Why are Video Games Art?

An ongoing debate that interests me is whether video games are art. Some critics feel this debate is meaningless, impossible, or pointless. I disagree on all counts. This requires careful definitions of both “art” and “video game,” and neither side in this debate seems good at defining either. Film critic Roger Ebert has said that video games are not art because they have a point and you can win. Others agree that fine art can’t result from player choices, so the structure of video games precludes them from being art. I argue that most understandings of “art” require involvement by the viewer, and video games only underscore that involvement – but do not deviate from the structure of art.

Art has been defined variously through history: Plato (the forms), Hume (discerned taste), Kant (play between imagination and understanding), Schopenhauer (romanticism), Hegel (expression of universe), Collingwood (emotion), Bell (formalism), Benjamin (art as political), Merleau-Ponty (phenomenology), Sontag (erotics). Under any serious definition that allows architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, and film to be dubbed “art”, video games must also be embraced as art. Note that I speak of potentiality: one may crudely smear paint on a canvas or crack one rock against another, we do not call these artistic paintings or the broken rocks sculptures. Likewise, we are not inclined to call the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster remake of an action film “art like Citizen Kane.” We need not defend Call of Duty or Madden ’12 or pretentious broken indie game #403 as “art.” My argument is not so much that “video games are art” as it is “there are no inherent barriers to prevent video games from consideration as art.” As I present it here, the argument will have two parts.

The first part of the argument is defensive: Why should player choice negate the artistic quality of a game? A good portion of thinkers, artists, and critics (if there is any difference) have valued the interpretation of the artistic piece. Is not a player’s control over the gameplay only a manifestation- a bringing forward- of the interpretations of art? Is it truly an act different in kind to navigate a character through a room than to navigate one’s eyes through a painting? If fine art involves a spectator and interpretation—someone to appreciate the form or interpret the content—there should be no qualm here. I posit that controlling gameplay is aesthetically identical to appreciating and interpreting other art: the viewer makes choices of what to see, where to “go”, and how to approach what is encountered. If there is a complaint about video games, it is that they make clear and obvious the processes that are often hidden from ourselves about our interactions and interpretations with The Aesthetic.

The second part of the argument is affirmative: Video games are art because they meet the requirements of the definition (of art).  I don’t have space here to outline each of even the major theories of art. But many concepts of art center around either the nature of the art itself (“formalism”) or the content it expresses (a focus on emotion). Video games have shown they can excel in either or both of these categories. Kant’s explication of beauty (in Critique of Judgment) relies on a notion of “play” between one’s faculties of imagination and understanding. Certainly, no medium “plays” more with a person than a game. Perhaps, on this view, all other beautiful art- paintings, sculptures, movies, and the rest- are actually games. And what’s more— the better the game is, the more beautiful it is.

If video games are not art, they are “superart:” some new mesh of artist and patron, their combined efforts of creativity and interpretation brought to new levels of involvement and interactivity. Perhaps the complaint that video games are not art is a cry of jealousy that no previous medium has the potential to explore the Aesthetic at this level.