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Games Aren't Art and That's Okay With Me

We can argue all we want about whether games are art or not. The real questions is, why does it matter?

The debate of whether or not games are art has been a long and tedious one.  I do not think that Roger Ebert had any idea what kind of bee hive he was kicking when he famously declared that not only are games not art, but they likely never would be.  He would later go on to amend his comments to say that he believed that games could eventually become art, but that he hadn’t seen any real evidence to say that time was soon coming.  It was a kind of back handed apology to furious gamers for taking such an absolute stance on a subject he admittedly knew little about.  Gamers more or less ignored this amendment and demonized Mr. Ebert; holding steadfast to the idea that not only could games become art, but that they indeed already were.

What interests me in this debate is not what stance popular culture will eventually take on the issue.  Whether or not my playing of the next Mario game could be considered an artistic experience is not something that has ever crossed my mind.  The bigger point of interest to me is why gamers are so adamant to defend the idea that games should be held up on a level playing field with other mediums that society has deemed worthy to refer to as art or artistic expression.  It is understandable that Mr. Ebert’s words would be the target of concentrated nerd rage; it’s expected even.  It is rare to find a community that is so reactionary to disparaging remarks like gaming’s is.  But why did this initial outburst turn into a long heated debate that continues to rage?

As I said previously I’m not so interested in the final outcome, but I must divulge a bit on my stance before looking at why this topic has become so important to the community at large.  I don’t think that video games are art.  This is a stance that puts me squarely in a minority amongst my fellow game journalists and enthusiasts.  Many people are obviously shocked to hear this and immediately jump at the opportunity to steer my opinion to more closely align with theirs.

“But game graphics require great artistic talent to create!  They combine music, acting and story as a film of novel would!  They engage the viewer and elicit an emotional response!”

All of these things are true, but to me this doesn’t make it art.  My counterarguments are simple.  Many other mediums possess these same qualities but are plainly not considered art.  A game board will at times require great artistic skill to create but board games are not considered art.  Television shows combine music, acting and story but are not considered art.  Engagement and emotional response?  I’ve been more engaged and have had greater emotional responses to a sporting event than I have ever had with a video game, but these are decidedly not art amongst most.

Ultimately videogames are about entertainment, not enlightenment.  They are toys whose sole purpose is to engage the user in an enjoyable exchange between the player and software being played.  Can a game have artistic elements?  Absolutely, games are comprised of many elements that when viewed on their own I myself would consider art, such as background illustrations, music, etc…  But a game is none of these things individually – there is still a clear goal to achieve in playing; whether that’s to solve a puzzle in Braid or collect all the petals in Flower.

I’m sure there are counterarguments to my counterarguments, but any attempts at changing my mind on this subject would be futile.  I don’t believe that games are art and that is that.  What is more important is that I don’t care if other people perceive them as such.

According to the ESA the average video gamer is 37 years old and has been playing for at least 12 years.  While this includes older folks puttering around on electronic solitaire it cannot be doubted that video games are no longer being played almost exclusively by children.  The Nintendo generation has grown up and has become the economic backbone of the industry, purchasing games not only for themselves, but for their children as well.

It is with the aging gamer that thinking of games as art becomes important.  Though the Nintendo generation has grown older and is coming into their own, there is still the ever pervasive voice of the baby boomer generation that believes that games are for children.  Like a child trying to prove to their parents that they’ve become an adult and shouldn’t be treated like a baby anymore, the Nintendo generation constantly seeks the approval of those that spawned them by proving that their hobbies are no longer childish, but have evolved into something more mature and socially acceptable.  By stating that games are art, we’re essentially saying that we’re much more sophisticated than they think we are.

This is why gamers get so worked up over the games as art debate.  When an older statesman like Mr. Ebert comes out and says that games are not and never will be art we take it personally.  The thought is that if Mr. Ebert is right in his thought process then we’re somehow lesser as a generation.  This is the same reason that we are so quick to rabidly jump to the defense of video games at the most minor of slights, even if we should instead admit that there is a problem that does in fact need to be addressed.

And so we clamor that games are art in an attempt to legitimize our hobbies to the older generations and society as a whole.  The problem is that this plan will only succeed when those older generations have died off; their opinions sent to the grave with them.  Why?  Because they have no way to contextualize video games as art.  They are beyond the point of being able to invest in a medium that didn’t mature until they were past caring about it.  They were never the target demographic and never will be.

What gamers should start doing is stop caring so much.  I’m not suggesting that we should stop championing the progressing maturity of our industry, but we need to not take comments from those that don’t know any better so harshly.  The games as art debate will continue on into the future, but we need to stop taking such a hard stance on the subject.  If we continue to enjoy these video games then it shouldn’t matter if they’re ever considered art at all.  Surely, the opinion of an archaic film critic shouldn’t matter.  Who is Roger Ebert to you or I?

So are games art?  I don’t think so, but I honestly don’t care one way or another.  Being able to gaze upon the corpse of a Sega Genesis or a Sony PlayStation behind panes of glass in a museum may amuse me, but it won’t make me feel vindicated in my choice of hobby.  I’ll continue to enjoy games regardless of whether or not they’re held in the same esteem as the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Cinema Paradiso and you should too.

* "Vincent van Gordon" image credited to Drew Northcott.  You can check out more of his art here.

Want to hear more on this subject?  Check out PixlTalk Episode 55!




02/23/2012 at 10:07 PM

Hey-oh! I started writing a lengthy comment on my thoughts of games as art and people who say they can never be art. I also wrote out where I differ with you, how I'm similar, how I'd defend my point of view, and even how I'd defend your point of view Jesse. I ended up posting "the big one" on the Pixltalk discussion, but I still wanted to come by over here and talk about it too. Since I got the bulk of those thoughts all out in the Pixltalk thread I wanted to come over here with the more important questions and distilled thoughts. By the way, awesome article, you made some amazing points and I think it'll really get people thinking.

What is art to you Jesse? I would say "what is your definition of art" but it would be contrary to all the logic I attempted to construct in the bigger Pixltalk comment. I think game design is an art and some games I have can be considered art, but that isn't a universal truth, just a personal one. With that said I want to know all about what your personal truth is Jesse. The way you compared board games, tv, movies, and book to video games and saw them as entertainment and not art as a whole was fascinating. I interpretted your statements and came up with an explanation to help expand upon it, basically defending your point of view. So, look at any game that is based on the player gaining points. Like getting kills in CoD or coins in Mario. CoD is a game, now compare it to another game like ball-in-a-cup (ball attached to string attached to stick with a cup on top, point being to swing the ball around and catch it in the cup). One game takes very little time and money to develop, one takes millions of dollars and a team of a hundred. In CoD you kill for points, with ball-in-a-cup you put the ball in the cup and compete with friend to see who can catch the ball the most.

CoD isn't considered as art by many people, but there is plenty of artwork behind it (enironment artists and character artists are called artists for nothing). Now, just because there is beautiful and legitimate artwork making up the game, does that make the game as a whole, art? I don't think so, the artwork is great and deserves love, the game is a ton of fun for me, but the game as a whole isn't art to me. It's a fun game, not unlike ball-in-a-cup.

Ball-in-a-cup has me doing some task and I can count points and just play the game for what it is, not unlike CoD. If I go on the internet and print out a picture of a beautiful Da Vinci painting, take the piece of paper with the artistic picture on it, and super glue it to the ball-in-cup toy, does that make ball-in-a-cup art? I don't think so, it would feel silly to do so. The toy would have art as a part of it, but alltogether it's not a piece of art to me personally.

That was ridiculous, leave it to me to compare CoD and ball-in-a-cup, and involve super gluing shit together. I asked you what is art to you, but if you asked me the same question I wouldn't be able to answer it. I can tell you what comes to mind when I try to associate games with art.

Remember back on 1UP when you did the article My Journey Through Hyrule? About your experience with Zelda and how the gaming experience was tied to your sister and her Leukemia? That was the single most beautiful and heartwrenching thing I've ever read in my entire life and I'm not just trying to kiss your ass because I like you so much. The article by itself was art, it transcended everything I thought I knew about Zelda, it engaged me emotionally in ways that the vast majority of movies, games, books, or just other blogs and articles don't. I'm a huge Zelda fan and sometime after your Journey to Hyrule article I did a blog called 'when video games began mattering to me' (by the time I joined Pixlbit I had written just a couple blogs on 1UP and I've been wondering if I should post them up here as well because they were important to me, I think I'm going to put it up here after this) and it involved my first experiences with Zelda, how it became art to me, and how it affected my view of games. I went from seeing all my games as just toys to pass time, to seeing some of my games as art.

One of the reasons Zelda became art to me and therefore opened up my mind to games being capable of art was because I felt like I was the one saving Hyrule. The character and world mattered to me. I wasn't just Sub-Zero beating the shit out of Scorpion, or Donkey Kong running around Donkey Kong Country collecting junk. Link was a child just like me and I looked over at him as a kind of stoic, selfless hero. I think the story and characters of Zelda had a postive impact on me back in those early years of my life. I saw myself in Link, I saw Link in me, and created an entire set of values and emotions for us both to act upon. We never boasted, cheated, commited crimes, or demanded payment or praise, never even got the girl, we just did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. When I finally drove the Master Sword through Ganon's skull at the end of Ocarina of Time and saw the credits roll as Link rides away alone on his horse with no need for riches or worship I cried and felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment because I felt like I had really been a part of that world and saved it, and did it the most virtuous way.

Real life can rarely make me feel that important, emotional, and accomplished but somehow this software on a cartridge did. The experience of OoT transcended all the life experience and intellect I had at that young age and gave me something...different, new, something that was just somehow art, for lack of a better term. It stretched my emotional intelligence and engaged me in ways that different types of "art" seem to for other people.

Jesse Miller Staff Writer

02/24/2012 at 04:35 PM

Hey Mike, thanks for the love regarding the Zelda piece I wrote at 1up a while ago.  It was a tough piece to write and I was happy that it was well received by that community and continues to be appreciated.  It is an honor to know that it was taken to heart by you and I am humbled that you would consider the work art in any fashion.

As for my personal definition of art, that is a much more complex question than it may imply.  I answered this as best I could in the related podcast, though even that answer isn't as clear as I would like it to be.  

Art to me is something that transports the recipiant without any interaction necessary.  So while I can appreciate the art within a videogame, my interaction with it prevents me from saying that my playing with the game is art.  

I think this is the part that most people get stuck on.  Because it takes art to make video games (concept art, story boards, plot, dialogue, music, costumes, graphics, FMV, etc....) that it must be that games are art.  I challenge that, because I believe that I can appreciate the art that went into creating the game, but that as a whole the game isn't art.  It takes art to create the game, but in the end it's a game.

Sports teams have artistic logos, the buildings they play in are architectual wonders, they have fight songs, etc...but playing football is not art (to most).  Neither is baseball, hockey, soccer, etc..., yet these all have artistic elements to help create the greater whole.

I'm going to leave it at that, since I could write another editorial on that subject, but I think you get the idea ;)


02/24/2012 at 02:06 AM

Its a tough call. The word 'art' has gone to redefine itself over the past centuries or so. Its funny that while Mr.Ebert said that games couldn't be art, yet his medium of choice, film is. It comes off as hypocritical in some ways.

No doubt that Ebert's antecedents regarded movies, 'moving pictures' as trite and a waste of time. I'm paraphrasing Movie Bob aka the Gameoverthinker( which discusses this issue on Screwattack), but they wouldn't consider movies art, since it was a collabrative effort, instead of an novelist, painter, sculptor, who takes sole credit for their creation.  The movie auteurs then had to spin the defination that its the director's vision that brings the movie to life. Still, there are producers, actors, hair and make-up artist (which begs the question: Are they artists?), special effects people etc that make a film engaging. Art got redefined.

To take it a step further, Mr.Eberts detractors would probably tell him to read a book, check out the classics from medieval literature, to surrealist poems, that is if they were hip that bag on the latter. Those old crusts in turn, back in their youth, were probably told to put down that Dickens, Mark Twain, Cervantes, as they were considered at best, nonsensical, or worst, tools to subvert the youth. Get the picture?

It seems that through time, things that we know consider art, weren't always held in high regard in their time. The case with video and computer games, is that they've come a long way in such a relative amount of time. From the Odessy in '72, to the present, we went from proof of concept 'wow, we CAN interact with our televisions/monitors' to day a wide range of styles of ranging from mainstream blockbuster, to quirky off-beat titles. That'd be like if in film, they went from the silent films of the late 19th, early 20th century, to 3d, CGI films in the span of 1.5/ 2 generations. There's some growing pains to be had, and some reflecting to do.

The tl;dr version? Again, I share some of Gameoverthinker's sentiments that yes, games can be art and that for our generation the word 'art' got redefined, but it is good art? Not all the time...

Esteban Cuevas Staff Alumnus

02/25/2012 at 07:05 AM

Finally found the time to read this, Jesse. Excellent work! At the risk of pondering on this subject further, the more I've thought about this subject, the more I've noticed how much I agree with the point you've made about there always be a main objective to games and how that hinders video games being considered art. That truly is something that offsets a lot of what could be considered artistic. I still feel games can be art but now I think that when they are, it is despite that title's main point or objective.

Oh and semantics I'm sure but I hate it when video games are called toys. The word toys implies they are only for children and are not to be taken seriously. They're entertainment, that's to be sure, but not childish play things. This is probably me being reactionary but well, there you go.

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