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Are Games Art? The Aftermath

Add Comment! By John Graham on December 6th, 2010

The following is a guest post by the always thoughtful and provocative game developer known as Wilbefast.

Even if you haven't being following the "Games are art" debate you've probably heard about Roger Ebert's claim, in 2005, that no game can ever be "art". In 2007 Ebert backed-down slightly, then stayed silent until last April, when he took another swipe before finally surrendering in July.

Why then continue the debate? I can think of a few good excuses. For instance, we currently have the US Supreme Court deciding whether games are on a par with literature or pornography. This decision matters, from a purely pragmatic point of view, because it may restrict our creative freedom in the future. And it matters from a more emotional point of view because nobody wants the general public thinking their hard work is obscene.

But I'm not here to join the debate, not after David did such a good job covering all the angles last time. And especially not after everyone with two hands and a keyboard has spent the last 5 years flaming Roger Ebert into an on-ne-peut-plus grudging submission. Instead, now that the smoke has cleared, I thought it would be interesting to consider Ebert's parting words:

"One thing I brought from this experience was that I lacked a definition of Art (...) I concluded without a definition that satisfied me."

Clearly this polemic has brought a few age-old questions back to the surface...

Art, beauty, mastery and meaning

Is "beauty" really in the eye of the beholder, and does "art" even need to be "beautiful" in the first place? Should an original really have a higher value than a flawless copy? And do the "artist"'s intentions actually matter, or should their work be viewed simply for what it is?

There's no consensus in Philosophy about what human creations qualify as "art": just a bunch of questions, all open to debate. And that's without even getting into what the words "art" and "beauty" mean in the first place. All I can offer you is the one definition the satisfies me personally, although I doubt it would satisfy Ebert. It comes from Philosopher Denis Dutton:

"art" can perhaps be taken to mean "intentional beauty"

In case you couldn't watch the video, it is more or less implied that "art" is something requiring mastery to create. And if you're proficient enough with Google to appear erudite, you'll know that the word "art" comes from the Latin "artem" meaning "skill or craft". You'll also know that it's more or less equivalent to the Ancient Greek "tekhni" from which we derive "technique". Needless to say, making a good game takes skill and craft and technique, not to mention patience, practice and finesse:

Accessibility is a good example of something very difficult to get right

Games like "God of War", "Left 4 Dead" and "Modern Warfare" are perhaps quite ugly in their themes, but are very beautiful in their execution. So putting aside for a moment our modern connotation, can they not be seen to be "art", simply by virtue of their being very well-made?

If Yahtzee has anything good to say about it, it must be fantastic!

The answer really hinges on whether analogous films like "The Lord of the Rings", "The Dark Knight" and "The Bourne Identity" are "art" too. Ebert would almost certainly say that they aren't:

"the real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them? Something may be excellent as itself, and yet be ultimately worthless. A bowel movement, for example."

This is the modern connotation I mentioned earlier, and one I don't care much for. It's generally accepted that on top of being "excellent as itself", a work of "art" must also be somehow "meaningful". Hardly surprisingly that in a world of high-definition digital cameras, photoshop, auto-tune, blue-screens and tireless robotic arms, the onus has moved from being good with your hands to being good with your heart and your mind.

Now days anyone can sing, even by accident. It's what you sing about that matters.

Trouble is "meaning" is a concept just as slippery as "art". Some people might have an epiphany listening to a specific piece of music, or seeing a particular painting, or watching a given scene in a film. Others will feel nothing at all. Whose opinion do we listen to? Who gets to decide which creative works are worthy being called "art", and which creators are worthy of being called "artists"?

Art, education, qualification and elistism

The institution of art is not a democracy. Four billion people could like the film "I, Robot" more than "2001 a Space Odyssey" and it wouldn't change a thing. As it happens, 2001 is one of Roger Ebert's top ten films, and one of my bottom ten: I hated everyone tedious millisecond of it. But Anton told me off last time I said as much in public, and he was probably right to do so.

Who are you to criticise? You just don't get it!

Why? Because, as any High School philosophy teacher will tell you, the appreciation of a given "art form" requires education in that medium. If I know nothing of film-making then who am I to judge Kubrick? If you know nothing of sculpture, then who are you to judge Da Vinci? If Roger Ebert knows nothing of games, then who is he to say that no game is or ever will be art?

Seriously though, who is Roger Ebert? Wikipedia knows. Roger Ebert is an American film-critic and screenwriter. Clearly he is an authority when it comes to the cinema. Is it so surprising then that, when comparisons are made between video games and the work of film-maker George Méliès, Ebert replies:

"Obviously, I'm hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema, but Melies seems to me vastly more advanced than her three modern video games ["Braid", "Flower" & "Waco Ressurection"]. He has limited technical resources, but superior artistry and imagination."

I could write tracts about the "limited technical ressources" of a certain self-taught high-school kid making a cult game by himself, in his spare time, with no budget whatsoever...

Ebert is being asked to compare something he admits to being hopelessly in love with, to something he clearly knows nothing about. That's like me being to compare "World of Goo" to "Citizen Kane" (also in Ebert's top ten), a film I've never seen. To paraphrase "xkcd", it's not worth arguing with ignorance, unless the ignorance in question belongs to a US senator...

Anyway, now that we've set up this premise that the appreciation of art requires an education, allow me to tear it down again. Who teaches you to indentify art? A teacher. And who taught them? Another teacher. And who taught them? Another teacher. And so on ad infinitum. As Dan Dennett put it: the art community is rife with infectious memes, passed down from generation to generation:

the Darwinian argument, which both Dennett and Dutton employ, is appealing because it doesn't require an arbitor.


We've seen that something is art if it requires great talent to create or perform, but most people wouldn't concede that anything requiring great talent is art. Art also needs a small vocal minority to decide that they like it. A small vocal minority that, let's not forget, gets excited about toilets, crucifixes in urine, and poo in cans. Mabye a bowel movement can be art after all... Film critic Roger Ebert is clearly afraid that games being seen as art will cheapen art as a whole, but sometimes I can't help but think that the opposite is true.

Because of this, it's probably a bad idea to try to be seen as "artistic", no matter what your medium. If you're just out to impress art critics then you're in danger of alienating everyone else. And if your medium is games, you're unlikely to impress the critics anyway, especially if they're film critics.

And in the words of Tim Schafer:

"Are games art? Oh man, who cares? (...) I think people talk about this question so much because they feel kind of unresepected; like games aren't getting their due. Which may be true, but I think the only way to respond to that is not to complain about it but to make better games."

Here's to Wolfire, for working night and day to make better games!

Thanks Wilbefast for sharing your insights with us. Be sure to check out his site. I want to remind you guys that we are always happy to consider guest posts about game development and game design on the Wolfire Blog. So if you have an awesome idea that you think will pass our scrupulous review and be of interest to the rest of the community, feel free to send us a draft.