The Art of Videogames - Book Review
Grant Tavinor's The Art of Videogames is not about videogame art, but about the place of videogames in the philosophy of art. It is a philosophical work that takes a very fair and objective look at the question: are videogames art?
Tavinor begins his discussion by explaining why it is important to begin a serious philosophical discussion of videogames, citing it's explosive economic growth, broad cultural distribution, and maturing content. He then offers a tentative definition of videogames which forms the basis of his discussion for the remainder of the book.
Drawing on art and film criticism, narrative studies and ludology (the theory of play), Tavinor devotes a big chunk of the book to analyzing various concepts that are frequently found in discussions about videogames: games, fiction, narrative, gameplay, virtuality, interactivite fictions and other terms all come under the microscope and are put in their proper perspective.
Using this theoretical structure as a base, Tavinor then goes on to compare videogames to other artistic mediums, drawing on various definitions of art. He discusses the conflict between narrative and gameplay and how developers approach the problem of uniting these contradictory elements. He then proceeds to discuss emotion in videogames, drawing on recent research in neurobiology. From there he progresses to a discussion of morality in videogames, comparing recent criticisms of the medium to similar criticisms expressed about the medium of film when it was still a young art. In a particularly intriguing bit, he discusses at length the moral relationship between the player and his or her actions in the game.
Finally, Tavinor addresses the central issue of the book head-on: are videogames art? Drawing again on aesthetics, and without ignoring the legitimate criticisms that could be leveled against his position, he makes a very convincing case for the possibility of art in the medium of videogames.
Overall, I was quite impressed with this book. It is much more rigorous and closely argued than I expected it to be when I first picked it up but you don't have to have a background in philosophy or art or film criticism to understand and appreciate it. Tavinor does an excellent job explaining some very tricky concepts and does so in a way that effortlessly builds his argument. His views on the relationship between the player and the game and how that relationship affects moral criticisms about videogames are particularly memorable and thought-provoking.
When he does draw on the theories of others, he is always careful to explain the relevant aspects for readers who may not be familiar with their work. Although it is a work of philosophy, it is by no means a dry or difficult book to read. It is largely conversational in tone and Tavinor uses numerous examples from his own gaming experiences (particularly Grand Theft Auto 4, System Shock 2 and BioShock) to lighten the mood.
This is a gamer's book, written by a smart gamer for other smart gamers. If you can handle a little light philosophy or popular science, you will have no trouble understanding this book and will likely learn a good deal from it. If nothing else, it will make you sound a lot smarter when arguing with people on the forums. And that alone is worth the price of admission. :)