Video Games as Art. Or Perhaps Not.

A grand piece of music is art. It is created by a creator, and consumed in a theater environment (which isn’t necessarily a literal theater).

A great design can be great art, and observing an image in a museum, out of a book, or even on a new technology allows you to consume an react to an image of beauty and thought.

Perhaps even a digital film, featuring animated characters enacting mounting levels of violence, while newly-composed digital music plays in the background, can we viewed objectively in a theater or museum-like atmosphere. It can be looked at and appreciated by an audience of observers.

Game-play itself is, however, not, strictly speaking, an art form. While a great deal of artistry and craft goes into carving, painting, sculpting, designing a beautiful chess board, it is the board itself that may be a work of art, and not the playing of the game.

A video game player may be thrilled, or moved or entertained by the artistic elements of a video game – from the music to the design – but when they take control of the character and move it about at their own will, it is merely their own manipulation of the various arts that went into making the game. They are no longer observing a piece of art objectively, and are merely solving the machinations of the game’s programming.

Many argue that video games are “immersive” and “moving” the same way that cinema is. That they have characters and drama just like the tropes of ancient theater. This may be so. The stories and characters, however, exist independent of the actual gameplay. You may be, as a player, thrust into a simulated situation that is given an intensely elaborate backstory, and needs a huge amount of thought and intelligence to solve, but that story is meaningless once the gameplay begins; a player may control the game however they like. Indeed, it seems to me that the more complex a story is within a game, and the richer the characters, the further the game has moved from its pure technical problem-solving wonder. you have added a huge amount of icing to a cake that needed none.

Games are problem-solving exercises. Nothing more. If you boil them down to their very essence, every game is about the same: you push buttons, or manipulate a controller, based on audio/video prompts from a screen. If the technical aspects were focused on, the game could do something extraordinary: It could make the player grow smarter. If players are encouraged to solve increasingly complicated puzzled, they could grow more intelligent. If they are being constantly distracted by “story” and “character,” which are 100% separate from any and all gameplay, then they are losing sight of the medium’s strengths.

I don’t want to deny the thrills that players have experienced playing games, nor do I wish to deny the intellectual stimulation that has resulted from hundreds of hours of titillating gameplay, nor further, do I want to discount any emotional surges that has come from finally triumphing from completing a game. I especially don’t want to exclude the powerful nostalgia my generation, and others, have for video games (Lord knows I have huge amounts of nostalgia for my own hundreds of youthful hours completing games on my NES). I also acknowledge the social and economic force they have come to represent over the last decade. But a game is merely a way to solve a problem. Problem-solving is a grand way to stimulate the mind and enrich the intellect. But problem-solving does not, strictly speaking, nourish the spirit.

It’s complicated, indeed, because you have a cinematic thrill, bombastic music and a simulated environment, so a video game can, in many ways, evoke similar moods as cinema.

Warhol opened the world up to the notion of Pop Art; that common, merely functional, everyday objects (like, say, a soup can) can be looked at objectively. He took the everyday, and took it out if its context, letting us consider it as a work of art.

A game can only be considered art if it is removed from its game-hood, if you will; if it is separated from its interactivity and given a chance to be looked at objectively. If a game’s box were placed on a podium in a museum, perhaps that would be considered art.

Are there other forms of interactive art? There are a few daring examples in the art world. But, once again, of the ones I’ve seen, most are experiments in audience manipulation; you are given a chance to enter the art piece and invited to examine yourself as you would an art piece. A game, however grand, elaborate, or well-crafted, does not do that.

A game is a game. Art plays an important role in the design and presentation of the hugely beautiful games that are being produced these days, but they are still games.

Here’s a succinct discussion between two men I admire, Roger Ebert and Clive Barker. Ebert argues that games cannot be high art, at least not as he understands the term. Barker argues that, in effect, a good video game can have the same effect as a good book or film.

Published in: on April 13, 2010 at 2:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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