Art is one of the many ways we have of making sense of our world. Through the careful rearrangement of elements within a composition, most anyone can make something that portrays a message to others–others who can take in the works that have been created. From painting to sculpture to installation to performance, each artist explores the lengths and limitations of his or her chosen medium as a means of reaching his or her audience with a message powerful enough to be heard. The popular new medium of video games, previously under the microscope for its potential to influence people with violent tendencies, has recently been brought under scrutiny once more as Roger Ebert, a film critic with years of reviewing the medium of motion pictures under his belt, made the bold claim that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form” (Ebert, 1). Gamers took to the offensive, lashing out against Ebert’s claim with defiant reasons as to why he was wrong; Ebert has only conceded to one claim: that he has never played a video game.
As this might be an obvious error for most gamers, as some might claim that never playing a game is similar to never watching a film, anyone else without much knowledge in the video game industry might ask “Why should we care if video games are art?” According to Euromonitor International, there has been an increase of computers in households that are connected to the internet over the past five years, culminating to 31% in 2010 (Euromonitor International). This statistic states that three-tenths of the surveyed population of the world has access to the internet, and that access includes numerous websites that not only advertise video games but also allow visitors to play them. Some might say that with such a growth in technology, and with increasing evidence towards impressionability of media on culture, having video games that explore their potential as an art form is vital if we wish to advance our society.
In order to explore this, however, one needs to have a definition for art. According to the online Oxford Dictionary, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination … producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” (1). What this means is that by making something with our own hands so that they can move the audience results in a work of art. Due to that interpretation, are video games made in order to move the audience emotionally? Arguably, modern video games do not reach this definition of art; this is due to some fine details in what art is perceived as, along with how video games are viewed in museums and how video games are viewed in the context of mainstream culture.
To begin, modern video games tend to avoid the traditional aspects of artistic works. As Mary Stewart describes about concepts of art, “aesthetics is the study of human responses to beauty…. An aesthetic experience tends to heighten meaning while an anaesthetic experience tends to dull meaning” (Stewart, 168). This means that art reflects responses to heighten emotion instead of reducing it. In contrast to this, Roger Ebert claims that most video games follow a few rigid definitions: namely, a sort of shooting game with a narrative; a kind of collecting game; and having players control the outcome (Ebert, 2). Although one could argue that video games are defined by player control, most popular games, such as the Halo series and the Ratchet and Clank series, fit nicely into the pattern Roger Ebert claims. With such a pattern of the game industry following its own footsteps, it’s hard to see how it can make art if it’s only doing the same thing over and over again.
However, those that defend video games as an art will claim that it does hold some weight according to artistic principles. As Mary Stewart describes, the definition of an interdisciplinary art is “two or more disciplines [that] are fused to create a hybrid art form” (Stewart, 346). From this we can take that art can be made using different forms of media in order to create something new. In a similar thread, Aaron Smutts states that “video games combine elements from narrative fiction film, music and sports.” (Smutts, 10). Thus it can be said that video games are a combination of media, which would put them underneath the art form of interdisciplinary arts. To expand upon this, Stefan Hall, an instructor at Bowling Green State University, agrees with a similar collaborative element between game creators, saying that “this collaborative process is not unlike the teamwork upon which the majority of film production is predicated” (Hall, 19).
From these sources, we get that video games are an interdisciplinary art not unlike other art forms in its construction. Even if this is so, for there to be a mixture of art forms, they have to be art forms previously; the largest problem with the criteria Smutts uses for his argument is that it claims that sports are an art form. For something to be an artistic discipline, it has to be taught, and I do not know of any schools that offer fine art degrees for professional athletics. Also, collaborations are not always productive in creative artwork: using Asch’s experiments on conformity, it could take a little amount of time to realize that most collaborative environments might cause a majority of people to agree on a single idea if the first few people mention the same things. Thus we can understand why a large amount of video games do not immediately fall under the concept of art.
Even though video games do not come across well when viewing them under art principles, they are slowly becoming a part of art museums; however, that does not mean that they are art in themselves. A growing movement in contemporary art is called Machinima which, according to Wikipedia, is “the use of real-time 3D computer graphics rendering engines to create a cinematic production” (“Machinima”). In layman’s terms, Machinima is the use of recording video games in order to make films. Anthony Fontana, an artist that has been using Machinima in his recent works, made a piece named The Union.
The work used a game called Second Life and was exhibited at the Secor Gallery in Toledo, Ohio (Fontana, 4). Although Machinima uses video games in order to create cinematic works, it does not constitute the same kind of engagement that video games are known for, and creations in lieu of Machinima would more likely fall under the category of video art. Nevertheless, museums are slowly adapting and trying to display video games as art. In April of 2010, a museum in Paris opened to the public that displayed a series of video games from the history of the medium (Gilbert, 1-2). There is also going to be an exhibition in the Smithsonian in 2012 that will portray videos and scenes from various video games from five different eras of gaming (Smithsonian Institution, 1-3).
As fascinating and as modern as both of these examples portray to the history of video games, they both are making a vital flaw: instead of portraying video games as art, they are displaying video games through art. Although they are using some video games in their exhibitions, they seem more like a piece of history instead of an interactive experience. As the Smithsonian’s exhibition claims, it will “include video interviews with developers and artists, large prints of in-game screen shots, and historic game consoles” (Smithsonian Institution, 3). By the sound of it, there is going to be video, digital prints, and three-dimensional pieces throughout the exhibition; all different media than the one it is portraying. All the museums are simply displaying video games and various other pieces of them without utilizing the space for them, as installation art or paintings would have.
As modern museums and artists have been slowly approaching video games as an art medium, the mainstream culture hardly has any claim to video games as an artistic medium. In a presentation by Kellee Santiago, a co-founder of thatgamecompany, she wraps up with six circles describing the production of a video game: development, publishing, marketing, education, executive management, and finance (Santiago). Edwards supplements this, noting that companies do spend a large amount of money on developing video games, yet he puts more emphasis on licensing and marketing of the actual product than the creation of the product itself (Edwards, 2-14). As it seems, video game production in the industry focuses more on the circulation of the product instead of the creation of it. To supplement this observation, Clint Hocking, a game designer in the industry, claims that “two guys tinkering away in their spare time have done as much or more to advance the industry this year than the other hundred thousand of us working fifty-hour weeks” (Fagone, 20).
Jonathan Blow, another game designer who worked on Braid, says a similar statement, arguing that a good amount of the games that reach the shelves of stores only follow a set formula during their development stages, and other games try too hard at being artistic, forsaking the actual design of the game in the process (Lamb, 9). This means that people within the video game industry have an idea on how video games can be art, but they realize as well that most games do not fit that concept. However, people may say that with all the time and effort put into games by the industry, some of them might come out as works of art, and even then some of what people work on for video games are art, so shouldn’t that make them art? To respond to this, I will note that slapping tempera on a charcoal drawing doesn’t create an entirely new medium of art; it only creates a work with mixed media, and the argument is if video games are a new kind of media.
I will also mention that the purpose behind the creations is also a big part of an art piece: if models are made for a video game, are they being made as a work of art? Are they being made for a work of art? For the moment, I will deem them working for the purpose of a piece to the creation of a video game, and that itself shouldn’t warrant a video game as a work of art. Lastly, I will say that time and money alone don’t make a work of art; there is much more work that goes into a work of art, such as research and outside critique. Without those and other parts of the artistic process, it makes video games no different than a televised bar fight.
Having given evidence to my argument that contemporary video games are not classified as art, I have drawn the conclusion that video games lack the current methods for doing anything as awe-inspiring as when we casually think of works of art. Although my stance would mean challenging a lot of contemporary game designers, the artists of the video game industry, to strive for more immersive concepts that dive outside of our conceptualized boxes, I concede that a lot of game designers are doing just that. As people claim that models need to exist that set the basis for video games as an art form, people like Jason Rohrer are attempting to make such designs (Fagone, 28-29). Despite the bars that hold us down, I perceive the future of game design, although limited to the simple plane of a television screen, to expand further out into the world around them, and amaze us with the answers they derive from questions posed from the world.
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