This is the last piece in my three part series about Video Games and Art. After sitting down with Patricia Taxxon last week, discussing the topic of Games as Art, and in particular the late Roger Ebert’s opinions on the subject I wanted to finally outline a social historical theory of Games and how they actually relate to Art.
Step One, What is Art?
Is art, art? Is religion, religion? Or, the state or macroeconomics? While we might say that certain things are unchanging throughout the times, social life certainly isn’t. It changes and evolves, retaining some of its past, its name and titles. Perhaps nowhere else is this evolution more apparent than in Art where even popularly we imagine a big break during the Renaissance and early Modernity. If we wish to accurately understand Art we must understand its history and evolution, and if we don’t wish to fall into stageism we must understand the multiple Arts that also coexisted. Were we to judge all art by the standards to say, medieval England or the early modern Caribbean, where plays were, if not entirely unappreciated, at least often seen as “popular” and thus not exactly “high” Art then we could also mistake widely viewed Athenian tragedy as something unimportant. I therefore suggest that we judge something as Art when it affects Art in the future, so when it has historical impact and Artists take note. Also when a society simply defines it as Art, inspecting by which standards it does. Only after examining the first two points should we look at commonly used transhistorical definitions such as “objects produced for aesthetic purpose”.
So. To understand if Video Games are Art we need a rough account of the trajectory of Art in general. Sadly the start of this trajectory is hard to pinpoint lying in prehistory at least 40.000 years ago but the emergence of something we might recognize as Art could lie hundreds of thousands of years further back. However we can make some estimations. In our murky theory Art began as dance, music and decorations of the body, items and perhaps dwellings at some point during the Paleolithic and would have included things such as carvings on tools, drawing on bodies, perhaps early precursors to sculpture and probably a forerunner of Theater. At that stage, ritual, artistic performance and religion would have blended and lines would have been blurry, not that this is all that strange considering the function a great deal of art had over the centuries in all manners of cultures. (I will forgo the argument here that the role of play in such cultural behavior already resembles modern games and would have blended with things more recognizable as Art) Out of these, visual ornamentation is probably the closest cousin to our understanding of Art as it satisfies the first point while probably being less tied to utilitarian uses such as socialization. Let us now draw a straight line for simplicity’s sake to present day, western artistic standards. The difference is extremely stark and yet the evolution of at least some mediums is visible. On one hand Art has gone from its “primitive” social purpose to something primarily thought of in terms of Artists and their expression to which the audience’s experience is almost subordinate, at the same time we can imagine how we got here relatively easily for some Art-forms. Cinema is roughly Theater , which is roughly communal dance. Painting is roughly ornamentation, etc. However some connections are more tenuous, why is Architecture Art? Yes, Literature is important but why is it Art? Why not simply consider the decoration of Architecture as Art? Simply looking at the origins will not give us the information we need here. I suspect the gravitas of ancient origins plays a role but what I want to get at is this: The category of Art can be expanded and is not only subject to the direct evolution of its originating mediums. Yes, perhaps Architecture is subject to similar laws to sculpture but it is also so significantly different and abstracted from them; that to explain it simply as a natural evolutionary “next step” seems unsatisfying, if not totally void.
Step Two, The die is cast.
To call back to what I said about the parallels between the potential cultural origins of Art and Games. It is in fact not clear where games originated, if I’m allowed to be completely speculative for a second, games such as boardgames, dice or coin games, may have emerged along armies and empires that wanted portable games with stricter rules that they could bring along and play with the citizens of cities they visited, an argument I adapt from Graeber’s work on debt. Naturally if one asks about the origins of undetermined “play” its origins probably lie back to the dawn of primates. It’s for that reason that it becomes hard to disentangle these two types of cultural conceptions. But to move on, suffice it to say that, ornate figures and boards aside, Games were content to be separate movements from Art. So, there are two relatively insular trajectories, case closed, Games are not Art. But I believe something occurred that changed the trajectories drastically, Modernity. Modernity, and specifically the Renaissance changed things for Art drastically turning it into something more self serving, a religion of objects. But this isn’t to say that such a left turn didn’t have a tradition to draw from, it did add though, new pursuits and changed the form of Art. Not long after, only a few centuries, Games started changing as well, perhaps affected by the gravity of the times, the biggest steps for these new games lay probably in Prussian wargames, roleplaying games of the 70s and 80s as well as Video Games. It is in this transition I believe that the trajectory of Games started circling that of Art, these revolutions were, as discussed with Patty, much more novel than the history of traditional Art which fed relatively straight-forwardly the creation of new art forms such Cinema. This new wave of Games was evidently distinct from their ancestors, less insular, often with narratives and certainly with artistic vision they started taking from the other Arts. Who nowadays is unaware of “cinematic video games”? Someone once called graphic novels “parasitic” as they often borrowed from popular culture, but I think perhaps both mediums are in fact merely circling fast around the singularity of Art.
Step Three, The Priesthood.
Here I want to expand on the second point, about the mechanism through which the concept of Art is delineated in a society. I would suggest that, currently at least, Art is both the subject of majority opinion, as well as that of an Artistic Priesthood whose form and relation to the masses are evolved through its social-historical development. This professional class of critics, executives, directors, artists, etc has a disproportionate effect on what our society considers Art. If Art is a religion of objects, then these are its priests that shape and maintain its orthodoxy. By having these people on your side you gain access to the singularity, to the pantheon of Art. By that (societal) standard, are Video Games Art then? I would say, no, though they are circling closer than many give them credit for. Yes, games can be found in museums and there’s articles, academics, artists, etc that take them seriously but if I’m to judge the situation, it’s still too controversial. Up in the air. Same goes for some other Mediums. Comics seem close, Design flickers in and out of the singularity, but it’s not settled yet. And from our current moment in time we also cannot, with absolute certainty, infer what will happen next. Yes, Games could be seen as Art in 10 years or the situation stabilizes and they become permanently Art-adjacent or they diverge once more. Though I would already say that there exists two types of games, those which are under artistic consideration, such as roleplaying Games and Video Games and those that are not, such as board games. Why the former haven’t collapsed into Art already is not clear, but I suspect it stems from the high levels of commercialization in the industry as well as the low quality of its advocates. Critics such as Ebert are not incorrect that money plays too big a role and that many advocates for Games probably simply want cultural respect for their hobby, not to speak of journalists. While those are never liked in any medium by the audience, I doubt they are as ridiculed in music as they are in Games. But where I will not give credit to Ebert, is his lack of interest in thinking about the reasons why the Games industry is the way it is, and talking about a subject he is was unwilling to learn about.
Final Step, Better Games.
So far I have spoken about the social history of Games, but naturally our conceptions of Art aren’t subject to the laws of physics but are things we can change ourselves and for that purpose I want to argue against some arguments contra Games-as-Art, as an individual rather than from the perspective of history. What are these arguments?
Video games are purposive, they either serve “fun” or a physiological need to play, vs Art which transcends purpose.
As I have already shown earlier play and Art are not that easy to distinguish, especially when viewed from an Anthropological perspective. Moreover, the idea that Art “transcends purpose” à la l’art pour l’art is ridiculous to me. If it is akin to play then the same physiological need exists and serves as purpose, but even if not we create Art for any number of reasons, not spontaneously out of nothing. And those reasons exist alongside any need for play.
No clear message, narrative is malleable because of player choice.
When critics point to this due to a lack of “unified artistic will” it betrays their unfamiliarity with Games and Games criticism, it’s as simple as that. Because frankly, most games don’t even give players that much freedom, whether one goes left or right doesn’t change the themes of despair in Dark Souls. And so unified interpretations are quite possible, at “worst” a game can fit multiple strands of narrative in one product. But I fail to see how that is an issue or that different from say, a collection of short stories which may also have overarching themes that connect the stories.
Finally, they are not high quality enough. There are no Games equal to the works of the great poets.
This argument relates to the last because the judgment and interpretation of Games are slightly counter-intuitive. Games as a whole are judged not only by narrative standards but also by their design, design being something that is massively focused on in the Industry, sometimes to its own detriment. But that means that when judging a Game an almost parallel level must be judged, more akin to an abstract poster. Not only that, Games are much more novel as a medium than other modern Arts which means there’s less of a tradition to draw from, and less experience already built up. Because it’s not as simple as “making better cutscenes” that will fix the issues of narrative in Games, it’s in the interplay between a Games various aspects that the medium comes to life and distinguishes itself from the others. So to expect moments so early in a medium which brings with it such unique challenges I believe is misguided. I will not sit here and call modern Games “akin to chicken scratches” though, because I think there are already games that match the artistic endeavors of much liked, established artists. Now, I left this argument for last for a reason. Ultimately, poking holes at arguments made against Games doesn’t do much because I do want great works in the medium. I do want the quality to be higher. And that isn’t primarily achieved by defending the medium or by dismissing criticism even if it’s poor criticism. Improvement comes from scrutiny, and we should try to both make greater Games as well as greater critiques. So this is an appeal to everyone, including myself, to engage with this topic seriously and give way for some truly great Games.
Thanks for reading.
1) In the article I bring up two terms: Artistic Priesthood, which I explain, and Religion of Objects, which I don’t. Here I wanted to clarify the latter slightly. In short, I believe people often buy into our typical cultural justifications for Art as something transcendental, “above purpose” and quasi religious and place the emphasis on the “Art”. It’s thus that Art becomes a religion of objects when (in most cases) the Art object becomes the vehicle for divine contents. I would argue that this is not only a historically contingent way of viewing Art but also wrongly places the importance on the Art rather than the critical aesthetic judgment that a viewer undertakes. Art of course has other utilities too, such as activity, it is fun to paint for example, but that is not really where its inflated importance comes from. In truth, we could gain similar meaning from interpreting random objects or situations aesthetically (maybe people are already doing that through various romantizations and “aesthetics”) than we do when looking at high art. Even shorter, if all the world’s paintings were gone, not much would be actually lost.
2) In the tiny update, I promised a retrospective on Afghanistan, which I have to admit will not be happening. In retrospect my predictions, though in my opinion not unfounded, were too broad to properly judge after only a year. Civil society hasn’t yet developed enough to talk about overthrowing the Taliban which are still embroiled in a low level conflict. Next time I make predictions like that I should make sure to paint in thinner strokes.
Parts One and Two of this series.
Roger Ebert: Video games can never be art.
Edward Norbeck: The Anthropological Study of Human Play
Hugh Honour & John Fleming: A World History of Art