Video Games, and the failure of the word "Art"

Friday, April 23, 2010 :: Tagged under: pablolife. ⏰ 4 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

Roger Ebert decided to revisit a topic that got him a lot of attention a few years ago, where he claimed that video games weren't art. Now he's strengthened his claim, stating that video games can never be art.

My reaction to this was mostly along the lines of Penny Arcade: there's nothing to see here. An older person who's never really played video games decides to classify them ungenerously. Whoop whoop.

And normally I would let it rest, but then PZ Myers decided to weigh in (he agrees with Ebert). Now PZ is all about thinking rationally, letting evidence trump prejudices, etc. So it surprised me greatly that he made such a claim with such little knowledge, and such poor understanding. It's very un- PZ.

Here are a few pennies for the conversation. This is really about two separate issues: not knowing about the medium you're criticizing, and more broadly, having a stupid question to begin with.

Regarding video games, there are a few major blunders in PZ's argument. PZ believes (emphasis mine):

Art is a kind of distillation and representation of human experience, filtered through the minds of its creators. A great painting or poem is something that represents an idea or emotion, communicated through the skill of an artist, to make you see through his or her eyes for a moment. Computer games just don't do that. No team sits down to script out a video game with the intent of creating a tone poem in interactive visual displays that will make the player appreciate the play of sunlight on a lake, for instance.

But they do, at least as much as producers of any other 'artistic' medium do. Compare Hideo Kojima's process with any filmmaker's. Look at the Flower example given in the TED talk that inspired the whole discussion. Stating that "this simply isn't something game makers do" is like an old Pythagorean stating that irrational numbers don't exist: it's simply not true, by very observable counterexample.

Even if you don't accept my examples (Ebert's discussions in particular are full of monkey-patches and amendments to definitions to ensure that no example is quite right), making a sweeping generalization about an entire expressive medium because someone hasn't done a specific project you prescribe (or template for a project) is simply bad logic. There's nothing stopping me from doing it myself, today, and poof! I've beaten your argument in its own, irrational territory.

PZ continues:

Video games will become art when replaying the performance becomes something we find interesting, when the execution of those tools generates something splendid and lasting. It just doesn't now, though. If you want to see something really boring, watch someone else playing a video game. Then imagine recording that game, and wanting to go back and watch the replay again sometime. That's where games fail as art, which is not to say they can't succeed as something comparable to a sport — we may want to explore the rules of a game at length, and repeatedly, and we may enjoy getting better at it. But no matter how well or how long you play a game, it's never going to be something you can display in your home as a representation of an experience.

To quote an old TA of mine, "isolated but incorrect assertion" on the "watching others play video games is boring." The only times I fire up video games is to watch strangers play Warcraft III, and Starcraft is on TV in Korea. YouTube is loaded with video game clips, and we know this is only for sporty demonstrations, not because the games have had a transformative effect on someone!

A less "sporty," more personal example: while growing up my siblings would often come into my room to watch me play Final Fantasy VII or Skies of Arcadia. They didn't have an interest in playing, but were very invested in my playing it for them. "It's like watching a movie, but better," they would say.

Finally, you also can't take this argument seriously when, if you follow it through, you see it enters a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose loop. You see, there are games where playing them and watching the outcome is very much an artistic experience: think Mario Paint, UmJammer Lammy, or the Everyday Looper. Then they would argue that the games themselves aren't art, that they are more akin to canvas, paint, etc. since they take the role of tools, and you only produce art when you play them, get the distinction? But here, PZ wants to classify them as art only if playing them is such an experience that you could hang on the wall. So the definitions he prescribes has it both ways so that he doesn't have to accept a new medium as being viable to the others.

Which brings us to the second major point: the whole argument is stupid because it concerns the biggest failure in the English language: the word "Art." The word is completely meaningless; its use almost always means someone trying to dodge a more difficult discussion involving more precise terms.

What is art anyways? Does it need to have an audience? Can anything be art in the right context? These questions are never answered because the word means whatever its listener wants it to mean at the moment they say it. Asking if X or Y is Art or High Art is like asking how many angels can stand on the head of a pin at one time: we can combine all we think we know about angels, pins, and the nature of standing, but it doesn't make the collection anything less than a clusterfuck of misunderstanding to no fruitful answer.

If I defecate into my hands and spread it on people around me, I'm a candidate to be institutionalized. But if I do the same in a theatre, and say I'm doing it for Art, I'm to be taken seriously and you should be more open-minded. The word Art, like God, is frequently invoked to tell people to stop thinking and allow idiocy to pass for proper, constructive thought.

So when I made arguments in the first section responding to PZ's quotes, I was a Copernican using what I knew to be weak Ptolemaic arguments to convince a stubborn Ptomaine who could hear nothing else. Just like the most reasonable answer to most "holy questions" is that there may simply be no God, the most reasonable answer to "can video games be art?" is usually "ask a better question, or clarify your terms."

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄