Games Can Now Be Art!

Roger Ebert said so! Right here! Whether he did it because he was tired of ten year olds trolling his blog for no reason, well, that’s another show.

I feel like this is an important moment, because it lets us focus more on what Ebert’s saying, rather than the obvious controversy designed to suck us in. It’s one thing to be disgusted by comments from someone whose last played video game was Myst because he hates video games, but it’s a whole different one to see his point. You can say video games are art for as long as you want, but it’s not true unless you treat them as such. I mean, yeah, sure, we can make a little review merit for games that are especially artful, but that makes a commodity of and ruins art faster than any show run by disreputable cable companies.

The internet has been great for games as art, of course. It’s enabled a lot of people (people like myself!) to provide intelligent, thoughtful criticism on video games from an artist perspective, not a “this video game is great and it is art because it is so pretty” perspective. The problem is, if you asked people why Shadow of the Colossus was art, they’d say because of the atmosphere, and because it doesn’t play like other video games, and because of the what a twist ending. By two of these three logics, The Lady in the Water is high art. The internet has been instrumental in getting people to believe video games are art, but most of those people seem to define video game art by either aesthetic beauty or by plot trickery, and while these are important, they make video games no more than moving, controllable paintings or movies with multiple plots.

Speaking of which, he raised a fantastic point about that. One of his main “games as not art” points involves how a video game cannot be art if you can control all realities. Art has tended, in the past, to dictate inevitability, against all the pulls of life. Art is about inevitability, about change and how nothing can change all at one point. And video games generally spit in the face of this. Video games are all about change, about making something different and exciting.

It’s where I think he raises a good point: can something like Mass Effect 2, with no solid ending, be considered art? I mean, I would struggle to consider Mass Effect 2 as art, anyway; at best it’s on the platform of Star Wars action flicks that capture the minds of teenagers but do little more stimulating. But is the plot to blame for that? And I think it is. I think the plot’s to blame, because if *everyone* survives, then there’s no message of the piece, besides that you’re a badass. Which isn’t a message, really. The problem that he identifies is a very real one: many video games have tended towards being glorified wish fulfillment simulations, a very strong trend because it can create powerful positive emotions and provides a new avenue for games.

The problem is, finding a candy bar on a park bench is also wish fulfillment. And that’s not art. Wish fulfillment doesn’t have meaning. It’s like getting a thousand pats on the back. It can’t be art, and if a video game can be wish fulfillment then it kind of removes any impact the plot *could* have had. The trick is that art must objectively be art, regardless of the play, and if a third of the players can have wish fulfillment while the rest of us get “art”, then what do we have?

Around the gaming internet, there’s a sense of superiority today. Like, we bested Roger Ebert, great film critic! No one can stand before us! And no one is standing before us now. Except ourselves. If games are to be art, we have to take them there, not just let a few independent developers and a couple fringe mainstream companies do it for us.


  1. Brendan

    I’m not usually a linguistic prescriptivist, but ‘irregardless’ will still take some time for me yet. Oh, and good article.

  2. Fernando Cordeiro

    No solid ending doesn’t have anything to do with being “art”, Tom. The journey is what matters. I mean, I’m yet to see a David Lynch with a solid ending and yet critics love them.

    • Tom

      It’s not the solid ending. It’s the changeable ending. Sure, people take David Lynch movies differently, but it’s always the same stuff. It’s inevitable confusion. Video games offer, usually, some sort of canon, sequel ending, and then a feel good, “You’re awesome!” ending, which detracts from the significance.