[In this important Gamasutra essay, former game journalist and current EA producer Jim Preston dispels the illusion of an 'art club' that games aren't allowed to enter, suggesting that diversity has made the 'games as art' debate effectively meaningless.]
Last November Roger Ebert reviewed the film Hitman (pictured below) and raised the ante in his ongoing low-stakes game of "is it art?" with video gamers. Instead of simply declaring, as he has done in the past, that videogames are not art, Ebert goes even further to declare that videogames "will never become an art form." The claim that games aren’t an art form isn’t controversial, even among many gamers. But to take it to the next level and deny that they ever can become art is, well, just plain ol’ mean.
Naturally the reaction among gamers was the righteous fury of the deeply transgressed. Many noted that Ebert actually liked Garfield: The Movie while others pointed out the devastating ravages of senility. The desire to be considered an art form, and to get all the benefits of legitimacy that come with it, is natural for any hobbyist. The problem for video gamers, however, is not with Roger Ebert; the problem is that gamers don’t understand the disheveled state of "art" in America.
Most gamers think of their plight this way: there’s this really great club downtown called the Arty Party and all the cool people are in it. George Clooney is getting drunk with Oscar Wilde; Chopin is playing foosball with Allen Ginsberg; and Picasso is hitting on Emily Dickinson -- it’s the best.
Meanwhile, we gamers are out here on the sidewalk in the rain with the comic book guys and the graffiti sprayers and we can’t get in because that cranky bastard Ebert won’t let us through the door. Ebert, and others like him, man the door and glower at us, not letting us in to this one big party.
The problem with this picture is that it isn’t even remotely close to reflecting the state of art in 21st century America. To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether.
Note, however, that I am not saying anything about art per se, or anything about art in any other culture. Rather, I would like to suggest that the U.S.’s constant influx of immigrants, exiles, and refugees has led to a current artistic landscape that is so widely varied that the "is-it-art?" debate is almost meaningless.
Our current cultural attitude towards art is like an enormous cocktail, with so many ingredients added over time that it is almost impossible to digest the final result.
A quick and crude history would be familiar to all of us: the early European settlers and merchants brought a broadly Christian conception of art; the slave trade injected African oral traditions and rhythms that would lie murmuring underneath the surface for decades; the antebellum and agrarian South fully embraced a neo-classical view of art.
The turn of the century saw the rise of the Blues and Jazz from the Mississippi delta; the second World War brought a wave of European thinkers and artists, many of them avant-garde; the post-War era witnessed the rise of rock ‘n roll and abstract expressionism; and the GI Bill sent (and still sends) unprecedented numbers through college, leading to a great blob of theorists who are forced by the economics of higher education to dream up more theories of art or perish.