Video Games and Art: A Debating Ouroboros

 

There’s a lengthy three-pronged introduction to this article.

The first is that while I usually refrain from cursing in this blog, this debate frustrates me in ways that I didn’t think were possible. If there’s a haughtiness or a shortness or an anger to my words, then that’s probably why.

Prong numero duo is that as the title suggests, this whole discussion is basically a snake chowing down on its own tail ad infinitum, so as the words I will fill this blank space with germinate in my head, I’m not sure I’ll come to much by way of a definitive conclusion (and maybe, just maybe, that’s okay). Finally, prong #3 : This is an emotional debate regardless of which side of the fence you fall on. You are likely to have a response that is at least charged by emotion to a degree. If you do, please, please refrain from making outrageous suggestions or personal remarks about my character. Impolite and out-of-line comments will be moderated, which is something I never, ever do. I establish these terms not just for my own good but also the good of my readers; for some reason, if you tell a gamer that video games do not fall into the same category as “art”, they take it as a personal slight, though in all fairness the same could be said if you reversed that statement and told an art enthusiast that video games are art. (How dare we allow games to play in the same sandbox as art!)

Because I don’t want to lead anyone astray, my position in this argument is simple: No, video games are not art. They contain elements of art and artistry, but primarily they’re games. Additionally, while I believe that they’re not art, I also think that it’s possible that some day video games could very much be categorized as art the way that a film is categorized as art. And most of all, I don’t take this position because I disdain the idea of games being treated the same as art, but rather because, frankly, I don’t see the necessity behind identifying games as works of art.

The real aggravation of this entire debate is that both sides are totally wrong. If you’re unfamiliar with the general conversation, all you need to do is visit any geek-culture Internet message board and do a search for threads about video games and art. (Or just Google search. You’re bound to come up with something.) Be warned– if you have not been exposed to what I can only describe as a giant pissing contest between art snobs and nerds, you’re probably better off staying blissfully ignorant. Of course if you’re anything like me, that’s not much of a deterrent. The Cliff Notes version of the “video games as art” kerfuffle is that both sides, attempting to prove the other wrong (as is often the case in such conversations– hell, I just did the exact same thing at the start of this paragraph), fashion definitions of what is and isn’t art that either are so narrow as to exclude video games, or so broad that one could potentially apply the label of “art” to, say, a basketball court.

Artistic, but is it a work of art?

And that’s a major problem. Why? Because once you start to treat everything as art, you devalue art. Tell me with a straight face that something like the Mona Lisa would mean as much as it does if we lived in a world where a shuffleboard player could be counted among the likes of Shakespeare or Leonardo. Not to say that the guy who paints the lines on a basketball court or a football field isn’t, at the very least, using artistic techniques to achieve his end, or even that that guy isn’t an artist. Regardless of those two facts, I doubt even the most hardcore defender of the “games are art” creed would care to treat the labors of turf/court painters as art.

I’ll stop there, because I’m almost beating up on the gamer side of the fence. The artist side of the fence is guilty of trying to define terms, too, and while their efforts don’t lead to stuff that is certainly not art (Darts! Skee ball!) being labeled as art, they ought to know better than to try to sculpt a definition of art. Why? Because people have been trying to do so for years and nobody’s successfully produced a universal definition of “art”. Seriously! Hundreds of thousands of years of artistic endeavors and honest to God, we as a collective people don’t have one single standing definition that identifies what, exactly, it is that makes art art. Maybe this is the most ludicrous part of the discussion, for me: If y0u refer to any varied number of sources which try to define, in no uncertain terms, what “art” is, you’ll find that they’re all pretty different from one another. For example, as Thomas Adajian writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Traditional definitions, at least as commonly portrayed in contemporary discussions of the definition of art, take artworks to be characterized by a single type of property. The standard candidates are representational properties, expressive properties, and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterized by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive, and formal properties.

(Source.)

Adajian immediately goes on to qualify this particular definition can very easily be identified as vague and therefore somewhat problematic. What’s more, his essay articulates a number of points from additional sources that suggest that the very act of composing a formal and bullet-proof definition of “art” could be considered a negative influence– though I must at this point direct you to the incredibly detailed entry for further review, so as to avoid filling my own work with quotations of Mr. Adajian’s beautifully researched essay. Instead, let’s turn to one of our most precious resources, the dictionary, for perhaps a more generic definition of art:

1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

(Source.)

This definition highlights perfectly the flaws inherent in trying to construct a working definition for what is and is not art. How vague and imprecise is that? Operating under that concept of “art”, you could point to just about anything and call it so– which, as I’ve already suggested, only does artistic endeavors a disservice by devaluing what art can be. Meanwhile, Stephen Davies, in his book Definitions of Art, identifies two approaches– functionalist and procedural– to answering the question of art’s definition:

The functionalist believes that, necessarily, an artwork performs a function or functions (usually, that of providing a rewarding aesthetic experience) distinctive to art. By contrast, the proceduralist believes that an artwork necessarily is created in accordance with certain rules and procedures.

(Source.)

Mr. Davies also points out that artists and philosophers over the centuries all have held dear specific characterizations that to them are emblematic of the unique nature of art. In short, this further supports the idea that we cannot refer to a single standing definition of art as the accepted definition. Art, across history, has meant a number of different and personal things to a large variety of our greatest thinkers and contributors to the progression of the arts: What art meant to them and what art should mean to all of us cannot be easily classified in a pithy, one-sentence definition.

For the “video games are art” camp, this probably seems a lot like good news. One could certainly make the case that given the broad and diverse nature of both historical and contemporary opinions on what constitutes art, there’s plenty of room for video games to be classified as a modern interpretation of art. At the same time it must be taken into consideration that counting video games among other art forms opens the doors for activities most might consider non-artistic to be also considered as works of art. It’s up to those who believe video games deserve to be treated the same as the films that come and go through multiplexes and art house theaters to decide whether or not that’s acceptable. But just as Mr. Adajian asserts that strict definitions of what can and cannot be considered art could constitute a harmful influence to creativity in artistic circles, a definition that’s too broad as to allow a completely different discipline such as “games” could equally be detrimental. What would you say to someone who considered a LeBron James across-the-court basket as artistic as the Mona Lisa?

What the works cited here (and, I wager, others) do tend to agree upon is that the properties of art– its aesthetic qualities and its expressive nature, for example– are unique to the experience of observing a work of art. This is what I mean when I say that as you label more things as art, “art” begins to lose its meaning and therefore its power to effect and move and inspire us. If anything can be art, then the singular and individual characteristics of art no longer can be called either, thereby depriving art of its meaning and purpose.

And being totally blunt, so too does labeling a video game “art” rob the game of its purpose.

What constitutes a game can be much more easily outlined than what constitutes art. Art– the state of being a work of art– is far more nebulous, but there are objective parameters to what defines a game. Games are quite clearly defined as, “competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators,” according to just about any dictionary you could care to reference– taking into account the single-player nature of a large number of today’s popular gaming titles. In other words, games fill a niche of their just like works of art. Shouldn’t games be celebrated for what they are rather than what they aren’t? Why do games need to be thought of as art? Is the act of playing a game somehow itself not respectable or worthwhile enough on its own merit?

Look at it this way. If one considers the “power to effect and move and inspire us”, as I mention above, to be close to the essence of art, then one could make the case that video games are exactly art because one can experience catharsis from playing through some of the more weighty games released in the last decade or so. Games no longer are satisfied with having you storm the castle to find your princess, or do your damnedest to keep from dying of dysentery; aside from superior graphics and game play, they boast involved and complex narratives that often lead the main character (and by extension the player) toward some kind of emotional release. Even those that don’t– the games that you just play because they’re fun– can be described as an emotional experience. But again, the more that we try to define these two disciplines using these terms, the more vague the dialogue gets and the more that we can start to identify anything we feel emotion over as art. If emotion is the basis by which we determine what is and isn’t “art”, then I could call my upcoming wedding a work of art. And I’d be wrong.

So how do we draw the line between games and art and identify them as separate disciplines? The most obvious signifier that differentiates the two is the victory clause; you don’t win at art. A work of art itself contains no competition, one of the biggest defining features that separates a game from a work of art. A video game therefore does involve competitive aspects, and arguably the competition is more the point than any emotional satisfaction one can experience from playing it because those emotional responses are conditional upon meeting the criteria required to secure victory. (Though admittedly one certainly does have fun while playing the game and not just when they beat it.) The inclusion of competition alone should be more than enough to distinctly identify video games as using elements of artistry to present their challenges in much the way that a game of chess does– the chess board might be artistic in nature, being a sculpture, but chess isn’t art. It’s a game. See what I mean?

The other big thing is interactivity, but I rather think that this is something of a vague identifier that’s a little trickier to fall back on. Video games are primarily interactive and secondarily observational (especially when speaking of the big title video games, like Blizzard’s Starcraft II, that make heavy use of cinematics to drive the narrative of the game), but observing and engaging in maybe a painting or a film requires interaction of its own since you’re actively viewing and processing and interpreting the work. But interactivity in a video game is totally different from interactivity in a movie/painting, driving the experience totally and fully– while interaction in both is meaningful, it’s much more essential to successfully enjoying a game.

The real crux of this argument comes down to precedent. We can argue about family resemblance all we want, and I think that that’s an important part of the debate that often gets overlooked, but when all is said and done there is no precedent at all for considering games of any kind as art. For all of the commonalities between storytelling mediums like film and literature none of them have ever depended so heavily on audience participation to employ their narratives and move their plots forward. To even begin thinking about video games as art, anybody must acknowledge right off the bat this glaring discrepancy between these games and the works of art that they are alleged to equate with; surely the fact that it’s up to the audience to fully tell the story, and the fact that getting to the end of the story requires besting an artificial intelligence in a number of competitive and/or challenging scenarios, should be reason enough to pause and consider what those differences mean in the context of this debate.

If there’s anything about this discussion that causes the vein in my neck to throb with raw fury, it’s that. There’s no consideration from anyone, just flat and objective claims as to the speaker’s correctness. It’s not that simple. Even I’m not sure how rock solid my position is, despite feeling pretty confident in my beliefs and the research I’ve done to support them (and even more confident that at the end of it I’m more right than I’m wrong; at the very least I’d like to think that I’m persuasive and coherent). But even if I’m wrong here and my research is faulty, at least all of that forethought is there. That said I implore anyone engaging in this discussion to consider the points outlined here; even if the definition of “art” is vague and difficult to pin down, video games don’t strictly fall under the parameters of what traditionally passes as art, despite all of their similarities. And there’s more on the table than just a divergence of opinion over whether video games fall under the broad definition of “art”, namely the uniqueness of art that makes it so special and so worthwhile to observe. That’s not to say that someday they won’t be considered art; that’s very much a possibility, just like movies weren’t totally accepted as art initially until filmmakers started applying techniques to film that put their craft in line with that of the painter’s or the writer’s. But right now, the works that will help to identify video games as art haven’t been made; until they are, the discussion can’t really go anywhere meaningful. So in the meantime? Let games be games. Whatever you might think, it’s a distinction worth adhering to.

Adajian, Thomas, “The Definition of Art”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/art-definition/&gt;.

Davies, Stephen, Definitions of Art (1991, Cornell University Press), URL = <http://books.google.com/books?id=6peJnXr4L5gC&printsec=frontcover&dq=definitions+of+art&source=bl&ots=mW7tFwTDB4&sig=XViyO6YuxN-Uy6xj5xQ4n1ULSeM&hl=en&ei=9zJYTKuzBYT48AaQ-ZCaCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;.

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