Deciding what officially constitutes “art” is a lot like trying to reach a universal agreement as to what love feels like. Both concepts are completely subjective. Art is a little less abstract then love and we can at least narrow it down to some basic principles that most people would agree upon, but there still aren’t clear, rigid guidelines that all creative works must fall into in order to be labeled as unquestioned works of art. You can’t say “Anything that contains X and makes you feel Y is art. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t.” It just isn’t that simple.
So when someone, say late film critic Roger Ebert, makes a statement like “Video games can never be art” (as he did in blog post a few years back), he of course is simply stating an opinion. While he may be just a tad more respected and renowned and knowledgeable than a lot of us, certainly myself, his say on the matter isn’t any more official than anyone else’s (and he’d probably agree with that). I’m not going to go through and address his entire argument piece by piece and fill this blog post with quotes from his; if you’d like to read it yourself you can, and if you are at all interested in this topic I would definitely encourage you to do so. There is just one particular passage near the end of his post that I would like to share because it really struck me:
“Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.
Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, ‘I’m studying a great form of art?’ Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.”
Why are we as gamers so concerned about it? If we believe that games either can be or already are art, isn’t that good enough? Why do we need that validation from “outsiders” when we already know how we feel about it and believe we are justified in feeling that way? Do you think Roger Ebert cared that there must be a large number of people who feel that movies aren’t and never can be art? And if he did care, do you think it’s because he needed some kind of validation of the medium that he loved and the time and passion he had spent on it, or did he just care purely out of interest in other people’s opinions and views?
Video games have only been around in a mainstream capacity for about 40 years. And since I don’t think anybody was trying to call Pac-Man or Donkey Kong works of art, let’s fast forward to when that discussion started to gain real momentum, probably sometime near the turn of the millennium. So by my rough estimate, it has only been about 10-15 years that allegedly artistic games have even existed. I highly doubt that within a decade or two of the first masterpiece painting or classic symphony that the general public of the time was already universally declaring those things as works of art unequivocally. It takes some time for a new medium to find its identity and for people to fully embrace it. It is way too soon to be demanding that the world call video games art, no matter how strongly we may already feel about it.
The very nature of video games and their interactivity is unlike almost any other current form of accepted art, and as such the world still needs time to process and understand it. There’s also the matter of passing generations, and in the next 20-30 years almost everyone alive will have grown up either with or at least around video games and won’t know a world before they existed. Much like the kids and teenagers of the 50s and 60s are now parents and grandparents and understand the notion of rock and roll more than their parents did, the children of the 70s and beyond have a better understanding of video games than the older generations of today and are in a better position to look at them more deeply. I’m not trying to take the cop-out “old people just don’t get it” stance, but it is a fact that each generation is different from the last, and while already timeless art will always remain beloved and appreciated, when completely new and radically different concepts and ideas – artistic or otherwise – are introduced it is often by or at least aimed at the younger generations and frequently to the befuddlement and/or resistance of the older. Right now it’s social network sites (that aren’t Facebook), and before that it was video games, and before that it was rock music, and before that it was comic books, and before that it was television…and it goes on and on. Today’s crazy thing that the kids are into is tomorrow’s mainstream entertainment that everyone does.
It should also be pointed out that there are varying degrees of acceptance when it comes to art. Few would argue that Munch’s “The Scream” or one of Beethoven’s symphonies are works of art (though I’m sure some would). But what about a video installation? What about performance art? What about a plain white canvas with a single blue paint stroke across the middle? All of these things are considered true art by some, but not art at all by others. There are things in art museums as we speak that a lot of people wouldn’t consider art, and those things are being featured in established, well-respected art institutions. There are people like Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock who are incredible artists to one person and fly-by-night hacks to another. Even within the actual “art world” there is much divisiveness and disagreement about who the artists are and what the art is, and yet we are surprised and even offended that every person who sees Shadow of the Colossus or Journey doesn’t immediately declare them as works of art without question. Let’s be realistic here.
The final piece of this picture is validation. Do I need everyone to agree that video games are art in order to justify every afternoon or evening that I spend playing them? Of course not. I do believe that video games can be art, and that some existing games already are art, and I do sometimes play games that touch me or move me or inspire me or make me think, much in the way true art does. Other times, probably most times, I’m just kicking back and having fun. Since when do I or anyone else need to be validated in what I do for fun? And more to the point of this topic, since when does everybody need to believe in something before anybody feels as though they can? I think…no, I know that video games have the capacity to be art, and plenty of them already are. I don’t need to convince anybody else of that. I don’t need Roger Ebert to believe that. In fact, I don’t even need other gamers to believe that.
When I sit down to play a game, if I decide it’s art, then to me it’s art. That’s it. I’m more than happy to have a discussion about it, even with those who disagree, but it isn’t necessarily to sway them my way or have them sway me to theirs. My decision as to what is art to me is mine alone. And certainly, I am, as Ebert put it, content to play my games and simply enjoy myself, with or without anyone’s blessing. Anybody who has been a gamer for a long time should already be used to hit-or-miss public perception of the medium as a whole and of the people who play games. I for one am just happy that it is now, more than ever, acceptable to be an adult who openly and proudly plays video games and doesn’t have to feel like I have to hide it when I’m amongst most other adults. If there’s something I’m concerned with, it’s simply not being stereotyped or looked down on for being a gamer, and for video games to be as mainstream and embraced a form of entertainment as movies and television. Once we get there, then we can start pushing this art thing if we absolutely must. One step at a time.