In 2005, late film critic Roger Ebert created a storm of controversy when he wrote that video games could never be art. While Ebert wasn’t the first person to address the subject, he was one of the first mainstream critics to do so, and his statement set off a rash of essays, blog posts, and talks arguing for (few) and against (many) his position. The subject has drifted in and out of popular culture ever since, with different scholars weighing in here and there. Ebert himself would refine his position half-a-decade later, explaining, “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”
Recently, a number of museums, including the Smithsonian and the MOMA, staged exhibitions featuring video games as art, throwing the topic into focus again. Plus, technological advancements continue to decrease the cost of entry into game-making, giving a larger number of creators a chance to express themselves in the medium. More makers means more variety. And now, even the so-called Triple-A games—massive undertakings like Gears of War, Bio Shock, or Uncharted that can cost $100 million or more—increasingly prize subtlety and sophistication. The latest edition of Gears features 12,000 lines of procedural dialogue.
So, in some ways, the question seems as relevant as ever: Can video games be art?
LEIL LEIBOVITZ, AN ASSISTANT professor of digital media at NYU, argues that they cannot. In a story for The New Republic, he presents an elegant philosophical explanation that hinges upon the underlying reality of games, which is that they are all created from code:
With art, borrowing and citing and paraphrasing images and themes and ideas is commonplace; it’s how the craft is practiced. But a game incorporating another game’s code isn’t like Duchamp incorporating the Mona Lisa in his work. That’s because a few lines of code aren’t an artistic statement, but rather an action-oriented script that performs a specific set of functions. And there are only so many functions computers know how to do: While art is bound only by its creator’s imagination, code is bound by the limitations, more numerous than you’d imagine, of computer comprehension. Code can’t, like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, abandon logic and decide to imitate the sounds of nature instead. It can never be poetry, just a series of if/then statements. Code has more in common with the hinges that connect the museum’s doors to their frames than it does with Nude Descending a Staircase.
Jamin Warren, founder of the high-minded video game magazine Kill Screen disagrees with Leibovitz. “Video games can be art, but not all video games are art,” he tells me over the phone, noting that art critics have “basically walked away from the question of ‘what is art?’”
Sarah Brin, a curator and scholar, has similar feelings. She argues that the games-as-art conversation comes down to the intentions of the creator: “If something is written about as art or exhibited as art, that place-making for it sets it apart. I’m very conscious of that as a curator. If someone makes a game and says, ‘This is art,’ I don’t have the right to say ‘no,’ but I do have the right as a curator to not show it.”
Opinions vary, and there are endless philosophical debates you can have about the validity of video games as art, but that probably misses the point. Leibovitz, Brin, and Warren agree with that much. “I always thought,” Warren says, “that the moment we started asking that question was the moment when we should have probably stopped asking that question.”
Or, as Keith Stuart writing in The Guardian, puts it: “What is art? What isn’t? It is a fool’s errand, really, and when applied to video games, there can only be one true and valid response: Does it really matter? The perfect arc of a Mario jump, the iridescent beauty of Rez, the pastoral longing of Flower, even the architectural brilliance of a Counter-Strike map; none of this is belittled if it fails to ‘qualify’ as art.”
The more important question, then, isn’t about whether video games are art, but: What can we learn about the growing class of games that are about more than simply entertaining the player? At the very least, these are “artlike,” resembling whatever sloppy consensus all of our opinions of “art” would form. While these types of games are not new, the rise of the indie game is fueling this latest push. Gonzalo Frasca created September 12, a game that transports the player to a random town square in the Middle East and provokes big thoughts about the nature terrorism. Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia deals with gender norms. Papers, Please tackles immigration.
Nor are Triple A games excluded. BioShock Infinite was “great art” because of how it dealt with slavery. Zach Gage, who calls himself an interactive artist and gamemaker, points to Call of Duty as a big budget game with a fascinating subtext. “If I want to talk about a game as art,” he says, “I usually talk about some specific intention of it that gives me some broader understanding of something else. It’s quite a statement that we have a world where millions of people are shooting at each other from their couches in a time when America is in two wars.”
PERHAPS IRONICALLY, THE GROWTH of video games may help the general population talk about other forms of art, specifically interactive art. They present easy entry into a certain world. “Interaction is something that artists have been exploring for a long time with performance art and interactive art,” Gage says, “but it’s been locked away. Those weren’t things that were available to the masses; you had to be interested in them. Games provide a way for a tremendous number of people to have an understanding of a very strange thing, which is interactive art. Anyone can make it. And anyone can understand it.”
The ability of nearly anyone to make a video game is the most important development. It’s a young, rapidly developing medium, one that sees massive growth on a yearly, even monthly level. Video games may or may not be the next great art form—and really, it doesn’t even matter—but they are certainly the next great space for creative exploration. “For a long time, the means of production has been sequestered by industry. We’re now seeing the democratization. It’s interesting to see the themes that are emerging,” Brin says, specifically noting the growing subsection of games about gender. (For more on this theme, check out Anthropy’s book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form.)
Warren agrees to a certain extent: “I don’t think there’s a trajectory that games are better, but I do think that there is an awareness about creating value can be an end for these games. That didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago.”
Even Leibowitz, a lonely soldier in the Video Games Can’t Be Art camp, knows the value of games. For him, the discussion isn’t about whether or not something is art; it’s about the genre as a whole. “I think we need to get very serious about this medium,” he says. “It deserves finer thought. It deserves much finer writing. It deserves attention.”
Warren, Brin, Gage, and the rest of the video game world would concur. The definition of “art” varies from person to person, from school of thought to school of thought. There is no correct answer—but video games are undeniably an increasingly vital place for creative expression. “If you tweak the question [of 'Are video games art?'] to mean ‘Are video games capable of moving you like the greatest of films or telling a story like the greatest novel’ I think the answer is yes,” Leibowitz says. “This is an enormously engaging and compelling medium, and it’s only just beginning.”