Are Video Games Art?

I’ve been quite hesitant to post on this topic because it’s one of those items better served as a conversation piece over dinner rather than as yet another web log post. But as I read countless “me too” game sites calling Roger Ebert wrong or misguided for saying that video games are not art, I have to chime in and say, “You know what? He’s right.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are many elements of artistry in any given game. But as a whole, games are not art. They’re games.

When I play Grand Theft: Auto, I’m not sitting back and admiring the creation of an immense, realistic city; I’m more likely cursing at the TV because I had to re-do a mission for the 5th time. When I play Super Mario Bros. Wii, I’m not actively appreciating the color palette; I’m concentrating on jumping over a pit onto a small ledge without falling off or pushing Candice or Lisa off that small ledge. When I play Braid, I’m not worried about where the story might lead; I’m worried about how to navigate the next puzzle.

Games are made up of individual components of artistry. There is artistry in the conversation you see between two characters. There is artistry in the look of those two characters — and the set they exist on. There is artistry in the music that plays in the background as these two speak. There is artistry in the effort of bringing it all together. And when I think back on the experience of playing a game, I do feel “affected” as I might with some piece of art or movie.

Those moments of artistry aren’t the video game. They are elements of the game — the game you play. But they aren’t the game. If video games were just stories, they’d be Final Fantasy boring. Instead, we play the game and along the way we are rewarded with bits of artistry. And then, after we’re finished with the game, we think back and latch onto the art.

Is that bad? No. Video games are wonderful things. Every game represents an experience that may end up treasured. Developers should be very proud of what they accomplish. But they shouldn’t call it art.

7 thoughts on “Are Video Games Art?

  1. I must most respectfully disagree.

    If a movie is art, then games are by far art. The difference is that a game is interactive where a movie is passive.

    A movie is designed to capture the audience’s attention and hold it. Same with a game. They have some common tricks, and they have some different ones to accomplish that (I’ve yet to play a game that can be as emotionally engaging as a movie).

    You watch a movie to catch the details and subtleties you might have missed the first time. Same with a game – both have replay value.

    There is direction, production, and a team of people behind both mediums.

    There is so much to appreciate in video games (old and new). Hell, playing Half Life 2 freaked me out just by walking through the environment – that’s not art? Then what are horror movies?

    Are choose your own adventure books not art?

    I think Ebert is wrong. I would almost argue that most movies aren’t even art because they are just different actors playing out the same tired plots that are designed to make us slack our jaws and distract us from our lives slipping away. There’s nothing creative about those movies (95% of anything Hollywood makes) – it’s literally the same fucking plots with different actors.

    Now you’ve get me all worked up.

  2. Would I call a movie art? That’s a good question. And I think you’re now asking it, too.

    I remember in school someone saying (they said it more eloquently than what I’m about to say) that the business of Hollywood is an art, but the art of Hollywood is a business. Hm. It’s all so gray. Muddled. And what to think about that passive/interactive entertainment? Does it impact the equation?

    There’s art, and there’s technical skill or craftsmanship. There are so many hands in the process, the hands of artists, and craftsman, yet there’s a driving force at the top — a vision. An artistic vision? Is Casey “Michelangelo”? There are definitely parallels to video games we can draw from, but the question of perception remains of each.

    All questions lead to one, and it’s the one with which I most struggle: how do we define art? Is art an expression of creativity? (What’s creativity?) And is it dependent upon its relationship with its audience? Is “up, up, down, down, left, right, [B], [A], [start]” art? Does that combo resonate across the universe? Or is the cutscene that fires after I successfully (finally, on my 7th try) nail the combo the only art? Or maybe it becomes art if I watch you play…

  3. One other comment, and maybe I’m repeating myself… let’s use the Ebert referenced definition… a way of arranging elements in an appealing way. He reasons that chess fits the definition. But if I find it most appealing to have all the pieces in their initial formations (the battle about to be waged), then starting the game disrupts the appeal. If the fluidity of the board’s pieces is the appeal, then you and I become the artists while we play. If the game is the appeal, then we become part of the art itself.

    And now I’m stuck on Synechdoche, NY. If you haven’t seen it, think Matryoshka dolls as movies within movies.

    PS I don’t completely dispute the possibility that I’m over-complicating this and everything is art.

  4. I read where you are coming from.

    With movies, I think your friend was just trying to be clever. Everybody likes a line like that WHERE THE WHOLE WORLD IS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN.

    Like, is a play art? A movie is just a play on a bigger stage caught on film. Why would it cease being art if it’s recorded and not live? Ask him that. If he hasn’t seen you in twenty years, then at least he’ll have the satisfaction of thinking he’s profoundly affected your life.

    At first I was going to agree that art could be reduced to anything that is a creative expression (even a controlled-release fart could be art by that definition). But what if the viewer of something totally random (and not intended by the creator to be art…like maybe something he threw out in the landfill that happen to get bent and twisted into something interesting to the viewer) is interpreted as art by the viewer?

    I wonder if you are right, then, that everything is art because the definition is so nebulous.

  5. If everything is art, including the object of a “What did I eat last night?!” observation, then art as a label is irrelevant and not worth debating. If we want to acknowledge actual standards for art, standards of emotional response and life lessons that carry across all or most people, then I don’t see how we can label crouch-cover-aim-shoot-reload as art. To whom does the latter speak? What does it say to us? Is it universal, or does it at least speak to a significantly-sized group? Is immersion art?

  6. At The Escapist, people are debating which game is most representative of “art” games. The answers are all over the place: Jade Empire because of the story; Assassin’s Creed 2 because of the smooth player animations as you run around; Flower because it’s a relaxing game; Portal because it’s a new design concept; Myst because the scenes look nice; BioShock because of it’s themed style; Silent Hill or The Dig because of the sound/sound track. I have trouble reconciling those reasons with the word “art” in reference to “game” as anything other than a subset of the game.

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