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Games as Art: ↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A select start

by on Sep.16, 2011, under Art

The debate on whether video games should be considered art is long running and controversial.  The debate has been a hot topic with parents and movie critics and now, even the supreme court.  Notably, the supreme court has decided quicker than the others; perhaps we should have simply asked them in the first place.

The most infamous discussion on the topic would be Ebert’s April 2010 blog post, Video Games Can Never Be Art, where he states that games are games and are not, in any sense, art.  Ebert retracted his statement a few months later with his post Ok Kids, Come Play on My Lawn; where he essentially threw up his arms and admitted that he just doesn’t get it.

Ebert’s issue against video games as art demonstrate his narrow view on what art is and what art can be.  First of all, he references statements from Kellee Santiago, who likens video games to being closer to chicken scratches and cave paintings rather than resembling the Sistine Chapel, a reference to their perceived lack of creative complexity.  Disregarding the fact that every art history survey course begins with cave paintings, who is anyone today to judge the true complexity of an art piece when we have the gift of hindsight?  Those charcoal and berry paintings in a dank cave in France may have taken months to conceive:  from gathering materials, conceptualizing the story and imagery, not to mention the very idea to do it in the first place.  I find Mondrian’s grid paintings to be boring as hell, and as far as I’m concerned Pollack just splattered a ton of paint on things.  However, I’m viewing them from present day, and fully acknowledge that these pieces were revolutionary during their time and paved the way for abstract imagery in art.

What if we created a museum that exhibited art not based on theme or time period but on complexity.  Moreover, arrangements aren’t based on actual complexity but perceived complexity.  That would ruffle some feathers.  Not only would an artist be offended if he spent weeks, months, or even years bringing a piece of art to life that ended up in the ‘so-easy-I-could-paint-this-in-my-sleep-and-I-don’t-even-know-the-color-wheel’ gallery but museum patrons would inherently bring their subjective experiences and inevitably disagree with the curator’s classifications.  Sometimes an artist is just so talented that they can create something seemingly impossibly complex with very little effort, while other artists slave over their craft and only after much hardship does something so simple yet beautiful come to life.  Are they both not artists?

Games also have a complexity to them that is not apparent to people today.  Those 8-bit, pixellated caricatures of the 1970s and 1980s got their start with soldered wires and circuitry; far more complicated than what we can do with the developer kits and high-end software programs we use to make games today.  However, to the untrained mind, it looks simple.  Anybody could replicate Pong or Space Invaders today with PhotoShop and Flash.  The product of which couldn’t compare to the output of fancy modelling software that the big game development companies have.

Point is, complexity isn’t the definitive quality of art anymore than a requirement that art be a 2-dimensional, roughly squarish object that you hang on your wall and stare at (mirrors aside – now that’s a beauty).  With the advent of the internet and the rise of Net Art, art doesn’t even have to physically exist.  It just is.  At its basic level, it is merely 1s and 0s.  It can be interactive because the technology now exists to make it so.   Peruse to see how far art has come from those square-thing-on-the-wall days.

The argument that games aren’t art because they are interactive is counter intuitive.  First of all, when you view those square wall objects, you are still interacting with it.  You are judging it, examining its texture, wondering how it was made, pondering what the artist meant.  We are always trying to discern what the artist is trying to tell us.  Our conclusion may be far different from the artist’s intent; they may not have even had a concrete point.  Art Museums even have interactive exhibits; places where you not only can touch the artwork but places where you can help create and be a part of the artwork.  Interactive installations actually involve the viewer as a part of the art piece.   Not only can viewers walk into the exhibit but frequently, they are a necessary element of the art.

Games are entirely capable of appealing to our emotions.  Who wasn’t sad when Aerith died in FFVII?  Who wasn’t awestruck by the environments in God of War III?  Who didn’t feel utter catharsis by blindly killing all townsfolk in Baldur’s Gate before the Flaming Fist stepped in (oh the days of save files – how I miss thee).  Games can imitate life as it is, such as human interactions in The Sims, or it can exaggerate it and make it larger than life , like shoulder pads in WoW.  Similarly in traditional art, it can represent life as is (John Audubon’s wildlife paintings) or make it more grandiose (Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of just about anything).

The only knock games have against them is that they were coined as child’s play, and adults are loath to accept that objects of childlike fancy can be taken seriously and address topics relating to real life.   Even the title of Ebert’s retraction post signifies that he sees the matter as an adults vs kids issue.  Scores of parents groups try to ban ‘violent’ games because they see the medium as entertainment for children even though the average age of the modern video gamer is 37 years old.

Thankfully, the supreme court ruling saw through the fire and brimstone claims and announced that video games deserve the same protection as other forms of media and the violence inherent within them are just as present in fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel, and ancient epic poems like The Odyssey.

More and more, video games are being accepted as a serious medium.  International peer-reviewed journals exist on the topic.  Net artists are using existing game and creating new ones for the sole purpose of their art practice.  Even the Smithsonian is getting in on the action and is planning an exhibition called “The Art of Video Games” in 2012.      I’m game, are you?


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