Are games Art? It doesn't matter

Akela Talamasca
A. Talamasca|02.14.08

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Are games Art? It doesn't matter
Something I keep hearing and reading in my favorite gaming podcasts and blogs is the notion that our beloved industry will finally have 'arrived' when games are taken seriously as works of Art. That somehow, the media will stop vilifying our favorite pastime and welcome us with open arms and hearts if only we could justify our hobby by making it more palatable to the public, under the imprimatur of Art.

Jim Preston at Gamasutra takes this idea on by suggesting that the 21st Century's idea of what Art is is so disparate and devalued that the term itself bears no particular cachet. It's a great piece and deserves your eyeballs, but I'd take it even farther: Not only is it unimportant for games to be considered Art, but that the concept that Art is something that should be valued for its own sake is completely meaningless.
Despite the fact that pundits, intellectuals, and college students still get foamy at the mouth whenever someone tries to define what Art is, society is still no closer to an agreed-upon definition. The notion that Art is some lofty perch from which nobility descends to anoint the creator with divinity is mere snobbery. The fact of the matter is, a piece becomes Art when someone names it so. There is no official ruling body that determines this -- it's simply stated with boldness and the appearance of authority, and it becomes fact. It is, in fact, nothing more complex than the old cliché: 'I know it when I see it'.

So, given this, it's not a huge step to see that the very concept of Art is not only fluid, but ultimately meaningful only to the viewer, beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, anyone foolish enough to say that something isn't Art is only declaring themselves unmoved by what they've witnessed. There is no accompanying statement asserting 'You might feel otherwise', though it should automatically be appended. Clearly, it's a thrill to those making the dire pronouncement to feel that they have passed judgment, but gamers, let me tell you: if you like it, that's good enough. After all, whose money is being spent?

But it goes deeper than this -- or, rather, more shallow. To wit: When was the last time you chose to experience something because it was Art? Class field trips aside, if we agree that value is something we come to ourselves, following our own inner set of guidelines, then we can't expect to be told that we'll appreciate something just because it's Art. I can't count the number of times I've been disappointed in an experience, even though it had been talked up by the press as bearing artistic merit. If you don't like it, you don't like it, period. You might appreciate the effort that went into it, but that's not the same thing as becoming absorbed, of feeling your emotions spike, of not wanting the experience to end.

Hmm ... that sort of sounds like what happens when we game, doesn't it?

I think we can skip past the argument of 'Is it Art?' and get right down to the more important question, 'Is it good?' In fact, if Art has merit simply because of the number of people who agree that it does, then the same metric can be applied to games. We just need to do a simple search-and-replace: 'Is World of Warcraft Art?' becomes 'Is World of Warcraft good?' With over 10 million subscribers (and we'll accept this figure for the sake of argument, regardless of the actual number), any outside observer would have to conclude that yes, at least to this audience, it is. Some will agree, some will demur. Both opinions are correct because they're subjective; they each depend on the value sense of the beholder. If I choose to spend several hours a night playing my favorite MMO, then clearly I have found something of worth in that pursuit. It isn't for anyone to tell me that what I'm doing is worthless, regardless of their supposed critical faculty or hierarchical position. The audience member is the ultimate arbiter of their own taste, and this cannot be negated by an advanced degree or lofty title.

For whatever reason, there is this insidious and pervasive attitude that games cannot be taken seriously because they're fun. What's more, games are fun for the person playing them, typically to the exclusion of the person not playing them. Thus, the non-participant is shut out of an experience they might otherwise have themselves enjoyed, if only they had gotten an invitation. Instead, feeling snubbed, they delve into a thorough examination of the activity, evaluating it from every angle in an attempt to explain to themselves where the value lies. Every angle, except the one that matters the most: its interaction with the player. And having made their analysis and found nothing of value to themselves, they conclude that there is nothing of value to anyone. This is where criticism fails, and why the argument of 'Is it Art' ultimately ceases to matter. Even here, on Massively, where we daily offer up our opinions on all manner of media and activities, it's clear that there is a personal bias, that we do not claim to speak for the audience. How can we? We are not you; we cannot know what moves you, what inspires you. We can only offer up what it is like for us, and trust that enough universal points are made for our readers to find value in what we write.

Are games Art? It doesn't matter. Are games good? Yes, absolutely. How do we know? Because we say that they are, and no matter what Roger Ebert thinks, we're right.
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