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Big Ideas: Are video games art?

The idea that video games could be classified as art is a fairly recent one, emerging right around the time that we began to include narrative as a game element. All too often, the subject is brought up by detractors of the form as a way to look down upon a medium to which they feel no attraction. The underlying conceit is ridiculous of course -- if video games aren't art, then they have no lasting cultural value, and may therefore be dismissed as mere juvenilia. Yet video games are, nevertheless, quite a large part of our culture, and the lingering perception that they are made only to be entertainment for adolescents does the entire industry a disservice.

However, merely positing the possibility that video games might be art isn't enough to ensure that they are art. Part of the problem lies in our definition of what art is, and what it isn't. Once we've defined that to our satisfaction, we have to endure the much more difficult task of judging whether it applies to video games. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to ask ourselves the question "Does it matter?"

What is art, exactly? Other than saying "I know it when I see it", a decent working definition might be "Any creative endeavor intended to transmit emotion to the beholder". Perhaps the primary function of art is to allow the artist to describe how he or she perceives the world, in the hope of engendering understanding and perhaps acceptance in those who experience the art piece, whatever form the piece might take.

With this definition in place, we can match it up against works we historically have regarded as art, to see whether it holds up. Is Tolstoy's War and Peace art? Definitely -- it's a work of creativity that evokes emotion in its readers. Is Picasso's Guernica art? Absolutely, for the same reason. So, do video games, which are inarguably creative in essence, evoke emotions?

A key element to this discussion must be that the range of possible emotions a person might undergo is extremely wide. When evaluating art, whether printed, or heard, or seen, it's common for critics and reviewers to focus on the more broad, and easily apprehendable emotions: happiness, sorrow, anger. Typically, these emotions are experienced in some degree throughout the duration of longer works -- novels, movies -- and culminate in an outpouring of emotion at their climax. For visual arts like paintings and sculptures, for example, the effect usually comes fairly quickly, striking the viewer at once and remaining for as long as the piece is beheld.

However, video games operate quite differently than the aforementioned works. To get their full effect, one must play them, working through what story there might be via the application of the game mechanics to reach the conclusion. Critics who are unused to this activity rarely have the patience or skill to endure long enough to appreciate every emotion the game might evoke. At the same time, video games also bring out different feelings than other works do. It's not unusual for players to feel frustration, anger, satisfaction, fear, joy, humor, and other incidental emotions that aren't easily quantified until the game has come to its conclusion.

Essentially, then, video games labor under the weight of their own success -- they're meant to be experienced through play, yet play is typically seen as childish behavior, unfit activity for discerning adults. Let's also not discount the fact that a video game, as a purchasable product, is intended to be diversionary entertainment. Where the purpose of a novel or sculpture might be purely to inform, the primary factor for success for a game is in its enjoyment -- is it fun to play? If it isn't fun, then it fails its main reason for existence. Yet all told, if one of our main criteria for art classification is in its ability to evoke emotion, then video games make the grade.

What about our secondary criterion? The need for the artist to describe how she perceives the world, to communicate with like-minded individuals, or to engender understanding in those who think differently. In this aspect, video games excel. No other art form can compete with the reality-transforming potential of a video game. Books can describe a reality in exacting detail, but they don't let you take control, to feel for yourself what it means to exist in that world. Movies can show you amazing events, let you hear the emotion in people's voices, but again, you're consigned to the role of passive observer. There is no better way to experience something than by active participation, and only video games allow you to become part of the story.

So by completely controlling the player's experience -- down to the way the actual physics work -- the video game artist can provide the most complete version of what she perceives reality to be, or wants it to be, or fears it becoming. So this too, fits our definition of art.

However, there is one final criterion that ought to be evaluated. Some of the most affective art involves the unknown; some part of the piece that is supplied by the person experiencing it. Consider the indistinct figures on the bridge in Munch's The Scream, or the final moments of Cronenberg's A History of Violence. There is a moment of interpretation and response on the part of the viewer that contributes a great deal of the effect of the piece. It must be said that video games as a whole do lack this ambiguity, preferring to bring events to a definite conclusion, but that's to be expected when the player takes the role of the hero. This is not to say that this element must always go missing from games, but merely that it's one more evolutionary step that could be taken. Does this missing element preclude the classification of video games as art? No, it merely becomes a defining aspect of the form itself, much as novels are limited by the need for the reader to understand the language in which they are written.

Thus, if we agree that video games are art, then we come to the final distinction: does it matter? There will always be a division between those who feel that value can only be had through definition, rather than experience; and those who insist that the only true way to evaluate something is through direct experience, rather than explication. Video games fall somewhere between the two categories, needing both the mental exercise of determining the best way to play, and application of game mechanics through manual skill. It's not too much of a stretch to say that very few, if any players choose to play games because of their cultural artistic merit. Likewise, those who aren't drawn to gaming entertainment won't suddenly develop the desire to play if and when it's declared that games are art. In a very real sense, this discussion is merely that -- an academic exercise with little practical benefit. As stated above, the most important consideration in any game is, and should always be, is it fun? Once that condition is satisfied, all else is rendered unimportant. Let the pundits debate value -- you will find true meaning on your own.

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