If Doom is Rock and Roll, then The Path is…

In the wake of The Art History of Games symposium, Tracy V. Wilson’s question as to whether art games are (still) games made me realize that Frank Lantz’s observation that Doom is like rock and roll may hold even more water than I originally assumed.

Maybe we can think of rock and roll as a kind of “hyper” version of traditional folk music that was made possible through technology (electronically amplified instruments and vinyl records). Much like videogames could be seen as a “hyper” version of traditional games enabled by the technology of computers (both as creative tool and distribution platform). Like videogames, rock and roll added a certain vitality and emotional depth to an ancient tradition that totally absorbed a new generation. *

This analogy gets really interesting for me when we start thinking of more extreme or experimental forms of rock music. In the beginning, rock and roll, like videogames, was relatively straightforward and all about fun. But then some people started experimenting and things like The Doors and Velvet Underground happened, followed soon by Sex Pistols, Crass and Dead Kennedys. **

One could argue that the music of Sonic Youth, Psychic TV or Einstürzende Neubauten is as much removed from the “fun” of rock and roll as the games by Jason Rohrer, Daniel Benmergui and yours truly are from the “fun” of videogames. Interestingly, it seems that it is exactly in the deviation that this type of rock (or videogames) starts claiming artistic value. Not only by virtue of not being fun, but also by introducing “alien” elements to the form like noise, unusual structures or narrative content previously deemed unsuitable.

Pollock, Rohrer, Rotten
The hairline may be only one of many things that Jason Rohrer shares more with Johny Rotten than with Jackson Pollock.

So rather than thinking of people who experiment with videogames as new Jackon Pollocks or Kiki Smiths, maybe we should think of them as new Nick Caves or Siouxsie Siouxs. They are taking a new technological incarnation of an old analog form and are introducing elements to it that seem to contradict the form’s original merits. And by doing so, they get closer to what is commonly perceived of as artistic.

Next to the more rock-oriented deviations, we may soon be seeing the videogames equivalents of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman and perhaps even Stockhausen or Górecki, as some developers may reject not only the “hyper” version of the form (rock and roll/videogame) but also its non-electronic predecessor (folk music/game).

All this time, of course, rock and roll, as videogames, continues to exist. Once in a while it is influenced by the more artistic experiments. But often it is not. And the two co-exist, appealing often to different audiences, but equally often not without significant overlaps. Sometimes we like playing Mario. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in The Void. Much like sometimes we dance to Abba while other times we need a dose of Cocteau Twins.

* Oddly, there’s a similarity between the two on a social level too. Both traditional games and folk music are often group activities that are mostly about interacting with other humans and having a fun time together. Rock and roll and videogames add a much more explicit notion of authorship to the form and introduce a more severe separation between author and audience, up to the point where enjoying the music or the game could become a solitary activity, thanks to reproduction and distribution technologies.

** Punk is an interesting case because it started as anti-rock and roll but was quickly reintroduced into the mainstream via bands like The Ramones and The Clash who made it fun again.

8 thoughts on “If Doom is Rock and Roll, then The Path is…”

  1. I’m not sure I care much about this sort of comparisons. It’s very typical of a society that requires the establishment of such patterns in order to intellectually subsist or to elevate something which is still young and largely unpredictable. Art follows a series of ongoing trends, styles, currents of thought to which videogames are almost entirely impermeable. If there is such a bright future ahead it will be taking me by surprise because at this point I hold no such expectations.

    But even if we do venture into this sort of exercise as a pastime or an amusement we must take into consideration that the Nyman and the Pollock (or the Stravinsky, or the Borges, or the Tchekov) of videogames might be entirely different from we want them to be. Because, all said and done, the Rodin of videogames will bear such meaning merely because of its status, and surely not due to its particular form and content; the reasons why Rodin is Rodin would likely make no sense in the evolutionary context of digital entertainment.

  2. If anything, it’s music, literature or the theater that need to care about new artifacts such as The Path. They should worry, immensely, about why is it that this new form of creative life has generated so much interest from people from different backgrounds and cultures, why is it that people from around the world are immersing themselves in it, writing profusely and profoundly about it; painting it; gazing at it; feeling strongly about it when it’s merely a computer game and not even a refined and sophisticated means of expression! 😉

  3. It’s not about status. It’s about finding a place for the kinds of software we make. We’ve attended a games conference about art two weeks ago and an art fair with some media art last week. And in both occasions, the association of our work with fine art has felt uncomfortable.

    We don’t make work for galleries, collectors or museums. We make work that is multiplied and distributed to as large an audience as possible. And the history of rock music teaches us that this does not mean that our work needs to be banal and worthless.

    Obviously, ultimately videogames will develop their own history. But I think we should stop thinking of fine art when we are considering artistic games. Thinking about the artistic side of so-called lowbrow forms feels more appropriate to me.

    I definitely feel more comfortable thinking of myself as a singer-songwriter than a painter or sculptor.

  4. And I don’t think other art forms should worry at all. I love literature. I adore painting. I enjoy theater immensely. I don’t want them to change just because videogames seem sexy at the moment. I want them to offer the best of themselves.

  5. I meant “status” as the group of characteristics that define something as being extraordinary or worthy of note. Rodin has the highest status in the world of arts. That “supposed” twin of Rodin in games would become noticeable and earn similar status and recognition – only the group of characteristics defining it, in the context of games, would most likely be different from those which made Rodin the next best thing since Gian Lorenzo Bernini!

    I agree with you. That’s why I try so hard to keep each work in its proper place: and Citizen Kane is certainly in the Cinema rack and NOT in the videogame one, thank you! 😉

  6. Even though this article is not about music history, you might be interested to read this essay by Julian Cope about how “post-punk” continued the ideas of “punk” while “punk rock” completely betrayed them. This will probably clear the heads of some people who took issue with my spotty knowledge of pop culture history. It sure did mine. That, and realising that our dear Wikipedia does not even have an entry for punk!…
    (thank you, lorne!)

Comments are closed.