Ian Hildebrand, Contributing Writer

In the mid-2000s, Roger Ebert, in a discussion on whether or not the movie “Doom” can be fully appreciated without having played the video game that inspired it, stated unequivocally that video games, as a medium, can never be art. He recognizes the artistic elements present in games, even that games can aspire to be art by nature of their visual impressiveness, but ultimately, Ebert writes, “…for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

If you regularly enjoy video games, going so far as to make playing video games a part of your identity, you can probably understand the controversy that ensued: what do you mean video games can’t be art? They seem to fit the layman’s criteria for what could be considered art: video games have visual beauty, whether you have a preference for bit-graphics or intense modern style, they can cause intense emotions through their story or their game play (the emotions of the latter might be summed up in either amusement or utter rage, but, hey, what good piece of art can’t make you feel angry?);  and they can be open to interpretation, bringing in the sort of mental, or “imaginary” interactivity(as that of the imagination, not in the sense of it being fake or unreal) that seems necessary for art in other mediums, such as music or literature.

Surely not all of these criteria are present in every game. I wouldn’t take up the argument that Pong has some kind of hidden lore behind the endless back and forth of the ball. But how can one say that something as visually pleasing and emotionally evoking as the whole of video games and say that they don’t fall under something with as wide an interpretation as art?

In December, 2012, Keith Stuart, in an article for The Guardian, took this question at a different angle. He begins by demonstrating that many forms of art, in their infancy, are hardly considered art by contemporary critics. Upon coming across Impressionism for the first time, Stuart quotes an 1878 editorial dragging the art style through the dirt: “What new dogma is this, that so long as color is heaped on in a vigorous manner, a picture must be accepted as complete, however crude and raw it may seem, however absolute is the evidence that the artist stopped before he had done?” Stuart suggests that the world of arts will put up walls against other forms of media looking for widespread recognition as art, but that, eventually, the popularity of a given medium will overrule the artistic in-crowd’s desire for exclusivity.

But moreover, Stuart asserts, the question doesn’t really matter. Whether or not some creative endeavor can be considered art can be argued over and over, about whether a video game has the intent to be art when created by a team instead of a single creative agent, or whether the physical interactivity of video games causes them to lose their sense of being open to interpretation – whether or not a game is art ascribes to the classification of art a kind of false superiority, as if a game not being art nullifies the individual emotional experiences that people can draw from a game. A creative endeavor doesn’t have to “meet the qualifications to be art” in order to be a powerful and emotional work, that can shape a person’s life and perspective. Stuart puts it best at the end of his article: “Are games art or aren’t they? Nobody need answer. Games are beautiful and important, we can leave it there and know that we are right.”


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons