Can videogames be art?

Something I’ve been pondering a fair bit recently (especially after Roger Ebert’s comments) is that perennial kettle of bees: are videogames art?

As a fan of videogames my kneejerk response is to say ‘Of course they are!’ but does that point of view stand up to investigation or am I just saying it because to say the opposite feels like a slight or a criticism?

To work out a reasoned position I decided to take the definition of art I can countenance the best (i.e. one that doesn’t say ‘It’s art because it’s in a gallery’) and see where that led.

My preferred definition is one by the philosopher Jerrold Levinson which I came across in Descartes’ Baby (a book by psychologist Paul Bloom). It basically sets out that art is created with the intent of being regarded similarly to other works of art. As Bloom puts it: “we judge something to be an artwork if we believe that it was intended to be seen in the same way that we see other, already existing, works of art.”

It’s a definition which seems far more resistant to the rebellious inclinations of some contemporary artists and spells out the fact that art is vastly self referential in enormous fiery letters.

What then of games?

This, irritatingly is the conundrum. Games appear to crucially lack this intention. Games are created variously to engage, provoke, explore, pass the time, show off, to make money, or simply to exist – on this level they share a vast amount with fine art – but the connection with other artworks and the intentions to be regarded as art seems to be missing. Perhaps a deep connection with the thousands of years of art historical traditions would emerge on conversation with particular developers but it’s not something I’ve noticed arising in interviews and it does seem to be important in terms of viewing art as art.

This “not art” conclusion goes against pretty much all my instincts so I decided to look at a couple of examples which I habitually hold up as examples of gaming as art. The first is The Path and the second is Every Day the Same Dream.

The Path is a strange one to pin down. You variously play as different versions of Red Riding Hood and must find each one’s wolf. In order to complete the game you must stray from the path and you must go through some rite of passage or ordeal which is alluded to before entering the ambiguous but threatening Grandma’s House. Ultimately more questions are raised than answered and the game’s refusal to provide a neat explanation has triggered a lot in the way of emotional response and discussion.

The Path

The Path, Tale of Tales

Every Day the Same Dream gives you control of a man. He lives his life under your control over a period of days. You can explore in a limited fashion but ultimately the life of your character is repetitive and game reaches the same sad conclusion no matter what your choices. Player reactions tend to divide into two camps – one consisting of players who want to 100% the game and the other believing it to be a subtle exploration of the human condition.

Every Day the Same Dream

Every Day the Same Dream, molleindustria

The more I think about the pair the more I feel that they are actually game/fine art hybrids rather than games as art. For one thing they don’t feel quite like games, more like interactive thoughts. You can play them as games to be completed – either by finding all your wolves or by performing all the actions within the little world – but to do so is to miss the ambiguity and the point and if by playing them as games you miss the point then how can they be true games? Then again, they certainly don’t seem to fit into the narrative definition of art I outlined above – or any of the other s that involve galleries or pure contemplation and so on.

In terms of the art historical landscape, the ideas and issues that games (especially of this ilk) raise tend to tie in with the conversations that occur around cultural theory and philosophy – the tools we use to analyse or place fine art. But does sharing a language of critique mean that the primary product is a subdivision of the same thing? Which is another way of asking “by using philosophy or cultural theory to discuss gaming are we putting it in the same mental space as art?”

I would say not. Or at least not consciously. But I would also suggest that movies exist on a similar plane in terms of critique and although they appear to exist largely within their own genre of creative endeavour, there is also a Venn diagram intersection with fine art containing video art. And the same with theatre (performance art) or with music (sound art). Perhaps rather than seeking to place games and art within a pre-existing template or definition (like the one above) all we need to do it continue taking them seriously, analysing them and contextualising them. Over time, more and more curious experiences will aggregate at the edges or at odd intervals, collecting together to form gaming art.

Thinking all this through has been a strange experience. I love gaming and hold it in high regard – at its best it explores the universe, tests skill and provides hours of entertainment – so if I were to conclude that it’s not art it would feel like I’m joining the ranks who say gaming is a juvenile and damaging pastime.

I’ll end by suggesting it would be fairer to say gaming is not art yet. Art has existed for tens of thousands of years, videogames for sixty at a stretch – it’s certainly not inconceivable that developments may lead to convergence further down the line, especially if we keep framing them within the same cultural conversation.