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Video Games: But Is It Art?

By Samuel Woodruff in Original Pieces

The year was 1990.  At age four, I was the youngest of three brothers; separated from my elders by temporal gaps of three and five years, respectively.  My brothers, both of school age, were at home basking in the joys of their summer vacation.  I’ve never known how it came to be (though I suspect it was my eldest brother’s incessant nagging), but one fine June day, my mother presented to us the most mysterious hard molded plastic suitcase upon which my four year old eyes had ever fallen.  The chipped paint on the exterior of the case read “BJ’s Movies,” our local video rental store.  My brothers were extremely excited, which kindled my own excitement, though I had no real notion as to what we were excited about.  My brother most senior (that is, the one who did the nagging) flipped down the two latches and flung open the lid with the vigor of a child on Christmas morning.  Fitted snugly into the foam which had been cut to its blocky shape was a Nintendo Entertainment System, the dream box of a generation of kids born after 1980.  I can still remember the oddly sharp corners of the plastic rectangle that was the console’s controller digging into my palms.  But as the eight-bit graphics of “Super Mario Bros.” danced in front of my eyes, I can’t recall having ever considered that I was bearing witness to a work of art.  Then again, I was only four years old, and the video game itself was just as young in its own development process.  One could say that video games and I grew up together.  And now that we have both crossed into adulthood, I am giving a new consideration to a form of entertainment that now, in that adulthood, strives to be recognized as an art form.

Are video games art?  Or rather, can video games be art?  Fresh forms of creativity have always had to go through a type of frame test; a kind of qualifying deconstruction to determine whether or not this new form should be considered among the grandest grandeur of that abstract state of being, which is commonly called “art.”  The problem is that the frame can be as diverse as the potential art it is meant to test.  This makes it easy to classify anything as art, or, conjunctively, to disqualify any potential work.  The old saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” holds true here, especially in the inherently subjective categorization of what constitutes “art.”  Some believe that video games are not, and cannot be art.  Perhaps most notable among these critics is Pulitzer Prize winning film columnist Roger Ebert, who once famously wrote, “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art” (Ebert, “Video Games can Never Be Art”).  Yet is it important that Roger Ebert doesn’t believe that games can be art?  Well, if one considers that Ebert was lauded in 2008 in Forbes magazine as the top pundit in America, one may assume that his opinion carries some influence (Van Riper, “Top Pundits in America”).

Ebert’s statement was met with a great deal of ire, from both video game creators and video game consumers.  They felt disrespected.  However, this raises the question in my mind: Why is it important for video games to be classified as an art form?  The entire concept of whether or not games can be art never occurred to me until I considered myself to be an artist.  However, I operate in a distinctly “safe” medium, with my creative outlet having passed the test centuries ago.  Whether or not I’ll ever be juxtaposed in consideration with the mandarins of my field is hardly relevant, for there is no doubt in my mind that I am an artist, and I know that if I had a top pundit discounting my creations, I would also be extremely insulted.

Ebert claims that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, and novelists” (Ebert).  That may be the case, but again that is subjective with respect to what is considered “great.”  However, the question at hand is not whether a game has been able to match another form’s “greatness,” but whether games can achieve greatness within their own aesthetic criteria.  One thing to remember about the creators of games is that most didn’t start out with game development in mind.  Many often studied the fine arts before picking up the digital aspect of game creation.  This, however, presses the issue of the devaluation of digital art as a worthy medium.  A certain taboo surrounds digital art, despite the fact that, as Stephen Wilson writing in Leonardo states, “In the late 1960s and in the 1970s some artists and art writers prognosticated enthusiastically about the promise of artworks made with the aid of digital computers” (Wilson, 15).  Yet even as the digital revolution happened, the taste-makers of the art society were resistant to the products of the new digital medium.

Let me pose a rhetorical question: If the greatest novel yet written were to be created on a computer word processor, would that disqualify it from being “art,” simply because it was created on a digital machine?  Why then should any work of art be disqualified for being digital at its genesis?  For a work to be labeled as a work of “art” is an important distinction in modern society.  It carries with it a certain sense of regard, and a certain sense of worth.

But what is “art?”  The more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes.  Plato defined art to be an imitation of nature.  Certainly, the definition of art has changed since the time of the Philosophers, but that definition remains persuasive.  Not in the sense of “nature” constituting trees and rocks and streams and the sky, but of the “nature” of all existence, a concept which is inherently mysterious.

One of the requirements for any work to be considered art is for that work to have an audience to experience it.  The tree that falls out of earshot in the woods does not make sound, and the work of art that is not consumed is not art.  No painting is art when viewed in a dark room, and no book is art when its pages are closed.  When they aren’t being experienced, works of art revert to being no more than the sum of their raw materials.  A book is just wood pulp, and a painting is just cloth stretched over a wooden frame.  Jean Cocteau once said that “even the greatest novel ever written is only the dictionary out of order.”  What can be gathered from this is that perhaps art is no more than a matter of intent on the part of the creator.

But of the creator, is only an individual allowed to be credited with the creation of a work?  Yes, according to Ebert, who writes, “I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist” (Ebert).  That is a rather harsh limitation to adhere to, especially from a film critic, whose area of expertise is one of the most collaborative arts ever conceived.  Even I, as a strong supporter of the auteur theory, have to concede that film would be a nearly impossible individual endeavor—or at least, no one’s ever tried it.  I would expect Ebert (a man who deals with a medium that Cocteau also suggested “will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper”) to be more sensitive to emergent art forms.  One of the reasons Ebert cites for games’ incapability to be considered art is that:

“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome… there may be created an 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. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them” (Ebert). 

But with that rationale, where does that leave something like fine cuisine?  A chef creates works of art, the goal of which is that they be eaten.  It is an experience, but also a type of “winning.”

Perhaps the issue has to do with what Ebert considers to be a “game” in the first place.  He likens video games to games of chess, or football, in which strategy is used to best an opponent.  Surely, this was true of video games in their infancy, but with the growth technology and resources, video games have sprouted and blossomed into entirely different specimens.  Much like the cinema, whose creation was simple documentation which then grew into its own art form by imitating other art forms such as stage drama and literature, video games have also grown to become their own art form by imitating the cinema.  It’s no longer a matter of “winning” a game; it has become an experience.

Is that experience too immersive?  With film, there always exists a distinct detachment; viewers are always merely voyeurs to the events of a film.  With a video game, however, the player becomes the driving force of the narrative, thereby disintegrating their detachment and being a part of the art.  This is how video games are distinct from films, even if they are emulative.  It is not a passive experience; it is an active one.

Personally, I feel that part of a naysayer’s issue is that they consider games to be a childish endeavor: video games are something that should be outgrown, like baseball cards and comic books.  Now, there is a creative medium that receives much of the same enmity that video games do.  Comic books have been around for decades, since the forties, and yet they are still considered to be infantile in their aims.  In fact, many parallels can be found between the two mediums; consider what Stergios Botzakis writes in The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy: “When people think of comic-book readers, they typically get a vision of a stunted person who lives in his parents’ basement and spends countless hours arguing the minutiae of his particular popular culture interests,” and that “Comic books are still often regarded as pieces of juvenile, junk culture” (Botzakis, 50).  Why is this?  Is it because the majority of comic books’ readership is made up of a youthful demographic?  Is it because of the fantastic stories that are being told?  If I had replaced “comic books” with “video games” in the quotations, they would both still be accurate.  We’ve established already that an artwork’s content does not determine its status as art; after all, some people think that Jackson Pollock was full of shit, yet there’s no discussion as to whether or not his paintings are art.

As we change the way we live our lives, it’s important for us to continue to question the old guidelines.  There is a notion that somehow everything that has come before us will never be matched in quality.  Pamela G. Taylor and B. Stephen Carpenter writing in Visual Arts Research state that, “As digital technology rapidly invades more aspects of human life and culture than ever before, our ideas of art, and art making are continually questioned” (Taylor and Carpenter, 84).  A place has to be made for new art forms.  I’m inclined to say that just as not all film is art, and not all literature is art, so too not all video games are art.  However, just as some film is art, and some literature is art, so too can some video games be art.  Who knows, perhaps ten years from now, someone will make a game that students will study at a university one hundred years from now.

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Research (Works Cited)

  • Botzakis, Stergios. “Adult Fans of Comic Books: What They Get out of Reading.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. Vol. 53, No. 1 (Sep., 2009), pp. 50-59. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
  • Ebert, Roger. “Video Games can Never Be Art.” Roger Ebert’s Journal. 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
  • Taylor, Pamela G. and B. Stephen Carpenter. “Mediating Art Education: Digital Kids, Art, and Technology.” Visual Arts Research. Vol. 33, No. 2(65), Child Art After Modernism (2007), pp. 84-95. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
  • Van Riper, Tom. “Top Pundits in America.” Forbes. 24 Sep. 2007. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.
  • Wilson, Stephen. “Computer Art: Artificial Intelligence and the Arts.” Leonardo. Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter, 1983), pp. 15-20. Web. 26. Nov. 2011.
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