Sunday, June 29, 2008

Video Games, Art, and Social Status

Lume the Mad has an interesting post discussing whether video games are art. It's a good entry in the "Yes, Video games are art" side of the debate. This debate has raged all over the place, so I thought I may as well toss in my two cents.

My take: I don't really see why it matters if video games are Art or not.

To be honest, most of the arguments on either side boil down to how you define Art. I can construct definitions of Art such that video games fit. For example, video games can convey messages; they often use many of the same techniques of writing, dialog, etc.; they engage our aesthetic senses.

I can also construct definitions of Art such that video games do not fit. For example, Art requires an audience, video games require participants or players. As well, often the best game does not match the most artistic game, and that is incongruous for an Art. Tetris may very well be the best video game ever made, but is it the most artistic?

The more I listen and read the debates about video games and Art, the more I become convinced that this debate isn't about Art at all, it is about social status.

It's pretty clear that game developers and game players in our culture have low social status, especially in comparison to artists. This whole debate is gamers are trying to say that video games are like films and novels, so the culture should treat game developers like filmmakers and novelists, and game players like film buffs or literati.

Honestly, that's not going to happen anytime soon. The gatekeepers of culture don't care about your reasoned arguments. Social status doesn't really have anything to do who or what deserves that status. If anything, it's a function of how the wealthy and the intelligentsia differentiate themselves from the rest of masses. Oprah is not going to have a Video Game of the Month Club. She's not going to treat Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto like Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou. Roger Ebert won't treat them like Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese.

For one thing, video games are popular. In particular, the "good" games are often the same as the most popular games. The upper classes can't give games the high status of Art, as that would implicitly give high social status to the plebes, defeating the point of having social status in the first place.

To me, this entire debate smacks of the divide between cool kids and the unpopular kids in high school, only brought forward into the adult world. The unpopular kids are busy constructing arguments that the cool kids should consider them "cool", not realizing that none of these arguments actually matter. This was pretty pointless in high school, and it's even more pointless now.

Games are games. If they are not Art, that does not make them lesser than they are. If they are Art, that does not make them greater. And in the end, social status does not obey reasoned arguments.


  1. I love your blog and I do believe this the first time I've commented. ^^;

    Anyhow, I just wanted to say that I think you're onto something.

    I'm part of the GameDev club where I used to go to college and my SO is getting a degree in design for games so I've been knee deep in the argument more than once and I think it's fascinating how many different opinions there are.

    I even met one guy who swore up and down that if you make a game with story, plot, or even characters that you ruin the whole experience of playing a game. Ask him if games should be art and he'd laugh in your face. He was the best designer I'd ever met. *grins*

    Anyhow... I think it's interesting that one of the reasons for not being considered art is that they're interactive. When video games play like interactive novels, are they considered not!Art because they're marketed as games? You'd think that the moving images would bump it even higher into the art realm.

    I don't know it's so much 'status' as 'recognition'... which I think is more what you're driving towards. Game designers with aspirations to big-'A' Art want to be recognized as masters on par with other creative industries. Equal recognition almost more-so than status, since alot of the good designers already have the status of demi-gods within their own segment of the population.

  2. I agree totally on your analysis. Still I'm wondering sometimes - do we really want to be wholeheartly accepted by society. Sometimes identifying as being an underdog can be quite nice. I wrote a follow-up-post about it.

  3. You can make the same statements about any medium. Paintings are paintings, regardless of whether or not they're art. Books are books, regardless of whether or not they're intellectual or trashy romance novels.

    Art is definitely subjective, which is why I defined art based on both mine and Ebert's views of what is classified as "high art."

    The only reason I posed the argument is because the medium has received unwarranted disdain from circles who simply don't understand it. Is that rooted in a desire to be socially accepted? Yes. But not rooted in a desire to be socially highlighted. I could care less what formats Oprah or Charlie Rose run. G4 and a local news program in my area called "Tech Now" attract the type of audiences that play games and we can have intellectual conversations within our own circles. I don't need more than that.

    What I do care about is when a bunch of ignorant blowhards try to position themselves as experts on things they don't understand. And that's where the argument comes into play. And the topic deserves to be treated with intelligence people like Clive Barker can't provide.

    I look at where films were 100 years ago and read the arguments made by so many early progenitors of the medium and it's no different than the arguments some video game enthusiasts make today. Pointless to some, but it highlights the way in which we view that which we enthuse. And, to many people, that can be important, even if it's simply to reinforce our confidence about the medium we enjoy and the ways we enjoy it.

  4. Excellent post! This is my first visit to your blog but it wont be my last. I've felt the same way for years. Games are a tremendously creative medium and a wonderful source of entertainment but wont be socially accepted anytime soon. Your comment about giving social status to the plebes by accepting their medium was dead on. Well said.

  5. Video games are mostly not accepted as art because of propaganda spread by older forms of media. Over the last 15-20 years I would say there has been an un-organized but consistant smear campagin against video games. Old multimedia conglomerates don't own stake or control many gaming companies and they feel threatened by the rising average age of gamers.

    How many movies portray gamers as slackers and misfits?

    Howe many often does the news directly attack video games with stories of them being murder simulators or time wasters?

  6. My reasoning for believing that video games are art can be summed up in a single game clip:

    Aaaand I rest my case =P

  7. Pike, while that's a good cutscene, is it really part of the game, or is it just a movie embedded in the game?

  8. @ Rohan - it's part of the game, you have to select the right phrases for the Opera.

    Furthermore I'd like to point out I'm not really making a serious argument here ;P I'm just pointing out a video game scene that touches my heart.

  9. Furthermore, I am admittedly very biased, I majored in "Media & Theatre Arts" and when your entire schooling is based around the idea that "the entertainment medium is an art" then wrapping your head around the idea that some people think video games are NOT art becomes very difficult indeed.

  10. Well, one major difference is that you can analyze games through the lens of economics, decision theory, or game theory. You just can't do the same thing with Art.

    Apart from the fact that it doesn't really matter, my personal feeling is that games exist at the intersection of Art and Sport. Games have elements of both, but are also have their own unique elements. Certain games come closer to one side or the other.