In putting together this essay after reading Hit Points (HP), I went looking for a quote on video games and art that I’d half-remembered, and so Googled, ‘Are video games art?’ But I was interrupted; Google, always desperate to finish a sentence, let drop a list of popularly asked questions. They went like this:
Are video games bad for you?
Are video games good for you?
Are video games haram?
Are video games art?
Read together, they sound like a manic parent on the phone to the local priest. Are video games bad for you? Well, it depends. If you ask a certain generation of parents, or the news, then yes, video games are bad. As a teenager at the release of the Xbox 360, I remember clearly the varied and dangerous symptoms of gaming: square eyes, deformed spinal cord, blood clots, obesity, loneliness, perpetual virginity. Video games, so it went, would turn you into a pale, globular Quasimodo, but with less friends. But, what if they’re good for you? What if they aid mental acuity, or a child’s ability to solve puzzles? And then there’s the religious worry – what if they’re haram? Ought they be on a list with the likes of tobacco, or vodka? Maybe. Nobody seems to know, but ever since I’ve owned my first console, a Playstation One, the hand-wringing has been there.
And then there’s the big moral panic, the last line of defense of video games, and the perfect excuse for dismissal – are video games art? If we can’t decide if they’re good or bad or dangerous or forbidden, do we at least know if they are art? Well, we have absolutely no idea. In his interview with The Paris Review, Haruki Murakami does make a case for their usefulness to artists, “Contemporary fiction writers are using the techniques of other fields – jazz, video games, everything […] Sometimes while I’m writing I feel I’m the designer of a video game, and at the same time, a player.” So there is, at the very least, a similar balance in writing and in gaming; control and surprise, or, as Maria Sledmere writes in her poem from HP: “Bounce!/Looking into the future/requires mycelial improvisation/from above or below/to leave on a cloud.”
However, it is admittedly hard to look at something like a video game as an art piece, when it has so easily become the peak of consumerism. Video games are now the most profitable industry in entertainment; they also have a habit of reflecting the work done to afford the game in the first place. In his essay on the work ethic inherent in these games, Steven Poole writes, “videogames seem more and more to resemble work in a different sense: working for the Man. They hire us for imaginary, meaningless jobs that replicate the structures of real-world employment.” There is, as with menial work, the aim to complete a video game – whether that means planting crops or collecting coins – and be rewarded for it. Or, as Aaron Kent writes in “B4 Neuro” from HP:
There’s no poetry in painting your house,
but that’s OK because someone does it
while you sleep; while you’re fever dream
deep into a three day coma. The trick
is to pretend you aren’t in servitude to
[…] you’ve filled
your house with furniture you neither
want nor need and you’ve forgotten
how to wash yourself again.
The quote I was looking for, it turns out, was from the film critic, Roger Ebert. He had asserted, with a suspicious amount of certainty, that video games can never be, under any circumstances, art. The trouble with a quote like that, is that it easily overshadows the explanation; and in Ebert’s essay is perhaps the most useful reply to whether video games can be considered ‘art’:
Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.
Why are we so concerned with what video games are? The real answer, probably, has something to do with legitimacy. But here’s another question: what does art have to do with memory? Here’s a memory; it’s mine. I’m playing Pokemon Gold on a Pikachu edition Gameboy Colour, and it’s my birthday, though I don’t remember which one. There’s a paddling pool out on the front yard, packed with friends from my street, and there’s my family, eating sandwiches and drinking cordial, and I’m sitting in a foldable picnic chair in the sun, taking the amount of time only a kid can take in choosing a pixelated animal (Paige Elizabeth Wadja, from HP: “You are eleven and this/ is the most important choice/ you’ll ever make”).
Here’s another; it’s in my grandparents’ kitchen. My grandad has set up his very first Playstation and a little portable TV, and at the table where my grandmother used to serve gooseberry pie, I’m losing at Worms. I’ve subjected my soldiers to any number of accidental death: drowning, dropped dynamite, panicked release of an explosive old lady. Holy hand grenade. And my grandad? He’s laughing so hard he’s had to take his glasses off. (Sarah Cave: “from Worms i learn the word KAMIKAZE/an umbrella term a deliberate end”).
In his introduction to Hit Points, Aaron Kent describes where the idea for the anthology originated:
The nexus of the idea for this anthology came after I had introduced my wife, Emma, to Animal Crossing. Every night during the first lockdown we’d visit and rearrange our own little worlds, visit each other’s islands, and forget about the strains and stresses of raising two very young children in a global pandemic that has shut off the outside world.
Further on, he recounts his time as a housemaster at a boarding school:
I set up an Xbox with FIFA in the common room and challenge[d] any of the lads to beat me. None of them did, and it built a mystique, a reputation about my FIFA skills. It was an easy way to bond with all of these teenagers, all of them away from home and nervous, now shit-talking each other and losing to their 30 year old housemaster.
The question of art very quickly slips aside in the face of these memories. Does it signify anything that my first interaction with epic narrative, was Halo 3? Or that I’ve fostered relationships via Grand Theft Auto and Wii Sports? Video games might have fantastic stories, and artistic innovations, and sparkly new mechanics, but just as important is what happened around them – the people who plugged in a second controller (or more likely now, joined the online voice chat), who they were and are to us, and what life was doing in the background. They are conduits, less like novels and more like music; little bottles of pure nostalgia, and Hit Points is a testament to that relationship. Take, for example, “First Person”, by Louise Goulding, in which she conjures the entire high-school experience.
I heard you fingered Carla Bayes, at Wensum Park
in the summer holidays. You were in the year above
and you were Donna’s brother’s mate. So, weekends,
when Donna’s mum was working late, we’d be
on the floor in front of their settee –
Donna’s brother, you, Big Joe, and Mark,
Donna and me. Nintendo nights. Four-way split-
screen on a sixteen-inch TV.
Art or not, every poem here is ekphrastic in nature, and while gaming is hugely popular, some poems can feel a little niche – mainly because video games are, whether we like it or not, at the mercy of quick turnover, profitability, and rapid technological development. One person’s favourite game can already begin to feel archaic three years on. Many video games disappear, and the consoles they played on have died with them (or can be bought for the price of a car online). What this means is that some poems in HP might read a little like code, describing alien digital scenery. But to be completely lost in the anthology is rare. As Kent explains in the introduction, he and Matthew Haigh, the anthology’s co-editor, ‘agreed early on that we still wanted the poetry to push boundaries and demonstrate more than a vivid memory.’ In almost every case that I found myself at a loss for context, the text itself became no less vivid. In “3 ecchoes for ecco”, a game I am entirely ignorant of, Calum Rodger opens with a loving incantation.
In home bay the sky
and its yamaha tones
are like untelephones
the bivalves and fish
in water so pure
my ecco, allure
all my sport is with you
in the echoing blue
Conversely, there is work in this anthology that proves just how ubiquitous gaming is. On the page opposite his ecco song, Rodger’s “Immortal Kombat XVIII” scatters symbols through the poem – the buttons on an Xbox joypad. It is almost disconcerting how quickly these have entered our lexicon, to the point that, reading Rodger’s poem the first time, I didn’t even pause on the capital A in a little circle. In the poem, “you are always Ryu, me, Ken, fighting till our thumbs ache”, Arji Manuelpillai recreates the manic button-mashing of fighting games, and the circles and triangles and arrows flow seamlessly.
The best work in HP is that which begins with a video game, and ends with something that can breathe on its own. Work like “In Pipes” a poem by Amanda Crum that turns Mario’s strange world enigmatic: “You can go your whole life/ never knowing the measurement of a world/ or how to keep your legs still,//dreaming in arresting 16-bit/ without realizing how close it is.” Or Niall Firth’s “Fuck Me, Sonic”, a poem so full of confidence, that it can turn a magic hedgehog into the best sex you’ve ever had.
I can remember our first time, me clenched
and hot-breathed. When I come, it’s in electric blue.
The tone of Miami nights, in the Star Light Zone,
we tumble, roll, blur. Speed as heartbreak.
Fur between fingers.
In a lot of ways, the blurb to Hit Points is correct: video games and poetry are about as different as you can get, culturally and economically; the equivalent of comparing an Apple Store to an anecdote. And the argument for video games being art is very likely too subjective to be worth defining. Ebert, even in his heavy-handed dismissal, is probably right, and at no point in HP is there any worry that a video game might not be worth poetry’s time – that’s not a poet’s decision anyway (it’s the poem’s). However, just out of curiosity, I went back to Google. Only this time, instead of “Are video games”, I typed in the phrase: “is poetry.” Another list of questions dropped loose. They went like this:
Is poetry literature?
Is poetry fiction?
Is poetry a genre?
Is poetry art?
Is poetry haram?
Connor Harrison is a writer based in the West Midlands, UK. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, New Critique, Anthropocene Poetry, and Longleaf Review, among others. He is an Editor at Tiny Molecules.