Are games art? If I had a penny for every time I seen this question printed, or heard it asked, or saw it attempted to be answered (with varying degrees of cliché and ambiguity) I’d have bought out Activision by now.
Indeed, a couple of months ago I was delivering a talk on games development to a room full of enthusiastic, slightly drunk students when somebody near the back raised that very question.
"Oh God, not the art question" I replied. No sooner had the words left my lips than I felt remorse. I hadn't intended to sound embittered and the sight of the questioner shrinking in his chair with awkward embarrassment tugged on my little ginger heart. Quickly, I clarified; "Sorry I didn't mean to imply that it's a bad question, it's a very good question - it's just that it's impossible to answer without a definition of what art actually is".
So, we need a definition of what art means. Now whatever we do, let’s not going running to art critics, especially not advocates of so called fine art. As pointed out to great affect in 'What Good Are The Arts?' by John Carey, fine art is not superior to anything else that might claim to have some meaning. The fact that those who advocate it claim that it is, and that only a few enlightened people such as themselves can truly appreciate it says more about those people than it does about the objects of their affection.
Aside from dismissing this snobbery, Carey also meticulously examines and dismantles almost every formal attempt at a definition of art. Indeed he finally settles on this rather disappointing (by his own admission) but perhaps inevitable definition of art:
“Art is anything that anyone has ever considered to be art”
So by that definition, yes, videogames are art. However it’s not very satisfying is it? Even if we accept this conclusion it doesn’t really make us feel any better about the medium we love. What we’re really seeking is recognition.
Perhaps we can find the answer by applying a little game logic to the equation (I believe gamification is what the kids are calling it). Take a YouTube video; 5 hits and you can claim it’s art as long as one of those 5 considers it to be, 5 million hits and (assuming a lot more people consider it to be art by implication) you can claim that not only is it also art but it’s probably much better art than the clip with 5 hits.
Similarly, any game you care to name is most likely art by Carey’s definition, even if it’s only the creator who thinks so. I know for example that the demo I created to get my foot in the door of the industry is a terrible, terrible videogame and I am certain nobody in the world has ever considered it to be art. To me however it’s a reminder of my hopes and dreams, my struggles and triumphs, my naivety and my talent every time I look at it. Perhaps to me alone it is art.
I digress. The point is this. How many games do you think a LOT of people think are art? How many games have moved a generation? How many games have exposed some new truth about existence to millions of people?
The answer of course is not many. However, we few who have been moved by a game or maybe just those of us who have watched them grow and evolve at an astonishing rate; we believe they are capable of it.
Those of us with the foresight and imagination to see where they can take us in the future already know that games are going to become the art form of the 21st century, just as film became the art form of the 20th century against a remarkably similar initial backdrop of general apathy and cynicism.
So lets forget the art question for a while and just enjoy the ride, because like everything else it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.