The idea of games as art has been a discussion point within the industry for a while now. We’ve had researchers claim that games are as valuable as books in terms of literary value, while Tale of Tales, developer of The Path, has outright stated that they believe that “games are not art”, and are “largely a waste of time”.
This last sentiment was expressed at the Art History Of Games conference last week. On the face of it, this is a remarkably bold statement for the developer of a number of games considered as close to literal translations of art. In fact, it seems to fly in the face of statements they have made in past interviews, where they claimed that The Path was created as a work of art. It would seem, then, that they’ve had a bit of a change of heart. So are games art? More importantly, what exactly do we mean by ‘art’?
First of all, it’s very hard to exactly define ‘art’ in the way that Tale of Tales means it. Is it simply “the expression of creative skill through a visual medium,” as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it put, or something more? If the whole argument for games being classified as art is using this definition, then surely there is little contest. Can it really be claimed that video games are not creative, or that they do not take exceptional skill to be put together? As a result, it would appear that they are adhering to another definition of art.
The obvious place to look, considering all the brouhaha about the classification, is at ‘High Art’. Enough classical art is debated about joining the ranks of high art already, so a whole new platform to consider would certainly be controversial. Given the high culture which surrounds high art, one can see why video games might not make a very welcome addition. It is seen as the culture of the elite, to be contrasted with the more base pleasures of those with a lower intelligence. Compare that with the current standing of video games, where the stereotypical gamer nerd image is only now fading from view, and one can see where the trouble may lie.
But do these people really have any reason to deny games a place in this category of art? After all, high art encompasses forms as diverse as literature, music, and cinema. It seems a tad far-fetched that gaming is in such a sorry state that our best efforts are beneath even the lowest piece of art stemming from any of these accepted mediums.
On the other hand, it might not be so far-fetched. Given the birthing that video games were given, one might be able to see why people are having trouble convincing others that the industry contains examples worthy of the title art. Gaming came about, not through any high-minded wish for a new form of communication, but rather as something as simple as an amusing distraction. This image has stayed with the medium for the entirety of its duration, and we find it is still with us today (as can be seen on the BBC’s Newsnight Review, which looked at the Nintendo Wii with contempt more than anything).
This view is unfair, though; video games have developed far beyond the early examples that spawned such feelings, and can now be held up favourably against the efforts of television and film. The recently released Mass Effect 2 is a great example of how video games can capture a range of emotions, and leave us feeling more exhilarated than if we’d just watched a big-budget Hollywood movie. However, despite all this evolution on the part of video games, have they gone far enough to be considered art?
Obviously it is impossible to say either yes or no to that question. We cannot look at the medium as a whole and decide whether it is art, just as we cannot look at all music or literature and decide the same thing. There are pieces of literature that even the most hardened supporter of the medium’s status as art could not defend, and likewise video games contain their fair share of these.
I think the real point behind this is that no one person has the right to decide whether a medium be accepted as a place from which art may spring forth. However, the art world is filled with people who believe that they do have this power, and it is these same people who will ultimately win. They will win because they have tradition on their side, and because people are becoming used to being told what to revere and what to disdain. What is more important is not how the art community feels about a specific video game, but rather how you feel about it when playing it.
As a result, having me weigh in either side of the original “are games art” argument would be pointless and hypocritical of me. What I will say is that video games have come a long way from their humble beginnings, and I can’t help but feel that were they to be considered without their baggage, they would come off more favourably. Games have made us laugh and cry. They have told us wonderful stories, and shown us worlds full of imagination. While they may never be considered as true art, as long as they keep giving us new experiences, they can hardly be considered as “largely a waste of time”.