These Are My Concessions: Video Games Might Actually Be Art
I think I’ve made a huge mistake. I think I am ready to concede the “are games art?” debate. For those interested, my original (severely amended) argument can be found here. Not that I don’t believe there are some serious problems with classifying games as art — I do — but I think a dimension of that concern was based on a fundamental inaccuracy of my powers of speculation.
I do not believe that the definitions of art as they are accepted in academia fit video games. I do believe that classifying video games as art poses some liabilities to the medium and it being able to flourish at its full potential because the critical vocabulary for certain things that are important to video games do not exist in aesthetics, thus by privileging the notion of “art,” an already existing critical vocabulary and the elements it can describe gain primacy over the things about video games that make them unique and enjoyable — the “game” itself.
At the same time, my argument is based on an ideal. I don’t think that video games are necessarily required to be folded into the aesthetic tradition in order for them to gain the cultural significance they deserve. I often argued that their presence in culture is the justification for their value — like it or not, they are here to stay — rather than deriving value from being considered art. At the same time, much of that cultural significance (which has exploded in the last decade, and even more violently in the last two years) is based on the poorly argued conclusion that video games are art. Perhaps the fact that the debate has been put to rest largely in favor of video games being art has contributed to the medium’s cultural significance. At the same time, I can’t help but think my conception of this consensus is based on the echo chamber that represents gaming journalism and gaming criticism. In short, what I mean to say is that despite my contention that video games, or anything, does not necessarily require credibility through being considered “art,” but can rather be considered credible based on its own merits, may be incorrect. Indeed, the credibility of video games that I cite may be based on the fact that many people recognize them as art.
I think what we’ll see in the future is the definition of art will change, expand, in order to incorporate video games. I believe that (hopefully) a critical vocabulary will develop to judge that which is essential about video games, which aesthetics is utterly unequipped to capture. The fact is, Chess or Connect Four do not have a cultural presence like video games — they don’t manifest and perpetuate culture like video games. I see, in this way, by my own argument based on the family resemblance theory of defining art, video games do have a compelling link to art that they don’t share with games like Chess or Connect Four. However, I do maintain that the link from video games to “traditional games” is far stronger than their link to art.
The passion of my argument was based on a love for video games that prize above all else smart gameplay and fun for an individual person. These are not things aesthetics can capture, criticize, or conceptualize at this moment. Perhaps, eventually, that will cease to be the case. However, my argument is misguided. It would be foolish to assert, as I did, that games such as Street Fighter II or Tetris would languish under the weight of a branch of philosophy that could not offer a critical vocabulary to detect their fundamental parts. It is patently untrue to argue, as I did, that these games would cease to be produced and that developers would gravitate to aesthetic non-games such as Heavy Rain and that video games would be homogenized and short changed by this categorization. Music did not languish under the metric that served sculpture, nor did film languish under the metric that served painting. New critical vocabulary was developed and repurposed as these modes of expression gained legitimacy.
I still don’t think video games express anything even remotely similar to, or offer the expressive potential , that other artistic mediums do. Nor should they, as what video games have to offer the individual is incredibly unique. I still ultimately believe it is shortsighted to shoehorn video games into a category which they do not fit. Still, just as individuals continued enjoyment of artless, rule focused video games guarantees their continued existence no matter what labels are used, individuals treatment of video games as art makes them so. There are elements of cultural criticism which remains largely the domain of art that video games as a medium has to come to terms with. Video games may be better positioned to face those urgent issues by being classified as art. I am not a prescriptivist. If the leaders of cultural criticism who engage with games want to call them art, and want to create the cultural vocabulary in aesthetics to accommodate them, who am I to argue?