Are video games art?

Intern Journal #2

I’m not (and never have been) a gamer. Video games never appealed to me as a way that I wanted to spend my time—they seemed pointless, unless I was bored and desperate for something to do. Lately, though, I’ve been spending a lot of time with people who are absolutely passionate about video games. A lot of my assumptions about video games and the people who play them have been challenged—and, in many cases, totally shut down. In a conversation with a gamer friend of mine, he mentioned that Roger Ebert has made the assertion that “video games can never be art.” My friend said he didn’t think that that was true.

Roger Ebert says that a clear difference between video games and established art forms is that one can win a video game (it has points, objectives, rules, strategies) but one cannot “win” art, one can only experience art. But what if winning (or losing, if you’re like me) the game is part of the experience? And what about those Goosebumps books where you made decisions in the story to get to one of a few endings? Are they literary art, or are they a game?

On Monday, I was listening to NPR’s On the Media, and Brooke Gladstone was interviewing writer and critic Tom Bissell about why video games matter. He says that “[Good storytelling in games] actually gives you this unbelievably scary and weird and often very troubling kind of agency. And fiction can't do that, movies can't do that. That's the kind of things that I love about games, is those moments of just jaw-dropping scary freedom.” Video games, he says, are not the same as literature or film, and so they should strive to create a different kind of experience than the other two art forms. Comparing the video game experience to a reading experience or a movie-watching experience doesn’t make sense.

I decided to ask the experts: my gamer friends. One made an interesting point that “Without art video games would be boring and stale, with nothing to draw a player in,” and I think that’s pretty true. A sort of literary art draws people into the characters and story of the video game, as do the visual artistic effects that make a game aesthetically pleasant to partake in. Someone pointed out that video games can absolutely be art (using the Wikipedia definition: “the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions”) but that doesn’t mean that all video games are.

Another friend noted that making a video game “takes creativity and ingenuity,” but I wonder if that is all that it takes to make art. There are a lot of artistic components to video games, though, they all said. Appealing music and sound effects, design and coding, visuals, and storytelling all require a significant amount of artistic skill, and the collaboration among artists to create the final work, when done well, is impressive.

I’m not sure I have the right to make a call about video games’ artistic legitimacy, simply because I don’t play them. I wouldn’t comment on a film I’d experienced with the picture turned off (to use one of Tom Bissell’s examples), so why would I comment on another potential type of art which I have never really experienced?

It seems to me as though both sides have a point, but in order to come to a conclusion, we have to define art—something about which everyone has a different opinion.

What do you think?? Vote in the poll! (Look in the upper right of the blog.)

Read Roger Ebert’s argument here
Read the transcript or listen to the recording of the interview with Tom Bissell here
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