marcus westbury

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Are video games art?

June 18th, 2010 by marcus

ARE video games art? Is that even an interesting question? And how long does it take a new cultural form before people start to take it seriously?

The “are video games art?” debate has been simmering off and on for as long as I can remember but it has roared to life recently. Last month, American film critic Roger Ebert poured fuel on the fire in an article suggesting that video games “can never be art”. Australian film critic Lynden Barber ran some of the same arguments here. Tens of thousands of blog posts, comments, articles and accusations later – including quite a few in The Age’s own Screen Play blog – and it would be fair to say that there hasn’t been a lot of movement between the opposing camps.

I’m no objective observer on this one. I believe that video games are a significant, under-explored and under-appreciated cultural form. I grew up with video games. I love playing them both to mindlessly kill time and because I find them uniquely compelling. Six years ago my love of, and frustration with, video games led me to co-found Free Play, an annual independent video games festival and conference in Melbourne. The 2010 event will be at the State Library in August.

But I’m no unabashed apologist either. Structurally, computer games are an unimaginative industry. More often than not they fall well short of their creative potential and many people who love computer games will freely admit that. Free Play came in part from the passions of people whose creative ambitions were constantly thwarted by the commercial imperatives of their employers and was aimed in part to try to foster the same kind of independent sector for games that had long driven innovation in cinema.

Today’s computer games have a lot in common with early cinema. They draw on many creative traditions to create a new one. They can incorporate narrative, architecture, acting, drama, animation, choreography, music, pictures, text and cinema itself and fuse them to create something that can be powerful and experiential or – as I will admit is often the case – superficial and dumb.

So why might cinema be an art form and not games? Both Ebert and Barber rely largely on a quite technical line. A “game” by definition, they argue, is inherently based on rules and competition. Games and art are therefore irreconcilable. The argument to me ignores precedents such as dance – which has both competitive and artistic forms – and the reality of many computer games today that aren’t competitive games in the traditional sense at all.

This isn’t just a semantic debate though. It comes at a time when the Australian game community is political and active. Whether games are art or not is a question with powerful political consequences in a country unique in the world for having no R18+ rating for games.

Games are the only creative form – the only art form perhaps – where creators are banned from making works specifically for adults or dealing with exclusively adult themes. Given the average computer game player is about my age it should be no surprise that the government is being lobbied hard by gamers advocating a change of law.

But do I think games are art? Frankly I’m not sure it’s the right question.

Making games is a skilled craft.I’ve seen games that are as thought-provoking, beautiful, powerful and intriguing as any other cultural form but I wouldn’t suggest that all games are artworks.

It is the talent, tradition, motivations and the consequences of painting for example that defines whether it’s art or not, otherwise every house painter and signwriter would be queueing up outside the Australia Council.

I suspect the debate is largely generational. Games have already made their way into galleries, orchestras play their soundtracks, and their characters are familiar parts of many lives.

To paraphrase Max Planck, the games as art argument won’t triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up familiar with it.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jaymis Jun 18, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Every new generation makes new things that previous generations vilify.

    In this post-post-modern world, it’s art if the artist says “it’s art”.

    Any argument against any “work of art” as art can be flipped.

    “Structurally, computer games are an unimaginative industry.”

    Spent much time at drawing classes? Landscape photography? Seen many quantum leaps in painting technique appear in the last 50 years? The infinitely-vast majority of “art” produced throughout the history of the planet is utterly unimaginitive pap.

    “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll.” Shigeru Miyamoto

    Ebert and his ilk know that throughout history, new forms of art are always frowned upon by the old guard. Anyone entering into the “debate” enters it fully aware of that fact, so the only reasons I can think that they actually start it are:
    1. They just want to start an argument and get some attention, or:
    2. They think that they’re more special than Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali, Warhol, and all of the other grumpy geniuses that came before.

    Also, Penny Arcade said it very well:

  • 2 Bren Jun 23, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    The librarians at the University of Illinois at least recognise them as important cultural artefacts:
    “Saving “virtual worlds” from extinction”

  • 3 Boston UI Web Design Jul 1, 2010 at 1:37 am

    It’s really difficult to define art. I never really thought of games as pieces of art, but now that i think of it, who’s to say it isn’t art?