Good art in gaming

So recently (as in over a month ago – I moved recently, give me a break) Cary over at Recollections of Play (great blog, check it out) posted an answer to the question, “are video games art?” The short version being yes, and the long answer being maybe if video games can be considered more than their code, cartridges and consoles. She raised some excellent points about how we define art and how that affects our views of what is and is not considered art. Great post, MS DOS is brought up, check it out.

Thing is, however, I’m not a big fan of the question.

Are video games art?

I hear or read this and my first response generally falls along the lines of, “Fuck off son, we’re doing this again?”

I mean, it’s been eleven years since Roger Ebert declared that “Video games can never be art” and seven years since he wrote an extended article on that subject, in which time we as a community have written millions of words that amount to “what the fuck did Roger Ebert know about video games anyway?” (something that Ebert himself reflected on only a few months later). Art is an experiential thing. Without an audience, without emotional interaction, a painting is just paint, a sculpture is just broken rock and a video game is just code. If you’re not part of the audience then you have no right to judge it either way, and those of us who do experience it – those of us who make emotional connections and find our thinking being adjusted – have generally come to the conclusion that yes, video games are indeed art (at least as much as any other narrative media). Much like hardcore pornography, it’s hard to define but we generally know it when we see it.

So, are video games art?

Well, yeah. We’ve all pretty much agreed on that right?

Now, before I go on I want to make it abundantly clear that I don’t think there is anything wrong with having this discussion. Such weighty concepts as the definition of art should be constantly debated, lest our culture stagnates or some fuckwit compares Justin Bieber to Tennyson or Shakespeare or Kanye. Nor am I saying that the opinions of those who disagree – those who say, “no actually, video games are not art” – are wrong. To the contrary, that’s a perfectly valid thing to believe and I’d love to hear your arguments as to why. There can be no debate without respectful opposition. I mean, I’ll probably still end up telling you to fuck right off, but that’s just how I converse with everyone.

No, my problem is not that people keep trying to answer the question, it is that we as a community keep asking it. Over and over and over again. Even after all these years we seem unable to move past it, and that’s a problem because this is first year – first semester – Bachelor of Arts shit. Philosophy 101. The introductory chapter of that far-too-expensive textbook.

So what question should we be asking? Let’s start with “what makes a video game good art?” and go from there.

Let me put it this way: we don’t have a video game equivalent of the film Citizen Kane, often called the perfect movie, something that was pointed out by Roger Ebert himself. But then again, how the fuck would we know? Citizen Kane is considered a masterpiece because enough people – whose opinions we as a culture consider to be expert – tell us it is a masterpiece. They tell us that, according to the technological limits of the time, the direction and photography is perfect. They tell us that the acting is incredible. They tell us the script is superb. They tell us the story is incredible. They don’t tell you that you need to enjoy the movie to recognise it as a masterpiece (I personally think it is boring as fuck), but recognise it as a masterpiece you must. They have criteria, which the film in their subjective but educated opinions meets, so it is a perfect film.

We need our own. Narrative, gameplay, mechanics, style. What boxes need to be ticked, what weight should we place on the importance of each, and does a good game necessarily need to be good art? If we don’t figure this shit out then we won’t know when that perfect game comes along, or if it already has.

So yeah, video games are art. Now let’s start arguing about what video games are good art.

2 thoughts on “Good art in gaming

  1. Damn this question! 🙂

    However, “what is the Citizen Kane of video games?” is to good a question to leave, even if I did already kinda sorta try to answer it. (P. S. I’ve tried several times to get through Citizen Kane, and I…just…can’t.) The thing of it is: it’s personal. There’s something far more personal in how one experiences a video game over how one experiences a movie. Games are directed by you, the player. Movies are not. Even if a single game is telling us all the same story, each person’s route through that game depends on the person playing. True that I can’t alter the route of Citizen Kane any more than I can alter the route of Super Mario Bros., but at least I can manipulate Mario, have him work for or against me as I try to save the princess. *I* have nothing to do with the story of Charles Foster Kane. As for Mario, he is nothing without *me.*

    Hmm…maybe the key as something to do with narcissism and ego.

    And I still didn’t answer anything because my Citizen Kane of gaming isn’t going to be the same as your or anyone’s. Games aren’t like that. Maybe we can all agree that [x] might be the apex of gaming…but is it really? Rosebud, I suppose.


    1. That’s fair, and a really good point about who directs the action and how that affects our perception of quality. It’s hard to argue that the fact that Orson “fucking” Welles directed ‘Citizen Kane’ has something to do with the respect accorded to it.

      But I can’t help but feel that – and I absolutely hate myself for saying this – maybe this says something about the state of games journalism and criticism. Seriously, shudders running up my spine as I wrote that. We collectively agree that ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘The Godfather Part I’ and ‘Part II’ (but not Part III obviously) are great movies, and critics and journalists are the voices of the collective. That gaming critics and journalists are unable to act as the same sort of voice of the collective, well maybe that says something about the continued youth of the industry.

      Then again, we’ll never know if we don’t have these discussions. And fight brutally about which games we think are best.

      Liked by 1 person

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