Forget whether it’s art, I don’t even know what Jonathan Jones thinks a game is

Brief background: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has acquired some videogames for its permanent collection. Jonathan Jones then wrote a response blog for The Guardian saying that videogames aren’t art.

I don’t think Jones’ article deserves a massive amount of time to be spent on it as generally it just feels trollish or clickbaity or comment-baity or some kind of mishmash of all three. I’m not saying he doesn’t hold those views in some form, but I would also say that if he had written a more subtle or nuanced piece it wouldn’t have come to such widespread attention and netted The Guardian 500 or so comments or got Twitter’s collective plumage so beruffled that it was sending them lovely, lovely page views by the bucketload.

With that in mind, these thoughts are written more as a response to people who might take what he has said seriously…

Here’s the link if you wish to contribute to The Guardian’s engagement figures and incentivise them to publish this sort of thing every now and again ;)

Thought 1:
“What was a professor doing playing all these games?”

It baffles me that Jones would view an interest and enthusiasm for gaming amongst academics as inappropriate. Just because you’re not the core perceived demographic doesn’t mean you can’t engage with something. Jones’ language conjures up an exceedingly old fashioned picture of learned scholars who are definitely not of the core perceived demographic — his learned scholars feel like those weird bearded dust magnets shuffling around learned institutions with the leather-bound tomes of other learned scholars nestled under their arms.

I’ve met a fair few learned scholars in my time, even spending a year as a university librarian. Some do sport amazing beards and collect dust in odd corners of the building but most are normal people who just happen to have an interest in a niche academic field. They are also — thanks to the rise of that cash cow, the electronic journal database* — a fairly digitally savvy bunch. Normal people with a vague understanding of technology? Can Jones really be that surprised that they are aware of or actually play games? Or that having played said games they are genuinely able to see them through the prism of their own academic experience?


Thought 2:
“A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition.”

Jones and I actually hold remarkably similar definitions of art. (Mine is that, at its most basic, an artwork is an attempt to communicate a thought or emotion or opinion with other human beings.) We are both interested in the human and communicative realities of art and yet where it seems to have led Jones to say “Games aren’t art and there’s an end of it”, it has led me in more of a “Games are clearly an art form but are they just chasing after ‘fine art’ status because they are a young and therefore insecure medium seeking to borrow status from an approved historical cannon rather than striking out on their own and ploughing a uniquely awesome furrow” direction.

“The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility.”

It’s here where we diverge and where I do not understand how Jones can have done anything but the most cursory of research into his subject. I have spent countless hours creating my own secret games-within-games — in fact they make up the majority of my games writing to date and are the reason I keep coming back to certain games. But while Jones might struggle to see the relevance of my secret plastic flamingo fortresses in The Sims 3 at this juncture, what about Minecraft? What about Black & White? What about any number of games that give you enough rope and then sit back so you can choose whether to create something from it or use it to truss up your enemies. Games like that are built expressly to take advantage of the fact players want to impose their personal vision on a gaming canvas.

I also don’t see how the game’s creator has ceded responsibility. I genuinely don’t understand how Jones thinks games work. If nothing is being communicated by anyone, if the player has no personal impact and if the creator is rendered impotent by his or her medium then forget about the whether an artwork exists — where does the game exist?

As a secondary observation, in saying the creator of the game has ceded responsibility for transmitting a personal vision I feel like Jones is subscribing to one of two things. Either that in committing ideas to this specific medium you lose the ability to communicate them effectively or that by using the skills of others, either a close team as with an indie developer, or the massive transcontinental departments of AAA titles, you lose the ability to control the vision.

The former would mean he’s saying canvas and paper succeed where gaming mechanics fail without actually offering any proof or logic to back up that statement and the latter would mean by employing others to execute your design you have written yourself off as an artist and would invalidate vast swathes of art from the Renaissance to Damien Hirst. The latter seems less likely so I’d be interested to know why Jones thinks game design is a failed artistic medium and even more interested to hear if it’s neither of these options.

Thought 3:
“This is the essential difference between games and art, and it precedes the digital age. Chess is a great game, but even the finest chess player in the world isn’t an artist.”

It’s completely ridiculous to use a chess analogy and equally ridiculous to imply that the videogames/art debate was concluded prior to the digital age. The games people most commonly cite as art aren’t puzzle or logic games, they are entirely different creations – sprawling provocative things or compact emotional things that arose because of the potential of digital media.

And that’s the thing, really. This whole piece just smacks of a lack of research and a lack of engagement. A prod for the sake of prodding. An email asking for an opinion piece on MoMA’s decision to be turned around sharply and with none of that “subtlety” rubbish.

It misses reality and lands squarely in a caricature of the art/gaming debate.