Art, Games, and Other Things, Part 1: Why Video Games Aren't Exactly Art

Hi, welcome to part one of what is intended to be a rather large series on Video Games and their place in human art. Unfortunately, due to recent work-related developments in my life (if anyone knows where I can find a job writing, let me know), I won't be able to spend a lot of time on these posts. Basically, I've got time for one draft and that's about it.

"What Is Art?"

It's the question every intro-level art teacher I've ever had has asked. It's a question everyone should know the answer to, but, sadly, many don't. Instead of merely popping into the thread and expecting you to take my word at face value, however, I'd like to try to prove my answer, so... let's ask a different question.

"What isn't art?"

Why isn't the photocopier sitting next to me in an art museum? What about the mouse in your hand? How about the shirt you're wearing, the rocks in the ground, the trees in the park, the sound of a honking horn? Why hasn't someone put them in a museum? Why aren't they art?

Somewhere, someone is asking the sophomorically post-modern question "but who is to say what is and isn't art?" Instead of dismissing the question, however, let's answer it: Culture. Culture defines art, hypothetical person. Without people, art would not exist. As a result, we can say that art is a human construct. Of course, that's not the answer to the question of what art is--that's merely a trait.

Alright, getting back on topic, I mentioned the photocopier and said it wasn't art. Photocopiers are tools. Their purpose is to copy an image to a piece of paper. Likewise, a soup can is not art. A toilet is not art. A pipe is not art. These are things that exist for the primary purpose of holding soup, being urinated in, or being smoked.

Why do humans make things? What purpose does it serve?

In the case of the aforementioned items, they all serve to facilitate various human actions. We make things because we want to achieve certain goals. We make hammers so we can build houses. We make computers so we can communicate. We make cars so we can transport ourselves. Everything we make serves a purpose. Everything we make is a tool that enables us to do something.

...except art.

From a purely left-brained perspective, art serves no purpose. It doesn't make you more efficient at things. It doesn't make you more productive. It doesn't benefit you in any tangible way.

Please let me take a brief moment to acknowledge the fact that the right-brain/left-brain situation is a lot more complex and nuanced then I am making it out to be. I am using right-brain/left-brain as linguistic shorthand for the logic/emotion divide in the humanity. If you're struggling with my unscientific use of the term, please remember that I'm attempting to keep this discussion as general as possible. Back on topic, now...

Okay, so, art actually has a lot of benefits. Humans are emotional creatures, and while I'd like to get into a huge discussion regarding the beauty and power of human emotion, as well as its necessity (and suppression) in the world today, Betty Edwards has already covered that in her excellent book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and she does the topic far more justice than I ever could.

What this boils down to is simple: humans make two categories of things. We make tools, for getting things done, and we make art, for regulating our emotional state.

So, back to the question: What is art?

Art is something created for the primary purpose of establishing an emotional response within its audience.

Humans have a lot of emotions. A Warhol isn't necessarily going to make you feel the same bleakness that Munch's The Night Wanderer will, but it will make you feel something. Perhaps you feel ambivalence. Perhaps you feel pensive. To the artist, that was the entire point--to make you feel. A soup can won't make you feel, nor will a toilet or a pipe, but Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans, Duchamp's Fountain, and Magritte's The Treachery of Images absolutely will.

Great, now that we know what art is, let's talk about video games. I'm going to do my best to differentiate between games and video games; normally, we use "games" as shorthand for "video games," but for the purpose of this conversation, the difference between video games and other forms of activity needs to be made.

With me? Good, because games aren't art.

Now, you might point out that games are made for the purpose of enjoyment (thus, emotion), but it's important to remember that the game is ultimately an activity. My favorite definition of a game is "structured play."

Yes, yes, I know: there are game shops that sell game sets to people, but ultimately, those are just tools we make to help us facilitate an activity. A chess set, for example, is a group of tools that enables us to partake in the activity of playing chess. Game pieces are tools that provide structure to our play. They are not art in and of themselves--for chess to be chess, it must be played.

Roger Ebert has been erroneously branded as an 'enemy of gaming' by some. He's been hounded, maligned, and disrespected, all because of this fascinating essay he penned, titled "Video games can never be art." He also made a similar chess analogy in his essay. Games, in and of themselves, cannot be art because they are an activity facilitated by tools.

It's worth noting at this point that tools can have artistic influences. Tools need not be entirely utilitarian, and form can be influenced by artistic purposes. What fun would a Dodge Viper be if it wasn't influenced by the beauty of the human form? At its core, though, the point of a Dodge Viper is to facilitate the activity of driving, not to make people contemplate its form. This is why the oft-repeated (I believe it started on Penny Arcade, but cannot find the original quote) argument that artists work on games, therefore games must be art, falls flat on its face. It sounds good on the surface, but in reality, it doesn't hold up.

By now, you might be thinking I'm going to say that video games aren't art. Quite the contrary--video games absolutely are art... except when they're not.

Video games are weird.

On one hand, you've got games like Tetris. They're undeniably games, which means that they're activities, not art. On the other hand, you've got games like Bioshock 2, which are stories told through their gameplay. Bioshock 2's shooting is informed by the narrative, as are the levels, enemies, choices, feel, sound... every element of Bioshock 2 works together to tell a story.

Tetris is not art--it's a game, an activity. Bioshock 2 is art--it's a story. Because they serve as a thing created for the primary purpose of emotional response, stories are inherently artistic in nature. Some games can be art and some cannot. Why?

"What is art?" might be an important foundational question, but the next question--the one I'll be covering in more detail as this series progresses, is "what are video games?" I don't think, at this stage, we quite have a handle on it.

Video games are a medium of expression. They are not the end product of art or tool, they're a way in which we communicate. A book can be a work of art, to be sure, but it can also be a tool of instruction. My C++ Textbook certainly isn't a work of art. This is, at its core, why I believe that so many intelligent discussions about video games break down: people don't know what video games are.

Video games aren't art, but art is definitely a part of video games.

By now, you probably have a lot of questions, but unfortunately, I'm out of time. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments below, and bear in mind, this is the first article in a much longer series. We've got a lot of ground to cover (yes, I know my definition of stories is reductive and doesn't take into account stories for the purpose of instruction), and I'll do my best to cover it all in the coming weeks.