Can Video Games Be Art and What Technological Changes Affect That?
A topic review by Oliver Lloyd
As part of my final year as a student under the BSc Games Design course at Leeds Metropolitan University, I have been partaking in a module named ‘Games Industry’. Within this module, our main exercise has been to present on three occasions on one of two proposed topics. These presentations were in the form of 20 slides which would auto-change every 20 seconds. Now that these presentations are over, our final piece of graded work is a topic review within which we choose two of the topics that have been proposed in the past, find a link between the two and review them, like we would in a presentation. I decided that my topic review would come in the form of an article for TheMetOnline; this article right here.
The two questions I have decided to use as the subject of my piece are “Can games be art?” and “Are technical advances the main drivers in game aesthetics?” ; the reason I have chosen these questions is primarily because I believe the link between the two is strong but also because I haven’t worked on these seminar questions before so my opinions will be fresh and crafted out of recent research.
Art is a word that is victim to so many different definitions with no real concrete being set on a particular one. This lack of solid definition grants people the freedom to believe that their opinion on the matter is much more than opinion, they believe it is fact. The subject of whether video games are art or not has been talked about considerably since 2005 when a world renowned and respected film critic, Roger Ebert, came out and stated that ‘Games Can never be art’. His opinion brings me back to the aforementioned misunderstanding that what comes out of your mouth (or in this case, fingers) is fact. Since making this comment, Roger Ebert has since added clarity to his outburst and changed his ‘opinion’ to say that in principle games cannot be art, but admits he was foolish to say ‘never’. I personally believe that Roger Ebert was foolish for many other reasons, mainly on the grounds that he, as a respected and well followed person, spoke out about a subject he has no real understanding of bar what a few websites and articles have told him. However, one can sympathise with Ebert as you do not get to his level of acclaim as a critic without, well, criticising – even when what you are criticising doesn’t remotely fall under your level or area of expertise.
Since Ebert’s original comment, there have been two main people included in most debates, Ebert and a games designer named Kellee Santiago. Santiago held a TED talk at the University of Southern California where she was at the time of the talk, a student. The purpose of her talk was to not only address the point made by Ebert that games can never be art, but to explain and enforce her opinion that games already are art. As a student of the science/art of Video Game creation, added to my undying passion and fandom of gaming in general, I initially found myself inclined to agree with Santiago and her claim that games are already art. After listening to Santiago’s speech though, my inclination declined considerably; Although I am completely backing of the definition she chose, which states that “Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to senses or emotions”, I do find that the tangents down which she goes are pretty close to being irrelevant to the subject at hand. Kellee begins to talk about historical painting and how painting, as a medium of art, has progressed into something almost everyone in the western civilized world would class as artistic. She covers a few different mediums of ‘art’ and how they too have progressed; in fact half of her speech is about progression of other art forms where I feel it should have been about proving games right now are art in its complete entirety. I don’t think you should start a presentation with a statement and then proceed through your presentation as if you were answering a question and on those grounds I don’t back Santiago as I didn’t back Ebert either.
My understanding of Art, while not vast, is something I believe to be adequate enough to understand what is and isn’t possible to be art. Art is about context and a pretentious artist can make anything seem like art. Almost every person on the planet would have believed and stated that a urinal for example, could never be art but that opinion (if anyone in fact expressed that opinion) was crushed in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp presented one as just that, art. I am in no way relating video games to a urinal; I am simply saying that in the right context, with the right pretentious art figure behind it, almost anything can be classed as art. As time has gone on and cultures, technology and trends have changed the boundaries of art too expand which makes it so much easier for much more things to be classed as Art.
Aesthetic trends have continued to change while boundaries of technologies have been pushed and video games have not been exempt from such change. Technological advances have definitely been a key driving force behind the expansion of games, both in terms of content and realism but advances in technology are by no means the only driving force where games are concerned. On the planet right now, there are far more cultures than there has ever been, with different subcultures and subcultures-of-subcultures popping up all the time. Art, video games included, has been affected by this and continue to change and adapt as different tastes are required to be catered for. With each subculture, the potential for a whole new range of fashion, slang, activities and taste is opened and game developers are aware of this, which is why there is an incredibly diverse range of games available to the population right now. No one game can meet the requirements of everyone. No one piece of film, no one book, no one song and no one piece of art can meet the requirements of everyone.
This alone is why defining what is and isn’t art is, in my opinion at least, a very foolish move to make. Who is anyone to claim whether something is or isn’t art as a definite fact? We cannot say and thus we must be incredibly careful with our words and ensure we use ‘in my opinion…’ wherever it is called for. We all have different tastes and we all show emotion at different stages for different reasons and this is what makes the media industry, the art industry and I suppose, in a way any industry, exciting. If we all had the exact same tastes that needed to be catered for the world would be a very beige place, a boring place and it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t need to have a debate about whether or not games were art, because it’s quite possible that games would not exist.
With all the aforementioned being said however, in conclusion I shall give my opinion on the questions. A conclusion that was missed by almost everyone I saw who gave their answers within a seminar. Firstly, it is my opinion that a game, as a finished product is a piece of art. I have been more moved, more intrigued and more fascinated by a game than I have by any other medium for media. I am a person with a keen passion for reading, watching film and listening to music but I have never felt the same emotions I have partaking in any of those activities as I have while playing a full game from start to end. There is much more to the answer than that, though. Even if you, like Ebert, think that a game cannot be art, you must at least be able to accept that it takes great artistic input to create a game. A game’s planning begins on the drawing board where storytellers will create, quite often, a wonderful in-depth story which will grab the attention and emotions of a player. Conceptual artists will draw worlds and characters that people will love, loathe and sometimes become. In turn these drawings will be sculpted, crafted and brought to life by 3d artists, animators and environment artists. There are a few globally recognised types of art used to create video games and that within itself, in my opinion, allows them to at least have a solid chance of one day being able to be completely recognised as art and not simply ruled out due to ignorance and complete lack of experience.
Ebert, R. (2010). Video can never be art. Available: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html. Last accessed 29th April 2012.
Patton, J. (2010). Art in Play, Are Videogames Truly Works Of Art?. Available: http://www.bagogames.com/art-play/. Last accessed 29th
Alfred Stieglitz, (1911), Duchamp Fountain [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.shafe.co.uk/crystal/images/lshafe/Duchamp_Fountain.jpg [Accessed 29 April 12].
Roger Ebert, (2010), Roger Ebert Apology [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.techdigest.tv/roger%20ebert%20apology.jpg [Accessed 29 April 12].