This won’t put the issue to rest, but hopefully it’ll enlighten those on the fence.
1. The Slippery Definition of “Art”
When you hear the word “art,” you’re likely to picture Casablanca or melting clocks or some other shit that might actually not be art.
But video games might not be the first medium that comes to mind. Some would claim video games ineligible for “art” status because all they boil down to is strings of code. But by the same notion, paintings are just earthen pigments on paper, music is just sound, and Piss Christ is just a crucifix submerged in a jar of pee.
The overriding mindset among detractors is to phrase, and thus frame, the issue backwards: “art is this,” “art isn’t that,” using subjective descriptors to solidify their understanding of art. But in reality, art is not any one thing; things themselves constitute art. Thomas Adajian of Stanford University says,
The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy. The philosophical usefulness of a definition of art has also been debated.
Thomas Adajian, “The Definition of Art“
Simply, you can classify things as art, but you can’t classify art as things. Once you do that, you create a binary world full of either “art” or “not art”.
So “art” as a term, as a category, is almost completely subjective. It’d probably take a majority, or at least a good chunk, of people who know their shit to back our stance before it’s taken seriously. Oh, wait…
2. Artists (And Critics) Think Video Games Can Be Art
Take, for example, everyone’s favorite semi-mandibular film critic, Roger Ebert. Back in 2010, he proclaimed to the world that video games “can never be art”. After citing some Waco Siege simulator and cave paintings, he concluded that, for all the artistic passion that goes into making a video game, none will ever be worthy of the title.
So, one of the best-known art critics dismisses games from ever being art. The last nail in their coffins, right? Now, just hold your damn horses. Later that year, Ebert amended his prior statements, backing up and admitting that they could be art:
It is quite possible a game could someday be great Art.
Roger Ebert, “Okay, kids, play on my lawn“
Though flip-floppy and somewhat technical, we call this one a win. More concretely, the Smithsonian Institute, home of some of the world’s most culturally important artifacts, ran an exhibition in 2012 dedicated to the art of video games. When the Smithsonian says something like this…
Video games use images, actions, and player participation to tell stories and engage their audiences. In the same way as film, animation, and performance, they can be considered a compelling and influential form of narrative art.
… it’s a pretty good indicator that they know what they’re talking about. During the exhibition’s six-month run in the museum (it’s now on tour), it became one of the Institute’s most popular exhibitions and attracted almost 700,000 visitors. What’s more, BAFTA has a whole branch that awards video games on criteria including (but not limited to) innovation, artistic achievement, and music and sound design.
In 2011, the Tribeca Film Festival recognized L.A. Noire and displayed footage of the game there, making L.A. Noire the first video game to be featured at the festival. The same thing happened with Beyond: Two Souls. When art critics begin to look at video games in an artistic light, it’s apparent that they’ve got some credence. But these, as you’ll notice, are all kind of recent opinions among artists, which brings me to my next point:
3. Time Will Help Us Tell
Nobody knew that Citizen Kane was Citizen Kane until thirty years after it was released. Sure, it was seen as great cinema, but its lasting effects weren’t fully realized until they were seen in other films. Suddenly, movies started taking cues from Citizen Kane and, like cinematographic meth, its influence became more and more apparent as people adjusted to a world where Citizen Kane existed.
In the same way, video games have been inspired by other media and have inspired them in turn. Even non-gamers pick up on the 16-bit sensibilities of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The Last of Us plays out like a Cormac McCarthy novel, for Christ’s sake. Video games share a lot in common with their media brethren, but even if those similarities aren’t yet obvious, they will be in time. Professor Charlotte Jirousek of Cornell University sums it up nicely:
Art is created and enjoyed by many people for many reasons. However, one of the things that art does is extend and expand our shared common visual language. When new visual ideas are first introduced by the artist, they are often seen as shocking, and perhaps even as incomprehensible. However, with time the best and most effective of these ideas are accepted.
Charlotte Jirousek, “The Evolution of Art“
So it’s clear that “games as art” is no longer a niche notion held only by elitist dwellers. But do we really want video games, these things that have shaped our subcultures and defined our generation, subjected to the guys who call Robert Gobert’s cheese with hair “fine art”? Should we lump Zelda with Monet to achieve a title just so people take us more seriously? We don’t think so. We think that…
Games Shouldn’t Try To Be Art
Every game has something to look at, hear, or both. When looked at from the outside in, games are composed of different media, most of which are already considered art. They’re created by people with undeniable artistic vision—from Journey’s Jenova Chen to ubiquitous composer Jesper Kyd—and each individual part of a game could be classified as art by even the staunchest critics.
But there’s another side to video games, an interactive aspect unseen in any other medium. What most people would refer to as “playing” a game is more like experiencing a game, isn’t it? Taking in the sights and sounds and still having a degree of control over it all, as can only be done in a video game, makes games both more and less than the contemporary definition of art. It’s a unique connection between product and user and it gives games a basis of judgment only comparable to itself—meaning that we can call a game “good” or “bad” without comparing every single one of them to The Seventh Seal.
So even though games are comprised of art and could probably stand as such on their own, that’s not the point. The point is that we should accept their aesthetic appeal but accentuate their unique features and qualities you can’t get anywhere else.
Am I off my damn rocker? Or do you agree? Maybe somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in a comment below.