Saturday, June 18, 2011

Video Games as Art?

This post is mostly my reaction to a May blog article on the FSView website. I’ve written for the FSView since November 2009.

Osbourne writes, “This story has, however, reopened an Internet can of Internet worms that I thought had closed way back in 2010 (Internet years work like dog years) when Roger Ebert kinda-sorta-not-really went back on his silly, pretentious "Video games can never be art" statement.”

As is often the case with these kinds of arguments, what I will call the “fallacy of pretension” is used. Calling something “pretentious” is typically a euphemistic way of saying “it offends my sensibilities” or “this sucks because I don’t agree, or I don’t understand.”

He later speaks against generalizing video games as a whole:
“To even generalize video games as one unified thing--which would never be applied to a medium like film--and then to deem that as somehow "lesser than," is quite plainly the same thing as saying, "Those damn kids and that damn rock 'n' roll music, what's the world coming to?"”

Yes, films are generalized- as films. Paintings are generalized as paintings, and despite the strong efforts of people like Donald Judd, “specific objects” are still seen by many as just sculptures. There are many genres of the film, but the work has the qualities of being a “film”, as do video games, no matter how many genres there are in that medium.

Later on, Osbourne appeals to the ignorance of video game novices – a little “pretentious”, if you ask me.
He writes, “I really can't believe we're still having this conversation; are these sites just trolling for web traffic, which people like me give them? It's plain and simple--anyone who still can't or won't see video games as anything but mindless distractions just haven't played them, or even seen them be played.”

This kind of argument is never satisfactory. It is not a matter of simply playing or observing video games to make a person enjoy them. Not everyone will like video games, or any other x, y, z, and no amount of social experimentation will change that.

Osbourne also states that the argument is “pure, freebased ageism.” This is said, at least in part, because the argument is coming from older individuals like Roger Ebert, so Osbourne’s own argument is also rather ageist.

I don’t consider video games art in the way the notion of art is generally understood. While I won’t argue that video games take time, creativity and a crew of folks to work on, that does not make them “art.” Smart mobs and flash mobs also require creativity and cooperation from a group of people, so does working in an office where ideas are bounced around - these are not considered examples of art. A video game is meant to be played – there is an objective and rules to be followed. This is different from what could be considered the closest example of a game as art – participatory art.

The Brazilian neo-concrete artists modeled participatory art pieces after Barthesian analysis, later performance artists relied on volunteers, and mixed-media artists like Lee Bull have created works that require viewer engagement.

The difference between this art and video games is that there is no finish line in participatory art, no way to win or lose, and no challenges to crack in order to retain the meaning of the art.

I really don’t understand the spin campaign to consider Bioshock in the same category as Bill Viola.
The question must be asked, why is there such an insistence to consider video games “art”? Is this label supposed to legitimize the practice of being a video game developer? If the work is as difficult as it is made to seem, why does it need a pat on the back with a label like "art"? Plenty of people already play and love video games, more so than a lot of contemporary gallery art, unfortunately. I don’t happen to be one of the people who plays video games, I have also never visited a seminary - this doesn't mean I'm forced to remain opinionless on monks. 


  1. Consider: Music is art. Stories and writing have been called art. Drawings are art. Does this mean that the soundtrack, story, character designs, and settings of a video game can all be art, but the video game itself cannot, even if every component could qualify individually?

    It's not the interactivity that robs it of it's status as art, you said as much. Is it that there's a finish line? Books end. So do films. I was sorely disappointed by The Never Ending Story. Is it that it is challenging, or inaccessible to some viewers? This is the case of a good deal of art, though rarely is it so direct. Every element that a video game possesses that can be used to argue it is not art is likely present in another medium.

    As to your last point; I'm not entirely certain there is a big push for video games as art. I think it entirely possible that it's some armchair philosophers who enjoy video games who keep bringing it up.

  2. I don't consider music art in the way sculpture, installations, drawings, etchings and paintings are art. Music could be a component of an installation, but I consider music to be seperate from art, and I don't think of Hollywood films or music when I think of "art" as one receives it in a museum or gallery. Ditto with stories and writing - a raconteur is not an artist, neither is a novelist. Art as a term has been applied very liberally to a lot of different areas. I'm sure there are plenty of people who claim the way a outfielder catches a ball can have the grace of a ballerina - but I wouldn't call it a dance. You can have artistic moments within those areas, but the whole thing isn't "art".

    It's not about the finish line - it's about having an objective. Painting and sculpture end the minute you look away. Eco wrote that the work is "open" until the input of the viewer is released.

    I never said videogames are challenging or inaccessible, and even if they were or are, that doesn't mean they are art. There's a distinction - if I photocopy Hegel and give it to a friend, that isn't art. If I transpose his words onto a canvas, then it is - or if I read them as part of a performance.

    I also consider art and design to be separate - so I don't see fashion as "art".

    There may not be a widespread public relations campaign on the part of video game geeks, but it's an issue that has been a thorn in my side -a lot of video game enthusiasts are offended that they might not be considered art, that is not my problem, nor is it the problem of the art world. If the art world as an institution decides to display video games in galleries as art, that's fine, but part of me resents it when some couch potato wants to sit around playing Call of Duty and then wants his hobby to be considered art like he's all of a sudden some second-rate performance artist engaging with this video art.

  3. Starting with your last point: people want to call video games art because they want game developers to aspire to an artistic standard, rather than a mere "game" standard. They also want to evaluate games using the parlance of artistic criticism. Finally, they want to create new parlance and new artistic criteria for video games that do not apply to other artistic forms.

    The first two goals go hand in hand, and both require video games to be considered artistic. If video games are merely games, then it is silly to criticize a game for having poor character development (Dead Space), erratic story progression (Condemned 2), or unrealistic or unimaginative alternate story lines (Mass Effect Series). "They're just games," defenders say, and the argument stops there unless games are not "just games" like a painting isn't "just a painting." If games are a form of artistic expression, they may be criticized according to artistic standards.

    The third goal is a bit different. Video games can illuminate humanity in ways that other art forms cannot. Games allow us a unique opportunity to empathize with protagonists, even when they are doing things alien to our own lives. An example would be GTA 4, when two brother independently ask Niko to kill the other, leaving you to choose between two very empathetic characters. Immersion, game mechanics, backstory, and world building are all elements of gaming that are absent from many other art forms, and that are valuable tools developers use to tell their story.

    One of the barriers to enjoying video games is the basic skill set needed to access to artistic material beyond the basic game mechanics. These are not insubstantial; after watching my friends struggle to play games like Halo, I realize that people who don't play games don't see the nuance and detail of storytelling that many games have. Ebert's criticism of games, and yours, isn't ageist, and it isn't pretentious. It's just illiterate - you aren't familiar with the genre or the medium.

    Here's why games should be considered art: they have the capacity to illustrate, examine and explore the human condition. Here's why many artists don't want to call them art: they make money and they appeal to a huge audience. Many think that "art" can only be that which appeals to a small audience of "knowledgeable" connoisseurs. That's silly and pretentious (pretentious because it maintains the pretense of exclusivity and status when in reality it's just deluded self-masturbation).

    Games are the new art, and I can't wait to play the games they develop when I'm 40 or 50. Imagine the difference between films in the 50s and films today. That, times ten for video games. Sweet!

  4. Kathy, why wouldn't music be art...?

  5. Criticizing something from an artistic standpoint does not make the target of criticism a de facto piece of art. A surgeon can evaluate a patient's face for symmetry, but the patient isn't elevated to the level of an art piece if that is not the intention. Intention is a big key here.

    You said: "Here's why many artists don't want to call them art: they make money and they appeal to a huge audience."
    and also said, "People want to call video games art because they want game developers to aspire to an artistic standard, rather than a mere "game" standard."
    To imply that game developers don't have a dog in the fight and don't care about making money with their video games is incredibly naive. If artists want to make money, as do novelists, etc, and why shouldn't they - so do game developers. Calling something "silly and pretentious" just because you don't like it, doesn't make it so. A lot of things can illuminate life and express the human condition - someone can enter different worlds and learn more about themselves and the plight of others by taking hallucinogens, but the act of taking peyote is not an artistic act and the peyote bud is not like a painting.
    You call my argument illiterate because I'm not familiar with video games, I can call yours illiterate because you are not familiar with probably the majority of art I discuss on this blog and elsewhere, but I don't, because ad hominem arguments don't convince anyone. Like I said, being exposed to an area does not guarantee A. admiration or B. appreciation. I've never been to a Klan rally, if I go, I probably won't understand the Klan perspective or want to join them in their fight. Granted, this is an extreme example, but you're being incredibly presumptuous.
    What I argue is against vacuous categories - John Cage's music is art because it was art inspired, a product of chance, and highly intellectually informed. Wiz Khalifa can not be read in the same way. If that makes me "silly and pretentious", so be it.

  6. You also generalize about artists, there have been plenty of artists who have tried to escape the art market, and it couldn't be done. Was that their fault? No, and I'm glad it couldn't be done because scholars/enthusiasts might not know about a lot of very good art. I can give you names if you wish.

  7. Point by point: I didn't argue that evaluating something according to an artistic standard made it art. I argued the opposite - something has to be art in order to be evaluated according to an artistic standard. Otherwise, such evaluation is inappropriate. In the case of video games, people believe they are art and therefore subject to artistic criticism.

    I didn't say developers didn't want to make money - of course they do! I also didn't generalize about artists. I said "many," not "all." How is this not accurate?

    Illuminating the human condition is only one criterion that something must meet to be considered art. Here's another that disqualifies hallucination: the work must be a product of skillful exertion such that the exertion conforms to a recognized standard of execution. Here's another: the product of said exertion must engage with other art. This could be through mimicry, mockery, or other forms of reference. Video games do both. Peyote does neither, to my knowledge.

    I may be unfamiliar with the art you reference, but that isn't relevant to my argument. I have a broad definition of art; you have a narrow one. The rhetorical onus, then, is on you to demonstrate why video games are NOT art. You illiteracy is relevant to the veracity of your argument. Mine is not.

    I'm not calling a narrow definition silly and pretentious "just because I don't like it." I'm calling it silly because it is, because it is not serious, it is not thorough, methodical or systematic. Prove me wrong by defining art such that music is not art! An opinion is pretentious if it is silly, yet, nonetheless, people take it seriously and use it as an excuse to look down on other people. The English language captures a lot of nuance, and words don't always boil down to "I like" and "I don't like." If that were the case, I would merely dismiss YOUR claim that video games are not art as merely Kathy saying she doesn't play/like video games. Whatever, fine, don't play them. But claiming that video games are not ART is not the same thing as saying "I don't like video games."

  8. "The work must be a product of skillful exertion such that the exertion conforms to a recognized standard of execution."
    Says who? Exertion has nothing to do with artistic merit.
    I don't know where you're pulling these definitions of art, but they don't apply to all accepted art world "art". You're biasing your definitions to include a medium you feel passionate about. That's intellectually dishonest and not convincing.
    You're saying the onus is on me to prove the negative, like the way people say it is up to the atheist to prove there is no god. That's not the case. You want this "new" medium to be recognize - the burden of proof is on people like you, I can just stand back, listen and state my own case. Which is what I did and will continue to do.
    As for your last point, research emotivism.

  9. You don't think art requires work? I disagree. I don't laud people for doing things that are easy.

    I'm not biasing my definitions to include a medium I feel passionate about, I'm biasing them to EXCLUDE crap other people inexplicably feel strongly about. Take modern art for example - most modern artists are artists all right - CON artists! Like fashion designers, coffee producers and politicians, they've convinced a bunch of sheepish toadies that their "work" has any merit beyond comedic value.

    As to emotivism... of COURSE a woman would think everything boils down to EMOTION! More seriously, if I accept the emotivist position, why should I care at all about what you think art is? And why should you bother writing a blog post about what art is? You feel the way you do, and I feel the way I do, and there isn't any extrinsic reference point, so why argue? Why discuss it at all? If emotivism is correct, than the only conversations that should every take place would be purely practical and informative. "I am doing X, what will you do?" Anything else is just a waste of time. "What is art?" Emotivist: "Whatever I feel it is!" Me: "OK, but I say that art is whatever I feel it is." Emotivist: "I feel you're wrong." etc.

    I think you're philosophically inconsistent here. You say I'm intellectually dishonest because I'm tailoring my definition to include things I consider art. Isn't that so emotivist of me!

  10. LOL! Wow, you strawman me, misconstrue my reason for mentioning emotivism, a philosophical position that appears you don't even understand, and from the looks of it, you're also sexist.

    Good luck with that, I'm done with you.

  11. You are obscure, unclear, and you get offended at innocent jokes. For someone who employs sharp, witty rhetoric (which is great) against others, you seem to be unable to bear it yourself. In point of fact, I DO understand Ayer's point about the inability to "verify" ethical statements, and Stevenson's conclusions then about their nature. You don't have to agree with arguments you understand.

    Keep writing and thinking. Take it as a compliment that people are willing to argue with you.

  12. You're implying that you used sharp, witty rhetoric against me, all I saw was a hackneyed misogynist joke. Next time ride in with a powdered wig on, that joke is pretty stale.

    I brought up emotivism not because I subscribe to it, but to counter what you said about when people say something they don't mean "I don't like X", here are a group of thinkers who disagree with that claim and it's good to come away from arguments knowing more than when you came in. You haven't done that. You chalk off modern art as some involved, highfalutin ponzi scheme because you don't like it or it offends your christian virtues,or for whatever other reason which is not my problem nor any of my business. This blog is about that kind of art, and if you don't like what I have to say, find a way to better express your opinion rather than saying they're all crooks and cons, then maybe I'll come away with something other than a bad taste in my mouth.
    Also, I take the obscurity label as a compliment.

  13. You've made the debate about the rhetoric rather than the subject. The joke was at the expense of women, and at your expense. I don't apologize for making fun of people, particularly for making fun of some philosophy they don't event subscribe to. But please, if feigning offense makes your position stronger, by all means...

    Back to the subject. "Art" is a word with a meaning. The meaning, I think, is more than "something I like." I have proposed some criteria that might get at the meaning of "art." I will repeat:

    1 - Product of skillful exertion, or can be judged according to a standard of skill.

    2 - Intended to illuminate the human condition.

    3 - References other art.

    Some VGs meet these criteria, so I think they are art. Some modern art fails to meet #1, so I don't think it's art. MY argument is pretty logical, but please, tell me what's wrong with my criteria. Educate me with your own artistic literacy.

  14. Also, emotivism deals with ethical norms. I don't see how it applies to a non-ethical subject.

  15. Oh, whoops, add "and provoke an emotional response" to # 2

  16. Isn't a work a piece of art when people recognize it as such? If that's the case, then video games can be art. I wouldn't say that all video games are art, but some are, especially those that get their players emotionally invested in the narrative, characters, visual representation, etc.

  17. Discounting films as art is an odd choice for this conversation, as that's where the debate first became public. I still ask, at what point does a game become art, despite it's artistic merits?

    Bioshock, for example, is a game about a man running around in an underwater city shooting bees from his hands. This is a valid description. But it's also an essay on objectivist philosophy and the freedom to choose. It's score is fantastic, it's setting and background designs are beautiful. Any of these might be considered art. The bit about choice though, that's the good one, and it's only by playing the game that you achieve the full impact of the moment.

    The debate for gamers does sum up to what Boss Ross was saying: "Why can't video games be art?" Mostly because the people who get to decide what art is don't seem to have a solid reason to discount an entire medium from being art. We feel it may be because this is a medium still in it's infancy, and emerging tech and culture is traditionally shat upon by older and more respected tech and culture.

    By the way, the National Endowment for The Arts is now offering grants for video game developers. Make of that what you will.


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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.