Video Games: Art or Something Else?
Since Roger Ebert ignited this debate into a flame in 2005, arguments have been thrown back and forth until they seemed to be reaching the heart of the matter. Then they grew so passionate that rhetoric, long-winded and sometimes hyperbolic speeches, and finger-pointing accusations of ulterior motives entered the picture, and the whole thing fell into seething disarray once again. Great minds have thought the issue through in more depth than perhaps I ever could, and I do not write this article in the hopes that I can solve it. But with so many average consumers seeing the claim as an attempt to invalidate their pastime and feeling slighted, I think itâ€™s important to illuminate and try to answer the questions at the center of the issue for the public, so we can come to our own conclusions while respecting all perspectives.
When I first heard the debate, there were two thoughts that came to mind. The first was that I really didnâ€™t care if my occasional afternoon pastime was worthy of the term â€œart.â€ The second was that there are artistic people applying their visions to video games, such as Don Bluth and his revolutionarily â€œDragonâ€™s Lairâ€ (1983), a sort of interactive movie that helped validate giving video games the best animation available. How would he feel about the notion that this creation was less artful than his self-described most frustrating and least productive ventures into movies, such as The Pebble and the Penguin (1995)?
In this line of thought, we recently had a very thoughtful look into the debate from Doug Walker, who pointed out that the definition of â€œartâ€ does not depend on quality and that, with this in mind, the only question remaining is whether video games are high art. Like many before him, he argued that video games were still in their early stages of development, but the craft was improving. From there, he compared them to the recent graphic novels that have achieved breakthrough levels of acclaim and concluded that video games could indeed rise to such levels of greatness one day. He also added that he did not respect Roger Ebert any less for claiming they â€œnever have been, never will beâ€ butÂ arguedÂ that the critic might not have considered what progress over an era could do for the medium.
This, however, was not entirely an accurate summary of Ebertâ€™s argument. Quality was indeed part of his point, and you can admittedly sense some contempt in the way he emphasized that point above all others (though he still made interesting points on whether the format, intent, and desires usually served by video games made them inherently inferior to widely accepted artistic mediums). But Ebert did admit, through his follow-up arguments, that such shortcomings could be improved, even to the point where he conceded that â€“ though not in this lifetime and not so much that they would overtake the progress made in other artistic fields â€“ video games could indeed become great works of art one day. But there was another point in his and many other arguments that pointed out why video games might not fit the definition of art, low or high, in the present: Video games have rules. They can be won. Their structure isnâ€™t just a different way of expressing the creatorâ€™s vision. It creates an experience in which whatever personal expressions of the creator it contains might not be the foremost purpose.
Video games betray this fact with their very name, video games. If they fit the definition of art, do board games as well? Word searches? Puzzles? You can argue, for example, that a finished puzzle might show a picture that was conceived by an artist, but is the picture really the point? It may be art on its own, but isnâ€™t the puzzle just drawing from it to enhance the experience of the challenge it was created to present? And isnâ€™t a challenge that you can conclusively succeed or fail at the work of, say, a â€œdesignerâ€ or an â€œinnovator,â€ rather than an â€œartist?â€ For if a challenge is the work of an artist, wouldnâ€™t football, tag, and competitive auctions be works of art as well? Without drawing a line, you could extend it to every slightly innovative action performed by people every day.
All of the above challenges serve purposes, some of them great, but while acknowledging that the definition of â€œartâ€ will always be debated, I will make my stand and say that a challenge, in and of itself, is not art. By any definition of the term useful as a distinguisher, it is not. At the very least, the primary purpose of art must be an expression, not a test. An artist can present challenges to a viewer through their work, but something designed explicitly for the purpose of definitively being solved is not, in and of itself, art.
Where does this leave video games? Iâ€™ve already alluded to the fact that video games can contain artistic aspects, such as the animation, but if it is first and foremost a game, with artistic aspects merely used to enhance the experience, I would say, as a whole, it is not art. And this does disqualify a good number video games, undoubtedly such classics as â€œDonkey Kongâ€ and â€œPac Man.â€
But are all video games not art in this line of thinking? I refer you again to Don Bluthâ€™s â€œDragonâ€™s Lair.â€ It could be argued that everything in this game is designed to enhance the story being told, not the challenge. Each scene is given a wide and thoughtful array of details, portrayed through Bluthâ€™s typically superb animation. And the challenge presented to the player, to hit the right button on cue at the end of each scene, does as much to draw them into the action as it does to challenge their reflexes. More, you could argue, as most players had to depend on memorization rather than reflexes to succeed. Is this video game art? Perhaps not of the highest caliber, but by definition, I would have to say that it is. It can be won, but the effect of this emphasizes more that you have experienced the entire story than that you have trumped the creatorsâ€™ puzzle. And there are several video games that you could argue also use the interactive aspect to draw you into the story more than to challenge you (not that they canâ€™t still be challenging).
So then, some types of video games are art and others are not. But to reach this conclusion leads to another question (and, if it ever enters the mainstream debate, another angry backlash from a group of fans feeling threatened): Are video games in the former category superior to those in the latter? From what I just described, is â€œDonkey Kongâ€ inferior to â€œDragonâ€™s Lair?â€ And to this, I ask, is watching a football game â€œinferiorâ€ to watching Remember the Titans (2000)? Something may not fit the definition of â€œart,â€ but this does not necessarily make the positive emotions stemming from it less valid, and it does not mean that you must prefer all artistic experiences â€“ or any, for that matter â€“ to it. Having reached my own conclusion on whether video games are art, and hopefully done something to the benefit of yours, I now concede to the endlessly complicated world of preference and perspective. Even if we gain a qualification for whether a video game is art, it can still only meet that qualification in the eyes of the beholder. And this does little to determine which games are preferred by which players regardless.
I have no idea how the quality of video games will accelerate or if the acceptance they find as art will ever become too limited or too generous. But improve they will, and maybe someday, those that qualify as art will achieve the greatness of masterpieces and classics in todayâ€™s most respected mediums. And someday, probably much sooner, perhaps those that qualify as challenges will improve to the point where they join sports and game shows as societyâ€™s favorite and most widely popular competitions.