Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Videogames Aren't Art*

Posted on October 10, 2012 at 10:55 PM

Videogames Aren't Art *

*at least not right now...

Uh oh, did I really just use that for a title?

I love movies. I love videogames. That's why I started this blog: to celebrate both. My history of loving videogames goes back further than my love of film, but my love of film supersedes my love of videogames. In both cases, however, I never doubt one thing: both are art.

So, let me retract my title..or at least put a little asterisk on it.

Videogames Aren't Art*

*At least not right now...

Let me clarify, videogames are certainly art. By the mere definition of what art is, they are. It's creative expression and is a term that has undergone many different definitions over the years to include new mediums to be looked at on their artistic merits. So why not videogames? There's talent, skill, creativity, imagination and all those wonderful things from the artistic side of the human mind brought together to create something new. 

But, often, the argument comes from whether or not videogames should be considered as art even if, from a "Webster dictionary definition" standpoint it is. As I said, going by the simplest definition and looking at the history of what the term has been inclusive of over its history, most notably film - the closest relative to videogames and something that shares a similar history in that it took a while to be take seriously - then saying games aren't art is foolish, right? Those that say videogames are art and have artistic merits are right, others that say otherwise are disassociated with it and "don't get it" - usually an older generation that ironically scoff at how foolish our society was to ban books and take decades to ever approach the movies are more than just passing entertainment for your dime at the nickelodeon.

But there's one aspect to the whole thing that nobody brings up. You see, the videogame community considers games art - everyone else in the world kind of mulls around it and sees it as just this thing people play in the same vein as Clue or Chess or Horseshoes. It's a game, not an artform. That's their argument, and it's not a horrible one, it's simply short sighted - both forward because it's incredibly obvious videogames are going to become large and bigger in our society than they already are, and backwards in that it shows a lack of understanding in how art has changed in views over the years. Again, most notably in film.

What the videogame community, and by that I mean the players and the bloggers and the writers and the reviewers, have failed to realize is that the reason why videogames aren't universally accepted as art, to a point where even considering a debate would be laughed it in the same way we'd laugh at someone claiming Van Gogh's Starry Night or John Ford's The Searchers aren't art, has nothing to do with the videogames themselves. It has to do with them.

It's Not Just the Games, It's the People

I used to be a defender as videogames as art. As a product, I think they're there. But I'm no longer rushing to defend it. What is or isn't art is reflective on the people that surround it: and the people that surround videogames are, mostly, as immature as the form of videogames itself. Right now, the videogame community doesn't deserve to be taken seriously which means their videogames shouldn't be either - they want that classification through entitlement, not through intellectual discussion. The community is just as important to have videogames taken seriously as art as the product itself, but why do that when most are only discussing technical merits of PC benchmarks, which games have the best graphics and calling each other racial slurs over Xbox live? Yes, it is the community that is restricting universal acceptance, not those "out of touch" people outside looking in. You want to be taken seriously? Act seriously.

Want your thing validated as art? Put down the controller and make an argument rather than just regurgitating everything and making broad-generalizations.


When film was going under the radar as an artistic form in the 60s, it took groups of film fans to bring it together and educate people. They publish articles and analyzed the artistic merits, even turned the entire approach to film on its head by creating the auteur theory which, to this day, is now considered the standard when approaching works by great filmmakers. It took years, and by the time the film-school talents emerged int he 60s and 70s, filmmakers that grew up with movies and began to support these ideas.

Proponents for videogames as art aren't doing any of that. Both the fans of games and the developers themselves, but mainly the enthusiast press. They simply say "Yeah, it's art, and you're wrong to say otherwise" without going into the reasons why or taking a serious approach to it. To discuss art, it means the videogame community needs to grow up just as much as the form itself, and it's just not there yet. I personally find this unacceptable given the attribute of the internet to put that voice out there and it's not being taken advantage of. Instead we have a pool of enthusiasm, but nothing seriously being done. They want it because the way the gaming community works, so installed into the internet, they want that validation that videogames are art and they want it now. The thing is, they just say they want it - they don't really do anything to make it happen. They'll have podcasts and articles and blogs and videos about games as art, but they spend more time talking about why people are wrong to say otherwise rather than why they are right. Putting up the Webster dictionary isn't going to achieve anything and isn't how you get this discussion started. In fact, gamers need to realize they should be having a discussion in the first place. But they don't. They take their ball and go home, which ends up validating the preconceptions of the detractors than prove anything at all.

The Ebert Factor

This whole discussion began a few years back when Roger Ebert, a renowned film critic and a man who, you would think, understands the evolution of art forms, wrote that games will never be art.  As a result, Ebert showed the entire side of an argument that really hadn't had a voice and the article, a straightforward but well-written blog post mind you (it's not like it's an entry in Cahiers du Cinema or some university thesis being pointed out) quickly made it's way through the gaming community. Videos were posted. Blogs were written. Message boards and twitter and facebook all blew up. All saying the same thing: "You're wrong."


That's about the extent of it. No really smart retort. No well-researched and cited response. Gamers just say "you're wrong" and leave it at that, as though that proves something. Even though I think Ebert is short-sighted in his assessment, as far as the present goes I can't really blame him for making that conclusion because the videogame community isn't doing anything to prove him otherwise. They just lambast him on the internet, make him a pariah as an example of an out-of-touch generation and a poster child for a group of people that "don't get it."

Ok, fine. Then what doesn't he and everyone who says that get? What are you doing to say otherwise? He's wrong. Great. Why? There's no reason to be argumentative and defensive, this is a discussion to be had and if you can't grow up and have that discussion, then why are you expecting people to accept games as art in the first place? The gaming community doesn't realize they just kind of proved a point: gamers and gaming and therefore videogames are immature and shouldn't be taken seriously as art in the first place

Opponents to games as art, and one of Ebert's biggest arguments, say interactivity is what restricts games from being art…but why? Is not the creative design of what is or is not interactive in a given medium an artistic expression - telling what someone can or can not do within the form itself while presenting them still an expression of creativity, imagination, themes, and maybe even has something interesting to say that other forms can't say? Then again, where is it written that interacting with something automatically disqualifies it from begin art? Especially when "art" is a relative, ever-re-defining term in the first place? Should we not judge relative to one's own medium instead of compared to others? The end is the interaction itself and the expression of the creativity through said interaction. If anything, I think it's harder to tell a story or present a world whilst implementing interaction than it is to be passively telling it...

Wow. All that I just threw out there. Those are things gamers should be considering and questions that the gaming community needs to decide first on before condemning others - know what your argument is before you argue it... but often they would rather talk about tea bagging and make fun of people on a forum because that haven't released the third game in a series yet.

While it's cool that the Smithsonian has an exhibit called The Art of Video Games, it's more just a history lesson of videogames, not a contribution to the argument that they are works of art. It's up to gamers to construct this argument, not a museum exhibit.


Gamers are why I don't defend games as art anymore. I'm not going to defend it as art anymore because I understand that, from the outside looking in, it just looks like boys with their toys (and girls too ). I can't dislike someone for not seeing the artistic side of it. I don't agree with them, but considering the image gamers put out there and their complete lack of willingness to have a discussion and do something about it, I can't blame them for it either.


It's not about "taking over" the role for one or two people either, it's about an entire community growing up. Let me rephrase it: If the community that's so rushed to defend something isn't going to take it seriously, then why expect anyone else to? Saying "it's art because I say so" isn't going to cut it. Saying "it's art because I say so" is something a fourteen year old would say and more proves how unready the gaming culture is to be taken seriously, which then reflects on videogames as a whole as this not-quite-ready-to-be-taken-seriously medium. If anything, Ebert gave gamers an open door. They could have walked through, sit down and start taking it seriously. Instead they shut door, draw the line, and call it a day.

In other words, this is supposed to be a discussion, not a filibuster. Let critics have their soapbox, lord knows the gaming community should be used to those by now, but take that and do something with it rather than build your own soapbox in the process.

Could you imagine if gamers had the maturity to actually take Ebert's criticism and be intelligent about it? Hell, there's some gaming journalist out there I'm sure would be great in a blog-off debate with Ebert directly, citing the history of art and its various forms or how interactivity isn't a restriction of art but an expression of it. But why do that when you have a new press release from a videogame company touting their awesome new IP? Gotta get those hits on that website somehow, right? Better get there first. Maybe if the gaming press figured out their priorities, fans would follow suit. Or maybe fans should be more outspoken about their representatives in the press that should be carrying the torch in the first place. Either way, the entire community is an immature mess that needs more years of maturity before being taken seriously by art critics across the board.

Patience = Virtue


This goes for fans, gaming press, podcasts, everything. When it matures, then it will be ready. It's about being patient and understanding it's a cycle, but also understanding videogames in their place of that cycle. Film wasn't taken seriously for decades. Rock and roll. Jazz. Forms of poetry and literature. Everything we consider art wasn't called "art" overnight and certainly wasn't called "art" because someone simply said so. It's a cycle, or a timeframe, of maturity of those that came to defend those forms of art over years. Gamers "wanting it now" isn't going to happen unless they simply grow up, understand that cycle, and let it run its course. Plus, if they really want it now...then they should do more to make it happen.


Also, pointing out games you think are "artistic" as some sort of proof doesn't prove anything. The "proof" isn't found in something just because it's "pretty." Nor is it found by the qualifications of other mediums' artistic criteria. Make an argument for videogames based on what videogames do...not what they are like.

But at least the cycle is occurring. Ebert even bringing it up proves that. Right now we're witnessing all those open doors and conversations to be had. Stop worrying about graphical power and "3D" and start opening up a line of discussion. There are those that want it now, but up until about ten years ago were people actually starting to use "videogames" and "art" on a level of actual critical thought. I've read wonderful papers from actual art professors. Colleges have started to approach videogames less on the technical and more on the creative side and offering courses that discuss the artistry of designing them. The conversation is happening, but it's still early and wanting some validity of artistic merit now isn't reasonable no matter how much the gaming community demands it. The final line and determination is a ways off, but I'm thankful it'll be in my lifetime and that little message board posts like this one will be long forgotten and people will say "wow...people actually debated videogames as art?" when I tell it to my children.

In the meantime, I'm accepting of where they are and understand why there are critics of it. However, I'm no longer defending it myself - not because of the games, but because of the gamers. Gamers, and thus videogames, just don't deserve it yet. Until I see an improvement there will I start saying to myself "alright...we're ready." I suppose I'm just overly patient. In other words, this is probably the last I'm going to say on the matter of videogames as art until someone shows me something worth a damn to elevate the discussion rather than say "oh man, let's speculate about the specs of the next Xbox."  Elevate the discussion, you then elevate the community, you then elevate how people look at games and then, and only then, can we have a serious discussion about games as art.


It will eventually get there, but not now (hence the whole added asterisk to the title). Not for another decade at the very least when the generations become older and can get past their own sense of self-entitlement and can string together reasons why they find it artistically valid. Until then, know where it is and especially know where it could be. And if you really want it there, then get beyond how "cool" and "fun" a game is and approach it in a way to push the conversation forward rather than just hitting a wall.

Earn the art title, gamers. Don't just expect it to fall in your lap. Do something to make your case because the spoiled-brat mentality of your product being called "art" isn't an entitlement (a sense of entitlement being something plaguing the internet-raised generation as a whole, but that is another blog for another time). Otherwise, just enjoy what you have. Seeking validation isn't as important is just enjoying what you have: a wonderful and unique form of entertainment loved the world over. If you want something more, then take the first step. Then, one day, we can all hug it out and realize how dumb it was to even think games aren't art in the first place.

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