[Art historian Diana Poulsen takes a closer look at the "are games art?" discussion, bringing in an academic perspective steeped in knowledge of games to help untangle the thorny question of what art, precisely, is, and what relationship games have with it.]
The argument for and against games as art has been made several times on Gamasutra. These have included: "Del Toro Defends Video Games As Art, Accusing Detractors Of Being 'Out Of Touch'" by Simon Parkin which simply stated that director Guillermo Del Toro thought games were art. Several books, such as The Art of Videogames by Grant Tavinor, employ a narratological approach with a dash of art historical bent for examining games, and Brian Moriarty's GDC presentation and article, An Apology For Roger Ebert, tackles the issue using a variety of theorists. Other arguments are manifesto style, arguing that if a "piss pot" can be a work of art, then why can't a game?
Many of the arguments have been overly simplistic, relying on art's beauty and stating that if a work is beautiful or evokes emotion, it must be art. However there are artworks that are outright ugly or evoke no emotion in a viewer, but are considered works of art.
Some writers have suggested that if a game is exhibited in a museum it must be a work of art. Many museums have created exhibitions on gaming including the Museum of Moving Images and the most recent Smithsonian exhibition.
However, are Darth Vader and Julia Child's kitchen considered works of art since they are in museums? No, but they are significant to Western Culture and should be treated, like video games, as having as much cultural relevance as art.
Several have argued that games cannot be art since they are interactive, but interactive art, as well as some performance art, require participation, occasionally taking the form of a game. For example, several of Toshio Iwai's interactive art pieces were re-created for the video game Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS.
Other writers have used the works of Immanuel Kant to argue why a game can't be art. However, contemporary art is rarely discussed or judged as beautiful, sublime, agreeable, or good, as Kant did. Hardly any contemporary art exhibition would fall under what Kant deems a work of art in his Critique of Judgement. The world and theory has changed significantly since it was released in 1790.
It has been argued that art is meaningless. Art is never meaningless; if it is meaningless is it not a work of art.
So far in the games as art debate there is a struggle to define art in relation to gaming. There is no easy definition for art and for every example a counter-argument can be provided.
The big question is: does it matter if a video game is a work of art?
No, it does not make a difference. A video game declared as a work of art does not increase its value, cause it to become intellectual, cultural, or more enjoyable. Video games are already valuable, intellectual, cultural, and enjoyable without the "work of art" label.
Video games are a discipline in their own right and include several fields of study. Ludology, the study of games, examines games and their relationship to traditional games. The video game industry looks at technological advancements and how to improve gaming. The newer genre of theory, Game Studies, is the interdisciplinary field devoted to the study of games.
Video games do not have to be art works. However, art and games are connected. Video games are in essence a visual medium that has yet to be properly contextualized within the confines of art and visual culture.
The face of art history has changed in past 60 years. Art isn't demarcated into strict categories defined by Modern theory. Many works of art blur arbitrary categories. Art history decodes art works and visual culture, rather than making judgements based on preconceived notions of taste.
In the 21st century many art programs as well as first year art history classes have changed their titles from "Art History" to the more inclusive "Art History and Visual Culture". Visual culture includes popular culture. Pop culture includes video games. Yes, you read that right. The study of art history and visual culture can include video games.
"Visual culture" is the all-encompassing term and study that examines culture as a whole. Culture is not divided in separate categories but overlaps and influences each facet. This is an argument put forth by many groups, including the Independent Group in the 1950s.
The Independent Group is the predecessor of 1960s American Pop Art movement. Pop Art consisted of renowned artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns as well as Independent Group member, Richard Hamilton.
The Independent Group was formed in 1952 by younger members of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, England. It was composed of designers, architects, artists and theorists. The group hosted meetings at the ICA encouraging intellectual discussion of modern technology and popular culture, including American advertisements depicting a luxurious lifestyle, the design of cars and science fiction films. The group had a particular fascination with American magazines since they depicted a life of plenty and luxury, contrasted to the bleak reality and harsh rationing of post war Britain.
The group believed that all manners of cultural production are equal, and that instead of making judgements based on value or separating them into different categories, scholars should instead decode these artefacts.