Are Video Games Art?, Part III

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for why video games can’t or shouldn’t be art. These are only the arguments I’ve personally encountered, so I could be missing a lot here. Feel free to provide other arguments in the comments (either in the spirit of “This is why your whole series of blog posts is wrong,” or “This is what my idiot cousin from Philly says,” either is fine with me.)

  1. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They Are Items of Consumer Electronics and Must Be Judged on That Level

This is, by far, the most sensible argument against games being art, and the one that’s creating a lot of friction among gamers right now. We’re dealing with clashing paradigms that don’t play nicely together.

An example: You can look at the Mona Lisa for a couple of seconds, and unless you’re a real art buff, at that point you’re done with it. Still, despite the short engagement time, that image will probably be ingrained within your mind for the rest of your life, you’ll see references to the Mona Lisa for the rest of your life, and the painting’s value is considered priceless, beyond rubies. If you only engaged with a $60 game for a few seconds, when you were expecting 20-60 hours of gameplay (or even several hundred hours, if you just bought an in-depth SRPG like Disgaea), you just got ripped off.

In theory, someone could make a game that was five seconds long and have it be priceless, but due to the differences between the visual arts and interactive media, that’s highly unlikely. This whole idea of judging something based on how much time it occupies relative to it’s price is something that doesn’t gel well with art appreciation as a concept. No one ever goes to a museum and complains that the exhibit sucked because they only stood in front of each painting for a moment.*

And yet, other mediums have been dealing with this for years, and that somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being art. Films are judged in part by how they use their runtime, and whether they’re an entertaining or informative use of 2 or so hours; a film that seemingly wastes 2 hours of your time is considered a rip-off. However, just because films can be judged in this manner, and are judged that way more often than not, no one then counters that cinema can’t be art. It’s simply different ways of judging the same thing; you can judge film as a consumer product, but that’s not the only viewpoint there is. If this works for film, why shouldn’t it work for games?

One thing fairly specific to games that I don’t believe applies elsewhere is the fact that a game has to be a functioning piece of software. If the X button is jump, the character better jump 100% of the time, not 75%, and the graphics better not bug out every time you enter a new room. A game could have the most brilliant artistic ideas imaginable, but if the controls don’t work, it fails as a piece of consumer electronics, and therefore as a game.

There’s some wiggle-room here; some games with slightly wonky controls and bug issues are often given a partial pass if the content they feature is otherwise high-quality. But in general, a game has to work as software first.

The problem is people think that a game can fail as software, but then use “art” as an excuse to completely avoid responsibility for its failures. “Oh the game is buggy as hell, but what a wonderfully nuanced look at a romance between two one-armed seamstresses in the 1730s!”

And you know what? That happens (not the seamstresses game, although now I’d kind of like to see something like that). Games can fail either in controls or amount of content and use art as an excuse. Sure, it’s a five-minute long walking simulator that costs $60, but dammit, it’s art! You can’t put a price on art!

Actually, you can, and being classified as art isn’t some magical Get Out of Jail Free Card that makes everything okay.  Because you see, bad art exists. If your five-minute long walking simulator isn’t interesting to play and is overpriced, it’s still art; it’s just bad, terrible art that isn’t of much consequence.

Basically, once you accept the premise that art can be bad, you lose the problem with art becoming a failsafe justification for anything. An “art game” can be artistic and also bad, and the idea that priceless art only requires a few seconds of active engagement simply does not apply if the art in question is not good. You can judge games as consumer electronics, and you can judge them as art, but if it fails on the first level, chances are it’s going to fail on the second level too, because the medium is the message. If something has great artistic value in regard to music and visuals or whatnot but fails as a piece of interactive media, chances are it shouldn’t have been made as a piece of interactive media.

2, Video Games Can’t Be Art For STRUCTURAL REASONS Having To Do With Authorial Intent

I first read this in a newspaper, in a film critic’s column. It was a small, regional paper, so it wasn’t like this was coming from a famous critic whose name would mean anything to you. The argument was basically that film directors make choices, these choices create certain responses in the audience, and within these choices we find the art of cinema. In video games, people make their own choices, so games aren’t art; they are simply entertainment.

Okay, so…where do we even start with this? It’s contingent on the idea that game creators don’t make choices. Like, someone just starts making a game, throws the telephone-book sized design document out a 100-story window, and says “let’s do whatever, no big.” I could say that this might be true if you’re just screwing around in RPG Maker, but I have screwed around in RPG Maker a lot, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true even then. This argument is just complete, utter nonsense.

The problem is that it uses intelligent-sounding terms like “structural” and “authorial intent,” so people still get snowed by it. I find most of the ‘intellectual’ arguments against games being art are all very much like this; they might sound logical at first, but they make less and less sense the more you think about them.

3. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They’re Addictive

Video games can be very addictive, but if you don’t think reading good books can be addictive too, man have I got a nice bridge to sell you. It’s not exactly the same thing; games tend to create more of a dopamine rush than reading does, making them more addictive for many people. But so what?

Video game addiction can be a real problem, and it’s something we’re going to have to grapple with more and more as virtual worlds become more important in our lives. But it’s irrelevant to the question we’re trying to answer.

4. Roger Ebert/Hideo Kojima/Insert Famous Person said that Games are Not Art

I have a lot of respect for late Roger Ebert, and many people doing media criticism today could learn a lot from him. That said, his medium was film, not games, and he freely admitted that he didn’t play games or know much about them. You can have all the respect in the world for Ebert as a film critic without thinking that his opinions on all other media were equally valuable.

Hideo Kojima though…man, that kind of gets me. I mean, the only excuse for most of Metal Gear Solid 2 is art; if you’ve played it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So I don’t really understand where Kojima’s coming from there, but what’s more important is, no one person– no matter how famous, no matter how talented– is qualified to be the sole arbiter of what is and is not art.**

5. “I Don’t Need Games to Be Art.”

I’ve heard this one from several people lately, and I think I know what they mean, but the logic has already struck me as a little odd. I mean, I don’t NEED for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to be art either; some snooty agency could put out an international bulletin, “Starry Night NO LONGER ART!” and it wouldn’t cause me to think that my needs had been compromised; my needs are pretty irrelevant to the whole situation.

What people mean when they say this, I think, is “I don’t need the intellectual validation of games being considered art; it’s okay with me if games are just entertainment.” This viewpoint depends on believing in the art/entertainment divide, and I already explained in Part 1 why I don’t buy that. So in essence, while I think I know what people mean when they say this and I see the validity of those feelings, the reasoning itself is irrelevant to the question. You might as well say “I don’t need Nutella to be a sandwich topping,” or “I don’t need Die Hard to be a Christmas Movie,” (yeah, I went there.)

Sometimes people say this because they find the whole debate tedious as hell and want to move on, and given how these discussions tend to go on social media, I can’t say I blame them. But the debate doesn’t stop existing just because you happen to be tired of it, you know?

6. Games Can’t Be Art Because [Insert Bad Game] Exists

“LOL, you think games are art? Look at this screenshot from Custer’s Revenge, and try to say that with a straight face. Oh and Superman 64 LMFAO CHECKMATE.”

As we’ve already covered, bad art exists. I would bet money that right now, there are at least 10 nearly-blank canvasses hanging in museums all over the world, with one tiny dot of black  paint the only point of interest. And the titles are something like “The Overpowering Oppression of Whiteness,” or “White Supremacy, Visualized,” or even “Unbearable Loneliness No. 8.” Chances are, if you’ve ever been to an art museum even once, you have seen this sort of thing. Lots of it.

This is terribly lazy, cynical art, but it doesn’t invalidate painting, or the visual arts more generally, as an art form. It may lead you to wonder about the motives of some museum curators, but that’s a different problem.

————————————————————————————-After going through it all, the only genuine area of concern we seem to have is the one about the expectations for consumer electronics and the expectations for art being different things at this point in time; that is changing, however. Every other argument against games being art seems to depend on some kind of false technicality, an appeal to authority, or pretending that bad art is something that doesn’t exist. I don’t see how you can be a logical person and find any of these arguments convincing.

And yet, after all this, I’m not entirely without sympathy for those who don’t want Tetris included in the hypothetical World Pantheon of Art. There’s something special, something refined about sitting down with a 19th-century novel that I don’t get from a JRPG, no matter how good the game is. There is something special about the texture of paint on canvas, the sound that comes out of a beautiful brass instrument, the mesmerizing nature of classic film. These are all special things.

I think people are afraid that if we allow games to be classified as art, we are somehow making all of the above less important, less special. And if you’re worried about that, games qualifying as art can seem extremely threatening. But we have to face facts; there is no good reason why games aren’t art, and if that makes us have to reconsider the value of other art forms and how they stack up against the interactive version of themselves, then that’s a challenge we’re going to have to grapple with whether we want to or not. Right now, I think a lot of people are running away from that challenge, and we can’t afford to anymore.

*This does somewhat work with music, because if you went to a concert and it was only five minutes long, you’d probably feel pretty cheated. That doesn’t mean the one song that the orchestra played during that five minutes wasn’t priceless, though.

**Well except for me, obviously. I wrote these blog posts and everything.

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