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April 19, 2010

Can video games be art?

Roger Ebert has a thoughtful an respectful response to a TED Talk by Kellee Santiago, in which she says that video games already are art.

Besides a general annoyance that there already is a body of thought about what constitutes art and maybe it’d be helpful not to have to start over every time we talk about these things (insert an old man’s sigh here), I feel like we’re in definitional hell: If it looks like art, Ebert will say it’s not a game, and if it looks like a game, Ebert will say it’s not art. What’s the point?

Well, maybe the point is what Ebert asks towards the end: “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” Good question. One answer is that they want to be taken more seriously than they are.What they’re doing aren’t merely games. Some are beautiful. Some are funny. Some are occasionally morally challenging. Some are well-told tales. Some are astonishingly clever. That doesn’t make them art, but, you know, we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona last week, and there are galleries full of art that don’t look a lot like art either.

And, unlike Ebert, I leave the door fully open for games to be art. Mass Effect 2 may not be great art, but it’s better than a lot of pretty good TV shows I’ve watched. The Path has a numinous quality. Bioshock had a narrative twist that Hitchcock would have liked. Why can’t they be art? Unless, of course, you say that games always have to be won or lost (they don’t — Wittgenstein covered this pretty well) and that art can only happen when you’re pursuing artistic experience in itself (it doesn’t).

In fact, I’d pass Ebert’s question back at him: Why is he, a film critic, so intensely concerned that games not be defined as art? The answer is, I’d guess, that he sees that games are becoming aesthetically competitive with movies.

Art happens in any form of human sematic construction that is developed long enough. Of course art can happen in video games. It’s not the medium or the rhetorical form that holds them back, but the commercial constraints.