Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Discussion: Are Video Games Art?

Now that you've had a chance to see bits and pieces of insight on the inside of the exhibit, I think it is time to have that discussion that the Smithsonian wanted when it asked us, "Are video games art?" I don't believe I've linked to their FAQ, so here it is. Chris Melissinos described the exhibit like so:
"Using the cultural lens of an art museum, viewers can determine whether the games on display are indeed worthy of the title 'art.' Some visitors will encounter a game that transports them back to their childhood, or gain insight into how games are made. My hope is that people will leave the exhibition with an understanding that video games are much more than what they first thought. They may even be art."
Before any one can really decide if video games are art, we need to have a working definition of art. Some people will gladly apply the Stewart doctrine to defining art. I feel like that is a bit of a cop out though; it may be a legitimate understanding of art. Trying to define art is probably similar to trying to decide what counts as literature or what love is, but without a real definition, we're stuck having to guess at whether something is or is not art.

Melissinos explains a bit more about his view on art, which you'll have to go to the exhibit to see the full essay. Avoiding the pure dictionary definition of art seems pointless, so here it is. I feel like that definition is a bit mechanical. "The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects," after all makes nearly everything qualify as art.

Now, if we try to get a bit more elitist, we can try and say, "Sure, maybe it is art. But, is it good art?" I think it is fair to say that any new medium has that question come up. For example, music is clearly art.
We have symphonies and opera, those are art. What about The Beatles? Billy Joel? Hannah Montana? Where do you draw the line, if at all? Maybe you shouldn't; after all, I liked the Super Mario Brothers movie. This, of course, may be the strongest argument I ever make for "why you should not listen to Matt, ever."

Here are some quotes on art, cherry picked from here. I think each one does a really good job of capturing what I feel like is an important part of what art is. In my responses, I hope to explain how video games fit those criteria.
"A good painting to me has always been like a friend. It keeps me company, comforts and inspires." -- Hedy Lammar
A good video game will create that same feeling, whether it is in the music, like in those links, or in the stark atmosphere that captures your attention. Bioware, for example, is great at making replaying old games feel like it is reconnecting with the past. Like reading an old book, you know these characters, places, themes and ideas. Even without multi-player, games can do all of those things that Lammar says a good painting does. Emily Dickinson said "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," which is perhaps an excellent way to describe great art. It takes your breath away. Some games can do it with their music, visuals or story. Perhaps they inspire us to greatness, or they just are fun distractions. Replaying a good game is like meeting an old friend. Like reading a book a few years later, you know more and can take more away from it.
"True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist." -- Albert Einstein
I don't quite pretend to know exactly what Einstein meant by this, but let me take a stab. Video games are often labors of love. Look at the indie studios, look at the early adventure games and the reason behind the game being called Final Fantasy. Beyond video games, look at the people playing on their table tops and painting their minis. There may be a profit motive in the industry as a whole, but at the soul of video games is that people want to create things that other people will play and enjoy. It is like creating a good puzzle; games are made with an open invitation for the player to join in. Unlike a painting though, most games are collaborative efforts. With games like Magic: The Gathering, you can see the developers love of the game showing through in their articles and discussions. We may all have individual gripes with Blizzard or Valve, but no one can doubt that they have a desire to make games, and make them as good as they can. Maybe I'm stabbing in the dark, like I said, but I think that irresistible urge is there. If it wasn't, they'd all be doing something much simpler to make money.
"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." -- Aristotle
If you want to talk art, it seems negligent, in my mind, not to talk Aristotle. There are probably dozens of good quotes from him, but let's go with this one. It is probably true that many games don't deal with inward significance. What does jousting on a flying ostrich mean? But, I think that's not quite what Aristotle is getting at here. We can't look at video games in the abstract; we need to look at how they make the audience react. Like Dickinson losing her head, or Athens witnessing the fall of Oedipus, neither the poetry or the play meant a thing without the audience.

So, how does jousting on an ostrich make you feel? Games sometimes have a very simple feeling, a carthasis for the player with a job done well. Once you find the castle where your princess is, the little happy jingle of getting a coin; those are the things that you play for. Getting your name on the high score and being able to enter your initials (there were an awful lot of kids with the initials ASS where I grew up, as an aside), that's what people are playing for. As games became more advanced, we're able to get to a different kind of release. For example, in Dragon Age, you can feel that smug satisfaction that comes with defeating the traitorous Arl Howe, and in Mass Effect, there is a righteous satisfaction in punching Zaaed in the face.

That's why this is quite possibly the pinnacle of video game history for me. You have spent hours reuniting your old compatriots, beating their inner demons and now, you have risked it all to attempt to restore the world. Then, you get rewarded with that. It is a release of amazingly epic proportions. It is, quite possibly, the best ending (and most artistic ending) of any video game I have ever seen or heard of.

Video games are art; of that I have no doubt. If it is good enough for Aristotle, I think it should be good enough for anyone. What the exhibit does well, intentionally, is focus on the role of the player.



What? No pictures? Ok. Here are some. Art in D.C. and art from inside the exhibit. I hope you can tell which is which. The next post will be significantly lighter, don't worry!
A sculpture.
Concept art from Fallout 3.

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