Are games art?

A few months ago, I got a job working at a well-known game development studio. One of the unique things about the job is that the people I work with all share a passion for gaming. Or at least they had better, because verifying the authenticity of 2,000 soccer uniforms on six different platforms without some affection for the medium ticks most of the boxes on the checklist entitled “Torture: Are we doing it?”

Yes, that is actually my job.

As a result of a cramped office space putting all of our conversations within earshot of 13 other people, private discussions often evolve into spirited, office wide debates that spread like wildfire from person to person and team to team. The “Is a hotdog a sandwich?” outbreak of July 2010 was previously thought as the high watermark for contentious issues. But then someone asked the art question, and that all changed. Unlike the hotdogs-as-sandwiches debate, where allegiances were still fluid, and discoveries took place in real time (the inexistence of a “club hotdog” being a triumph to the conservative side), people here were already entrenched in their positions.

As you would imagine, a demographic of people who make video games for a living overwhelmingly fell in the “games are art” camp.  Most had thoroughly prepared arguments to support their view, probably because they had done a lot of reading on the subject over the last couple of years since an inciting incident took place.

The incident was a blog post saying that games are not, and could never be art. Why did anyone care? I guess because the author was noted film critic Roger Ebert.

Ebert has since rescinded his original claim that games could never be art, and has adopted a milder stance – that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” He contends that a game's nature – the direct interaction from a player to alter its outcomes – removes the authorial intent that he feels defines art.

Ebert’s words drew a lot of ire, especially as he openly boasted that he had never played a video game. Articles in refute often cited the analogy that it wasn’t so long ago that Ebert’s beloved medium of film found itself at the base of an identical discussion. Others argued on the basis of the youth of games as a medium. Kellee Santiago, a game designer at Thatgamecompany, argued that the video games of today are the equivalent of the paintings early humans left on cave walls. Just as these painting eventually became sophisticated and gave us the likes of the Sistine Chapel, games would one day have their own renaissance.

Three years ago, I sat in on a Q&A session at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle. A'ing the Q's were Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, co-creators of the webcomic Penny Arcade and co-founders of the nation’s largest gaming festival that bears the same name, in addition to placing 46th on Time magazine’s Time 100 list, a poll rating the world’s most influential people. It is nigh impossible to articulate their stature outside of a run on sentence.

Now, most of the questions that are asked of these two tend to skew vertically on the fan-service axis, as longtime readers plug obscure reference X or wonder when the comic will touch upon niche character Y. At least once a year, someone just tells Jerry to sing. However, this session was being held around the same time that Ebert’s inflammatory blog entry was making its rounds, which allowed some thoughtful questions to sneak in. While Holkins and Krahulik had both already dismissed Ebert’s musings as nothing but the quixotic ramblings of a cultural dinosaur, an attendee asked the pair what games they would have Ebert play to change his mind. The three titles provided echoed the sentiments of many in the audience, who collectively roared in approval of Shadow of the Colossus, Ico and Braid.

These games share a number of common traits, but the most apparent is how they are presented. For one, none of them provide a heads-up display (HUD). For those of you with significant others or gainful employment, the HUD consists of any on screen data shown during game play, like the hearts that indicate a player’s health in Zelda or the score in Asteroids. Almost all games have one. The thinking behind removing the HUD is that all these numbers and icons serve only to break the fourth wall, which risks ruining the player’s sense of immersion. Its absence also makes games appear more cinematic, without all of those numbers and bars cluttering up the screen.

This trio of games also minimizes or entirely eliminates the use of menus during gameplay for the same reasons. This is something I find really troubling for the pro-art side – that these elements make games look more and more like movies. To put it more provocatively: The less a video game resembles a video game, the more artistic credibility it seems to garner.

I think the question is fundamentally flawed. Is film art? I doubt you even took a moment to consider the question before the teleprompter in your mind read, “Yes!” in a bold, sans-serif typeface. Of course it is. But is an instructional Pilates DVD art? The on-set producer of your mind may struggle with this bait-and-switch, hesitating to whisper encouragement in your earpiece. And the makeup artist, well, I don’t know what a makeup artist would represent in this scenario. I just wanted to flesh out this newsroom metaphor a little bit.

So that instructional DVD: probably not art. It’s no closer to the work of Kubrick than the owner’s manual of my 1992 Hyundai Xcel is to Kafka. Neither of these premises change one’s perception of the artistic validity of the medium they belong to, but that’s kind of the point. Not all games are art – a lot of games aren’t. If you want to go full-on SSJ4 contrarian, maybe none have fully crossed that line yet. But provided that not all film and not all literature qualify as art, then it is patently absurd to demand a strict yes or no policy in the games-as-art debate. Just as we consider the artistic value of a movie or piece of writing or a urinal (had I the means, this would hyperlink to Duchamp's “Fountain” [it’s a piece of found art that is just a signed urinal (seriously, read a book)]) on an individual basis, so too do games deserve the same treatment.
The question shouldn’t be “Are games art?” It should be “Is this game art?”

Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves that they have a better idea –John Ciardi

//Jordan Potter
Jordan Potter is the Courier's Managing Editor. He has been passionate about video games for a long time but has seldom been encouraged to talk about them in public. We have freed his inner Blanka. His surprisingly eloquent inner Blanka.

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com