Are Video Games Art?

Spend enough time around internet forums and video games and you’ll encounter the same tired pseudo-intellectuals that pretend to philosophize about arts and entertainment.  There is always a trend, no matter the fandom, to take your hobby a little more seriously then it probably deserves.  There isn’t usually anything wrong with that, so long as you don’t go overboard and start calling it something it isn’t or investing unhealthy amounts of time into it.  Hobbies are, after all, hobbies.

But then again, we’re talking about video games here.  For the record, I don’t mind video games in general.  Like most of my generation, I play and have played quite a few of them, although increasingly I have less and less time for that.  Also, as I’ve gotten older, my priorities have shifted toward other projects and my family life.  All the same, I can usually appreciate a good game, and like plenty of others, I don’t hesitate to announce my disgust at games that have wasted what little time I have to play them.

This post turned into something of an extension of a From the Shelf piece I did on Wednesday.  Check that out if you have the time, because I’ll be expanding on some of those ideas here.

Gaming Vs Art

If you’re at all interested in gaming, then you’re already familiar with arguments that attempt to categorize gaming as an art form.  The arguments go something like this: games are a form of entertainment, and they’re cinematic or at least narrative-driven, or at the very least, they have the potential to be.  Other mediums of art can also be cinematic or narrative driven, and they exist apparently for the sake of entertainment (read: modernity’s secular alternative to aesthetics).  Ergo, video games—like movies and studio albums—comprise a new artistic medium for creators to work with.

This seems sound enough on the surface.  Studios like Quantic Dream have produced glorified choose-your-own-adventure style games branded as “interactive storytelling,” with titles like Fahrenheit, Beyond: Two Souls, and most recently, Detroit: Become Human playing more and more like films that have brief periods of more traditional third-person problem solving action thrown in.  Not that a game needs to go to this extreme in order to be cinematic; as Half-Life and its later sequel both demonstrated more than a decade and half ago, level design, props, and scripts are capable enough to handle all the important narrative elements in a way that preserves player mobility and freedom within the game.

We can see the emphasis on narrative in gaming all over the place.  Even the most basic of shooters maintain some basic elements of narrative by design: each level has objectives, the player experiences tension as he crawls through traps and blasts enemies, and the reward at the end alleviates the tension like a dénouement after a climactic boss fight.  Even without cutscenes or voice actors or narration, the games come ready-made, apparently, with an intrinsic story-like experience.

There is a problem with this interpretation, though.  The presence of narrative has very little to do with a categorical accusation of a piece’s artistic merit.  In some mediums, it’s necessary—in literary fiction, for example, as well as arguably in music.  In others, however, such as the great painted works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the presence of narrative isn’t as simple as a structured play’s narrative.  Symbolism and relation take priority over realistic depictions of historical, mythical, and biblical scenes.  Art of this sort may be trying to communicate a message, but more importantly, it is trying to beautify its surroundings simply by its presence.

But, even assuming the presence of narrative doesn’t automatically imply a piece has artistic merit, let’s simply assume that video games, by virtue of being cinematic, fall into that group of artistic mediums that require it—like novels or, if you’re an IMDB forum veteran, films.  Great.  But what’s the one thing video games have that the rest of the entire art world lacks?  Here’s where the argument falls apart.

Video games didn’t simply erupt out of nowhere with the invention of Pong back in 1972.  Video games grew out of a culture already familiar with tabletop gaming.  There’s a reason that text-based adventure games were some of the most popular early games until graphics and processing power started to catch up in the early 90s—the people designing and playing them were already fans of things like Dungeons and Dragons.

Not all video games started with RPGs in mind, obviously, but they started from real-world analogues of games—sports games, like tennis and its relation to Pong, to board games like chess or backgammon or card games like poker.  The athleticism of sports games was replaced with forcing the player to get minutely accustomed to differences in timing or speed, thinking quicker or differently along the way.  In a manner of speaking, video games are essentially matches of speed chess played with radically different controls and on different-looking checkerboards, but the fundamental principle is the same: win, and preferably, win quickly.

This is a key part of the differentiation between video games and art: no one would look at a game of chess—the game itself, not its pieces or however fancy the board looks—and call the game a work of art.  They might vaguely announce that this game or that game of chess “was like” a work of art, perhaps intending to comment on the ingeniousness of certain plays, but the absurdity is akin to remarking that the strategical and athletic intersection of a particular Super Bowl game was a work of art.  It’s a complete misuse of the term.

At its most basic level, gaming exists to entertain people, which in this case entails providing an artificial conflict for the player in which his winning or losing is a matter of how well he masters the controls and rules of the game.  That isn’t an artistic decision, it’s an engineering one.  Playing a game, regardless of whether it’s Call of Duty or Chutes & Ladders is simply an entertaining exercise in problem solving where the objective is just to win.

Art lacks this objective.  It must.  Introducing the concept of winning and losing introduces stakes.  Art belongs to the aesthetic, not purely to entertainment.  You don’t read a novel in order to somehow beat the novel.  You don’t listen to Mendelsohn’s symphonies in order to win against them.  And you can’t conquer Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.

Redefining Art as Entertainment

How did we get here?  How is it that the defining characteristic of art—its beauty—has been so degraded and forgotten that art has become so easily confused as a mere artifact of entertainment?  From whence sprang the artistic relativism that decided art no longer had either a definition nor a purpose—that tired phrase heard across too many institutions and in every corner of the sphere of entertainment: anything can be art!  That statement was the white flag raised by the few critics who still cared after they had surrendered every battleground on which this particular front of the culture wars was being fought.

But maybe you’re saying, “what’s the big deal?”  Maybe the disintegration of the arts doesn’t really mean anything to you.  Maybe your history instructors all told you that art throughout human civilization has been little more than a futile exercise that people indulged in because they were bored, and he never bothered to extrapolate why anyone bothered to make anything beautiful.  Or maybe you’re one of those relativists that seems to think beauty is entirely, utterly, one-hundred-percent decided by the eye of the beholder.

Here’s the problem: once you label anything art, and once its defining characteristic is simply a matter of entertainment, then its importance to civil society becomes quantifiable and measurable in dollars and price tags.  It becomes a commodity.  This is true both with so-called high art (although the nepotistic communities that high art still matters to have all but admitted that it’s little more than a money-laundering racket) as well as with the kitsch “low art” that you’ll find donning the fronts of greeting cards, movie posters, and DeviantArt accounts.  The same principle applies to pop music sales, to the film industry, to publishing—to pretty much every sphere of entertainment you can imagine.  There is one thing that is of importance: will the product sell?

So that’s where we’re at now.  Look around yourself, go into a city, drive to work.  Try to find one single patch of beauty that has been glorified by human hands.  You can’t do it.  In the pursuit of greater markets and global economy, patronage turned to investments.  Investments need to pay off.  And the art produced by artists who have removed themselves from the mold, who have “matured” to the point that their art is cowardly self-depreciation wrapped in nepotistic irony, is elitist trash unfit for consumption.  The only alternative, as Roger Scruton has observed again and again, is the kitsch.  And the kitsch isn’t beautiful.  It’s dumb.

There’s no other option for the word’s definition.  All that is left to art is entertainment.  The age has dispensed with the lofty aspirations of glory, beauty, and the upward yearning of the soul; instead, catering to the most base desires of human ignorance and savagery is enough.  The markets turn by impulsiveness and utility.  Where one fails, the other picks up the pieces.

The demand-oriented economy of the post-industrial market feeds on the impulsiveness of the crowd.  Most of us are too illiterate to even recognize art when it’s staring us in the face, seeing instead pretty pictures that were boosted into public consciousness by means of ironic billboard spoofs or advertisement farces.  When art has been reduced not just to simple entertainment, but even further still, into a means of advertising, then it becomes clear how worthless the modern system considers such an endeavor.  Art is just a means to an end.  Artists are just producers.  Picasso acknowledged this fact in his studio, perhaps cynically, and yet despite being such a prominent figure in the art world at the time, he decided to capitalize off of it while languishing in private bitterness.

The first attack upon art came when it was anonymously decided that anything could be considered art.  No one really believes this, but modern parlance decrees it.  No one believes that the newest Avengers movie is anything other than a blockbuster popcorn flick designed to sell tickets and toys.  No one would try to argue, seriously, its importance as a cultural artifact on the scale of, say, the Sistine Chapel or Don Quixote.  Those that might attempt such an argument would be appropriately ridiculed for being tasteless idiots.

But the problem remains: most who would listen to the argument and dismiss it out of hand would still end up placing The Avengers on the same sliding scale as the others, purely on the basis that it’s some form of entertainment and, Don Quixote being a book, it too must be some form of entertainment.  Education into the aesthetics, even at our culture’s most supposedly learned elite, is a joke.   There is no respect given to the arts because the arts have been intentionally destroyed.  Beauty, and the reverence for it, have been forsaken.  Convenience and luxury, both byproducts of the markets, have taken their place.

With all of this in mind, it should be no surprise that video games have been confused as some ridiculous art form in the present age.  Games serve an entertaining venue of escapism for more than one generation of disaffected men who have inherited a civilization in decline.  The word “art” still holds some value as something of value, even though most of these people have lost touch with exactly what sort of value it once referred to.  You can have good games, but there’s nothing artistic about them.

But as for the bigger picture?  I’m not so sure art can be taken seriously by the present age.  It can be made, certainly, but it will be out of time and place.  Art, at one time, was intended to be absorbed and appreciated by its contemporary audience; today, however, all that can be appreciated by contemporary audiences is whatever is immediately gratifying and knowable.  Divorced from beauty and truth, art services simply the needs of a philistine mass who are either high on either their own intellectualism, in the case of the art houses, or too dulled-about-the-senses to realize when the wool is being pulled over their eyes.  The great traditions of art gifted to us by our ancestors have been slowly and methodically pushed into graves and buried under decades of anonymous criticism too boring to actually read.

We can at least try to acknowledge, appropriately, what art even is in the first place, and to cease attributing to it things that are simply fun or entertaining.  Art must be beautiful and it must be transcendent.  It doesn’t operate according winning or losing, or graphics updates, or DLC.  It has nothing to do with playable characters or virtual equipment or some illusion of agency with regard to narrative.  Art connects you to truth through the glorification of beauty.  Vessels of escapism are wholly unequipped to tackle that.

2 thoughts on “Are Video Games Art?

Add yours

  1. Woo, posting a comment on a blog I’m technically a part of!

    Anyway, good piece as always. I remember us talking about this, and I’m glad you put your points from then into a post. I feel the point of “Games can be good, they just aren’t art” is an important one; as you said then, it’s like a meal. A meal can be very good- it can be delicious and healthy- but that doesn’t make it art. With video games there’s plenty that are very good, both in terms of entertainment value and even occasionally being thought provoking to some degree (though successful cases of such are rare indeed; most attempts are merely pretentious, with genuinely interesting games like NieR: Automata and Yume Nikki being uncommon exceptions) but they still can’t be art.

    I feel in today’s society, the word “art” has been corrupted somewhat to mean “Anything I think is good”. Whether this is as you say out of a need to cling on to what remains of social order or whether it’s an attempt to defend their favoured entertainment from criticism, be it justified (“This game is really bad because it doesn’t work properly and the story is nonsense”) or unjustified (“This game is really bad because the main female character is traditionally feminine and that makes me feel insecure about my crazy ideology”), or indeed both, is certainly a question, but the end result is the same; the word “art” has lost its value, and undue worth is placed on things that really don’t deserve it.

    Like

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