N’Gai Croal has a dissection of a fisking of a rebuttal that kicks up the “are video games art” question with more of the usual round and round. In a strange twist I happen to respect all three of the principals in this little drama, but reading all this spilled ink as we dig deeper into metaphor, hyperbole and concept definition a single thought rises above the rest until everything is but a hum:
What difference does it make?
A lot of this debate goes back even before Roger Ebert declared video games to be artistically inferior by definition to literature and film, but that perhaps qualifies less as a debate and more as an intellectual exercise. If that’s all we’re doing, then so be it. Exercise all you like, I say. But the tone has grown into a flame war-style argument and so far no one has seemed to step back and ask the simple question of what the point could possibly be.
Let’s say we could all agree on a standard definition of ‘art’ and had a viable test that we could apply to any concept, object or creation and come back with a binary value: Art or Not Art. If we applied this test to either video games as a whole or a specific title, what would it mean to get back either result?
Let’s assume for a moment that video games are inherently artistic. What bearing might that classification have on gamers? What about developers? Non-gamers or laypeople? I submit that even if we all suddenly decide that games are art, we’ll still have developers making games—some good, some bad, many in-between—gamers will still play them and laypeople will still have at best a passing interest or familiarity only with the most successful titles, producers and characters. Apply that same conceit to anything the art purists currently decree as art and you’ll find an overwhelming number of similarities: There are bad films that mock artistic merit, film-lovers consume movies obsessively, filmmakers still do what they do and for the most part people are only aware of the most popular, most effectively marketed movies which often eschew artistic aspirations in favor of broad commercial appeal.
Roger Ebert narrows his dismissal of video games to an arbitrary sub-categorization of “low art” which contrasts with his preferred medium’s potential for “high art.” N’Gai Croal takes great exception to this but neither bothers to explain what the significance of high art has over low art or, for that matter, non-art. Is bad high art inherently superior to good low art? Is mediocre low art preferable to non-art? Can anyone bother to explain why this is even an issue?
Perhaps the concept of art escapes me. So let’s posit for a second that games are incapable of possessing any significant artistic merit. Once again, I wonder: What would that mean, exactly?
The closest anyone gets to explaining the importance of the debate is Roger Ebert when he says:
That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
The not-quite-spelled-out message here is that games, being without artistic merit or at best “low art,” represent an active waste of time that could be better spent exploring “high art” which improves culture, empathy and civility. At least, that’s how that reads to me. The problem is that the subtext suggests that anything which does not improve culture or civility or empathy is a waste of time. Yet if this is the case, we have to hold all potential art to that standard and discard anything that does not aspire to those goals as inherently worthless, as well as that which does have those lofty aspirations but falls somehow short. Were that the case, N’Gai Croal and Roger Ebert would be equally guilty in their support of rubbish: Mr. Croal obviously advocates a whole subset of pointless entertainment while Ebert has wasted gargantuan swaths of his life sifting through garbage and occasionally even encouraging the consumption of such culture-less, uncivilized, empathy-deprived anti-art at the expense of our precious time. Let’s face it, not every movie he gives the Thumbs Up to is worthy to be deemed high art.
Laid to Rest
The point I hope is clear is that aside from an academic exercise, there is no reason to worry about whether games qualify as art. It is possible that they do not but only a fool would use that as a reason to dismiss them as having no merit. And perhaps people like Roger Ebert are fools, but that, too, is of no particular consequence.
The real issue is what value a medium has for the consumer: Those who value art as defined in a traditional sense (which in turn has a varied definition depending on whose tradition you’re referring to) can easily ignore video games as being a waste of time while they stare for hours at a lump of marble shaped like a human. Meanwhile video gamers can classify their games as art or the evolution of narrative storytelling or just leave them at “games” and ignore their esoteric or cultural significance.
Classification is significant only to those making the distinction: If the pursuit of great games is worthy of your time then that should be all the motivation necessary. In that way art is like pornography, where its definition is tied into little more than an individual reaction rather than a set of criteria. If my interpretation of art leaves room for pink plastic flamingos, to me lawn ornaments are worthy of scrutiny and evaluation. That they may be tacky scourges on a landscape to you does little to diminish (or at least should do little to diminish) their intrinsic value in my eyes.
Therefore, when asked the question, “Are games art?” The only correct answer is: “What do you think?”