Editorial: Them Thar Vidja Games ‘n Art

Are video games art?

Roger Ebert, cantankerous old man, sly philosopher, and part-time movie critic, says no, quite famously. Video gamers and developers have been trying ever since. Ebert’s rebuttal has some gaming eggheads in a tizzy.

As a fellow egghead (BA in Philosophy from the University of Texas, represent!) I must find myself respectfully on the side of the garrulous geriatric, for part of the way, at least.

Art, that is, human endeavor that has as its primary purpose the stirring of emotions within the subject, has a tenuous connection to what we call art most of the time. Chalk this up to a few bits etymology, sprinkled with philosophy and theory to taste.

We have the “arts of war” and the “liberal arts,” but neither of these uses of the term “art” is precisely equivalent to “art” qua what Ebert is talking about. Is a painting art? Probably. Is me painting my wall art? No. Graffiti? Maybe.

A lot of it depends on the intent of the maker; the vandal who spray paints a giant penis on a billboard is not intending to make art but to deface a billboard. The clandestine muralist that reclaims a dilapidated urban space by spray painting a giant mural, on the other hand, can be said to be engaging in some form of artistry.

The common conception of “art proper” includes all of the visual arts, such as painting, sculpture, and architecture, and probably now also includes literature, film (and other broadcast media) as well as music. But is all music “art?” Should we grant the status of “true art” to Nickelback?

You can literally hear the suck from a silent picture
Sorry, Ginia... Nickelback is awful and a justification for pre-emptive nuclear strike.

To some degree, the precise circumference of “art” is a political game, and that is where Tycho is absolutely correct. The “old guard” (consisting on anachronists like Lusipurr and apparently Ebert) will suggest that the circle be drawn small, so as to avoid unfairly elevating dreck to the status of art. Radicals like Tycho, on the other hand, will enlarge it so that DeviantArt gets included, against all better sense of judgment and taste.

It is hard to say that, given the standard definition of art as an object whose purpose is to inspire an emotional reaction, DeviantArt/video games/Nickelback do not fit the definition. Perhaps as a matter of taste they should be excluded, but taste is irrational and will not suffice to ground a theory of art.

We might then compensate by discriminating between “pop art” (which is low-brow and can include tasteless things like Nickelback) and “high art,” which is reserved for really high-minded things like Reubens obsession with chubby girls (I wonder by former President Clinton did not decorate the West Wing in Reubens paintings). Art might include outstanding works of literature, like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, while Twilight (a… piece of writing… that certainly inspires strong emotions) gets to be pop art, but all this is doing is drawing two circles and saying, “some circles are more equal than others.”

Ebert, however, seeks to avoid this (at least when it comes to video games; no word on his views on Nickelback) by stating that because a game is a distinct activity with a goal in mind (winning, or at least no losing), it does not have the evocation of emotion as its primary purpose, and it cannot, a fortiori, be art.

This is an example of "pop art." If it can be a type of art, why not video games? At some point, the art label itself becomes too broad to be meaningful. Like furry "art."

If we grant the “traditional” definition of art, Ebert is entirely correct. A game is not art, though it may contain art and artistry, because it requires play between the gamer and the game system. However elegant and beautiful it is, then, it fails that litmus test.

But we have already identified the traditional definition as somewhat problematic. A straightforward logical application of the criterion reaches many things that are not art (e.g., Nickelback, Twilight) and might potentially exclude something that is art.

To that end, I propose a cessation of hostilities between the gamers and the fuddy-duddies. Who cares if video games are art, if ultimately, the name and prestige of being “art” is preserved only by political wrangling and the exclusion from that term things that lack serious emotional and intellectual value (like Twilight)? What benefit to gamers and game developers is being hailed as “art” if all it means is that developers get invited to swankier parties?

Humans love to find value in their work; they love to have their work recognized by external, social indicia of achievement. “Art” is one such trophy that any creative person might strive toward. But in the end, if all striving of art is toward nothing more than peer recognition, does not that taint the title itself? The high-minded nobility of art is supposed to be found in its purity, its elevation from the tangled mass of “viewpoint” that so clutters human experience. In this way, art is much like “objectivity” or “reason” or any other phantasy of the human mind. It is a good way of making us feel like we are more than we are, and in lying to ourselves about its nature, we tarnish an act of greatness by placing it on too high a pedestal.

Greatness in creative achievement can apply to all forms of creativity, from the rude clay sculptor, to a cave painter, to a caffeine-fueled code monkey grinding away at a video game. The difference is not between art and non-art, but between Chopin and Nickelback: one represents true excellence at an endeavor, and the other, a muddled jumble of sound strung together to make money off of gullible youth. To that end, I propose we celebrate not art but greatness, in all its forms, as something that might temporarily illuminate some small facet of the human condition.


  1. Lane could save some time by being on the podcast while sleeping! I’m sure it would still be the most intelligent episode of MAP ever (no offense meant to the rest of the staff :F). I wholeheartedly agree with this article. The whole games are/aren’t art thing has always seemed pretty pointless, and Lane summed up my feelings much better than I’ll ever be able to.

  2. if a game could be called “art” it would then be able to get one these things called a “grant”. that Molyneux prick was complaining about that a while ago on kotaku.

  3. Games are art piled on top of more art: an art omnibus, if you like. This is not true of all games, of course–but it’s not true of all movies, or all books, or all pictures, either. Those with artistic merit are art, full stop.

  4. Well said, Lane. There has been much interesting discussion across the interwebs of late concerning this very topic, with giants such as Kotaku and Penny Arcade weighing in with impassioned points and opinions.I think you might have taken the cake, though.

    It’s true, though: the reason gamers so badly want their favorite pastime to be recognized as art is simply because… well, it’s their favorite pastime. They’re tired of seeing it receive less recognition than mediums such as film and music, and they’re tired of seeing the mainstream media continue to represent videogames as child’s play, vehicles of moral corruption, or both.

    Of course, people such as Ebert aren’t much better, sitting back and critiquing a medium they know nothing about. But I think it might be a bit late in the game to change Roger Eberts’ opinion of what qualifies as art.

  5. Sorry to contradict, but I have absolutely no interest in trying to raise up video games as an art form just because I have an interest in them. I don’t believe Cricket is an art, or that travelling is an art, or even (believe it or not!) that studying literature or history are arts in and of themselves, and yet I do all of these things–and some of them I enjoy even more than Video Games.

    Neither is sailing an art, or horseback riding, or playing video games, which I would point out is what people would defend as art if their interest was purely self-aggrandising.

    The reality is that games can be (and with increasing frequency) are an artistic endeavour. They are created by artists, they produce an emotional response, they are written as art, they are drawn as art, they are composed as art, they are filmed as art, they are spoken and acted as art. They are art, art, art, art, and art, piled on top of art, like a giant art Double Down sandwich.

    I hate Flower, the game, but I would not generally deny that it is very artistic. Braid is very artfully done. But, if you want to see the artistic height of the genre, look to the most emotionally moving games: Lost Odyssey springs to mind as a recent example, but also Final Fantasy VII, or Final Fantasy VI. Who was not moved when Aerith died? Who, when they saw the Opera scene in VI, was not marked with an indelible impression of the scene? These are emotional responses to something artistically designed to produce those emotional responses: just like any other movie, song, picture, book, play, musical, or peroration. Deny the artistic quality of one, and you must needs deny it to all those arts which share the same affinity.

    If you really want to accuse me of being self-interested, you can chalk it up to my general rule that I prefer to be on the right side of history. If you don’t know which way the wind is blowing at this point, you’re an imbecile.

  6. *Stands up and starts to slowly clap, a single tear rolls*


    -There are more video games that are NOT art than ARE art, but then there more films which are NOT art than ARE art, so I guess neither medium is an ARTFORM. The DROSS ALWAYS wins out over the quality, because people prefer BAD things.

    -^Ditto for music.

    -Nickleback is proof positive that there is nothing good or just in this world.

  8. -Oh apart from Russia, they banned Emos from their public spaces, Russia is OK.