or ethics, etc.

        • kunzelman says:

          I am not exploding the limits here. What I am arguing is that video games, because they allows for infinite affective connections, are places where we cannot make objective judgements; there is no overriding “correct” way to read a game. Because of this, games become objects with qualities that are written on them. Sure, they have characteristics, and we can always talk about what a game possesses. But we should never discount the game-as-experience. For me, that is where it generates meaning. That is also where “smart” and “dumb” occur.

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