But is it Art?
Asked to name a ‘piece of art’, most of us would suggest a painting. Some would come up with a piece of music – probably classical. Others might pick out a sculpture or a film. Asked to identify a piece of ‘modern art’, we would probably cynically point to that pickled shark or that unmade bed. But how many of us would put forward a video game? Half Life? Halo?
Can a video game be a work of art? Art critics are divided on the issue, the old school largely (though not all) coming down on the ‘no’ side of the debate. Gamers, on the other hand, come out in strength to defend the artistic merit of games – their favourite games in particular.
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I understand how the debate becomes as heated as it does. Art critics are defensive; they aren’t sure if they want to cheapen the art world by admitting games into an exclusive club of accepted formats. Gamers are defensive too; they want the games they love to be taken seriously.
Such gamers want gaming to be seen as a legitimate interest rather than juvenile time-wasting. If you follow the arguments, you do get the impression that there are critics who are not merely saying games are ‘not art’, but also equating ‘not art’ with ‘not good’, frivolous or low-brow.
Other gamers couldn’t care less, adopting the line: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” And what they like, of course, are the games that entertain them, pure and simple. Fair enough for them but the question is still a pertinent one.
Not only a pertinent question - a tough one too. To categorically say whether something is or is not art, you need to be working from a categorical definition of art itself: a definition which, frankly, I don’t pretend to have.
Still, we might start by considering the things that we can agree are indeed bona fide art forms: painting, music, sculpture, dance, literature, film, and so on. They are a mixed bag indeed. It is hard to extract the thing, or things, that make these legitimate art forms
Even once we call them ‘legitimate art forms’, we have to contend with the fact that not all literature is art. Not all film is art. For every Wuthering Heights there are a hundred trash novels; for every Seventh Seal there are a hundred Scary Movies. Not all music is art. That stupid Crazy Frog song was categorically not art, can we agree?
With such evidence in hand – the diversity of accepted art forms, the appearance of ‘high art’ and ‘non-art’ within each – the video game begin to look more and more feasible as, at least theoretically, art.
Historically, emerging art forms tend to have a tough time in their younger years. Film had its share of detractors back in the day. Let’s not forgot that the video game really is the new kid on the block here; less than forty years ago we were still playing Pong.
When likened to any particular art medium, games tend to be compared to films. It is easy to see why, for some games at least. It is easy to think of Halo as an interactive sci-fi action flick, Max Payne as an interactive film noir (or a noir-themed graphic novel), Silent Hill as a horror movie. The number of recent films based on games are testament to the apparent interchangeability of the two formats.
As consoles and computers have gotten more powerful, and graphics have gotten closer to true visual ‘realism’, games have seemed to be progressing towards playable movies. But maybe games, as the newest kid on the block, feel restricted to mimic the conventions of a more accepted, more mature art form – namely film. It is just a thought, but maybe as the game grows up it will become something different to film entirely, an original art form in its own right.
Already some games are nothing like films, focusing on elements other than narrative. Other games, it is worth mentioning, make an ‘artist’ of the gamer: Electroplankton, to take one example, makes the player a composer of sorts, invited to arrange their own piece of ambient electronica.
For art purists, the sticking point might be the sheer commerSPAMSPAMSPAMSPAMSPAMSPAMm of games. Admittedly next-gen console games costs millions to make, and rake in millions in sales, but it’s not clear why great art can’t be a commercial success to boot.
I suppose the idea is that a profit-driven endeavour isn’t going to have artistic integrity – which is to underestimate, I think, visionary game developers. And with technology leading the way into an era of user-created content, there will be plenty more space for not-for-profit games led by an individual’s particular vision. Arthouse games, if you will.
The inescapable truth is that games - a lot of them - contain art in many forms. Their virtual worlds contain buildings (architecture), character designs (portraiture, costume), and beautifully rendered landscapes to rival those of oil paintings. Games are soundtracked with music; the Halo score is a work of art, if you ask me. Games have scripts and storylines. That’s screenwriting and literature, isn’t it?
How can games contain so much artistry, and still not be considered art?