The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.

What Is Moe?

This is a visual essay that I hope will help to answer some questions about the visual aesthetic often referred to as moe (pronounced moé). If I poke fun at this aesthetic in this essay, it is not out of a sense of disdain or relative cultural superiority, but rather because the particular otaku subculture that consumes moe images likes to poke fun at itself. An appreciation of how ridiculous these images is constitutes a significant part of their appeal.

I am drawing these images from the opening color pages of the August issue of the monthly manga anthology Dengeki Daioh, which is roughly the size of a New York City telephone book. Here is the issue’s cover:

This month’s issue comes with a double-sided pull-out poster. Here’s the front side:

And here’s the back side:

August (or early July, when this issue actually came out on in bookstores) is a great time for relaxing by the pool in a bikini and running around in a wet school uniform blouse in the rain, isn’t it? Ah, summer.

Anyway, this issue also came with another freebie, a large sheet of heavy plastic that calls itself a “leisure mat”:

I’m not sure what the purpose of this “leisure mat” is (and I’m not entirely sure I want to know), but I think it’s supposed to smell like strawberries. So what we have here is a person-sized illustration of a girl who looks to be about ten years old in hot pants with a gun against a backdrop of fish printed on a sheet of heavy, strawberry scented plastic. Okay then. Moving on.

Just to let you know, the freebie included in the next issue of Dengeki Daioh is going to be a full-color illustration book of the characters from the anthology’s manga in swimsuits. Awesome!

Moe isn’t all about manga and anime, though. The above image is the second page of a two-page advertisement for a moe-flavored collectible card game. The question of the Q&A section at the bottom of the pages reads, “But what if I don’t know how to play?” Apparently, there are guides both on the internet and included with starter decks, but I really don’t think actually playing the game is the point of these cards. Here is a sample card that was packaged with the magazine:

The card is titled, “The Crimson Sound of ‘Afternoon Sunlight.’” It features an illustration of a reclining beauty whispering, “Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Yeah! Action! Strategy! It’s just like chess! With cards! Anyway…

Did you know that Dengeki Daioh has a sister magazine called Dengeki Moeoh? Did you know that it’s on sale right now? You should totally get it, because it’s packaged with both a “special book” of swimsuit illustrations and an “X-RATED♥” body pillow cover. But that’s not all!

You can also go to the Dengeki Moeoh website to download cool screen savers for your tablet or smart phone, as well as digital manga stories!

And what sort of discussion of moe would be complete without mentioning visual novels?

Koi to senkyo to chokorēto (“Love, Election & Chocolate”) is a dating sim that went on sale at this summer’s Comiket. Apparently, it’s “the story of a boy yearning for true love and a girl hating chocolate.” But of course the male protagonist isn’t pictured in the promotional art, because that would be icky.

Hopefully these ten images from Dengeki Daioh, which has come to be accepted as the ultimate mainstream sourcebook for moe manga and illustration, have helped to give you some sense of the moe visual aesthetic. If you have been disgusted by these sexualized images of seemingly underage characters, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Such images (and the narratives that accompany them) have sparked huge storms of controversy in both Japan and America.

I think it’s important to keep certain things in mind, though. For example, is all anime and manga like this? Of course not. Do these pictures mean that all otaku are pedophiles? No, they don’t. Do these pictures reveal otaku attitudes concerning real women? I don’t think so. Are these pictures to blame for Japan’s low birthrate? I really don’t think so. Do female illustrators create these images too? Yes, they do. Can women enjoy these images? Of course they can.

After all, as René Magritte so famously suggested in La Trahison des Images, “Ceci n’est-pas une pipe.” And, as Neil Gaiman has famously pointed out, Americans have a “First Amendment right as [adults] to make lines on paper, to draw, to write, to sell, to publish, and […] to own comics.” The Japanese have the same right under their own constitution. And if the publishers, artists, and readers of Dengeki Daioh make use of this right by enjoying the moe aesthetic, good for them. Even if everyone agrees that it’s kind of ridiculous.

Rape in Yaoi

Trigger warning for discussions of rape and rape culture, both in the essay and in the comments.

Before I say anything else, I should clarify – I’m talking about fictional, fantasy rape, specifically the rape that occurs in the male/male romance narratives encompassed by yaoi manga, anime, light novels, visual novels, and dōjinshi. I do not support the actual rape of actual human beings, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Nor do I support rape culture or any ideology that sustains it. What I would like to argue here is that a great deal of what one could call “yaoi fantasy rape” actually subverts mainstream, real-world rape culture.

I’m going to approach this topic in a roundabout way by talking about kink memes. A kink meme is an online community (usually on Livejournal) that consists of “prompts” and “fills.” A commenter will post a prompt in order to request a story with certain guidelines. Another commenter will respond to this prompt with a fill containing a story that follows the guidelines of the prompt. A fill can range from one or two paragraphs to multi-chapter epics in the hundreds of thousands of words. Kink memes are generally fandom-specific (for example, the Harry Potter franchise has several) and are seen as good places to practice writing and brainstorm ideas with a community of fans.

Although there are plenty of prompts to the effect of “Character A and Character B share their first kiss” or “Character A and Character B take a long drive and discuss Plot Development X” (or even “Character A and Character B are reincarnated as characters in the Star Wars universe”), most prompts and their corresponding fills are erotic. As the name “kink meme” implies, many revolve around a sexual kink (such as bondage or voyeurism). When the kink is nothing more than light BDSM elements or a ménage à trois, all is well. However, when the kinks become more extreme or involve abuse or rape, problems may arise between members of the kink meme community.

The moderators of various kink meme communities have developed two main policies in order to help resolve these conflicts before they start. The first of these policies involves trigger warnings, which are attached to stories that contain graphic descriptions of behaviors readers may find upsetting or offensive. Before someone innocently stumbles into a pornographic story depicting an underage character being raped, she can be aware of that element of the story’s content and pass it by unread, shielded from any psychological pain or discomfort she might feel while reading. One person’s fantasy might be another person’s trigger for a severe case of post-traumatic stress, after all, and the aim of these communities is not to harm their members but rather to provide a safe space for fandom-related activities.

The second of these policies is a strong injunction against kink shaming. The term “kink shaming” is derived from the concept of slut shaming, or harshly judging a woman for expressing her sexuality. Kink shaming involves criticizing or belittling someone for sexual practices or (more commonly) fantasies that are perceived as non-normative or unhealthy. The argument against kink shaming, even for kinks that are culturally insensitive or that would be immoral if acted upon in real life, is that no sexuality is normative; a wide variety of sexualities can co-exist without anyone being hurt or taken advantage of. Moreover, who is to draw the line between what is okay and what isn’t? (The latter is actually a tricky issue taken very seriously by these communities, and I don’t mean to downplay its practical significance, although the point still stands.) A quick glance at even a short list of prompts reveals an astonishing breadth of sexual imagination, so anyone who participates in a kink meme quickly comes to redefine her idea of normative sexuality, and any instance of kink shaming is quickly dealt with by both the moderators and the other members of the community.

Kink memes are thus a safe haven not only for fandom-related speculation and silliness but also for alternative sexualities. Outside of a range of clearly anti-social behavior, anything goes in a kink meme, and it is there that people (largely female-gendered people) find an acceptance of their interests and sexuality that eludes them in the world beyond the internet. It is acknowledged by all parties involved that everything on the kink meme happens within the realm of fantasy. Thus it is possible for a militant feminist and an ardent supporter of gay rights to read, write, and enjoy fictional stories about one male character raping another. The people who produce and consume such narratives are allowed to do so without fear of anyone judging their personal fantasies or shaming them for their sexualities, and the people who prefer completely consensual cuddling (or some other kink, or no sex at all) can simply skip the rape scenes altogether.

I’d like to posit that yaoi is a similar safe space for female-gendered sexuality. The problem with this, however, is that, like most formally published narratives containing scenes of graphic rape (like The Shawshank Redemption and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), yaoi stories picked up by major publishing companies and animated by professional studios don’t contain trigger warnings. A reader might therefore open a book and read bittersweet stories of love and friendship reminiscent of the artist basso – or she might be confronted with the brutally violent mess of broken taboos that is Under Grand Hotel. Many people who write about yaoi, such as Che Gilson in the “Fujoshi USA” column of Otaku USA, complain about the frequency of yaoi rape tropes, such as rape equals love and it wasn’t rape if you enjoyed it.

I suppose I really shouldn’t judge these critics too harshly (because of the lack of trigger warnings), but their objections to yaoi fantasy rape seem an awful lot like superficial kink shaming to me. Part of the thrill of any romance narrative is the tension between the two parties involved. This tension is obviously sexual, but it can also be social, economic, political, or religious. If both members of a potential relationship were complete equals who completely understood one another to the complete approval of everyone, then their love story would be more than a bit boring. The gradual resolution of various conflicts is how a romance story is structured; but, before there can be a resolution, there first needs to be a conflict. When a man and a woman are involved, there is a perceived unequal power dynamic between them that has still persisted into what some believe to be a post-feminist world. Since this gap in power and social status does not necessarily exist between two men, it is created through rape. Rape thus serves a narrative purpose that does double duty because, to be blunt, it is kinky. The alluring forbiddenness of rape compounds the alluring forbiddenness of two men loving each other. The violence and the emotional friction are part of the sexual and emotional appeal, and the way in which the negative consequences of the rape are dealt with keeps readers invested in the relationship past the initial encounter.

A complaint that has often been lodged against yaoi is that it objectifies gay men and portrays them in a manner that has nothing to do with the reality of being gay. Although obviously there is merit in this objection, it feels a bit like derailing to me. (And also short-sighted; nothing objectifies gay men quite like porn for gay men – which is itself a derailing statement, ha!) Yaoi has very little to do with “real” gay men or the experience of being gay in the real world (although certain titles like Stray Cat – which is fantastic, by the way – do incorporate the female writer’s interpretation of such an experience). As I mentioned earlier, yaoi is a safe space for women to express their sexuality and their sexual fantasies without being judged. And, in the end, yaoi really is nothing more than fantasy. What yaoi normalizes is not rape, but rather the fantasy of rape.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the normalization of the fantasy of rape is perhaps not such a bad thing, especially when it is performed by two fictional male characters for an audience of women. Although obviously I can’t speak for everyone who consumes yaoi narratives (or writes slash fan fiction on a kink meme), I don’t think the women who read and write boys love fantasies want to be men. Rather, the fantasy of rape enacted on an attractive male body is less threatening because it doesn’t bring with it the baggage of real world rape culture. Although I’m not saying that real gay men aren’t raped (and I certainly don’t want to imply that the sexual harassment and assault gay men experience in the real world is in any way okay), the vast majority of mainstream media in both America and Japan is still structured so that male characters are sexual subjects, while female characters are sexual objects; and, when women do initiate sexual contact, they are often judged harshly. The denial of female sexuality and the culture of rape that accompanies it exist in the real world as well. Thus, if a female character is raped in fiction, it can hit a bit too close to home. If a male character is raped, however, the scenario is much closer to a pure fantasy.

This is a bit of a leap of logic, but I believe that the yaoi rape fantasy undermines mainstream rape culture in two ways. First, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality without fear of being criticized. Second, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality in a way that doesn’t reiterate and reinforce the unequal power dynamic between the sexes that is on display in so many other realms of cultural, social, political, and religious discourse. Yaoi fantasy rape has a clear narrative function, and it clearly appeals to a sizable percentage of people who produce and consume male/male romance narratives. Not all yaoi involves rape, and I don’t think the people who choose to read and write the yaoi that does should be subjected to kink shaming. Now if only yaoi titles came with trigger warnings…

To conclude, I’d like to state that this is nothing more than my opinion, and I don’t intend for it to be any sort of definitive statement. Debate on yaoi, fantasy rape, and its tropes will always be necessary, and dissenting opinions are valid and useful. I would like to acknowledge the blog post on Sekai-ichi hatsukoi (from which the opening image is taken) that made me start writing, as well as the blog post through which I found it. Both blogs and bloggers are wonderful, and I’d really like to thank them for the inspiration.

ETA: This essay was mentioned on Encyclopedia Dramatica in an article on yaoi that makes the contemporary Men’s Rights Movement seem positively pro-feminist and queer-friendly by comparison. It’s an interesting piece of writing that provides a concise counterpoint to the argument I’m making here, but it’s very NSFW (by which I mean full of explicit images and language, so be warned).