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Are Video Games Art?: The search for Objective Criteria

Updated on October 4, 2011

The discussion on whether or not video games are art is a hotly debated one but among those that have a strong opinion for either side the point is often missed. Proponents of video games as art take a skeptical view in which they question what art is and use that inability to define art as an excuse to allow video games in. The problem with this argument is that it can be used just as easily to justify a kind of “aesthetic nihilism” where we can say that art is all completely subjective and that there are no objective criteria from which to judge it. The problem with those who claim adamantly that video games cannot be art is that they often then choose to define art in ways that would exclude forms of art that they would personally want to include. For instance, Roger Ebert claims that video games are not art because they are interactive and this very nature excludes them. However, there are forms of theater that are interactive with the audience, and some could argue that all forms of live performance, theater music and especially stand-up comedy are interactive, so now Ebert is in the pickle of trying to justify how these things might be art but other forms of expression are not.

Anders Fischer, a writer for hubpages, brings up a point against one of Ebert’s biggest arguments and that is that a video game cannot compare to Shakespeare, Mozart or Di Vinci. Despite the fact that most who argue video games are art happily concede this, Fischer points out that this is a completely arbitrary claim. You might as well argue which is better, Macbeth or The Mona Lisa. Whether he knows it or not, Fischer has basically recreated the argument that David Hume makes against artistic nihilism in his essay On the Standard of Taste. What Hume basically says in his writing is that the reason that our artistic tastes might seem so subjective is that we are so often comparing things for which there is little comparison. Hume is right. We can’t compare a painting to a novel. We also are inviting trouble when we compare a romantic comedy to a horror film. If we compare two horror films, for instance The Exorcist to Scream 4, you will find that there is a high consensus that the former film is the better of the two. Video games must be evaluated on their own terms, period. Not to do so is simply foolhardy.

In this hub, I will make the case against what I see are the misconceptions of what art is. Then I will make my own argument for what I think is the defining characteristics of art and we will see how these apply to video games. At the end, I will link both Ebert’s blog and Fischer’s hub who would like to read them and form their own opinion.

ART IS Not Simply Craft or technology

Here is an important question. Is your dining room table art? Most people would say no but why not? Somebody designed and crafted your dining room table. Things that serve utility for us, that are merely useful are not art no matter how much skill or craft went into creating them. Our computer is not art. It is a tool. So why do people confuse what I will call “slickness” with something that is artistic? A lot of effort went into making the movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen but no matter how many teenage boys send me angry e-mails this is not art. Don’t get confused. When I say that this film is not art I am not saying that it is not art because it is “bad.” My personal opinion is that it is a horrible film but there are movies that I personally think are horrible that I would still include as art. I would rather watch a film by Spike Lee or Lars Von Trier fail than see a film by Michael Bay succeed.

If it was simply technology that made something good or bad then an art form like film wouldn’t even need stories or characters but merely special effects. The perception of video games is that they are completely dependent on technology but this simply is not true. Many video games have stories and characters and these stories are often more elaborate then the stories that we see in movies like Transformers. Many films are not art but are simply showcases for technology. Many video games are the same way. So we have established that it is not any real difference between video games and technology when it comes to film.

Confusing craft with art is even more problematic. Anybody can be taught to read music and play an instrument but that doesn’t make them Mozart. In fact, the teaching of technique to students is often done by setting a series of foundational rules. But these rules, while useful, are only really foundational concepts to help a budding artist communicate with his or her audience. What eventually happens is that an artist gets perfect technique but is never capable of producing anything greater than that. A great artist has the ability to improvise, to break the rules and have it not only fail to alienate the audience but to actually take them to a higher place then they would have from simply following the rules. What is the formula for this? Nobody knows but few people ever doubt that this actually is the key to how a competent craftsman becomes a great artist.

For these reasons alone we can eliminate a lot of video games as art. The philosopher Plato believed that art was dangerous becomes it recreated reality but then distorted it. He was right about the idea that this could in fact be dangerous but he also missed the point that the ability of art to make us reevaluate our reality was what made it valuable. Or maybe he did understand that and he was afraid of the artists taking over his territory as the philosopher.

We can be sure that a lot of video games are not art simply because they are simulations. This would include all or almost all sports games. Also games that are meant to simulate war but take no point of view or storyline would not be art. The Sims would not be art because it has no point of view. What now makes the video game seem like art or not is whether or not it reflects some kind of subversion of what the gaming experience rules are supposed to be. I would expect many people to get upset over this definition. Aren’t memoirs art? Are they not just representations of reality as it happened? My short answer to those two questions is “yes” and “no.” They are art in that they process the events through the authors point of view. No memoir is a reflection of how things really happened but an artistic interpretation.

What art really is

A famous example to make my point is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Wanting to disgust and cause controversy in the art world Duchamp took a public bathroom urinal and presented it as a piece of art in a museum. Duchamp expected the piece to receive widespread criticism and controversy but that didn’t happen at all. The fact of the matter is, that while there were a few detractors who thought Duchamp was being pretentious and disrespectful the majority of patrons and critics LOVED the idea and that is why it is still so famous today. Duchamp did nothing to create the urinal he only presented it as an artwork. so why is this considered by a vast majority of people as a work of art?

If you think about it, although this example does not conform to many traditional viewpoints of art, it does conform to the points I made in the above section. Duchamp’s choice was an attempt to break the rules and cause the audience to reflect on those rules. He was trying to make a statement and as the author of that statement he was the artist and his work was a work of art. One can see that under this definition many films, novels, songs, paintings and any number of things do not qualify as art even though the art forms themselves are capable of producing art. Some people find this definition too elitist. They say that it is simply the enjoyment of a work that makes it art. If a film or novel is entertaining then it is art, if a painting is pleasing to the eye or a song catchy it is art and if a video game is fun then it should be considered art as well.

But this definition is TOO inclusive and it is also, in my opinion, dead wrong. If we open it up like this then we make everything seem too subjective again. If you like it then it is art! But this is just another form of aesthetic nihilism. Saying something is art because you enjoy it is to degrade the whole concept of art. I enjoyed the movie The Hangover but I do not consider it to be art. Perhaps there is somebody who could make the case for that movie being art but they would have to make the case. The burden would be on them. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a good movie. It is a very good piece of entertainment but if its aspiration was to be art (which I doubt) then it failed at that goal because the film expresses no real viewpoint.

It is also interesting that people try to define art either by how much emotional response it generates and how intellectual compelling it is. I think this is a failure as well. Emotional and intellectual responses are byproducts of what art is but are not definitive elements of art itself. Entertainment can elicit an emotional response and in some cases an intellectual one. A puzzle is a form of entertainment that is intellectual but it is not art. This goes back to video games. Many video games have puzzle elements but if this is all they are then they are not art. If the puzzle elements are part of a narrative or otherwise artistic thrust (like in a film or novel) then they can still be art.

There is a major objection to my definition of art and it comes in the form of collaboration. If video games or movies are collaborative arts then who is the artist? In movies it is widely considered to be the director but this just isn’t true all of the time. In some movies the producer is the artist, in others the writer and even sometimes the star. I cannot completely resolve this but will say that I believe all works of true collaborative art are created by a group of people who are operating in service to a singular vision and that vision has to come from somebody.

Many examples of games that are art have been given over the years and I personally have played a handful of video games I consider to be works of art by my own definition. These games are very few though. Like television, video games are very rarely art but it is foolish to say that they never can be. One very controversial example was Super Columbine Massacre RPG, a controversial and satirical game that attempted to analyze the Columbine, Colorado school shooting and force players to confront the consequences of violence.

Despite claims that the game was made to make money, copies were given for free to players. This game was an artistic statement and as art it succeeded. One of the problems with video games as art is the commerce side of the industry. The same problem exists for movies and to a lesser extent other forms of art but it is too easy to avoid the artistic in gaming in favor of hollow simulations and cookie cutter rip offs of popular games past. The most likely games in which you might encounter art are games like this one where it was made independently. Where games will go in the future remains to be seen but one thing is for certain, art is possible through this medium.


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    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      He refuses to play most of the games. I have never played Final Fatasy myself but I have heard many people cite it as a definate video game work of art.

    • visionandfocus profile image


      8 years ago from North York, Canada

      Final Fantasy is definitely art. No questions about it. Maybe Ebert hasn't got round to FF yet. Someone should point it out to him, then he'll recant for sure. :)

      I think our artistic tastes are so subjective because our emotional response kicks in first when we look at something for the first time. It's our reptilian brain, or so I've been told. And there's little rhyming or reasoning with the reptilian brain. ;)


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