Can Video Games Be Art?

Can Video Games Be Art?

Philosophy November 11, 2011 / By Mike LaBossiere
Can Video Games Be Art?

A reply to film critic Roger Ebert defending the artistic merits of (at least some) video games.

In short, yes.

Of course, being a professional philosopher, I am obligated to more than make a mere assertion. I had, oddly enough, thought that this matter had already been settled. However, Roger Ebert argues (at length) that video games are not and perhaps never can be art. This was done as a reply to a YouTube video by Kellee Santiago in which she claims that video games can be art. The folks at Penny Arcade also weigh in on the matter.

As with most classification battles, this conflict hinges on the definition of “art.”  After all, with definition in hand a person could sort the world into two piles: art and non-art. While Santiago goes with Wikipedia as her main source, Ebert considers more historical definitions, such as those offered by Plato. However, all these definitions have serious flaws. Since I have been published professionally in the field of aesthetics and have taught a university course on the subject for sixteen years, I am somewhat qualified to discuss definitions of “art.” My considered view is that although we have many interesting and appealing definitions, we have yet to develop one that is truly adequate. To be specific, the definitions all tend to be too narrow (leaving out too much) or too broad (letting in too much) or have other serious flaws. Fortunately, it is possible to argue whether something is art or not without having that elusive perfect (or at least adequate) definition.

One effective way to argue that something is art is to use an argument by analogy. If it can be shown that X is analogous (in relevant ways)  to something that is a paradigm example of art, then this goes a long way in establishing that X is art. Naturally, this is an inductive method and is also subject to some serious criticism.

Turning to video games, they seem to have components relevantly similar to established art forms. First, video games have graphics. These can be compared to paintings or movies (since video game graphics often move). While some video games might not actually hit a level that would qualify them as art (not even bad art) at least some of them would seem to be adequately similar to paintings, drawings or films in ways that would qualify the visual component as art. As far as the main argument, it seems that anything that can be said that would argue that a sketch, painting or film is art (references to creativity, imagination, expression of emotion, proportion, imitativeness, and so on) could also be applied to the graphics of a video game.

Second, video games have sounds and even sound tracks. While the simplest bloops and bleeps most likely are mere noise rather than music, games such as Halo have true musical soundtracks. Since music can clearly be art, the musical elements in video games would also seem to be eligible for this status.

Third, video games often have stories and narratives. While this is not true of all of them (Tetris lacks a plot, for example), some of them have plots and narratives that rival those of novels. For example, the  Mass Effect and Uncharted games serve to illustrate the narrative depths of games. The Uncharted games have been compared favorably to movies and movies are clearly art. Also, as with graphics, almost anything that can be said about a story or novel (or movie) can also be said about certain video games. As such, the story aspect of video games would also seem to qualify some of them as art.

It might be objected that although the parts that make up a game can be artistic elements, to infer that the whole game is thus art would be to commit the fallacy of composition (to assume that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole). That is, while the game has artistic parts, the game as a whole is not art. To use an analogy, the fact that a house has art on the walls and music playing within its walls does not make the house itself a work of art. To use an even better analogy, if someone decided to play checkers using great paintings as the pieces, this would hardly make the game of checkers art.

In reply, if the components are art, then the coherent combination of these parts into a whole should not someone render this whole into non-art through some sort of mysterious alchemy. In the case of the checkers analogy, the fact that the pieces are art is not actually relevant to the game of checkers. The art is not serving a role in the game as art, but rather as mere objects. This role would be served as well (even better) by small pieces of plastic. If the art is actually serving a role in the game as art, then that would change matters in a relevant. way. Provided that the art is playing a role in the game in which it being art is relevant, then it would seem to be able to give the game itself some standing as art. It could even be argued that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that video games composed of such artistic elements are not art. Of course, such burden of proof arguments are rather weak.

As for a better argument, a reasonable approach is to consider what fatal alchemy would somehow deprive all the artistic components of a video game from combining into a work that qualifies as art as a whole. If no such fatal alchemy exists and a game is meaningfully composed of artistic elements, then the game as a whole could qualify as art.

One possibility is that video games, unlike works of art, are played rather than merely experienced. One views a painting, hears a song, or watches a movie. The artist delivers a work of art and the audience receives this work. In a game, the work is unfinished (in some cases, so much so that patches are needed) and the player is required to complete the process.

While this is a tempting argument, it can be replied to in two ways. One is that there are numerous types of accepted art that are interactive. For example, stand up comedy is an art, yet we do not say that it ceases to be an art if the comic interacts with the audience in her act. Also, there are plays that invite audience participation yet this does not deny them their status as art. At the very least, the audience interacts emotionally with the works.

A second reply is that perhaps the player is also an artist by adding his input into the game. In role-playing games, the player selects and modifies the flow of the narrative, helping to tell the story along with the creators of the game. As such, this does not seem to disqualify video games from being art.

Another possibility is that there is something else inherent to games that is able to nullify the artistic elements of video games. However, it seems difficult to sort out exactly what these fatal elements might be. Games have rules, but so does art. While art cannot be won, there are some games that are also not based on winning or losing. One could, I think, run though all the elements of games and fail to find that fatal ingredient. However, I am clearly open to this possibility. True, not all games are art. However, this hardly shows that video games are thus not art because they are games.

As somewhat of a side point, there are some arguments that attack the status of video games as art by pointing out that video games cannot match the greatest paintings, novels, films and so on. However, this argument rather misses the point. Even it is conceded that video games have not matched the greatest works of art, this does not show that they are not art. It would merely show that they are not on par with the greatest works. This would be like arguing that the Twilight books are not art because they are not as good as Shakespeare’s works or arguing that I am not a runner because I cannot place in the top ten at the Boston Marathon. Bad art is still art and non-world class runners are still runners.

Finally, I obviously have just presented a sketch of a case. One glaring weak point is that an account of what it is for artistic elements of a video game to combine to form an artistic whole. Fortunately, this is the sort of challenge any composite work faces. For example, a film has to combine the plot, the visual aspects, acting, sound effects, sound track and other elements to create a whole. As such, an analogy to films can be pressed into play here and perhaps help serve as the basis for building an account of video games as works of art.

This article originally appeared at Talking Philosophy

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