The always inquisitive and never dull Well-Red Mage recently bestowed the community with another “Big Question.” The first “Big Question,” you may recall, was “What have you learned since you started blogging?” Twas an interesting question to answer, on that provoked plenty of inner dialogue.
When I noticed the second question, my heart lurched a little.
Ahh, that old chestnut, is it? Honestly, I’m not even sure of how to best approach answering this for myself. Having read the responses to the Mage’s original post, as well as other responses from the community, a large part of me agrees with most folks.
Q. Are video games art?
A. Yes. They are a form of creative expression as valid as any other. Game developers are no less passionate and emotional about their resulting works as painters, actors, dancers, and so on. Art is meant to convey ideas, which is the point of video games – to convey messages – from the trivial (maze-driven fun as a yellow circle) to the profound (we are everything). Art isn’t a fancy, snobbish, behind-glass affair, though it can be. Video games aren’t fancy, snobbish, behind-glass affairs either, though they certainty can be. Truly there’s nothing not “art” about games.
Eons ago, I went to grad school for museum studies, and the question “what is art?” inevitably came up during a class discussion. At the time, we also learned that a local art center had a video game exhibition planned. As such, the discussion eventually veered into not necessarily a critique of video games as art, but rather a question whether or not we needed to evolve our thinking. After all, “what is art?” means different things at different times; we choose whether or not to see “art” as something classical and fixed or something more transient.
Anyway, at one point someone in the room asked a resounding question that’s stuck with me ever since:
“Is MS-DOS art?”
(Why DOS and not Windows XP, ME, or T&A? I’ve no clue.)
This brought the discussion to a brief halt, followed by an almost universal “NO!” from the crowd. (And it wasn’t as if we had come to a resolution over “are video games art?” either.) It was a moment that was forever burned into my brain because it actually made me question, for possibly the first time ever, “what are video games?”
I really don’t want things here to get to esoteric (but I fear they will…a warning), but what is a game but carefully constructed code? Is not the same true of an operating system, a word processing program, or that nonsense you use to file your taxes online? I daresay that no one would call Microsoft Word “art” (“fart” maybe…hahahahaha…sorry); it’s a utility, a tool. A bunch of well-placed lines of code that result in a useful product.
Isn’t that kind of what video games are too? It’s a device meant to carry out a particular function. Though…okay…splitting hairs, yes, this is more a description of consoles or computers as the tool we use to play games, but a video game cartridge, disc, computer code is a uni-tasker. It doesn’t do anything else except give one access to a game. That’s not really art…is it?
I guess this is somewhat akin to arguing that pigment is art, or marble is art, or spray cans are art, which renders whatever point I was trying to make rather moot. So computer code isn’t art, but the way that someone utilizes it is? Couldn’t it be that some of these folks are simply better at applying various systems to the code than others? That’s not really art…it’s more like science in my book.
Man, I knew things were going to get a bit abstruse.
Understand that I’m not outright arguing that video games aren’t art; this more an attempt to rectify my internal conflict. Because, see, someone recently mentioned to my work-self that there must be an “art” to archiving. I thought about that for a moment and said, “not really. There’s more science and less art to what archivists do.” I apply proven (and not-so-proven) systems to groups of records in order to make them accessible. There’s nothing about an archived collection of papers that says “art” to me. The end result is useful, but it isn’t creatively or emotionally expressive.
If I choose to see video games as data that’s functionally composed in order to produce a specific result, then I don’t see how I could call that “art.”
Once again, if you think I’m here bickering with myself, you’re not wrong.
Here’s the thing, I feel as strongly in supporting games as art as I do games as science. Because the video games can be both technically brilliant and emotionally powerful. Considering it further, they actually need to be both to resonate with us. Games that have sound code with little feeling fall flat, like with Agents of Mayhem. (Played well but lacked heart.) Games that are emotionally heavy with messy underpinnings are often initially lauded but later left lifeless, like with The Stanley Parable. (Possessed an in-the-moment brilliance that withered away.)
Well, now that I’ve essentially corned myself into a meaningless war over semantics (it’s possible that I’ve had a little too much coffee this evening…or perhaps, not enough), that still leaves the question “are video games art?”
[stares at blinking cursor for what feels like an age]
Yes, mostly. Sometimes not, but…yeah, sure?
[bangs head on keyboard; drifts off into darkness…]