Are video games art? Does it even matter? They're beautiful and important
Our series The Artists has made the case that video game creators are capital-A Artists
In 2010, Roger Ebert famously wrote: "I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art."
Throughout its ten episodes, our series The Artists has made the case that the creators who shook up the world with their groundbreaking games are indeed capital-A Artists and should be recognized as such.
But in a world where so many are experiencing beauty and meaning in games, just like they would from other artforms, this whole dispute seems beside the point. As games critic Keith Stuart puts it: "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."
Watch a clip:
From basements to the Museum of Modern Art
But if game advocates do still have to make this case for games as art, they have a powerful ally on their side: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is now featuring games as part of the Applied Design exhibition.
"We knew that there would be a bunch of people objecting to 'desecrating the halls of our temple of modernism' with what is not often seen as a serious form of creativity," says the MoMA's Paul Galloway. "[Games are] one of the most important art forms of the 20th century and the 21st century in particular."
We knew that there would be a bunch of people objecting to 'desecrating the halls of our temple of modernism' with what is not often seen as a serious form of creativity.- Paul Galloway, The Museum of Modern Art
Galloway sees the resistance as predictable. "Anytime you're introducing something new, people are shocked by it. When you're breaking new ground there's always a conservative reaction against that."
Who are games for?
Even with the MoMA accepting games into its hallowed halls, gaming still has a broader perception problem: it's often seen as trivial or only for certain people. Tracy Fullerton, the chair of interactive media and games at the University of Southern California, sees games as an ancient and possibly fundamental human pursuit. "I think of games as an aesthetic form that may well predate the story," she says.
Despite this long history, games in many ways became pigeonholed when they made the transition to the computer. "Video games suffer from an unfortunate series of events where soon after their introduction, they began to be ghettoized in a particular way, for a particular market," Fullerton says. "For a very long time, we've seen video games marketed to a single populace of young boys. There's just an assumption made about who plays video games. And, of course, the assumption is untrue."
Traditionally, you haven't seen a lot of overlap between the people making games and the people making films, art, sculpture, painting, music. These are not crowds that hang out and influence each other.- Tracy Fullerton, Chair, Interactive Media & Games, University of Southern California
In addition to the demographic pigeon-holing, Fullerton sees an unnecessary cultural division between video games and artists in other mediums. "Traditionally, you haven't seen a lot of overlap between the people making games and the people making films, art, sculpture, painting, music. These are not crowds that hang out and influence each other."
For Fullerton, this isn't just an abstract academic matter — she feels that these cultural forces guided her life away from games for a long time. "I find it very telling that I never considered games as a career, mostly because they weren't defined as an expressive medium."
Fullerton eventually found her way to expression within games, creating Walden, a game that expresses — and lets the player experience — the ideas of Henry David Thoreau's famous philosophical account of his time spent at Walden Pond. "I wanted to make a game that had that alternate philosophy at its core, and the rewards don't come in terms of more stuff, or levels. The rewards come in terms of experiences."
The resurgence of the video game artist?
An earlier episode of The Artists looked at the early days of Electronic Arts, where the artists behind the games were celebrated in much the same way as a film director. EA stopped this practice, but artists such as Adventure creator Warren Robinett remember this early ideal fondly. "The thing about EA that's incredible is where they started, and the vision of what they wanted to be — this place for artists. It was designed for the video game creator."
Games have become a big business, and that corporatization has changed how games are made. "Sometimes there are indie games that are made by a few people, or maybe even one," Robinett tells us. "It's still possible for an individual to make a video game, but it's mostly not done that way. Nowadays video games are usually made by big teams."
I find it very telling that I never considered games as a career, mostly because they weren't defined as an expressive medium. - Tracy Fullerton, Chair, Interactive Media & Games, University of Southern California
Trent Oster, the producer of Neverwinter Nights, sees a loss in this current state of affairs. "We've totally lost that link to the creators who are awesome. There were these artists who created experiences on these horribly flawed devices."
Cindy Poremba — founder of the Kokoromi Collective, an organization which promotes video games as an art form — argues that corporate game development limits the imagination of what games can be. "The only thing that you can be in games is a game developer, as opposed to being an artist and you happen to make games."
"It changes, I think, the types of things that you might be willing to make."
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.- Keith Stuart, video game critic
Poremba is hopeful about the future and the possibility of a revival of the video game creator as artist. Fullerton's Walden, for example, exists in a blossoming indie gaming sphere, where artists exist outside the corporate gaming world, publishing on platforms such as Steam and with the help of crowdfunding.
The Artists was about the creators at the dawn of the video games era. But perhaps we're on the edge of a new period, full of creators picking up the dreams of the generation that first saw these worlds of possibility within their screens.
Watch all ten episodes of The Artists now, a new CBC Arts series about the video game designers who changed the world.