There’s a question that keeps coming up amongst gamers of all walks of life. It’s a monkey on our collective back and, for the sake of our beloved pastime, I want shot of it.
“Are games art?”
The answer is very simple. No, they are not, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain why.
When we use the term “video game”, we usually use it to describe a piece of software that has interactive elements, and often features a defined set of win and lose states, or a form of progression – either narrative or mechanical – that is perceived to be compelled forward by actions of the player.[drop]That definition pretty much covers it, but to re-appropriate and modify a phrase from a 1960s obscenity trial: you know a video game when you see it.
Still, the specific definition isn’t all that important anyway, all that matters is the word “software”.
All modern video games are software. Can we agree on that, fair reader? I think we can.
Software is not art – and indeed the argument is rarely made that it is. It can look beautiful when printed upon reams of paper, and the mysterious dance of logic occurring within the minds of programmers is a beautiful thing indeed, but at its core software is not art.
Software is a set of instructions for a computer system to read and execute, it’s no more art than the list your mum might give you to nip down the shops with.
Microsoft Excel may look nice, it even requires an artistic flare to create its UI, but ultimately it is a functional program designed to serve a purpose other than to engage the higher senses. It is a commercial product made to fill a role.
If we were to argue that Shadow of the Colossus is indeed art, then Excel would be the “No Flash Photography” sign hanging next to Team Ico’s portrait of Mona Lisa. It serves a purpose, even though it may indeed have artistic elements in its construction.
Software then: not art.
Video games, as we’ve agreed, are all software, given the term “video games” because they reside within a specific type of software category due to some of their shared characteristics. They’re not given this name for any reason other than this, and the term “video game” certainly shouldn’t be used to falsely elevate them in the conscience in terms of their artistic merit.
Games are not inherently art, because games are software, and software is not inherently art.
However, that is not to say that games cannot be art, or that there have not been games that have achieved the status of art.
To return to our earlier metaphor likening software to another medium, asking “are games art?” is like asking whether all still images are art. It’s a preposterous question, and it’s equally ridiculous when you boil down other art forms to their components, and ask that same thing.
Are all books art?
Are all films art?
Are all photographs art?
Are all actions within a theatre art?
Of course not. It is the way human beings react to and engage with the experience of the individual end product, made by the person or people working within their chosen medium, that determines whether or not something should be considered artistic.
Basically put: if I derive artistic enjoyment from something, whether in a passive or creative role, then that something could (perhaps even should) be considered to be art. Art isn’t in the components of the object, it’s in the person using those components to create the object.
With software, I can create a first person shooter with no other purpose than to make money, using a boilerplate design that’s taken from other products that have focus tested well, that is creatively bankrupt, but I believe will be commercially successful. Is this “art”?
Alternatively I can take the same medium and produce Killer7 – a visually evocative, tonally complex game about murderers that may or may not be machinations of a man with multiple personalities. Is this on the same level artistically as the example above? I do not believe that it is.
Think of it this way: give me a block of stone, and I can sculpt you a statue more beautiful and representative of the human form than Michelangelo’s David.[drop2]Or I could bust that exact same lump of rock into pieces and pave your driveway for fifty quid.
Video games are not art then, and neither is clay, or ink, or paint, or celluloid, or the human body moving across a stage. But they can be, and that’s what’s most important about this entire discussion that has become completely lost under a quagmire of blog-based bickering.
The material used does not dictate its artistic merit or its purpose, and video games are a material within which human beings produce work.
“Work” could be exactly that: the product of a task being fulfilled to meet a demand. But that work might also be the manufacturing of an emotion in physical form, or a rendition of an element of the human experience.
Work could tell a mediocre love story, it could sell you a bottle of cola, it could challenge your pre-conceived notions on a subject. But it’s not the building blocks of the idea that is the art, it is the idea itself that may or may not be perceived to be art.
Perhaps now we can start asking the real, and far, far more difficult questions.
Which games of ours do we consider to be art? Who do we want making these decisions for us? What criteria do we use to label them as such? Does a game have to evoke an emotional response to be called art? Should games strive to be art in the first place? What properties are uniquely “video game” that an artist might wish to employ? Who are the most important artists working today? If some mass-market games are art, then has the general population been swept up unaware within a renaissance?
The answer to these questions, I believe, will be far more interesting than endlessly revisiting the regurgitated responses to an overly simple question that never needed to be asked in the first place.