May 7, 2011

A new low: Smithsonian to exhibit "The Art of Video Games"

Here is the website. So now even video games count as "an artistic medium," eh? It really makes you long for the good old days when we were debating whether or not "art" included a picture of some fag with a bullwhip stuck up his butt.

What makes art art? Well that's an empirical question, not an a priori one. We just look at everything that people treat as art -- all over the world, and back to the beginning of our species history -- and try to see what traits they all have in common. Otherwise it's pointless exercises in arguing over what words mean.

There is great disagreement over this empirical question, mostly stemming from how common is "common" across cultures, and how "timeless" is timeless. Still, here are two traits that never make the list of "what makes art art," and that if you were to include them, everyone at every time would say, "God no, that would make it not art!" Both relate to how much control the audience has over the experience.

1) The audience chooses the outcomes for at least one, maybe all, of the major branching points in the experience. E.g., what should happen to a character in a narrative, whether the next movement in a piece of music should be frenetic or calm, etc.

2) The audience is required to participate physically to advance the experience along. E.g., having to jog in place to move the first act of a play along, then switching to squat-thrust in place to move the play into the second act, or having to trace certain patterns with your finger over a page in order to move a print narrative along. Turning a page is not participation, and neither is keeping your eyeballs open, getting a source of light to see the page, etc.

Of course, both of these are essential to video games, so video games are not art -- no more than a crossword puzzle, a Mad Libs story, or a jigsaw puzzle (the puzzle and the final picture formed are not the same thing)

Academic morons aside, everyone everywhere believes that the artist and audience are distinct, however much they may or may not interact when they're face-to-face. So a work of art must be created by the creators (sounds obvious, but again those are the times we're living in). If a so-called artist kept asking us to make this and that decision about where the experience should go, we would conclude that he couldn't make up his mind and had given us a very incomplete work of art. Make every decision for us, and then it might be art.

As for physical participation that must be of a certain form at certain times along the experience, that puts the audience in control rather than the artist. We in the audience want to be taken on a journey, led by the expert storyteller, singer, movie-maker, or whoever they are. We might have a physical reaction to this guide-tour through their imagination -- dancing along to music, stabbing the air with our finger when some character gets what's coming to them, and so on. But our actions are never required to move it along.

What popular, mass-market things would qualify as art, at least on these two requirements? Just to name some examples that are close to video games, and leaving aside obvious things like movies and TV shows, there are comic books, pro wrestling matches, and the dark rides at amusement parks. They offer narrative content and visual spectacle, like video games, but the distinction between creators and spectators is maintained. Based on the relative lack of interest in these art forms compared to movies, TV, books, etc., it doesn't look like comics, wrestling, and ghost train rides are the best vehicle for artistic creation. But they at least make the cut, while video games do not.


  1. The 20th century has seen the collapse of many dualisms: artist/viewer, subject/object, mind/body, space/time, fact/fiction.

  2. Trying to follow this logic, if I play a videogame, it's not art, but if I watch someone else play it and have no interaction with it, it is, and the videogame player is presumably the artist, as is the person who made the game.

    Therefore games that can be watched by a third party (functionally all games) are art, while games that cannot (functionally no games) are not art.

    For a close analogy with a game, consider a musical piece which is written by a composer, which permits improvisation by the player and can be listened to by a passive participent. Under your logic it is art presumably only for the passive participent.

    Or if music lacks enough of a physical element, replace the word "musical" in the former paragraph with "dance".

    Not that I agree games are necessarily art, I'm just trying to follow your logic here.

  3. Oh, and I expect the rejoinder to the above would be that games still aren't art to a passive participent because the passive participent is still overtly aware of the technical process and the elements of choice, but I think that has strange consequences for whether any art viewed by persons technically aware of how that artform is constructed is art.

  4. This comes a friend of mine, who happens to be an actual artist. Art is:

    1) whatever's popular, and/or
    2) what another artist says is art.

  5. Country Lawyer5/7/11, 1:34 PM

    Handel's messiah requires the audience to stand. By your definition, this is not art because it has audience participation.

    Your definition is not correct and you're two points are not accurate in defining art and have not been for some time.

    This is what you like to think of art as.

    Art requires an interaction between the artist and the audience.


    It may be as minimal as going and observing the art and having an emotional or intellectual reaction to it to as far as some of the street performances of art full participation (this would include tribal dances).

    I have been to productions of Julius Caesar where the audience became the crowd, the senate, what every large group of gathered people in the play were.

    Are video games art?


    In fact I would say they are the only really beautiful artistic expression we have in our society any more.

    Our music is mechanical and empty, our paintings and sculptures are ugly and uninspiring, our works of fiction are almost all emotional pornography, so to our movies.

    So I completely disagree with you about this.

  6. "The 20th century has seen the collapse of many dualisms"

    No it hasn't. (Although I know that's what academic morons like to say.) Movies, pop music, TV, just about anything maintains those distinctions.

    "Therefore games that can be watched by a third party (functionally all games) are art, while games that cannot (functionally no games) are not art."

    You're confusing "can be" and "are." Now that you mention it, I suppose that video games "can be" performances where a non-participating audience takes in the improvisational act of someone else playing the game.

    If this "were" rather than "could be" the mode that people experience video games, then sure, I'd lump them with pro wrestling. But in reality, the players / performers / interpreters of the video game blueprint are the audience members themselves.

  7. "Handel's messiah requires the audience to stand. By your definition, this is not art because it has audience participation."

    No it doesn't -- I've listened to it plenty of times sitting. Re-read what I wrote -- requires (not "has") physical audience participation to move the sequence along (not is incidental or complementary to the sequence which would unfold even without such participation).

    This applies to the rest of your comment, where you ignore the distinction between "requires" and "happens to have," as well as the one between audience participation that is necessary vs. not necessary to advance the experience along.

    I already said that participation required to advance the experience does *not* include getting a copy of a book, finding a source of light, flipping the pages, keeping your eyes open, etc. Obviously the "minimal" "interaction" you describe falls under this category of non-participation, as I've been describing it. You're just trying to equivocate.

  8. Video game graphics are still graphics, and therefore art. You can appreciate them without pushing any buttons. The exhibition is supposed to "focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers".

    I loved the Myst games as a kid- they're the only "video games" I ever played. Like many people, I didn't have the patience for most of the harder puzzles, I just wanted to explore and screw around with all the cool mechanical stuff. Straight, sweet immersive escapism. You can benefit from a bit of that, especially when you're growing up in a dying midwestern steel town. But it was a unique aesthetic experience, definitely some kind of art.

    Industrial designers and graphic interface designers obsess over creating specific "modes of interaction" with the things they design. Do you call that art? If they were more quantitative about it and and oriented purely toward functionality instead of trying to create an all-around pleasing experience, it might be called human factors engineering.

  9. Oh Agnostic, you've got your hate on for video games again. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Video games aren't high art or classical art or whatever kind of art you're trying to define with your list. I won't go into a big catalog of what you're missing or where you're wrong, because it looks like so many others are jumping in. I'll just say that I think you're looking at A video game as a whole (or video games as a whole) instead of its constituent parts. If you take the whole of any video game, you find exactly what you describe. But, within many games reside brilliantly devised cut-scenes, incredibly moving scores, ingenious optical illusions, clever satires of politics and society, breathtaking backdrops, epic storylines, etc., etc. All of these pieces represent art by themselves, regardless of the whole that they create. Reading between the lines of many previous posts, I think we're all wasting our breaths with you on pointing out any redeeming qualities of video games, though.

  10. I don't really understand your and Ebert's requirement that the audience not participate in art as a requirement for something to be called art.

    What about stand up comedy where different audiences can take the same comedian in very different directions? What about the numerous plays in front of live audiences that call for crowd participation? What about street art that the artist intentionally gets people to walk on as part of experiencing his drawings? What about music performances where the singer omits words knowing the audience will fill them in, not to mention crowd diving antics? Going closer to your hobby, what about clubbing? Good DJs can take the dancers in the club through what some call a journey, and a lot of that depends on his ability to read the mood of his audience. If he can't tell the difference between an enthusiastic but hot/tired audience from one that's energized and near peaking, then he will spin the wrong music and fail to keep the dancers on the floor or worse, burn them out.

    The audience non-participation rule is just a phony requirement elitists throw out because they can't think of any other good excuse to keep from elevating videogames onto the same level as more traditional forms of art.

  11. Video games are not merely art, they're the culmination of art. Artists previously wished only to give glimpses of their subject, now they can illustrate and populate an entire world for them.

    Those who say 'video games aren't art!' are just appealing to nostalgia. What was once art has simply lost its force through repetition, improvement, and surpassing depth. And often been proved to be far less substantial when simulated seriously.

    Ironically enough, some of what we thought was simple foolishness can actually prove to be a much more effective form of truth communication than worshiping the mystery of what can't be understood due to being a product of the past age and fashion of the time, or perhaps the authors who motivated the artist. Video games are actually much LESS likely to lose the force of their message when future or previously unconnected generations play them.

    Hell, play through Half-Life 2 and tell me that video games aren't art again. Big reason it makes the top of most any list of Greatest Games of All Time.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."