Video Games Are Art

Smithsonian American Art Museum

I had wanted to write about video games as art for some time now, but I was worried that the question was no longer relevant–that most people (including me) had finally accepted the fact that video games can be art.  This past November, Disney released Wreck-It Ralph, a film which brings to life video game characters and worlds in the manner of Pixar’s Toy Story.  In his review of the film in The New York Times, A. O. Scott writes:

The secret to its success is a genuine enthusiasm for the creative potential of games, a willingness to take them seriously without descending into nerdy pomposity.

Clearly, I thought, this means that we’ve reached a turning point–that critics like A. O. Scott are now on board and willing to accept the aesthetic potential of games.

But I was wrong.  On November 30, Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, published a blog entitled “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.”  His blog is a response to the fact that the Museum of Modern Art in New York plans to curate a selection of video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.  Despite the fact that this is not the first time that an art museum will be playing host to video games (the Smithsonian American Art Museum held such an exhibit earlier this year), Jones has decided to put his foot down and play the predictable role of arbiter of what is and isn’t art (the role once famously played by Roger Ebert in this particular debate).  He writes:

Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.

Whether through ignorance or idiocy, Jones has made an argument that is simply not applicable to video games.  If he were to watch the great documentary from this year on the subject of independent game design, Indie Game: The Movie, he would realize that he has no right to claim that video games are not the work of personal imaginations.  In that film, we see just how personal games can be to their creators.  We watch Phil Fish, for example, as he obsesses endlessly over every detail of his game FEZ, postponing its scheduled release for years and revealing how much of himself is in the game–how it has become his identity.  We also watch Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they complete Super Meat Boy, an ode to their childhood video gaming experiences. From the Wikipedia synopsis of the film:

McMillen talks about his lifelong goal of communicating to others through his work.  He goes on to talk about his 2008 game Aether that chronicles his childhood feelings of loneliness, nervousness, and fear of abandonment.

Surely this suggests the extent to which games can be the works of personal imagination.  Another film playing the festival circuit this past year, From Nothing, Something, a documentary about the creative process, also features a video game designer among its artist subjects: Jason Rohrer, who “programs, designs, and scores” his games “entirely by himself.”  It does not get more personal than that.

And this is not even limited to independent game design (a field which Jones might not even know exists).  Surely the games of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto are recognizable as products of that creator’s personal vision.  Through pioneering works such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda, Miyamoto became one of the first auteurs of game design.

Regardless, Jones ends his argument against video games as art by making a point about chess:

Chess is a great game, but even the finest chess player in the world isn’t an artist. She is a chess player. Artistry may have gone into the design of the chess pieces. But the game of chess itself is not art nor does it generate art — it is just a game.

Jones’s use of chess to illustrate his case against the aesthetic value of games is interesting because he writes about the game in a previous blog titled “Checkmates: how artists fell in love with chess.”  In this piece, he doesn’t necessarily call chess art (he seems content to assign it the role of muse), but he comes awfully close:

It is a game that creates an imaginative world, with powerful “characters”: this must be why artists were inspired to create designer chess sets long before modern times.

On top of this, Jones seems willing to concede the fact that chess pieces can be art.  Would he also concede the fact that pixelated characters, orchestral scores, and other “pieces” of a video game can be art?  (To be sure, there are clearly “traditional” artists who work on individual aspects of games: graphic designers, writers, and musicians.)  My question would then become:  Why cannot the many artistic pieces cohere into a single work of art that also happens to be a game?  Architects create buildings that serve as works of art as well as living spaces.  Imagine an art critic who would perhaps recognize the artistry in a stained glass window yet say condescendingly of the cathedral in which it is found: “It’s just a building.”  The idea is absurd.

I am all in favor of meaningful distinctions between objects.  We can have art and games as separate categories.  But we must acknowledge that there can indeed be overlap.  I already demonstrated on this blog how food can serve both instrumental and aesthetic ends.  The same is true for games.

In his classic essay “The Artworld,” Arthur Danto writes:

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.

The fact of the matter is that video games have now been allowed into two respected art museums (the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art), the National Endowment for the Arts has started to allow funding for game designers, and the conversation about the artistic merits of games is alive and well–within the general populace, yes, but also within the hallowed halls of academia.  This is enough, in my opinion, to qualify video games as art.  Clearly, in practice, that is simply what they are.  Psychologically, people are experiencing them in the same way that they experience objects more commonly classified as art (e.g., novels and movies).  The fact that critics such as Jonathan Jones and Roger Ebert will not allow for the status of art to be extended to games–and that they would rely on smug and silly arguments to prove their points–says more about them than it does about the reality of the situation.  They are great critics, but here, where perhaps they feel their grasp loosening around that which they believed themselves to be experts, they are simply wrong.  We see some metaphysical justifications for their beliefs, but primarily we see the constricting influence of habit and conditioning–their inability to see other than what they have been trained (or educated) to see.  But no matter.  Others seem to have a much easier time seeing the artistic potential of games.

In an interview with USA Today about composing the theme song for the game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Trent Reznor says:

I’ve watched with a kind of wary eye how gaming has progressed. I was there at the beginning with Pong in the arcade, and a lot of my great childhood memories were around a Tempest machine. I really looked at gaming as a real art form that is able to take a machine and turn it into something that is a challenging, human interaction puzzle game strategy.

And according to Penn Jillette (from the November 18 episode of his Penn’s Sunday School podcast):

Video games are culture; they are a new way of doing art.  You know, I fought against them at first.  I used to say that, you know, being able to make up a story as you went, I fought against that.  I did a couple of whole speeches about how you want the plot in Shakespeare.  But I’ve now understood.

And so have I.  The more interesting questions, moving forward, are: “By what criteria are people recognizing games as art?  By what standards of taste are these games being critiqued?”  As Luke Cuddy puts it in his review of the book The Art of Video Games in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism:

We must remember to compare the good to the bad, the same way we compare Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Eco, 1988) to The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003).

So what are the best games?  What are the worst?  What distinguishes them from each other?  I will leave those questions to the more experienced gamers and critics.

Further reading:

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