The Pixellated Canvas: Video Games as Art

“Can video games be art?”

You’d be hard pressed to find a gamer who hasn’t endured this conversation, and it would be bloody impossible to find one that doesn’t have an opinion.  It’s the kind of strange issue that you can never achieve neutrality on, because even an: “I guess so..”  answer is firmly positive, allowing the humble, fickle world of video gaming some access into the shining halls of ‘better’ media.  And though we will try to be somewhat objective, we at wasduk find the question “can videogames be art?” to be almost as insulting as the question “can black people read?” or “can asians play sports?”.  But, by far the most insulting aspect of the question is that it’s still being asked to this day.

The issue gained unwarranted credence back in 2010, with film critic the late Roger Ebert’s ruminations on the issue, and has since sparked major discussion among critics of whether video games should finally be referred to as an “art form”.  For those who missed out on this, probably more concerned with the actual video game releases of 2010 rather than the consideration of misplaced experts, the full article along with suitably demeaning images of gurning 10-year olds can be found HERE.  If you can’t be bothered to click the link, let us sum it up for you with the excerpt that gave us the most cause for concern.  After being given several stellar examples (Braid and Flower being among them), he tells us that:

“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”

Well, there it lay.  Video games can never be art, because once they approach it, they cease to be games, and become an ‘experience’.  While we’re at it, let’s tag on some more pointless non-statements.

“Playing games for the story is like eating soup because you like the spoon” – Abraham Lincoln, perhaps.

obviously never played custer's revenge

obviously never played custer’s revenge

Or:

“PS3 has no games” – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Okay, we’re being slightly facetious, but we won’t accept 100% of the blame for that.  Laughable they may be, each of these statements makes about as much sense as Ebert’s assertion.  To make such a claim not only trivialises video games, but manages to place “art” on an even higher, hopelessly unattainable pedestal. This endangers art just as much, because without new examples of artistic expression, all we’re left with is stagnation.

Art is a fickle mistress, with a definition that is harder to pin down than a dodgy politician at a grease and floor polish expo.  What exactly is an ‘experience’, compared to ‘art’?  is ‘art’ not ‘experience’?  Is this not just rambling around the issue to keep the great unwashed masses of neckbeards marching into galleries with copies of Final Fantasy VI and getting their (okay, my) cheeto fingers over everything?

Perhaps it all depends on how you see art. To some, creative expression has to be visually beautiful to qualify, while to others it needs to stand up to analysis and variety of interpretation.  To other still, it need only be accepted by one of several artistic communities.  Gaming has checked all the boxes more times than an ADHD sufferer in a voting booth, but it doesn’t seem enough for the like of Roger Ebert.  It’s a relatively new medium, but these bullshit excuses only make the critics look like, well, bad critics.  They couldn’t get away with refusing to work with movies made after 1989, so why use that rationale to ignore an entire form?

These points aside, their words seemed to have only mixed impact. The Smithsonian chose a selection of 80 games via a public poll for an exhibition that in 2012, showcasing the “forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium”.  From “Pac-Man” to “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves”, the exhibition, shown from March to September 2012, examined the games as expressions of artistic creation, as well as the technological feats that brought them into being.  The New York Museum of Modern Art has showcased a number of influential

games since 2012, and is adding steadily to the number of games available for viewing  More information on the MOMA exhibit can be found HERE.

Though reception has been ultimately positive, some critics to the MOMA inclusion of video games remain steadfastly resolute.  For instance, Jonathan Jones and Brian Moriarty, both art critics for the Guardian (ooh, conspiracy) stand firm against platformers being allowed to drink from the same water fountain as cubism.  Johnathan Jones is by far the most scathing in his article, where he pronounces that:

“The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.”

Which you might want to read a few times, and allow your eyebrows to return to their normal place before continuing.  It seems an odd notion that games don’t give the creator’s personal view of the work when we can cite the cultural criticism of Rockstar’s GTA series or the underlying political ideologies of the Bioshock series.  We don’t even have to use well-accepted examples.  We can easily see what the developers of Bulletstorm intended, and they have left their indelible mark, whether we like it or not, on the game world.  Besides, haven’t art forms been muddling over the death of the author years now?

Despite this limited criticism, the reputation of video games (and as a result, the average gamer) hasbeen steadily growing more positive, and this recent acclaim from serious institutions and establishments only serves to distance us all from THAT stereotype.  Good thing, too.  For decades, the average gamer has been treated as the worst kind of social pariah.  The pasty, anti-socialite.  Dangerously overweight or dangerously underweight, but nowhere in between.  The kind of guy whose apartment will only see other human lifeforms when the police raid it and mistake his stack of western RPGs for “sword fetishism” and the media deem him unhinged because he has a copy of Gabriel fucking Knight.  This is, of course, discounting anyone young enough to be the ‘correct’ age to be playing games, but even then, they’re killing the hookers in GTA to get their money back, and will no doubt use these “murder simulators” to practice for the next school shooting.

less artistic than a mattress covered in condom wrappers

My point, in case it wasn’t thinly-veiled enough, is that gamers have a bad rap.  A terrible rap.  A terrible rap album.  Isn’t it a great achievement that games be considered art, so that we can leave those old, tired and above all dangerous stereotypes behind us?  When we play our PSP in public, why should it be any different to reading a book?  We’re perilously close to a new age, people.  One where, from time to time, someone might stop and talk to you about the game you’re playing rather than wonder what mistakes your parents made to raise such an obvious mental deficient.  Who could argue with that?

Apparently, gamers.  Not the cognoscenti of the art world.  Most of them, on the whole, don’t seem to give a fuck.  There’s a terrible kind of reverse snobbery going on, you see, peddled by the more ignorant members of the gaming community.  They seem to believe that Bioshock should have eschewed the objectivist philosophical discourse in favour of more guns (and were probably therefore responsible foe bioshock 2).  That the tension of Heavy Rain made for little more than a cinematic bore.  In short, they seem to think that once gamers embrace ‘art’, future games will be no more than impenetrable, turgid analyses of cultural epochs, and that anything that could be considered “fun” would be left wanting.  I can only assume that they’ve contracted some god-awful Stockholm syndrome and want to return to the good old days.  You know, the ones where nobody could call themselves a “gamer” for fear of ridicule, pity or outright disgust and it was considered the height of high-brow gaming humour to make the protagonist a fucking llama.  Perhaps they’re just scared.  Scared that the games they know and love will be swallowed up by huge, big-budget cinematic emptiness.  That their hobby will be overrun by soulless hipsters armed with a Wikipedia page and a well-rehearsed spiel on the obvious parallels between Superman 64 and Hobbes’ Leviathan (think about it).  Scared that there will be no room in the hobby any longer for people who just want to play games and have fun.  It’s a terrible knee-jerk reaction to assume it on such a grand scale, but it’s affected every other artistic medium, and it’s something that we, as gamers, need to weather, rather than deny.

Obviously, it fades with time.  Not all movies and books are created with artistic pursuit in mind.  Everyone can name fifty (shades of) novels written that are anything BUT artistic.  It’s not all going to become artsy-fartsy trash about the hopelessness of human existence.  I promise.  That’s not to say that everything will remain the same, however.  We live in a-changing times, and if video games can be blamed for violence across the board, then it at least has seriously credibility as a medium.  If we use this opportunity correctly, there’s no knowing how gaming as a hobby will end up, but it can’t be any worse than it’s been for the last few years.  By allowing gaming some modicum of respectability, we have the opportunity to drag it from infancy, and the only ones kicking and screaming seem to be those who don’t want anyone to experience anything more intellectual than collecting gold coins and constant button-mashing.

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