For anyone who plays video-games the “Are games art?” debate is something of a sidetrack from enjoying the experience. Similarly, I imagine, for anyone who follows art the “Are games art?” debate is a distraction from enjoying more accepted art forms. Perhaps if we quietly edge away from the whole debate no one will notice?
However, when a Turner Prize judge gets involved I find myself being pulled in. Jonathan Jones did just that last Friday in the Guardian newspaper with his article “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art” that critiques the Museum of Modern Art in New York for including SimCity, Portal and Dwarf Fortress next to the work of Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Barnett Newman.
It’s a well written short article where he suggests that art “has to be an act of personal imagination.” Jones applies this to game experiences and suggests they are “created by the interaction between a player and a program” therefore “no one ‘owns’ the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.”
I found this interesting as one of my favorite things about game experiences is that the player becomes a co-creator with the developer. Jones makes a comparison to a game of chess “Artistry may have gone into the design of the chess pieces. But the game of chess itself is not art nor does it generate art – it is just a game.”
In many ways I like his critique as it addresses the mistake of being wowed by visuals and sound. However beautiful or filmic a video game may be, that is essentially just window dressing. A chess set of exquisite pieces is still just a chess set.
At the same time I think Jones is missing what video-games are. They use the mechanics of chess-like experiences to address a story, theme or ideology in a way that films, books and theater can’t. We enjoy playing them on many levels, but they can invite us to reconsider reality, values and truth.
The mistake that Jones makes is to assume that games are not about anything more than entertainment. While it feels a stretch to say that the game of chess could be considered art, if someone created a new chess-like game that subtly challenged the player to reconsider/remember/revise some understanding about life surely this would be considered art?
In a nutshell games can be meaningful, so games can be art. This happens more often in the mature medium of board games, like Brenda Brathwaite’s Train, as well as on rare occasions in video games. Board games like Train don’t have a clear owner but I don’t think that excludes them from being art. Perhaps they are more like a dance than a portrait. The dancer interprets the choreographer’s intentions but brings their own interpretation to it. There is no one owner of the dance, but this very aspect makes it more artistic not less.
That said, I’m aware that a danger of this “Are games art?” talk is that we try to justify games by a criteria designed to measure pigment and prose and performance and not enough time on developing what games can contribute culturally in their own right.
The perfect answer to Jones’ critique is not in fact a rebuttal like this post, but to invest ourselves in projects that help games mature into the medium that they might become. Top of the list for investment today, as suggested recently by Amy Craft, has to be the LA Game Space Kickstarter project that promises to create an a “non-profit center for video game art, design, and research, where people of all backgrounds can discover the potential of games together.”
It’s unique in its double insight into gaming’s current poverty of support for new ideas and the potential of the medium to offer significant new ways of tell stories, engage in issues and re-imagining (as I put it in my TEDx talk) what it means to be human.
In a nutshell, if you love games and this sort of debate gets your goat (or if you just love games) drop a pledge on the LA Game Space Kickstarter. You’ll not only move the conversation on in a very practical and exciting way but you’ll get 30 of the best Indie Games into the bargain.