protosaurus over at The Stranger’s Questionland has asked the CGP to contribute an answer to the question, are video games art? This being the middle of E3, now seems as good a time as any to revisit this discussion as all the promise and possibility of the games industry goes on display. Rather than attempt a blanket statement, I’d like to start with a reflection on the difficulty of answering such a question and then open the discussion up to comments from the entire CGP community.
Ten years ago, Henry Jenkins, one of the first recognized video game scholars, was arguing that “computer games are art — a popular art, an emerging art, a largely unrecognized art, but art nevertheless.” That was the year 2000, before the Playstation2 was even released. It would be another five years before Roger Ebert made his notorious claim that video games can never be art. “I am prepared,” he wrote, “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 craftsmenship to the stature of art.” He argued at the time that games will never be art because they lack the “authorial control” that marks serious literature and film. Not surprisingly, it is this very possibility, that video games “open up new aesthetic experiences” to players by turning the screen into “a realm of experimentation and innovation,” that Jenkins finds so intriguing about games as an artistic medium.
The “are video games art” question is not new. It tends to resurface every time a somewhat literary triple-A title, like Grand Theft Auto IV or Bioshock, hits the shelves. In April, it struck up again as Ebert revisited his claim in response to a TEDtalk on the same topic by Kellee Santiago, one of the makers of Flower. The blogosphere swelled with responses, some serious, some less so. And while those of us invested in the cultural practice of video gaming relish these occasions when gaming gets taken seriously, when framed by the question, are video games art, discussion tends to be unproductive. For example, I have yet to meet the person who thought games were not art and was swayed by an opposing argument, and vice versa.
Here’s the reason why:
When we ask a question like “are video games art,” we are asking for a yes or no answer. The question assumes we have some set of criteria for determining what “art” is and we can apply it to “games” and then decide if category B is included in category A. The problem is that neither term in this evaluation is really settled. The definition of “art” had already been exploded by the time Marcel Duchamp submitted Fountain, a toilet he purchased at a garbage dump, to an international art exhibition in 1917. As for the definition of “video game,” scholars still debate what aspects matter when it comes to defining the medium. For example, Markku Eskelinen has argued the need to “annihilate for good the discussion of games as stories, narratives or cinema,” as those elements are “just uninteresting ornaments or gift-wrappings to games, and lying any emphasis on studying these kind of marketing tools is just a waste of time and energy.” Could you imagine discussing the artistic merit of, say, Mass Effect, Myst, or Ico, without talking about the story? Would we want to?
The problem of finding agreed upon categories is everywhere in present discussion. A cursory survey of responses to Ebert’s post turns up countless conversations talking past one another as myriad limited definitions of what art is followed by just as limited definitions of what video gaming is and twice as many outliers, special cases, and just plain weird examples. Herein lies our problem. If we want an answer to the question, are video games art, we first have to agree on what art is and then on what counts as a video game and it is really hard to come to a consensus on those definitions.
So, let’s start with a different question: why do we care whether games are art in the first place? The short answer is that it gives them cultural legitimacy. Despite the sophistication and variety of games and clear demographics evidence to the contrary (in 2009, women 18 and over represent double the gamer demographic than boys 17 and under), games are still largely perceived to be a violent distraction for teenage boys who should be doing something more productive. For many people, games are an immature medium. We can talk about them seriously in terms of market share or behavioral psychology or computing technology, but as significant cultural artifacts that have something to say about the world we live in? Get real. Or, as our reluctant students are fond of saying, it’s just a game.
When we ask the games/art question, therefore, what we really want to know is if games deserve to be taken seriously. The conversation inevitably turns to discussing what properties make gaming a serious, significant, and legitimate cultural practice. So let’s try asking that question instead: is gaming something we should care about? are there culturally significant video games? do video games matter?