I attended Games for Change 2010 in NYC in May. I was really excited to meet Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Program Innovation, National Endowment for the Arts. How about that? The NEA is interested in Video Games, so they must be art, right?
I think of video games as art. I always have. Video games make me think and feel and someone made it. Art. The art is in the fact that video games affect our thinking, affect our way of looking at the world, the affect us in a way a conversation with another human being may affect us. This is because art is a way for one human to contrive a way for another human being to have an experience, even when the two humans will never meet.
I wrote to Bill O’Bien at the NEA and told him how I thought of art. And I wanted to share it here, because I believe that considering video games as means of affecting the mind of the player may make it more clear that video games can open worlds the same way books, paintings and conversations can.
I am sure someone else defined art this way before me, I don’t know who. Tom Bissell just published a terrific new book called Extra Lives. I haven’t finished it yet, so I thought I would tell you how *I* would judge video games and we’ll see how Tom Bissell does it. OK, here goes.
Video games are essays. Video games are written by an author who, like the essay’s author, is not present when the game is played. Therefore, the game and the essay must be self contained. An essay is designed to make the reader think or feel something, and this is why we call it art. An essay may make me weep and may make me laugh, it’s that change in my thinking that we recognize as art.
Video games are museum installations. A video game is made to interact with the player just like an art installation interacts with the audience. Perhaps the pieces are arranged in a certain order, so that people walking by in the museum are sure to see the pictures in the right order. Or, the author may allow the audience to walk around as they see fit. Video games engage in this kind of manipulation of what the audience sees and in which order. Some games are more free form, and others are more linear, just like installations in a museum.
Video games are stories. And just like many stories, they often effect our thinking. After reading a story, we sometimes see the real world around us from the point of view of characters in the story. As Wayne Booth wrote in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction the characters, occurrences and narration of novels affect our thinking even after we finish the book. Additionally, Booth writes that racism can be presented in a book, like Huckleberry Finn, but the book is not condoning racism, because the characters which we respect in the book do not condone racism. Many games, even some ridiculously violent ones, contain stories that make the audience think about the consequences of their actions. Often the story frames the violence in a way that makes it clear that horrible circumstances are driving the player to make terrible choices. Bioshock and God of War both contain stories that explain why the player commits the violence, and leaves space for the player to feel remorse and consider the horrible consequences. So just like any other piece of fiction, the player identifies with a character in the game, and the way the story is told speaks to the ethics of the fiction.
I think it is clear that video games are art, because they are attempts to convey emotion and thoughts from one human to another using device created by the author and which the audience interacts with independently. The quality and worth of video games can be judged by the same standards we already use for essays, fiction, and museum installations.
This email is not an elegant or comprehensive description of all the ways video games are art, nor all the criteria that we can use to appraise them. I just wanted to get across the point that video games create an experience for their players and this entire experience is the work of art. While video game graphics can be art on their own, even simplistic or otherwise unpleasant or meaningless graphics can be art in the context of their video game because of how they contribute to the experience for the player.