[10 June 2010]
Lots of people are tired of the “are video games art?” debate, and I get that. Because in the real world, very few people care whether or not something is art. My assumption is then that, if you’re one of the few who actually asks or offers an answer to the question, then you should be interested in what other people are saying. One of the nice things about being a contrarian of sorts, as I am, is that you’re never much surprised when people that you admire say things that are clearly wrong. So Roger Ebert and PZ Myers have both not only stated that games aren’t art, they’ve argued those positions with more than a little stubbornness. I like what Ebert has to say about movies and what Myers has to say about biology and atheism, but they’re both just wrong here.
What’s missing from most of these debates is a firm definition of what art actually is, and I think the “anti-games as art” folks try not to be pinned down here because it’s impossible to pen a definition of art that games wouldn’t fit comfortably within. They tend then to go with the porn-like definition of: I know it when I see it. I’ll argue using any definition anyone chooses, but for now, I’m going with my own: “a creative expression designed to provoke an emotional or intellectual reaction from the audience.” Obviously all the heavy work in my definition is being done by the words “creative expression” and “reaction,” which are open to many interpretations. I include within the spectrum of creative creations: music, painting, illustration, prose, poetry, drama (staged or filmed), dance, sculpture, architecture, games (video and otherwise), and, well, I know I’m forgetting some things.
That bit about provoking an action needs a little bit of refinement when we’re talking video games. Few would deny a painting the status of art just because it causes some people some outrage or sadness or other discomfort. Likewise, a painting can still be art and can also be boring. I’ve stood in many a museum before many a finely wrought oil painting of some dreary European Landscape and felt nothing but bored. Likewise, video games can most definitely be boring, and they can certainly cause outrage and sadness. But video games can be almost uniquely frustrating. I can think of no other art form that carries such capacity for frustration because of course there’s that whole “game” part of being a video game. Games mean challenges and competition and playing by some set of rules. Most art is entirely passive, and, thus, there’s very little chance for you as the viewer to affect the experience.
This potential to frustrate, born as it is from gaming’s interactive nature, is, of course, also the reason that video games are transcendent art. Watching a play isn’t frustrating, nor is listening to a symphony. But forgetting your lines as an actor or screwing up your violin solo as a performer are incredibly frustrating. The well executed video game blurs this line between performer and audience, and when it works, it takes the best of both worlds and creates a unique and moving kind of experience. You the player are simultaneously actor and audience member. You’re first chair violin to the game designer’s composer and conductor. You get the thrill of knowing that your performance helps create the whole experience and the excitement of seeing an artistic endeavor unfold before and around you. Nothing else that I can think of does that quite the same way or quite so well. That’s moving, and it’s art.
To me, this is all painfully obvious. But for others, mostly (but not only) people who don’t play many games, the idea of games as art seems ridiculous, an impossibility. Ever one to take up a cause and let my blood boil with pitiless disdain for those who disagree with me about the obvious, it’s both my pleasure and duty to use this space right here to do my part and lob some rhetorical bombs into the enemy camp. And by rhetorical bombs, I mean incontrovertible examples of instances where the creative expression in a video game provoked some sort of reaction in me. I’ve found my Moving Pixels Blog Vocation, and it is simply this: to catalog those moving moments, those instances of art, so that when someone asks the silly question, “are video games art,” I’ll have put an ammo dump of examples out there for the naysayers to reference. I hope that you’ll all do the same. Because if video games aren’t art, then nothing is.