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Jun. 23 2010 - 1:23 pm | 213 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

The Case For Video Games As Art Continues

Rapture is an underwater city with art deco de...

Underwater city with art deco designs, in Bioshock. Image via Wikipedia

Tom Bissell, in a Salon interview promoting his new book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter“, continues to make the case for video games as art. The whole interview is worth reading, but here are some choice tidbits:

Around 2006, 2007, a handful of games started coming out that, as someone who played games but didn’t think of them as like a viable artistic medium, made me think, “Wow things have gotten extremely compelling formally.” I mostly associated video game storytelling with unforgivable clumsiness, irredeemable incompetence, and suddenly I was finding the aesthetic and formal concerns I’d always associated with fiction: storytelling, form, the medium, character. That kind of shocked me.

Games that changed the paradigm, at least for me, were “Portal,” “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” and “BioShock.” All took their storytelling seriously in different ways, and brought to the table a relatively unusual level of sophistication when it came to video-game storytelling. They simply didn’t seem unnecessarily dumb in the way a lot of video-game storytelling games feel dumb.

Roger Ebert has famously argued (and recently restated in a blog post) that video games should not be considered art. What do you say to that?

I really admire Roger Ebert a lot, but on this issue he’s just wrong. I think he even kind of knows he’s wrong, and he’s kind of Custer in a battle that he knows he’s outnumbered on, but he’s actually asking the wrong question. The question is not, “Are video games art?” The question is, “Can artists express themselves through the video-game medium?” …

He’s kind of right in the sense that this isn’t going to stand up against impressionist painting, but it’s not supposed to. …

…It’d be like giving sex advice after having watched “Debbie Does Dallas,” but never having fucked anyone.

via Salon “Extra Lives”: Are Video Games the Next Art Form?

Interestingly, perhaps because neither of two are from an arts background, the point of “interactive art” was never mentioned in the interview. Perhaps Roger Ebert is unaware of the “interactive art” movement, and his ignorance of this type of artistic impression (despite beginning in the 20’s, catching steam in the 60’s, and exploding in the late 90’s)  is what keeps Ebert from understanding video games as art (that, and the fact that he doesn’t play any video games).

Interactive art is defined as a form of art that requires the viewers to participate in some way. Without the viewers participation or input,  the art piece would not function, and therefore not be. The art would be reduced to a monitor, sensors, plastic, metal, wood, what have you –  plain ol’ inanimate objects with no artistic merit.  Now consider video games. Without the video game player, directing the characters, unlocking story arcs, making choices, providing input, the video game would cease to be a work of art, and just be code, or plastic and metal – plain ol’ inanimate objects.

We already consider films as art, so why when video games combine the visual medium of film with  interactivity, are they not considered art? Sure, not every game is a work of art, just like how not every movie (Transformers?)  is a work of art. The art community already considers art that isn’t displayed in galleries or museums  ( see the “street art” movement) as “high art”, so why can’t we make the obvious leap to video games?


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  1. collapse expand

    But is “interactive art” widely considered art? It’s my impression that the meat of the argument against videogames as art is their interactivity. Like toys, they’re something you play with, not something you (mostly) passively experience. There’s art involved in the design of games, and to a lesser extent toys, but when considered in toto they are something other than art.

  2. collapse expand

    It’s art, it’s just not classic art.
    Everything that is old is good and everything that is new is bad (or scary).

    • collapse expand

      You’re right, jcalton, that is a very common expression in the art community.

      I think 20 years from now, the art community will look back on certain video games and wonder why they didn’t consider them art at the time. Some people are still hesitant about embracing “video art” (granted, I have yet to see video art that I like).

      Video games are a form of multimedia and interactive art. The art community does recognize interactive art as an art form.

      One of the best interactive pieces I’ve seen happened to be at an 86 collective show with Amy Sedaris as host a couple years ago. The interactive piece in question was Ji Hyun Yoon’s “30×30″, in which the viewer controlled a white square that had tiles that flipped depending on how you shifted your weight on these white pads on the floor.

      Granted, a lot of these interactive pieces just do one simple thing and don’t tell a story, just an idea or concept, like Daniel Rozin’s wooden mirror.



      There is nothing in the definition of “interactive art” that would exclude video games. Video games in fact, incorporate more forms of art than most “interactive art”. Video games that could be considered art have great soundscapes, for example.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Again, we’re still dwelling on one person being a Luddite on a medium he barely understands while he’s considered a champion for a medium that facd the same “persecution” 100 years ago. Those of us that truly know video games know how artistic they can be. Yes, they may choose to forsake artistic merit more often than not for “shoot things in face” but, hell, so does the movie industry today. Ebert and his ilk have already lost this battle, it will just be a while before history will declare the medium of video games as the victor in this tiff.

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