Games as Art: Introduction to the Death of a Debate

The question of whether videogame development is an art discipline was prevalent a few years back, but now it’s pretty diluted. Most folks involved got tired of it. The same old arguments learned to repeat themselves all on their own. Many realized that proving one thing or the other wasn’t going to change anyone’s life.

However, the concern is understandable, especially for newcomers. After the hundredth game sold to us like a toothbrush, the slightest contact with the medium’s nuances and its deepest virtues pushes us toward art as the only field able to give meaning to our experiences. And with good reason, too.

So it happens that more experienced people get trapped in this awkward cycle: In order to expand the discipline’s expressive power, dialogue must be open to newcomers. These new people will inevitably thirst for a thorough discussion on the artistry of videogames. This discussion will lead to the same stagnation it lead to the first time and every time since.

Do we avoid stagnation by escaping the debate, at the risk of putting an end to a much needed dialogue with newcomers? Or do we argue to our heart’s content in order to avoid alienating new talent, at the risk of encouraging a never-ending debate?

The answer is that it depends on each case. Be that as it may, whenever the debate resurfaces and we prepare ourselves to participate or escape, we’d be well advised to keep the following points in mind:

The Debate’s Already Won

Those who care about these things — those with legitimated voices, independent developers, large studios (to some extent), journalists, players, critics, judges, curators — all of them (or at least an overwhelming majority) are convinced of the discipline’s artistic merit.

There’s simply no important group of people within videogames refusing to value them artistically. If I had to make numbers up (and I admit few things thrill me as much) I’d say a paltry 1% of the world’s population is opposed to videogames being considered works of art, 9% is in favor, and 90% never considered the issue.

I know people from that 90%, and it takes less than 30 seconds to talk them into the notion that our 9% are the enlightened ones. They tend to appreciate the information and then continue on with their day without those 30 seconds having altered the slightest aspect of their lives.

The Debate’s Already Lost

The hope that some internal artistic legitimacy would take away from games their corporate, marketing spirit has vanished in thin air. Companies earning big bucks making games keep selling them through more or less the same schemes, regardless of the artistic value of their toothbrushes.

Consensus among developers, it seems, does not directly enlighten the rest of the world’s perception of the interactive. And as film taught us (people love comparing us to film for some reason) a creative activity might enjoy full artistic legitimacy while remaining mostly a ridiculous spectacle of giant companies doing whatever pirouettes are required to increase profit.

We Keep Talking About “Quality”

The idea that a work of art needs to be “good” (of “high quality”) to qualify as “artistic” seems to be more impervious to criticism than any known religious fanaticism.

The concept is quite simple: as we judge works of art, some will turn out to be better and some worse. None of that should affect the principal fact that they are… artistic. Art can be bad, terrible even. Talking about art as if the category were up to our qualitative assessment invariably carries the attitude that the essence of things in the universe depends on our personal opinion of them.

Against all odds, that simple a concept appears to be out of reach for some people. They’re capable of hearing this very argument and continuing the conversation as if they’d been listening to static.

Tacitly or explicitly, I think, many people have vowed to leave any discussion of videogames’ artistic merit the second this idea infects the conversation.

The Debate Is Ever New and Never Deeper

Since the debate’s over for the most experienced folk, whenever it does occur it mainly does among “newbies”.

The talking’s repetitive in part because the arguments go in circles, but also because most of those involved are new and then say the same things we all said when we started talking about these things.

Sometimes this bizarre situation will occur where many people will argue for the same conclusion, and the debate generates steam only because everybody’s constantly confused about what the other is saying, or because they’re all under the illusion that the position opposite to theirs has some sort of representation.

Sometimes the problem of “quality” is the only fuel the discussion needs. The resulting conversation is all, “You say this game is art and this one is not, but I argue that neither is true art because art is this other, third game.”

When the debate doesn’t stay in the abstract realm and examples of games transcending old patterns are needed, the same old names show up. Enter Spec Ops: The Line (2012) or Bioshock Infinite (2013), and the feeling these interventions give is that games have failed to express anything of importance in the last three years.

And when more relevant examples appear, the chronological gap intensifies:  Cart Life (2011), Thomas Was Alone (2010), Limbo (2010), Braid (2008).

Based on the lists from the two preceding paragraphs I arrive at the conclusion that our industry produces one (1) interesting game every 10 months or so. More vibrant spaces like Gamejolt or Itch.io and curation projects like Warp Door and Forest Ambassador with the sense to include 5-minute experiences, interactive jokes and playful meditations on the nature of affection, expose much more optimistic numbers.

How different would the debate on videogames’ artistic merit be if every person stepped into the discussion with a fresh memory of the last fifteen games that managed to say something about the human condition this past week? The games are right there, we just have to pay attention.