the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Are Video Games an Art Form?

Are Video Games an Art Form?

I have been asked this question many times. People who don’t consider video games a form of art, come up to me and say “But WHY video games are a form of art?” And I have always refused to answer this question simply because it’s a stupid, borderline unanswerable question. Imagine I came to you and asked “prove it to me, why literature is a form of art?” Could you answer that? There are no objective rules about what does and doesn’t constitute “art” so that we apply them to video games and find out if they are indeed an art. But I decided to finally give it a shot, and provide an answer which might illustrate the point.

What is art and what is not art? What distinguishes between art and non-art? Is it a specific characteristic which a work of art has but a non-art doesn’t? To answer this is specifically difficult when we consider the history of art; of what was once not considered art and it is now. It will be even more difficult if we turn to modern and post-modern art, where the line between the art and non-art has become blurrier than ever.

Many things that we consider today to be art with no question were never considered art at their own time. Novel, for example. The novel is almost as old as poetry, dating back to Greek and Roman ancient novels. However, for two thousand years, novel was never considered a work of art or literature. Look at every work of criticism published in the two thousand years before the late 18th and early 19th century, and it simply talks only about poetry, no mention of fiction is there. Even the greatest stories of that time-span are narrative poems. At the late 17th and early 18th century the golden age of novel dawned, with writers such as Cervantes, Richardson, or Fielding. However, the novel was still not getting its deserved status. Jane Austen, who is one of the greatest writers of all times, was ashamed to admit she was writing novels as it was an “unladylike” profession, and many female writers of the coming era (including Charlotte Bronte, George Elliot and George Sand) adopted male or gender neutral pen names. While at the same time, it was completely accepted by the ladies to compose poetry. Even Jan Austen was shocked at the fact that her favorite poet, Sir Walter Scott, also takes time to write novels. Yes, one of the greatest novelists of all times found writing novels a degradation for a poet. Novel was finally considered an art, but until 20th century, with people like Henry James, W. D. Howells, D. H. Lawrence, F. R. Leavis or E. M. Forester no real criticism solely aimed at novel wasn’t shaped.

Photography had to go through the same ordeal. Some of the very first photos taken are now considered works of art; Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) is known to get photography accepted as an art form; but not in his youth. By 1969 Harvard museum had hosted only his works, while it took a few more years to host more photos for more photographers. Even cinema had to go through the same ordeal. Some of the best movies were made and it was still a hot discussion if cinema should be allowed its rank as an art. Right now the controversy goes on for three new mediums of our age, television, comic books, and video games.

But that’s not the only baffling thing about the history of art which makes this question so tricky. When I ask you, what do you think the future generations will consider the art of our time? Whether you agree or disagree, you will consider comics, TV and video games at least as a question. But will you even think of, say, your plate, spoon, or old microwave? Well, you should. Many of the things we now consider spectacular art were only day to day tools at their own times. John Keats thinks of the greatest questions of life and art when he’s so captivated by a Grecian urn, but the makers of that urn had anything but art on their mind. We practically praise the kitchen tools of the antiquity as works of art.

What has changed? What the contemporaries were missing? What is the reason that the status of the things change throughout history? What makes art; art?

The truth is, the artistry of anything lies deeply in the way we look at it. In order to find out if something is or is not a valuable work of art, we have to pause, and look at it from a distant. The role of that thing must shift in out minds.

To us, our plates, our chairs, our glasses, and sometimes our video games are not a work of art because we never look at them as that. What’s important to us is their practical use in day to day life. But the practicality of a work of art is completely different from that of a day-to-day useful tool. The reason that we spend time to go to Louvre, and observe the paintings and sculptures there is that we find them valuable in their own, beyond their immediate practical function. To us, Mona Lisa is valuable as Mona Lisa. But not out glasses. Our glasses are valuable because we can drink water in them.

Let’s look at an example. Advertisement consists of things very close to art. Short cinematic or music clips, posters, paintings, etc. Rarely (if at all) they are considered art. Because when we look at them, we do not perceive them as independent entities, we assign a role to them. They want to sell us a specific product. They have an immediate use, a function. They are not valuable in and of their own, they are not independent, autonomous entities. They are a tool. But Mona Lisa doesn’t have any immediate use, a function, or it’s not a tool to some other purpose. We look at the ads because we want to decide what tablet to buy. We look at Mona Lisa simply because we find it beautiful, meaningful and its functions are of its own. Because it’s Mona Lisa.

Think this was not an ad, now tell me if it's art.

Now imagine five hundred years from now the last remnants of our civilizations are being dug up and an advertisements is found. They have no ultimate use for that thing. It’s a curiosity in itself for them. Would they consider it a work of art? Maybe. Some of them, certainly.

 

Marcel Duchamp is the genius who has answered this question, of what is and what is not art, definitely. His work Fountain is a ready made porcelain urinal, autographed by him and placed on display. That’s his art. Now, how can a urinal possibly be a work of art? The answer is, it’s art because Duchamp has signed it. Duchamp has taken this urinal and has elevated it to a work of art, simply by choosing it. In fact; Duchamp was a great champion of anti-art movement and his work is actually a statement about the nature of art. Art, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. If we decide to look at a urinal as a work of art, it is a work of art.

However, all that said, I’m not claiming that I’m a follower of the radical notions that everything is the reader. A great valuable work of art has certainly great merits of its own; but the truth is, the ultimate answer to why fine arts, fiction, poetry, music, and cinema get a special treatment in comparison with toilet seats, urinals, chairs and tables is simply a matter of use. No one would bother to put great aesthetic effort or deeper meaning into a urinal, because the only function of a urinal is to be urinated upon. A function of a poetry is to be read and enjoyed as a poetry, and therefore the artists inject them with great truths.

As you can see, I’m not really able to answer why video games are a form of art, because the answer is not objective. To many, video games still have a function. They improve our brain, for example. But I play video games because I like them. As video games. Nothing more, nothing less. And therefore, to me they are works of art. And there are many people who agree with me.

And I believe that the future belongs to us. Our population has grown considerably since the birth of the medium. Soon, sooner than you think, the whole population will be playing them. Soon there will be essays and books criticizing them as works of art (this site is itself one of the early examples), and soon they will be studied in universities as a work of art. And that is simply because people like us will be running the literary circles and magazines and universities. A cultivated gamer generation is in the making, and that generation will surely ask; why do I play? What makes this game great? Why this game has such a great staying power? Why do I love this game so much? What does this game mean? How video games can change me? How can they change the world? And then, when these questions are asked, the video games are automatically an art form.

Because what makes something an art is not a characteristic we can find in all works of art, such characteristic simply doesn’t exist. It’s not a series of rules that all works of art must obey, as they are all broken. What makes art an art is a community of enthusiastic creators who create, critics who criticize, and readers who spend time, money and effort dedicated to that work. Art is simply something that surpasses the mundane practicality of a day to day life and becomes a thing beyond time and space, a valuable entity, a ritual. There’s no wonder that artists have sought eternal life in art.

Mr. Roger Ebert has every right not to consider video games an art, to him, they do not have that special role. To us, they do. But statistics show that we are taking over the world. Now, video games are an art form to a community, soon, they will be to the world.

The video games are an art form because of us- the gamers. And there’s nothing that we don’t have that those who went to the gallery in order to see a freaking urinal on display did.

3 Comments

  1. Fantastic. Simply fantastic. You make many excellent points. I also feel that they have a different level of artisticness because of the interaction element. There’s playing through a game, and then there’s gracefully avoiding danger while mowing down legions with cool-looking combos. This interaction is an element that no other medium has.

    As far as whether I believe they’re art or not, I think that, like any medium, it’s best determined in a case-by-case basis. Some pieces within a medium are works of art and others, whether or not they’re enjoyable, are not. In movies, I’d consider American Beauty to be a great work of art, whereas Transformers, while enjoyable to some, is not. In video games, while something like Contra: Hard Corps is an excellent, adrenaline-pumping thrill-ride of a game, I’d hesitate to call it a work of art. Conversely, Psychonauts was sometimes incredibly frustrating due to awkward controls and mechanics, but is the single greatest example of video games as a work of art that I can think of, which brings me to another point.

    The reason that Mr. Ebert’s stance isn’t that upsetting to me is that, while I like artistic games, I enjoy them primarily as games, and secondarily as works of art. The Shadow of Colossus was very bold and artistic, which is why so many people love it, but as a GAME, I hated it. Here, we have an example of something that tries so hard to be a work of art that it fails as a game. So while my initial reaction to the video games as art debacle was “How dare he!? [insert world from my feature] is far more beautiful a work of art than the Mona Lisa,” I came to realize that a game should be a great GAME first. Now, in today’s world with the industry having 7 generations of experience, there’s no reason that a game can’t be both, and I think that’s worth striving for.

    A game can also be artistic on many fronts. It can be the visual aspect of art, as well as have a very artistic soundtrack, or it can be artistic in its story and presentation. A game can also be artistic in its gameplay as far as how innovative its mechanics or level design are. What I think makes video games so fascinating as a medium is this variety and depth of what exactly makes it a great work of art and how there are so many different aspects coming together to make the final presentation.

  2. I’m curious what you think about the Extra Credits series, which argues that video games are an art form.

    • Honestly, haven’t heard of them. Can you provide a link?

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