Monday, May 3, 2010

Are Videogames Art?

Instead of doing my usual rant about God or religion or politics I'm going to write something fun and lighthearted. I hope you enjoy.

There's been a lot of conversation recently about whether or not videogames are, or can ever be, art. I happen to believe that videogames should be considered art, but I understand why some people disagree. Today I'm going to talk about some of the more common reasons why videogames aren't considered art.

1) It's interactive, so it can't be art.

This is one of the most basic objections. I like it because it cuts right to the underlying question: How do we define art? For some people, anything that requires interaction beyond just passive observation is, by definition, not art.

Of course, not all artists agree to this definition. A quick video search for "interactive art" on google turns up some interesting results. I don't know if they truly are "art" but they certainly are interesting.

I've seen a lot of people argue that it's obvious that games are art. Great games have well written stories, beautiful scenery, interesting characters, an engaging plot and beautiful animation. How can they not be art?

The answer usually has something to do with interactivity. Those qualities I mentioned above, writing, scenery, characters, they are nice, but they're not interactive.

Interactivity is what makes a game a game. Without interactivity that's designed to challenge the player, it isn't a game. If the interactivity doesn't have some artistic value, then the game isn't really art. It's an artistic movie that won't play correctly until the user presses the right button sequences.

So in order for games to be art, the interactivity has to heighten the artistic experience somehow.

2) I don't appreciate what's going on, so it's not art.

The fact that games are interactive is also the main reason why a lot of people, like Roger Ebert, will never accept that games can be art. In order to grok how games can be art, they have to play the darn things.

As I said above, it's not just that games are interactive, they're interactive in a way that's meant to challenge the player. Most games require a considerable amount of skill in order to be fully appreciated. Someone who's new to videogames can't just sit down and play, let's say, half-life and become immersed in the story. They're going to need a few hours to get used to using the wasd keys to move and the mouse to look around.

For this reason, it's hard for outsiders to get into games. They don't know how to interface with the medium, so they can't appreciate it.

This challenge is not unique to games, but it is more severe with videogames than with other mediums. Plays and movies require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in order to be appreciated, but they don't require a whole new skill set.

3) Games and Art are two different things.

This is also related to the issue of interactivity. Part of the difficulty games face in being accepted as a legitimate medium is that they're trying to be two things at once.

Multiplayer games like Starcraft or Modern Warfare provide an opportunity for players to compete with one another to test their skills. They're similar to traditional games like chess or football. Most people don't consider chess to be a work of art, despite the fact that it is an elegantly simple game that is extremely challenging to master.

To make matters worse, we can't neatly sort games into those two categories. Starcraft and Modern Warfare both have single player portions that tell a story. They're trying to be "art" while at the same time still trying to be a "game".

These are the major reasons why videogames often aren't considered art. At some point in the future I'll write some more about why I think games can and should be considered art. In the meantime, can you think of any arguments I missed? Or maybe you just want to share your own opinion on whether or not games are art.


  1. The definition of art has changed a lot in the 20th Century. In academia, they teach that art is supposed to challenge something; just because something is pretty doesn't make it art. Art should somehow do more than just entertain our senses. On the contrary, most games out there are made to entertain and no more. Very few games out there--even among AAA titles--manage to entertain and say something significant about the upside and downside of being human.

  2. You make a good point. Most games that get made fail to do more than simply entertain. Some games aren't meant to challenge anything; they only exist to entertain. Other games try to challenge something and fail miserably.

    Dead Rising comes to mind here. It seems like they were trying to make a thoughtful critique of the American way of life, but instead it comes across as a ham-fisted, nonsensical, confused, and poorly thought out political message. Still a fun game though. :)

    I also wonder how well the modern definition of art works if we apply it to classical works. For example, what does the Mona Lisa challenge? I think sometimes it is enough for a work of art to simply be beautiful.

    Of course, the whole problem with the "games as art" debate is that art is notoriously hard to define.