Are Video Games Art?

So, observant people would have noticed that on my last post on gaming I included a new tag, “philosophy of gaming”. Those who have read the blog for a while know that I don’t use tags an awful lot. Putting those two things together, you should have been able to guess that I was indeed going to start doing something that might look like Philosophy of Gaming in later posts … and you’d have been right. And so I start here at the top: are video games art?

In order to decide this, there’s something you have to do first, and that’s something that I think a lot of people on both sides don’t do, which is decide what “art” is in the first place. As it turns out I already did that, at least for myself. And yes, you have to go and read the whole thing to find out what my definition is.

Nah, I’m just kidding. I’ll summarize the key points but not justifications here. The first thing I do is divide the concept of art from the concept of valuable art, in order to avoid the trap of claiming that good art is art or that anything pleasant is art. You can have good art and bad art, and we don’t want to limit our definition of art to the things that work as opposed to the things that don’t. I also relate the definition of art strongly to the aesthetic. Given my separation of the value of a work of art from its definition, my definition of art is that a work is a work of art if its primary purpose — based on the intentions of the creator — is to produce a specific aesthetic experience in us, and claim that a work is a good work of art based on the aesthetic experience it does create in us. And it is important to note that this definition leaves out a number of things that are generally considered art, like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, or John Cage’s 4’33.

A more serious objection for our purposes here, though, is that this definition would seem to imply that the number of video games that can be considered art is vanishingly small. While a number of video games do indeed try to produce aesthetic experiences in us, they almost always do that as a means to an end, and not as an end in themselves. They want to make the game look good or sound good in order to make it enjoyable to play, which is their primary purpose. If producing a specific aesthetic experience is not a primary goal of the work, is not a goal independent of the other goals — although it need not be the only goal — then by my definition it’s not art. And by that definition, video games are, generally, not art.

Of course, a stronger counter to that is to say that movies, music, and books aren’t art by that definition, either. And while I don’t have a particular problem with that, in general people do consider those things to be art. So I’m veering quite a bit from what people think it means to be artistic, as was seen when I talked about very famous works of art that I didn’t consider art. So for the purposes of this discussion it can be accepted that my definition of art would exclude them, but then point out that the question, for now, is not really whether video games are art in some deep, objective sense, but whether they are art in the same way that movies, say, are. And to examine that, we need to look at why I excluded those works in the first place.

It’s generally the case that these sorts of works are considered art because of the point they make, not the aesthetic experience they produce. These are all noted for being lovely commentaries on art in general, and that’s a big part of their appeal. But if the main intention of the work is to made an academic or philosophical statement about something, then it’s hard to distinguish that from an essay. And an essay about art isn’t generally considered to be art itself. And if that’s the case, it seems reasonable to say that these works aren’t art as well. We can also see that in the case of movies, it’s certainly not safe to say that pure documentaries are really art; in general, documentaries get considered artistic because they do artistic things, not because they are art themselves.

At this point, we can start to see a distinction that’s being drawn in these cases. Simply straightforwardly commenting on something or making an argument is not considered artistic, but works that make a point through the medium generally are considered art. What this suggests is that we can extend the definition slightly by arguing that things that try to make a point by producing a specific experience in us are considered art, and things that simply try to make a point — even if they produce certain experiences in us — don’t count as art. By this reasoning, games like “Gone Home” and “Depression Quest” probably count as art, in the same way as movies and those other works I mentioned earlier do.

Note that I still think my own definition is preferred, and so am not changing it based on this analysis. However, since most people have a looser definition, I think that this one will work for discussion. So, video games that count as art have as one of their primary purposes either to produce a specific aesthetic experience in us, or to make a point by producing specific experiences in us (I dropped the aesthetic there to avoid issues with defining what that is). So, then, video games can be art by this common definition, and now we can move on to looking at the implications of that or of other issues around video games.


2 Responses to “Are Video Games Art?”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    The notion of art as a pure aesthetic endeavour is a fabrication of the 20th century, much of what we consider art trough history was actually political and religious propaganda.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, if it was primarily that, then it wouldn’t count as art for me — although it would still be a painting, for example — and if that was just one of its purposes, it would. So not really an issue for me [grin].

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