I (foolishly) ask if video games are art, and then I (even more foolishly) attempt to answer.

Author’s note: I have three warning statements for this post. One: I mention the late Roger Ebert, and I dispute his belief that video games are not art. I am not attacking Mr. Ebert, nor do I mean any disrespect. I am simply stating my opinions and continuing the discussion, and I remain a great admirer and fan of Mr. Ebert’s. Two: I am not in ‘the industry,’ so if you’re the sort of person who can’t accept a mere gamer’s opinion on video games, please don’t read this. Three: This post is long.

I thought I’d take a philosophical tangent today and add my voice to the debate surrounding whether or not video games are art. I’ll first start by asking the question:

Are Video Games Art?

And, as with any good philosophical discussion, I’ll answer that question with a question:

What is Art?

This will take a while.

sr3_artSo what is art? Art isn’t something that can be easily defined. It’s a lot like love in that respect, and given that much of the world’s great art was created as a direct response to love (or a lack thereof), this seems fitting. Instead, people will attempt to describe what is NOT art, without ever really saying why.

The late Roger Ebert, in this article, says of video games: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” He doesn’t specify which attributes of any of the listed media (which, presumably, are acceptable examples of ‘art’) he wishes to compare, so I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this. As I re-read the article, I picked up on something else, something that I think may be at the heart of many “video games are not art” statements, which was his view of video games as being just games like chess, basketball, and football. He’s not alone, and this tells me that the whole controversy may, quite possibly, be based on a misunderstanding. That’s all.

Let me start to illustrate my thinking. Take a look at this image:jpquestion

The name Jackson Pollock might have just popped into your head (maybe not, but just go with it). Wikipedia describes him as a “major figure in the abstract expressionist movement,” and says he was “famous for his drip technique.” That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, and truthfully, neither do his paintings. They look like a mistake, a big mess. I just don’t get it, I suppose. But here’s what I do get:

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

Mr. Pollock wrote that in a magazine called ‘Possibilities,’ though the quote was taken from his Wikipedia page. He talks about his art coming from the unconscious, and relying on “the accident.” It certainly sounds like someone just closing their eyes and throwing some paint, right?

That’s not quite how I see it. I look at Jackson Pollock and his work, and I see someone who lets themselves go in the moment of creation, letting the work “come through.” I genuinely respect that, even if I his art doesn’t amount to much in my eyes. That’s the thing with art. Just because a particular piece of art doesn’t move me, the work isn’t, in my mind, automatically disqualified as art. And that’s the key point of art: it is ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE.

See, I think everyone has something like what Mr. Pollock describes inside them. Some people might call it a ‘soul.’ It’s the part of us that not only enables us to create art, but also allows us to feel art, to be moved by it, to let it change us. This is the place that art comes from.

So take another look at that image above. As you might have guessed, that was not painted by Jackson Pollock. It was painted by Roy Claflin. Yes, it’s an original Roy. Is it art? That’s up to you, dear reader. (You can make your own at jacksonpollock.org, and by all means, go make one.) I personally don’t think very much of it. After all, I didn’t create it to express anything or because I felt something. So I leave it up to the rest of the world.

Point is, whether or not something is art is up to you. Whether or not it’s good art is up to you, too.

So Roger Ebert is not wrong. He merely stated his opinion, and in the style of professional critics, he stated it as an absolute, objective fact. All critics do this. And it’s how he said it, I think, that really got under people’s skins. So everyone can relax.

Back to video games. I won’t get into a whole ‘what is a video game?’ discussion here, but I will say the notion that video games are comparable to competitive activities like chess, basketball, and football is way off the mark. A lot of video games are not competitive at all, or at least, not competitive in the same way as chess, basketball, or football. When playing a video game, you’ve got obstacles to overcome, you’ve got objectives to complete, and while you can finish a game, you don’t actually ‘win’ (sports games notwithstanding). That’s just one example, but I think it shows that this comparison is unfair and  ill-informed.

So the people who don’t consider video games to be art because they’re the same as chess, basketball, and football? It’s possible that they just don’t understand video games. Like me and Jackson Pollock’s paintings, they just don’t get it.

I’ve got a few more things to say on the subject. Allow me to respond to three more “video games are not art” arguments with the following bullet-list:

  • The “video games as big business” argument: I think one of the reasons many people say that video games aren’t art is because they view games as a product, something that’s engineered and marketed and sold to the consumer for profit. Which is true. The same, however, could be said about literature, music, and film, and pretty much everyone agrees that these things are art, at some level. They’re all commercial products. Sure, books and CDs and films and even video games can be given away for free, but are these more ‘art’ than their commercial counterparts? I say no. Just putting a price on something doesn’t make it un-art. They sell paintings don’t they? If you can give something away for mere gratitude, you can give something away for cash just as handily. And the true value of that art, regardless of how much they choose to sell it for, is always determined by the person who reads the book, or listens to the CD, or sees the film, or plays the game.
  • The “lack of attribution” argument: People also, I think, have problems calling video games art because of the number of people that work on a typical game. Consider this: although there’s typically only one name on the cover, a novel doesn’t just happen when the author is finished writing it. There’re agents and editors and typesetters and marketers to go through before it ends up in consumers’ hands. CD’s are the collaborative work of many people, not just the band. And films? Hundreds, if not thousands, of people work on your average film. Does it matter that you can’t attribute a piece of art to just one person? It’s all of the artists involved in the process that make it art. People who pour their souls into their work, who conjure things from that place inside them and commit them to tape or paper or hard drives. Not everyone who works in publishing or music or film or video games is an artist, but the ones who aren’t are incapable of diluting the finished product so much that all of the art is gone, and all that’s left is a product. The net gain is always to art.
  • The “video games as medium” argument: Some have said that video games are just a medium, and no more art than the canvas on which something is painted. The textures and music and 3D models and voice acting that goes into a particular game are all art individually, but games themselves can’t be. Put simply, ‘video games’ is the medium, and ‘Saints Row the Third’ is not a work of art, but simply the vessel in which many other different works of art are shipped in. I don’t buy this line of reasoning. If the canvas is a medium, what about the paints? Also media, right? So at what point does a painting become a work of art? Aren’t professional appreciators of art taught to look past the paint and ‘experience’ the piece as a whole? Isn’t that what gamers do? Look past the programming and artwork and sound and ‘experience’ the game as a whole?

Finally, to me, the question in this whole matter should really be “why wouldn’t you call video games art?” What exactly does the world lose if you accept video games as art? It doesn’t devalue existing art, it can’t possibly diminish your definition of art, so what’s the problem? Why take such a defensive posture? Art is everywhere. Grocery store clerks who stack their cans in clever and interesting ways. Bus drivers who have perfected their braking and accelerating to give their passengers an exceptionally comfortable ride. Why do they do these things? You hear about there being ‘an art’ to doing something. There’s ‘an art’ to investment banking. There’s ‘an art’ to deep-sea fishing. It’s all true. Art can and does exist everywhere. Anyone can create it, and it can be anything.

If you don’t think something is art, take a moment to consider the possibility that you simply just don’t get it. Because someone else does get it, and it means the world to them.

And coming soon, my even more foolish attempt to answer the question ‘what is a video game?’
Further note: Someone linked to this post on Reddit, but it wasn’t me. You can probably find it by searching, there’s some interesting comments being made. Sad the discussion isn’t happening here, but I get the feeling that the people on Reddit didn’t actually read my post, and are arguing on the basis of the title alone (and the fact that whoever posted it there misspelled Jackson Pollock’s name). Oh well.

2 thoughts on “I (foolishly) ask if video games are art, and then I (even more foolishly) attempt to answer.

  1. Very well written and you made some good points. I also liked making my very own Jackson Pollock while I was reading. I wish all blog posts let me do something that fun.

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