|A Rose By Any Other Name
What is art? Is it painting or sculpture, music or literature? Do we include film and television? What about abstract and modern art, which often bare no resemblance to things real. What if art is something that stirs emotion, that allows the observer to connect with the artist? Does that then make one thing art for this person but not for that one? In that case, are they both still art?
The reason I bring up these questions is this; lately the topic has been bandied about as to whether or not video games are art. Some people, such as Clive Barker, argue that video games are art because of the emotional aspect they convey to the player. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, believes that games are not art, primarily because the medium is malleable; the agency of the player takes away from the artistic intentions of the artist. Both sides have argued vehemently on the subject, and no real progress has been made. And while we now have symphony orchestras playing video game music in concert halls and game artwork given awards, there exists no general consensus on the issue.
However, my intention is not to argue the case of games as art. Personally, I believe that video games should be considered an art form, but that's not where this editorial is heading. I believe “are video games an art form?” is the wrong question. Instead, it should be “should it matter?” Consider the following; if video games were considered art, would you enjoy them more? Would society's validation of games as an art form make gameplay more intuitive, or music better composed? Would graphics suddenly become sharper, more realistic, more emotionally evocative? Would stories improve? I think we can probably all agree that none of that is going to happen simply because the medium has a new label.
What about the other side of the argument? If video games were never considered art, would that decrease your enjoyment? If you're not enjoying the "game" aspect of video games, but rather the artistic, then you (and possibly the developer) have lost focus as to the original purpose of a game: to provide entertainment, allow the player to obtain and use skills, and offer a challenge to overcome. All three aspects could be considered irrelevant for a work of art, but if games don't have them then they stop being games.
This brings me to the crux of this editorial. It seems as if the push for “art form” status really stems from fans' need to legitimize their hobby. For years, society has treated video games as a trivial diversion at best, a dangerous form of escapism at worst, and always the province of children. For those reasons, there is often a social stigma attached to adults who play video games. Enter the “games as art” debate. To remove the stigma, what better way to do it than to get your hobby elevated to the status of art (though try telling that to students at an arts college)? As a gamer for decades, and having received awkward reactions from colleagues when I self-identify as one, I certainly can understand the gamer mindset. Yet, attempting to garner a more "respectable" status for your hobby just reinforces the notion that the hobby is not respectable. The effort gamers put forth to argue for games as art would be better spent reinforcing that games are respectable as games. Only then will the stigma goes away.
So the next time you feel the need to vent against Ebert or lionize Barker, take a moment to think about what you're really arguing, and make your case for games as good enough for you.
- Damian Thomas