Can video games be categorized as art?
On one side we have modern artists who won’t mind categorizing anything as art such as a shark preserved in formaldehyde or cubes filled with New York city’s Garbage.
On the other side, we have the late Roger Ebert, the famous film critic who argued that video games can never be art because they are simply games, and the difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and a clear outcome.
Are video games games or art?
What is art and what is a game?
The Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein once said that “although all games have overlapping similarities, there is nothing in common between all of them”
In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that the elements of games, such as play, rules, and competition, all fail to adequately define what games are.
Art, games, love, stupidity, and Beauty are all words and concepts we use in our daily lives that we find extremely hard to define but that never stops us from using them and making judgments about them.
If someone said that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vivaldi’s four seasons are not works of art we would think that this person is absurd. There is an intrinsic value to these works that makes us instantly and throughout the centuries recognize them as works of art without actually being able to define what that value is, at least not with words and language. it might be beauty and pleasure as Kant and Hume argue or something bigger than that.
In my opinion, the task of defining Video games as art now is way more complicated than any other time in history, In the modern-day people, to a certain extent, follow what authorities define as a work of art.
A museum displays Tracey Emin’s bed as a work of art and so it is accepted by the public as art .
If construction workers left a bunch of bricks lying around and didn’t bother about them, people wouldn’t pay any attention to the bricks but when Carl Andre made a rectangular arrangement of bricks in the 70s they were accepted as art and later purchased by the tate museum in London.
Two years ago a student put his glasses on the floor at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for fifteen minutes to see how people would react. The visitors were starting to overthink the significance and meaning of the glasses, while the real meaning was a total mockery of the modern definitions of art intending to show the visitors that the emperor has no clothes.. but no one dares to criticise modern definitions of art because everybody is afraid of looking less cultured and educated by committing the crime of not seeing any artistic value in Marcel Duchamp’s urinal or whatever Damien Hirst is making these days.
The American philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto very critically summarised the situation in the last chapter of his book “what art is” as follows:
“Today art can be made of anything. Put together with anything, in the service of presenting any ideas whatsoever. such a development puts great interpretive pressures on viewers to grasp the way the spirit of the artist undertook to present the ideas that concerned her or him”
I think modern-day artistic authorities, represented by critics and museum administrations have lost the compass when it comes to defining art and to leave the task of deciding if video games can be art to them would be the wrong choice.
We need to accept some ideas and concepts to define games as art. For example; for a medium to be artistic it needs to provide a unique quality unavailable in all the other mediums.
Music has melodies, poetry has words, painting has static visual images and theater plays have performances.
By using this logic we will able to conclude that steamed milk poured in a pattern on top of a latte, for example, is not a unique artistic field, it simply replaces the canvas with a cup of coffee, the colors with milk and coffee, and the brush with the jug. In that sense, drawing on a latte is not that different from using a paper and a pencil instead of a canvas and a brush.
Is there an artistic value that is unique to games?
I notice that, when talking about art in video games, people usually bring up the examples of journey, flower, shadow of the Colossus and the last of us.
Beautiful games, but what people actually mean by art in these games is the representation of objects and characters.
These values, in these games, do not provide anything unique that only exists in games as a medium. CG movies use the same tools to achieve even more appealing representations of characters and objects. Good storytelling in games like The Last of Us is a quality borrowed from literature, and beautiful environments and surroundings in games are also not unique to games, a whole artistic epoch in art; romanticism devoted most of its talents’ time to drawing these types of surroundings.
I’m not arguing that these qualities in games are of no artistic value but that there’s nothing about them that is unique to gaming as a medium.
What is unique to video games is the connection between the viewer and the medium, the interactivity between our feelings, emotions and saving a loved character for example.
our ability to change the course of events in a game is something unique to the medium. Deciding to pull the trigger and kill the boss in metal gear 3 is unique to this medium. Snake could be standing there for hours waiting for the player to pull the trigger.
This interactivity is not available in movies, music, literature or any other work of art. making the viewer an active member of the experience and not simply a passive receiver of the work is what makes some games artistically unique.
So my answer to Roger Ebert is, No, not all video games are games. if you simply define a game by the fact that It has rules, points, objectives, and a clear outcome, then you might apply that to Mario Kart, Hearthstone and counter strike.
But how can ou say that about a game like what remains of Edith finch? There are no rules, points or planned outcome. Far from that, it is an experience that calms the soul and brings us all together in appreciation of its ability to actively connect us with the work of the artist and make us, the players, part of the work itself.
Currently, games are still taking baby steps towards becoming an established field of art and the interactivity we talk about here is still limited in the vast majority of games, in one way or another, to survival and killing. games like Gone home and Flower are showing us a unique way of interacting that we as a gaming community should applaud and encourage.
Maybe video games won’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to art but they are definitely capable of dipping it in gold by borrowing satisfying aesthetics from paintings, rich storytelling from literature, powerful performances from theaters and adding the magical touch of interactivity between the player and the work to create a unique experience unavailable in any other medium.
I don’t want the message and conclusion here to be that game developers should focus only on interactivity and mechanics because it’s the one thing that is unique to the medium and ignore aesthetics in games.
It would be like the architectural crime of modernist architects of the last century who designed under the motto – Form follows function – which led to some of the ugliest buildings in our cities.
The modernist approach focused on functionality and saw aesthetics as secondary. These building stand empty today waiting to be demolished reminding us that “put functionality first and you lose both form and function, but put beauty first and you win both”
Game developers should learn from the architects’ mistakes and focus on both game mechanics and aesthetics in their creations.
otherwise, people like Roger Ebert will continue to claim that Video games can never be art.
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