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An In-Depth Look at the “Are Video Games Art?” Argument

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I got heavily involved in this debate way back when it was in its infancy; the teething problems were a heavy burden of the whole back and forth on the topic then, just as there is now. What I mean is, virtually everyone that argues the point lacks one piece of knowledge. This is piece of knowledge I’ll need to dive into, if I stand any chance of explaining myself. What exactly is art?

It’s such a simple question but the answer is actually rather more complex than we would let ourselves assume. You’re asked “what is art?” Most would respond with something along the lines of “a painting is art.” They would not be incorrect either, but that’s when you’re asked “what is a painting?” Most would be quick to try and answer, then a little pause, followed on by “well, it’s art.”

A painting is art; as are sculptures, mosaics, photographs, drawings, murals, ceramics, poems, films, songs, etc… However where do we draw the line? While I decorate my home, if I paint a smiley face on the wall before applying the rest of the coat of paint, is that art? Is a photo of me drunk in Thailand art? Or a drawing of an angry penis? Gang tags on the streets? Pornography? ‘Beauty and the Beat’ by Justin Bieber? These are things we constantly debate on-line, off-line, with friends, strangers, heck even ourselves. Not these particular example, of course. Just in general. What can you class as art? It was time for some research.

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Art is seen as something created by humans (or, I suppose living things would be better, a monkey could probably do a nice painting). So, we have that covered in spades. To differentiate art from just about everything else it must have something of it’s own, that not any old thing could have, something that brings with it a strong emotional response, perhaps? Well, this makes sense, however by that definition a t-shirt of a rival sports team could be classed as art because when you see it you may have the strong emotional response of someone who hates **insert team name of your choice here**. So is that art? Maybe not, while it was designed by a human, it was probably made by machines so does that make it exempt? Maybe its something thought-provoking and engaging, right? I mean, you may get emotionally involved when you see that rival teams’ top but do you actively process why you hate it, do you ponder over why it is you despise it so much? No, you hate it because you hate your rival, so there isn’t really much to ponder in fairness. However, the point still stands. Art can, and often does, become an emotional rollercoaster, specifically things like music; an art medium that the largest part of the world’s population can connect and engage through. Let’s turn that on it’s head though.

I listen to what I would deem ‘interesting’ music. It is deep, layered, emotionally sodden. The feelings connected to these songs are an intrinsic part of my enjoyment of them (I’d be lost without the emotions I experience hearing them). In saying that, I also listen to dubstep. While I have music I feel deserves to be called art. There is just as much (if not more) that I feel doesn’t. All the while I still listen to both. My opinion isn’t gospel of course, the feelings I get hearing Mars Volta play ‘In Absentia’ may be almost exactly like the feelings someone else gets from hearing ‘You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful’ by One Direction. This 1D fan would probably despise the Volta, and their opinion may sway how they feel about it being credible as art. What we need is something concrete and unwavering, one decided standard that we must judge everything that claims to be art by.

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The art community has one principle to do just such a thing. ‘Art for Art’s sake.’ meaning that the chief or only aim of a piece of art is the self-expression of the individual (or party) who creates it. Then that’s it. We can accept and reject as we like now. A painting is art, a sculpture too. Spray painting gang tags is also a loose from of art as these individuals are expressing themselves. Film is (mostly), pornography isn’t (I think we all know what the chief or, dare I say it, ONLY aim is there). Also, it may be hard to bear but Bieber, 1D, Nicki Minaj and whoever else the general public seem to be hating on these days are all considered artists too (to some extent anyway).

What does this say for games though? Well games may have to sit on a shelf with buildings, cars and pornography. See while all of them are created using human input, and while they all have a form of self-expression exuding from them, they all share one other common point-their chief aim is never the expression of the creator. They all have a purpose outside of conveying thoughts and feelings. Buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Louvre look gorgeous, but serve to house their contents and people in many cases, cars such as the Bass770 are pieces of hand-crafted perfection but you aren’t buying one to hang on your wall, you’re using it to get to B from A (and back again, presumably) in the most stylish way possible. Games are the exact same, their primary function since humanity stumbled into these endeavours were to entertain.

Granted, the same could be said for music and film. However, it is the artistic expression from the creator that is coming alive in songs and cinema that makes you enjoy what you see/hear. It’s why bands make music videos and movies handle soundtracks and scores, more sensory stimulation to make you more emotionally involved. While the same can be said for gaming it’s a little bit different. Consider it like this. As you observe the serene, ever-calm fields of lush grass in the distance whilst you quickly move towards them. You turn to your left, then to your right. You see the outskirts of the city you are about to leave behind. Desolate, grey, vile and tainted with blood. You hear the crunching of flesh and bone behind you and as you slowly turn you see it; an eight foot demon from outer space eating your wife’s legs. All of this is happening in-game, not because the creators are trying to draw sympathy for the character, or the character’s wife. They don’t want you to question what they were trying to say with this scene or what the events unfolding mean for those involved. They are trying to say ‘shoot the big, not human thing in the face, immediately.’

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All because you aren’t observing the goings on of someone’s creative vision and letting it influence you emotionally. You are their goings on, you influence what is being created. You can opt to not save your wife and flee. This may only lead to ‘GAME OVER’ and a neat little restart (complete with unskippable cut scenes) but you can do that, you can runaway, get GAME OVER’d then turn off your game and opt to never play it again and pretend forever that what you did is the real ending. Which I won’t begrudge you, that is well within your rights, and as a human it’s pretty much expected of you (you selfish, heartless man-shaped demon, you). That makes it not art.

While the creators’ expression is seeping out of the very seams of a game, their expression is only half of it. With video games your own input shapes the piece. let’s take a game, any game, as an example. Fallout 3, fantastic looking game, has a very nice depiction of a landscape ravaged by war and really big bombs. The piece is only half done, you change the landscape as you go through the game, depending on your choices at certain junctures.

While I would class myself as gamer [read as: one who games], and while I adore games, even finding many of them absolutely beautiful (Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most heart-wrenching titles I’ve ever played). I still cannot agree that they are art, based on this fact. I know many now class video games as ‘interactive art,’ but I despise that idea. That’s a really horrible second prize. the most extreme equivalent of that being if you and loads of people you know love doing murders, but wider society is (unsurprisingly) against it, no matter how much you debate the issue in a logical manner. Your solution is not ‘let’s go make a place where murder is fine.’ You can’t not get your way and decide that you’re changing the rules. Like some athlete contesting their team’s defeat because the kind of, nearly scored a decisive goal.

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The truth is with the ‘are games art’ debate is that they aren’t. They aren’t interactive art either, because that isn’t a thing…unless you go to Hogwarts; where all the art is interactive (however electronic devices don’t work inside Hogwarts so games aren’t even welcome). The real part that’s getting to me, is they technically should be. Going back to their chief aim, which is to entertain. An argument can be made that cinema and music are the exact same, and depending on how such an argument is structured could either sway the decision to have video games being counted as art, or go in the other direction and discredit music and film as art. Someone will come up with the perfect, decisive blow to the whole issue one day, my intention with this piece was that it would be me. I got about half way through writing this and it suddenly dawned on me that I don’t want to be that guy. You see, the guy that finally ends this debate will be a guy who is so strongly voiced on the subject (either for or against), and I’m not. You may be wondering how I can’t be strongly in support of this, why as ‘one who games’ I wouldn’t be outraged at the idea of my medium not being taken seriously. The fact of the matter is, I don’t care, I don’t feel I need to justify as much as others do. If games are widely accepted as art then that’s fantastic but let’s consider what the real reasons are for people wanting games to be saw as art.

It’s a sort of inferiority complex. So that if the time comes when they are seen as art that you can feel more secure, because you aren’t gaming now, you’re appreciating. If gaming was an art form then they’d start teaching them in schools and that only sounds like a great idea right up until the opening 3 minutes of Video Game High School, with a supporting argument from every minute of Video Game High School that follows.

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I’m a proud to be ‘one who games,’ nothing makes me shirk or shy away from it. If I substituted my gaming habits with crystal meth I wouldn’t be trying to convince people that it’s bigger and more substantial than it needs to be; sitting there like ‘oh, it’s pretty delicious once you get past the shaking bit.’ I don’t need approval, and neither does anyone else. If you want to, you call them art, if you can see my point, then that’s great too, we should do meth together sometime. The true question is not ‘Are games art?’ it is ‘Why do the have to be?’

[Written by contributor Dan Connor]

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