It may be art. . .but I really don’t care

Posted: January 6, 2011 by Twitchdoctor in game design, Games and Life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

(Part 1 of 2)

Graffiti Art

Art isn't a Crime, Creative Commons Copyright by natashalcd

There is perhaps nothing quite as likely to initiate yawning and eye-rolling amongst game developers as the question: are games art?  Yet the question keeps returning and it is one upon which the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has taken a strong position, arguing in its anti-censorship talking points that “Video games are emerging as the leading art form of the 21st century” and emphasizing that “Digital games are an expressive medium worthy of the same respect, and protections, as movies, literature and other forms of art and entertainment.”

The IGDA’s position, however, does not seem to be shared by a significant number of developers, many of whom prefer simply to avoid the question or to maintain that it isn’t relevant to the real work of game design.  For example, in Washington Post article, Ken Levine, lead designer of BioShock, when asked whether games are art, replies that “he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the art question.” He goes on to say, “I don’t know, and I guess I sort of don’t care. . . All I care about is, does it work—does it have an impact on an audience?” (F2).  Other developers have reacted more strongly.  John Carmack maintained in 2002 that “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry” (quoted in Au); a point of view he reiterated in his keynote address at the 2004 Game Developers Conference (McNamara).  Carmack’s view, in particular seems to represent a more widespread attitude among developers and gamers (google Carmack’s “sophistry” statement, for example, and you’ll find it quoted approvingly in a number of gaming forum discussions).

These expressions of impatience and hostility, and even the more benign sentiment that the question is irrelevant, are based in large part on several fundamental misconceptions about the differences between art and non-art.  While the misconceptions are widespread amongst members of the public and even artists themselves, the distinctions they embody bear little resemblance to actual artistic practice either historically or in the present day.  By focusing on the most common misconceptions I want to highlight what is at stake for game development in trying to fit in with the popular (mis)understanding of the nature of art as well as the dangers inherent in refusing a more active role in helping shape cultural perceptions of art in a way that would include games.

Art versus Commerce
While this opposition represents the core identity of many artists and art movements it is, at best, a dubious distinction.  Throughout Western history art has typically been produced according to three main forms of commercial relationship: patronage (the artist is subsidized or fully employed by a wealthy benefactor such as a member of the aristocracy or the National Endowment for the Arts), artisanal production (artists work as part of a studio, workshop, or production house, with production often coordinated by a larger guild or union structure; individual efforts are subsumed under the “brand” of the workshop;), and solo production (with the artist dependent upon other work to keep body and soul together).

The imagined distinction between art and commerce is thus essentially a claim about motivation: “true” artists are not supposed to be motivated by money but by the purity of their creative drive.  If this were true, however, the list of art works in our culture would be pathetically short.  It would eliminate, for example, the majority of Renaissance art works, most of which were produced on commission for the Church or members of the aristocracy.  Most of Dickens’ novels, written to make money and whose serial publication meant that they were often shaped by commercial feedback (how well the previous episode had sold, readers’ letters, etc.) would hit the wastebasket.  Do some artists produce work that is not primarily for commercial gain?  Of course.  But creating art to make a living does not automatically invalidate the idea that it is art.

Art versus entertainment
Carmack’s distinction is on the face of it the most mysterious of all.  It’s difficult to think of a work of art that doesn’t also entertain in some way. However this distinction is treading some well-worn ground.  “Art,” in this usage carries with it connotations of elitism, inaccessibility, incomprehensibility, irrelevance, and dutiful attention.   Entertainment, by contrast, is for the people, man!  It is accessible, timely, and fun.  Carmack’s distinction also works, it has to be said, because there has been no shortage of artists who have maintained exactly the same distinction, but with a reverse spin: there is “true” art which is beyond the understanding of most of the plebs who are content simply to wallow in the mire of their “popular” entertainment.  Thus, “true” art is supposed to enlighten us in some sense, while non-art is “only” capable of entertaining us.  In reality, there is no reason that games, like other art forms, shouldn’t do both, or neither (people assure me that Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela is art, but that didn’t stop it boring the arse off me).

The opposition between art and entertainment relies upon one relatively recent definition of art: l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake.  The fact that Levine, for example, can position games as having an impact on their audience, while art by implication does not, may well be a testament to how successful (and therefore, ultimately self-destructive) this idea of art as a self-contained endeavor has been in gaining a foothold in the popular imagination.  But that doesn’t mean that it has much descriptive validity.  There have always been artists who didn’t give a shit what people thought of their work but I would argue that historically the balance has been weighted the other way.  Indeed, most artists have not only been extremely concerned with whether or not—and if so, how—their work has an impact on those who read or view it, but with the degree to which it also has an impact in some larger communal, social, or (now) global sense.

Individualism versus Collaboration
Some of the resistance to the idea of games as art is derived from the fact that we have a very limited vocabulary in our modern context for talking about creative works produced by a large group of people.  Our “common sense” understanding of art works treat them as the products of individual effort: Shakespeare, Picasso, Austen, Rodin.  Cinema, in this sense, provides a useful analog to game development.  Commonly we refer to films in terms of their director, as if that individual were in some profound sense the author and instrument of everything that appears on the screen (“What Spielberg does in this scene is. . .).  Even when cinema is recognized as a collaborative entity (as in awards shows) we tend still to want to single out individuals within the broader sub-fields.  Think of the problems, for example, that the Oscars have had when trying to recognize ensemble performances.  Game design is in the same situation; it isn’t an example of solo creation and therefore doesn’t appear to fit the most commonly held paradigms for defining a work of art.  Another problem with this distinction is that it is often a complete and total fiction.  Jack Stillinger’s Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius catalogs a surprisingly extensive list of art works that were in fact the product of hidden collaborations.  Among the better known examples, T.S. Eliot’s  poem The Waste Land was a disorganized, rambling mess before his wife Vivian and friend Ezra Pound got to it.

While these are the most common binaries, there are others: an attempt to differentiate between art and craft, for example, that in a game design context often translates into a supposed division between art and engineering. From one point of view therefore games are everything that isn’t supposed to be art: commercial, mass entertainment, craft-oriented, lowbrow and collaborative.  Even those who would celebrate games for these qualities accept a definition of art that is largely a myth: the solitary genius, inspired by heavenly muse or hellish torment, laboring in isolation to produce a masterpiece that endures for all time.  It is, however, easy to point to a host of counter-examples that fit all the negative criteria and which our culture nevertheless accept as art.

Nor should we be sidetracked by the issue of “quality.”  I’ve often heard the argument that games can’t be art because there are a lot of schlocky games out there.  Well, there are also a lot of schlocky novels, films, plays, and paintings out there but we don’t automatically assume that that disqualifies entire forms of expression from ever being considered art.  Indeed, nothing is more culturally and period dependent than a definition of quality.  It can, for example, take a long while for a given piece of work to find a receptive cultural context: Moby Dick received a critical thrashing when it first came out; audiences stayed away from It’s a Wonderful Life in droves.

This issue of quality, however, exposes the fundamental flaw in the nature of the question of art as it is most often applied to games: “Are videogames art?” demands an all or nothing answer.  The real issue is not whether or not all games are art, but if it is possible for a specific game title ever to be considered art.  In posing the question this way we need to recognize that any yes or no answer will always be provisional.  Some games could be recognized as works of art now, and we will think very differently of them in ten years time.  It is equally possible that games will emerge that we won’t recognize as art, for which we won’t have an appropriate analytical framework or a receptive cultural context, until much later.

If art can’t be neatly defined according to the distinctions I’ve laid out above, what is it?  Quite simply, art constitutes a selection of works established either by powerful minority decree or the emergence of a broader consensus, at specific points in time, as valuable.  These works can be valuable in a descriptive sense (they make us look at ourselves and our see our world in a new way) and/or in a formative sense (they provide us with the tools for re-shaping our world).  Obviously they can also be valuable in the commercial sense and while this can become a circular justification (i.e. the work is art because someone paid a lot of money for it and/or it is hanging in the National Gallery) a not insignificant number of commercially valuable art works are also valuable in the descriptive and formative sense.  The precise definitions of these categories change constantly; the repertoire shifts ceaselessly as works fall in and out of present regard (and nothing is sacred: playwrights in the eighteenth century routinely rewrote Shakespeare’s plays to correct perceived “defects”).  Even those most hostile to electronic games recognize that gaming constitutes a central activity in our culture.  The problem, however, is that games are widely understood only to have consumption value, not the kind of cultural value according to which they could potentially be considered art.  This conception of games as falling outside the sphere of art has some pretty profound implications–most of them negative–for the place of games in our culture as a whole.

Anti-Censorship. (n.d.). International Game Developers Association.

Au, W. J. (2002, May 6). Playing games with free speech. Salon.

McNamara, T. (2004, March 26). GDC 2004: John Carmack talks game development.

Musgrove, M. (2007, September 16). Monster fun.  But is it art? The Washington Post, pp. F1-F2.

Stillinger, J. (1991).  Multiple authorship and the myth of solitary genius. New York: Oxford University Press.


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