Video Games as Art

While doing the preliminary groundwork for my class on “Video Games and Japan,” I found a Wikipedia entry on video games as an art form. The major strain of criticism I’ve encountered (generally from inside the game dev community) that holds that games are not “art” tends toward the argument that the ontological category of “art” is transcended by the multimedia and nonlinear nature of games. The sense I get from the Wikipedia entry, however, is that there is still a debate focused on the participatory elements of the medium and the ostensible lack of creative direction of an auteur.

I’ve frequently run across references to Roget Ebert supposedly saying that video games are not art, a quote that I was finally able to track down

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

Five years later, in April 2010, Ebert posted an essay titled Video Games Can Never Be Art, which was written in response to a TED Talk in which Kellee Santiago quoted him being old and grumpy. Here he writes…

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film.

Elsewhere in the essay he references Werner Herzog, which is never a good indication of having an open mind about new technologies. In any case, the internet exploded in response, and two and a half months later Ebert made another post conceding that…

I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding. […] I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.

He’s not happy about it, though, and mostly he justifies why he’s not interested in engaging with the argument, his reasoning basically boiling down to the fact that he’s not interested in playing video games. So that’s a dead end.

When “video games as art” are discussed in other contexts, it seems to be in terms of “game art,” which is when games are presented in the context of gallery spaces, as in the case of installations like Super Mario Clouds. Like the Ebert posts, those conversations feel dated (probably because they in fact occurred almost ten years ago), and I wonder if the sort of games profiled by 365 Tiny Games are what are now considered to be “art games.”

Meanwhile, in her new book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Dr. Angela Nagle prefaces a brief discussion of Gamergate by writing…

First, let me be clear on my own position on gaming. If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere. And that includes feminist gaming, which has always struck me as being about as appealing as feminist porn; in other words, not at all.

This statement is striking to me because it indicates that, even in 2017, a highly educated and internet-literate person can still get away with saying that video games are not a legitimate medium of artistic and social expression, even though she’s written an entire book about online cultures shaped by engagement with video games.

It’s odd to me that this “debate” over whether video games are art is anything more than an interesting footnote in the history of the medium, although I’d like to believe that the sort of conservative mindset expressed by Nagle is fading as games continue to eclipse cinema and television within the mediascapes of global popular cultures.

( Header image by SuperPhazed on DeviantArt )

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