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On Video Games As Art

There’s a discussion that surfaces every now and then about whether or not video games qualify as art. You get some pretty heated debates from both sides of the argument. Roger Ebert famously argued that video games cannot be art in principle, but later backpedaled a bit, admitting his lack of familiarity with the medium. Ebert’s original position was later supported by Brian Moriarty in a rather lengthy defense. Conversely, Kellee Santiago began her 2009 TED Talk by saying that video games already are art, and brings up the games Waco Resurrection, Braid, and Flower as qualifying examples in her opinion.

Waco Resurrection
Waco Resurrection

Braid Screenshot
Braid by Jonathan Blow

Flower Screenshot
Flower by Thatgamecompany

As an installation artist whose experiences have mostly been within the contemporary art world, but who is now using video game as a medium, the issue is very relevant to me. It might seem like I’m flogging a dead horse, but there are some sides of the debate that I have not seen addressed yet. So, here are my two cents.

To address whether or not video games can be considered art, one must of course first begin by asking “what is art?” Santiago combines the definition from Wikipedia, that “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions”, with a statement from Robert McKee, that good writing is “motivated by a desire to touch the audience”, to arrive at the following definition:

“Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.”

Ebert himself tried to arrive at a definition of art, but his attempt was unsatisfactory, even to himself. On describing the works that he considered great art, he wrote:

“Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.”

I’m not going to refute the definitions that Santiago and Ebert have used. Both are valid in some ways, but also incomplete in others. What’s important here is that both Ebert and Santiago emphasize the capacity of art (at least when it’s good) to move people. However, a side of art that is rarely brought up in these discussions is that as it pertains to academics and institutions, ie the art world.

For better or for worse, the institutions of the art world – the galleries, the museums – have a huge impact on what we perceive to be art. In many ways, they are the standard by which works of art are validated. Take Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for example, a work which consists of a porcelain urinal that the artist had purchased and then wrote “R. Mutt 1917” on. If the work hadn’t been eventually adopted by the contemporary art world, and taken up in the collections of museums like the Tate Modern and the National Gallery of Canada, would we still attribute the same significance to it? Would it still be considered “an icon of twentieth-century art“?

Fountain by Duchamp

The art world, despite whatever grandiose notions we may attribute to it, is an industry. And like any other industry, it has commodities (art), manufacturers (artists), distributors (galleries), and consumers (collectors). There is an economy of supply and demand that drives the art world, and at the core of the economy is the following business model: selling limited number of goods at a high premium price to a small number of consumers. Most painters who are part of the mainstream art world do not try to sell ten thousand paintings as $100 each. Instead, they will sell twenty, at $10,000 each.

Video games, on the other hand, do not subscribe to this business model. Nobody spends 3 years making a game only to sell it to 5 people for $100,000 a copy. Not only does it not make sense financially, as most games tend to have a very high upfront investment cost in development, but also having multiple copies of a game does not devalue the work.

In art, having multiple copies of the same work lowers the value of each individual work. Scarcity is a huge factor in the pricing of art. It’s no secret that the value of a famous artist’s work will rise after the artist has passed away. From an economic standpoint, it is easy to see why. Production has ended, and the number of goods are now limited. A game, on the other hand, being a digital medium, does not derive its value from its rarity, but the experience it provides to the player. And your experience while you’re playing the game is independent of the number of copies that exist.

Art exhibition
An art exhibitition

As such, if we’re using the definition of art as a commodity in the art world, then video games will not be considered art, because they simply do not fit into that industry’s economics model. However, this is and should not be a problem. There are incredible works that wouldn’t fit, for example the majority of films and music, as well as a lot of performance and social activist art. As a brief aside, I should explain here that yes, I am aware of “art games” such as Feng Mengbo’s Long March, which is very much within the art world, but I consider these works to be in a very different category than most video games. It’s a fairly long topic that I hope to address in another post, but I’ll raise a few points here quickly. For one, it is not a work that can be accessed outside of a gallery or museum context, and in addition, the work is intended to be judged and viewed not at all as a game, but more as a statement. In fact, if one were to judge it as a game, I think it would fail tremendously.

long march
Long March by Feng Mengbo

This brings me now to the other definition of art, which is frankly, in my opinion, the much more important and meaningful definition: art as something that moves us, something that is the “evocation of the inexpressible”, as Moriarty defines. In this case, then yes, of course video games can be art. Certainly, not every game would qualify, just as not every single painting should be considered to be art, but there is absolutely no reason why the medium alone would exclude works from reaching this higher standard. The ability of video games to elicit emotions and move players is evident and cannot be denied.

While I would definitely agree that the canon of great works in video games is minute compared to more traditional mediums such as paintings or sculpture, it is a medium that is very much at its nascence. Not only has there not been enough time for it to grow and mature, the technical barriers of game development have also prohibited many otherwise brilliant artists from contributing. I am not saying that painting or sculptures are easy skills to master, but game development is a process that brings together a wide range of disciplines and which goes through massive technological changes at an extremely rapid rate. There is a good reason why most large games are made by teams consisting of tens or sometimes hundreds of people.

Luckily however, the barrier of entry is being lowered every day, as software and technology become more accessible, and as the general population becomes more sophisticated in its usage. The potential of video game as a medium for creation is staggering, and I truly believe that if more artists were aware of its power, and less intimidated by the technology, they would all be making the switch to this medium.

The creative ambitions of the mainstream game industry may be misplaced in trying to make better-looking shooters with bigger explosions. However, the technological advances that they push for trickle down and benefit the medium greatly as a whole. With this potential, and the entrance of more talented and creative individuals willing to challenge existing conventions and strive for higher goals, I have no doubt that works within the medium will one day reach the level of sublime. And isn’t that what art is about at the end of the day?

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