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Are Video Games Art?

With all of the fuss over the ending of Mass Effect 3 I noticed something kind of odd: the word entitlement was cropping up at an unbelievable rate.  I got to thinking about this and realized two things: first, that there is a problem with using that word; second, that if I am going to discuss that problem, I have to address a much bigger, much more controversial question.

Are video games art?

Shepard Face Palm

Pictured: Every employee at BioWare and EA, realizing that ME3 is now the go-to example of bad story writing.

This whole thing was brought to my mind a while back when I was reading the blog of David Fisk (a follower, and someone I follow).  He wrote a post, Mass Effect 3: I do feel a little entitled, and it got me to thinking about the whole fuss.

Now, I’m not going to say much about the issue I have with using that word.  Just know that deciding whether or not video games are art impacts that greatly.

ANYWAY.

The thing is, nobody seems to agree on whether or not video games are art, and that is probably a far more interesting topic of discussion to you, my readers, than the intricacies of using the word entitlement to describe gamers’ attitudes.

I am not the first, nor will I by any means be the last, to discuss the issue of video games as art.  I am also, by no stretch of the imagination, the most “qualified” to do so.  I have a BA in Literature, so while the concept of art and the ways we interpret it is familiar to me, there are much more educated men than I that have discussed at length (and often, rarely agree) what art is.

Nonetheless, I’m taking this topic on because I think it’s worth talking about.  After all, as a student of literature and a gamer who recognizes the beauty of some games, I find myself torn in two directions on this issue.

What is Art

Let me start right now by saying that my definition of art, as included here, is overly simplistic.  While I’m going to try to hit the main points of what makes something art, there are—as with all things—exceptions and nuances.  In fact, one must truly consider things on a case-by-case basis.  (Which is one of the problems of calling games art.  You’re trying to say the medium is, wholesale, artistic by nature.)

Art

It’s a shame that the idea of “fine art” has been appropriated by the elitists to make themselves feel more cultured. It’s not a shame that, somehow, this picture manages to capture that douchebaggery perfectly.

First, we need to discuss the difference between art and fine art.  This difference is as ambiguous as it is contentious.  But the easiest way to characterize the difference is that art is, according to Britannica Online, is “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination”.   In other words, when you made your macaroni portraits in kindergarten, those qualify as art.

Fine art, on the other hand, is what we often think of when we refer to art.  It is, according to Wikipedia (because hey, why not use it here, too), “a skill [that] is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience toward consideration of the finer things.”  For the purposes of this entire post, whenever I refer to “art” after this, I am referring to fine art unless I specifically say otherwise.

With that being said, that definition of fine art doesn’t really do much to distinguish what actually qualifies as art and what doesn’t.  I do like what Wikipedia has to say, I just think there is more to it than just that.

I’ve summed up what I think are three of the biggest things to consider when looking at art.  There are many other criteria, but I think it’s safe to say if it doesn’t meet these three, it isn’t art.

1.  Art must be a task that requires skill, and art must be unique (to some extent) in that an unskilled person could not recreate the same product.

2.  Art must engage the audience’s sensibilities to drive forward an emotional state or an appreciation for the finer things.

3.  Art must have some underlying theme or concept that it hopes to send to the audience through those emotional states.

I do not want to get any more bogged down in this concept, but keep in mind what I said and we’ll move on.

The Argument in Favor

Perhaps one of the biggest arguments that video games are art is the simple fact that people seem to generally think it is possible.  Consider that the Smithsonian American Art Museum has an exhibit entitled “The Art of Video Games”.

The Smithsonian's Video Game Exhibit

I’m not sure that the Smithsonian is thinking of art in the right sense here. They used the word in the exhibit’s name the way I describe my ability to avoid cleaning my car artistic. Hmm.

But I’m not letting off the argument in favor that easy.  There is more to be said on the issue than just a generally growing acceptance of the idea of video games as art.  Kate Cox of Kotaku makes a roundabout argument that they are.  The thing is, her argument (and many others’) rests firmly on the fact that because the Smithsonian says it is, it is.  The atmosphere of the exhibit is one of respect, not of a dog and pony show to bring in more people.  That, then, must mean gamers were right all along!  Hurrah!

(In a coming article I’ll be talking about why I dislike almost every “major” gaming media outlet.  But it’s safe to say that if anybody at Kotaku said that games weren’t art, they’d be facing a shitstorm and loss of readers.  So it’s not surprisingly to me that Kate Cox basically dismisses the argument of games as art as irrelevant and long-since settled.)

Nonetheless, let’s consider the things that qualify art as art and look at video games in that context.

Video games do require quite a bit of skill to create.  They require large teams that split the task into parts, such as modeling characters or environments, texturing, story teams, voice actors, and beyond.  Games cost quite a bit of money to create and have a lot of time and effort going into them.  On that level, video games definitely qualify.

Programming is like poetry!

I’ve got to admit, there is something elegant about finding a way to program something in as little code as possible. I also think it was beautiful to watch Michael Jordan destroy the hopes of every team he played against. That, however, does not make this comparison okay.

Can video games be replicated easily by anybody?  No.  In fact, very seldom do you see a single person creating an entire video game.  As a result, most people who work on video games would be hard-pressed to create an entire video game on their own.  With that said, your average person is unlikely to ever be able to really create a video game himself.

As far as eliciting unique emotional states, I think the furor over Mass Effect 3 alone is evidence.  But with that aside, I know that I—along with many other gamers—have grown attached to characters in games in such a manner that the path these characters embark upon has a profound emotional effect on the player.

Finally, do games have underlying themes?  Again, the Mass Effect series drives home points such as equality, settling feuds and beyond.  Other games’ stories often deal with concepts of good or evil.  So I think it’s safe to say that at least some games do have deeper, non-literal themes they attempt to get across.

So by those standards, I think one could make a fairly strong case that games qualify as art.  But I’m not done with that.

The Case Against

In talking about video games as art, one often sees comparisons to other forms of art.  For example, Discovery News asks the same question and, rather than evaluating video games against some criteria for art, they simply talk about modern art being made of anything.  As such, author Robert Lamb decides, it’s not so far-fetched that games could be considered art.

From the same article: “’Video games obviously can be art,’ says game designer Jonathan Blow. ‘There’s not any real debate on the matter anymore, and there never really has been.’”

Two and a Half Men

It’s amazing how terrible this show is. In fact, they have made being unfunny into an art of its own.

Of course, Mr. Blow conveniently ignores Roger Ebert, who categorically denied that video games are art and, in a wider-reaching claim, says they never will be.  While Ebert later changed his stance and simply said he doesn’t get it.  Ebert eventually admitted games could be art, but  his initial discussion of the matter is pretty interesting and by far the most substantial discussion of the topic I could find.

That’s the interesting thing about this debate.  Both sides seem to think the arguments are so self-evident that, when they write about it, they just barely bother giving reasons why.

Before I return to Ebert’s argument, I’d like to take a moment to compare video games to what is perhaps the most analogous art form: television (or film).  In essence, for every Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Firefly or whatever show you consider artistic in its nature, there are two or three shows like Two and a Half Men.

This comparison highlights a big point: even if games can qualify as art, not all games ever will.  Consider, for example, Skyrim.  While that game is a blast and a half and the world is beautiful, the story it tells is, well, not that great.  It’s spread out over huge lengths of time, it has M. Night Shamalayan-esque plot twists, and overall, it’s got no subtext.  One does not play Skyrim and realize it’s an allegory for the Iraq War (as BSG was), but rather a game about a person who kills dragons.

Paarthurnax-sucks-top

The leader of the Greybeards is a dargon!? Was he also dead the whole time?
(Image from Nerdapproved.)

If you wish to ignore story, what you’re left with to judge games by are the mechanics and rules as well as the graphics.  While graphics may seem akin to visual art forms, the fact is that very little emotional state is elicited by the scenery, and even if it is there is no deeper message or meaning to take away.

Beyond that, however, Roger Ebert aptly points out that no matter how elegant the rules of Chess are, it would never be considered art.  So calling a game art based on gameplay and visuals is just plum out.

So while one might argue that the Mass Effect series is art, I think it’s harder to argue that all games are art.  But this is the assertion that many people make.  To go back to the television analogy, few people would seriously assert that television is anything more than a form that can potentially be art.  The only art in Two and a Half Men is how artfully Charlie Sheen managed to make an ass of himself.  (Also, how artfully the show managed to drag 10 minutes of plot into 25 minutes through laugh tracks.)

But let’s go back to Roger Ebert.  Ebert’s points are very similar to mine (or, more appropriately, mine are similar to his), but I think the thing he says that stands out most is that the malleability of the gaming experience is what makes the form ineligible to ever be considered art.

Inevitable emotional state of Keats’ odes (for most people): boredom. Pictured here: Keats experiencing the same state.  Clearly he felt he had to share.

Ebert contends that one must be drawn to emotional states to be art (and I agree), and that by allowing gamers choices in their journey, you are not necessarily lead to an inevitable emotional state.  That is the word that makes all the difference, it would seem.

You see, arguments of reader-response theory aside, when you read one of Keats’ odes, you’re drawn by his art to a specific feeling or conclusion.  Gaming, if compared to print, would be kind of like a “choose your own adventure” novel.  If Keats had offered, for “Ode on Melancholy” six stanzas and allowed you to choose only 3 to read, it would not be art.  At least, that’s the summed up version of Ebert’s argument—with an added example. Because of this, Ebert contends, video games will never be art.

What Do I Think?

The thing is, if you’re reading this you’re probably not doing so to hear how awesome I think other people’s arguments for or against are.  You’re probably, at least to a small extent, interested in what I have to say on the topic that is original.

That said, I strongly agree with Ebert on all but one major point: I think video games could someday be art.  But I definitely don’t think any really qualify right now.

Two and a Half Men (Again)

Pictured here: what most video games are equivalent to.

What I think is that video games, as an entire form, will not ever be artistic.  They will probably exist in the same way that TV and film do, with the 99% being (sometimes) enjoyable but face-value drivel, and the 1% telling rich, engaging and artistic stories. But even with that said, I do not think that I would look at any existing video game—including Mass Effect, of which I speak quite highly—as art…yet.

Consider that there are still so many games released that fit into the “shovelware” category.  These games are craptastic affairs that are hardly worth playing.  For every big budget game that comes out that we enjoy, there are five pieces of garbage that start selling at $20.

While video games have advanced, more of that advancement is focused on creating richer environments than telling better and more meaningful stories.  And while the story of Skyrim is much bigger than the story of the original Mario, that does not mean it is instantly deeper.  The Twilight Saga is quite long, but nobody (I sincerely hope, lest I have to burn my degree) would consider it to be fine art.

But video games, while maybe having longer stories, are still in the end simplistic tales driven more by interactivity than by depth.  You could argue that games have gotten much better with stories—and they have—but they are now, as an entire form, probably on par with storytelling akin to the Twilight Saga, not to War and PeaceTheir stories rely on plot twists that would make M. Night Shamalayan blush.

whatatwist

What a twist!

Beyond all of this, however, is that malleability that Ebert talks about.  Where I differ from Ebert, despite generally agreeing with him, is that you do not need to be led to a single conclusion by art.  Malleability of the form is what makes gaming potentially one of the most unique and amazing mediums in which to create art.

So here is where I, as usual, tie all of this together to hopefully make some sense.  Video games as a medium are likely going to continue down the same road as television and film, in which the majority is not art.  As a result, the entire medium could never be considered art.  I don’t know that I can put it in any simpler words than that.  To call all video games art would open the door to calling every book ever published by the same name.  We don’t want to go down that road, so let’s stop now.

The reason I don’t consider any existing games to be art isn’t because they are malleable, as Ebert would argue.  It is because they are still, at their hearts, forms of entertainment centered on killing or racing or what have you.  It is this focus away from the story—and on the gameply—that allows people to experience games and not always get everything out of it that they could.

One Does not Simply...

And yet if one doesn’t do it, why is it an option?

In other words, the reason no video games are art yet isn’t because the malleability of the form leads to many inevitable conclusions.  That is what makes the medium unique among other mediums.  It is because the malleability of the form does not, yet, make any of the conclusions inevitable.  Readers of a book do not generally skip vital characterization—accidentally or purposely—nor do those who enjoy film get that option.

But gamers do have that choice.  In Mass Effect, one can go through the main story and speak to characters minimally while still completing the game.  Additionally, this dialogue can be skipped, such that one never need know what the actual conversation was.   The effect is the same as reading the Sparknotes version of The Catcher in the Rye and actually reading the full book.

Because of this difference, gamers are not forced to any conclusion at all.  The experiences that each gamer has are so different that one cannot really say that there is any conclusion (or conclusions) at all that are inevitable.  One can enjoy the Mass Effect series as games about blowing up giant space aliens, missing out entirely on the subtexts hidden within.

But Don’t Get Too Mad at Me!

Gamers value games.  That is not debated here, not at all.  But while the value people place on a thing does help to make the case for it being art, I don’t think you could or should argue that people valuing something is anything more than a small portion of that consideration.  To do so would open the doors to letting books like Twilight enter the realm of literature.

But I think accepting that gamers value games is key to understanding why people want to call games art: they want it to be valued.  For a myriad of reasons, people have rarely taken video games seriously unless they were themselves gamers.  To outsiders, games look like silly and idle distractions.  To those of us on the inside, it’s something that has its ups and downs, and fosters emotional attachments that are different from (and sometimes stronger than) those created by books or television.

While I do not consider games to be art, I do not either consider them to be trivial. I think the mistake of those arguing video games as art is to think that such a dichotomy exists.  Being considered art will not instantly legitimize games in the world’s view, nor does not being art mean that our games have to always be considered trivial.

I am a gamer, and as you can see from my blog, I consider it a big part of me.  So while I understand the desire to force outsiders to see the value of what gamers enjoy, I don’t think trying to force everyone to admit that our games are art is the right way to do it.

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