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Mitch Bowman's internet domicile.

A Different Breed: Racing Games as Art

Much ado has been made about videogames and whether or not they’re art, and the general consensus among people who actually play the damn things seems to be that they are indeed. Many compelling arguments have been made to support this view, and I find myself agreeing almost entirely.

Inevitably, the argument usually boils down to concerns about the quality of the narrative and the aesthetic presentation. Critics expect narrative art to have compelling, nuanced narrative with something important to say; similarly, they expect visual art to have rich and vibrant aesthetics that go beyond merely parroting the real. Videogames are both a narrative art and a visual art, and are thus not exempt from either of these expectations if they wish to be considered a legitimate art form.

Fortunately, games have lived up to both these expectations quite well, with the likes of Ōkami and Shadow of the Colossus providing fantastic examples of aesthetic greatness, and games like Bioshock and Half-life 2 doing the same for narrative greatness. It seems like the case for games as art is airtight…except for one thing: almost none of the (otherwise quite sound) points that have been made in favour of videogames as art apply to a long-held favourite genre of mine, the racing game.

Think about the last racing game you played. Did it have a compelling narrative, with deep character development and a richly detailed universe? In almost all cases, the answer will be no. Curiously, the best racing games tend to be the ones with the least amount of narrative fluff; pure driving games like Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing tend to be the best at what they do, despite an almost complete lack of any narrative whatsoever.

What about aesthetics, then? Did the last driving game you play have a beautiful aesthetic appearance? The answer to this question is a bit more complicated than the answer to the above question regarding narrative, as it will depend largely on how you define “aesthetics.” Fairly recently, attempts have been made to differentiate visual aesthetics from graphical fidelity, and this is probably a distinction we should make use of for the purpose of this question. Once this distinction is made, it is much easier to once again answer “no” to the above question. With a few exceptions delivered by the likes of sci-fi racers like F-Zero, driving games do not have a strong, creative aesthetic.

Now we’re left with a bit of a quandary. By almost every conventional criterion for determining whether games are art, the vast majority of driving games can be judged as failures. If the finely tuned sights and sounds of the modern triple-A racing game cannot be considered art by conventional definitions, how then can we categorize them? Certainly they deserve a status greater than mere software, of the likes of Microsoft Word…but clearly they’re a different breed than the traditional art forms of literature or film.

The answer to this quandary might be found in a place that’s rather appropriate when discussing these simulations of automotive enthusiasm. Perhaps racing games are a different variety of art – not the art of films and books, but the art of the object that most inspires the racing game itself: the automobile.

Racing games, much like automobiles, are painstakingly crafted feats of engineering, their technical nuances myriad and challenging to create. Their outward appearance incredibly precise and impressive, but still retaining the practicality that allows them to achieve their primary purpose. In a racing game, that purpose is to provide an accurate visual simulation of a race; in an automobile, it is to balance outward aerodynamic efficiency with inward ease-of-use. In both cases, form and function come together to shape a breathtaking and beautiful compromise.

Underneath the surface, the beauty of both car and car-simulator are again achieved in similar ways. The engineering and technical problems that must be solved to achieve the astounding level of accuracy in today’s racing games must rival the difficulty of solving the same types of problems in the designs of cars themselves; tire compounds, compression ratios, and everything else that goes into making thousands of controlled explosions propel a multi-ton box effortlessly down the road.

It seems, then, that our feeling that racing games deserve a status greater than simple computer software can be satisfied after all. Not by way of judgement under traditional definitions of art, but by drawing parallels to an entirely different breed of creation that is no less a beautiful sight to behold than the finest paintings and sculptures in the world: the automobile itself.

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3 responses to “A Different Breed: Racing Games as Art

  1. keithburgun May 29, 2012 at 5:13 AM

    What’s your definition of “art” ?

  2. Chris Parnell May 30, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    I think a point possibly being missed here is the intrinsic artistic nature of videogames; how do they express themselves through their interactivity? For racing (or ‘car games’); does the game have anything to say with regards to *how* they let you race/drive, or what you can and can’t do?

    At one extreme Gran Turismo paints a certain perspective on the beauty of automotive engineering – by letting us tinker with the fine details of a car we can hopefully come to appreciate the inner workings of the machine, how the various mechanics interact and their effects on the slabs of metal that we pilot around in our day to day lives without much thought. We play around with gear ratios or whatever and experience for ourselves the differences in running a speed lap or winding around corners; not to mention the obvious love for the aesthetics of automobiles, and even the circumscribed beauty of the perfect racing line.

    At the other extreme we’ve got Mario Kart, a notoriously anti-competitive racer (that somehow produces fiercely competitive players) that is far more interested in the joy of racing than it is with actually winning a race. Exaggerated power-slides, ludicrous jumps, combined with colourful and engaging tracks and inherently random shenanigans make for thrilling, light-hearted races, and when everyone crosses the line we laugh or cry about our luck and move right on to the next race.

    You’ve also got titles like Driver San Francisco which follow the narrative of a character who defines himself by what he does best: Driving. Driving is all the player does, and with various mechanical tweaks on an ‘open-world’ format is used to explore the main characters psychology (which also, bizarrely enough, is a central plot point). The game takes this as far as it can when the Driver eventually becomes aware of this psychological exposition and actively takes part in it.

    There are limitless ways in which a ‘racer’ can explore racing with plenty more fantastic examples. You’re dead right that they are sorely overlooked as examples of expression in the medium though. Auto-racing is one of the most accessible visceral thrills available in modern society – everyone has powered around the odd corner on a empty road at some point in their lives – and I think it’s only natural that even as one of the oldest genres of gaming it will be around for a long time, and deserves a closer look.

    • Mitchell Bowman May 30, 2012 at 7:28 PM

      I pretty much agree with you, but the way in which the interactivity of a game entertains and engages the player isn’t something that often defines art, mostly due to videogames being the only medium in which that’s a thing that happens. No doubt this will become a greater part of the discussion in the future, but I guess this article was more to do with the current games-as-art argument, which largely involves judgement under the same criteria as other visual and narrative media.

      Thanks for the feedback, by the way!

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