Not completely unpopular

Games As Art

Perhaps you’ve seen the presentation from Kellee Santiago at TED about how games should be considered art or maybe the response from Roger Ebert about how video games cannot by their definition be art.  The folks over at Slashdot responded predictably, fuming with nerd-rage at how a movie critic could be so wrong.  Near the end of Ebert’s post, he asks probably the most important question overlooked in the conversation; why is it so important that video games be recognized as art?  It’s a valid question.  I’d like to go one step further.

Why do we, as a geek culture, need any further validation?  Secondly, isn’t Ebert right?

Maybe it’s our lot in life, to always seek some sort of honest approval of others.  More than ever, it seems that as geeks, our time is here, that life itself has validated the geek culture and there’s some level of acceptance on a cosmic level.  Computers are rife in society and those who have the skills are often called upon to display their wizardry to those not as gifted.  Comic book movies get occasionally considered for prestigious awards.  We have a President who not only has greeted people with the Vulcan salute, but has been photographed brandishing a toy lightsaber.  Surely, our time has come.

But video games as art?  Ebert is right.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any games that could be considered art.  The video game Braid was mentioned in the Santiago presentation and while there is an interesting story and subplot running through the game, it’s difficult to argue that it elevates itself enough so it is considered art.  Perhaps Bioshock could be considered as it’s an interesting exploration of the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, but 90% of the game is spent as a first-person shooter.

Arguments could be made that there is a lot of art in a game already, from the music to the artwork, each of them put together as a whole could constitute a work of art.  To me, it’s a lot like pro sporting events where you have an arena with architectural design with the music they play at the game, but in the end, it all surrounds the game which is attempting to achieve an objective.  I believe once you have an objective, it qualifies as a game and excludes it as art.  This is not a bad thing, but let’s not redefine art just because we want it to be so.

Ebert makes the point that someday video games might be art…but not in our lifetimes.  He’s likely right on this point as well.  Video games have some of the pieces to be a work of art, but none has entered into the sublime yet.  In my opinion, none have even gotten close.  That’s not to say a game cannot make you think or have hidden meaning, but it just doesn’t have the impact of what we consider to be art today.

We shouldn’t strive to make video games art anyway.  It’s hard enough now finding a game that’s actually fun to play, how about we solve that problem first and then we can move on to creating art.  But if we continue on trying to make games that serve some sort of artful aesthetic, why are we making video games in the first place?  Then we’ve somehow moved on to some sort of digital artist and have removed audience enjoyment as a part of the equation.  People creating games should not start from “how can we make this beautiful or evocative” or “what societal issues should we take on”, but rather with the simple statement, “let’s make it fun first” and keep a game tooled to what it was meant to do…entertain.


  1. Once again I have to disagree with you. “Art” is a highly subjective thing individual to each participant in it. If you look at the Webster’s definition.

    Main Entry: 2art
    Pronunciation: \ˈärt\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin art-, ars — more at arm
    Date: 13th century
    1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
    2 a : a branch of learning: (1) : one of the humanities (2) plural : liberal arts b archaic : learning, scholarship
    3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill
    4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced b (1) : fine arts (2) : one of the fine arts (3) : a graphic art
    5 a archaic : a skillful plan b : the quality or state of being artful
    6 : decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter

    We’re obviously talking about 4 here, so let’s take a look at fine arts as well.

    Main Entry: fine art
    Function: noun
    Date: 1739
    1 a : art (as painting, sculpture, or music) concerned primarily with the creation of beautiful objects —usually used in plural b : objects of fine art
    2 : an activity requiring a fine skill

    So by definition widely held “arts” like theater, dance, photography, and film aren’t “art” either, or the same arguments to classify them could also apply to games.

    “Art” lives in this nebulous grey cloud with porn, a good meal, and friendship where the only real definition is “I know it when I see it.” It’s individual and subjective. It grows out of the common consciousness. When enough of us recognize something as a work of art, it becomes one. Regardless of what the creator’s intentions were, or the minority that still thinks it’s crap.

    I appreciate the masterworks, I’ve been in Gothic cathedrals, but because I didn’t have a transcendent moment looking at them should they not be qualified as art? I personally think Andy Warhol was a very talented and disturbed man and perhaps in the context of the time he created art. I see his work now and think he would be Ed Hardy. J and I watch “art” films on IFC and Sundance and without fail, after watching something that I truly enjoyed and “got” she will ask for her 90 minutes back. I’m captivated by most of Annie Leibovitz’s work. Her John and Yoko bed photo in particular. Most just find that one creepy.

    I however am not the arbiter of this question. Neither is Roger Ebert. Neither are you. Nor is the NEA, the religious groups that get cranky whenever someone does something with their iconography, or anyone else who routinely tries to tell civilization what art is and isn’t.

    I don’t disagree that games as a whole aren’t there yet, but neither is film or photography. For every Fellini film, there are 1000 Air Buds. For every Ansel Adams there are millions of soccer moms and thousands of TMZ guys. Those “art” forms have been around for a century give or take. We’ve had 30 years with games? We’re still cave painting here. DaVinci may be a way off, but it’s still “art”. Let’s not deny the spark is there, and in the top 1% what would detract from a game being “art” is overwhelmed by what is.

    The story telling that Bioware does is miles ahead of most film. The forced shift of perspective reality in Echochrome would make Escher proud. Darksider’s ,while a horrible game, would be taught next to Dante if it had been written as an epic poem hundreds of years ago. Maybe every piece doesn’t coalesce into obvious “art” but in the cream of the crop, enough of them do that they qualify.

    The best example of this is Portal. The graphics weren’t art, the sound wasn’t art, nor was the level design, character development, or story, but for however brief a moment there was a connection to what was possible, a connection with the designers , a connection with the idea. The thing that all artists strive for whether it’s in song writing, acting, painting, whatever, is to connect with and affect someone else. And that is very alive in games.

  2. You make some good points. Bioware seems to be light years ahead of everyone else, but they also make clear that they consider the story the central pillar of good gaming. Star Wars:TOR is a good example considering they went with a stylized realism with their character art rather than a best attempt realism as a point that they didn’t want a distraction from the stories they were crafting. Reminds me of Planescape : Torment and it’s fascinating story. Still, it’s going to be some time before we have something where it will actually elevate the form, at least in my eyes.

    You could construct a beautiful board game, hand carve all of the pieces and lovingly present them in some tableau, but the experience doesn’t happen until one interacts with those pieces. It is the same with video games, that it can’t be impassively appreciated, that it requires interaction to fulfill its objective. There are rules, there are points and or an objective to be achieved. I believe that it is in that interaction that moves it from possibly being art to being a game…which is not a bad thing, just different.

    As for Portal, I have a soft spot in my heart for it as I feel it has been the best game in the last several years. Is it art? Who knows.

    You make an excellent point that art is subjective and it does more or less lie in that “I’ll know it when I see it” realm. Still, I don’t see why it’s important that people consider video games art. It’s a validation I feel that we don’t need and it really doesn’t serve anything except self-interest. Mainstream acceptance shouldn’t be that important.

    Excellent response, though. Well reasoned and erudite.

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