Are games art? Just kidding – this isn’t another one of those articles. There sure have been a lot, though, right? The issue of art, and whether games are or aren’t it and blah blah blah, has captivated gamers, developers and the press to the point that it’s practically a punchline, yet that doesn’t stop people from trotting the issue out.
In games’ long struggle to gain ground against public perception challenges, the mantle of art has been the best way to dress up the conversation, to enforce that games were grown-up, to hammer home their cultural value. Problem was, applying the word heavily and too eagerly to a still-maturing medium was like throwing a silk tablecloth on top of a bachelor’s mess: it birthed endlessly circular arguments on definitions, on the word ‘art’ itself most of all. Even storied film critic Roger Ebert participated (and probably regrets it now, poor guy).
That’s partly because when people bang on about ‘art’, the word they really want is ‘legitimacy’. If art is some lofty and meaningful thing, capable of permanent value to its culture, and if games can be part of that, then no one will misunderstand or make fun of us any more. I mean, really, that’s all it’s about: if we’re having a dialogue about the semantics of art and interaction design instead of about headshots and screenshots then it means we are now cool and adult and important, and not at all stereotypical basement wankers thank you very much.
The relative frequency with which videogames are apparently misinterpreted by our concept of the culture at large – even now when they’re part of a multi-billion-dollar business, to say nothing of the days when our scope was much narrower – makes all this needy grasping for legitimacy somewhat understandable, at least in theory. There’s increasingly less sympathy for the idea of the niche, marginalised gamer now that we’re in the iPhone and Facebook era and everyone plays, but it’s fair to say the wider public’s understanding of the medium’s depth and breadth remains a frustratingly narrow one.
The whole ‘art thing’ has reared its head again in recent months because of a string of new developments: the US government’s National Endowment for the Arts has agreed that games are eligible for art funding grants, the Smithsonian Museum now has an exhibit devoted to the history of games, and New York’s Tribeca Film Festival honoured Rockstar and Team Bondi’s LA Noire with a showing at the event – the first time a game’s been included.
When the government, a renowned art museum and a significant film festival all tip their hat to the art and craft of games, it’s no small thing for fans of a medium that’s always been seen as a plaything, a lesser form of entertainment or a harmful waste of time. But weirdly, the way gamers react to these kinds of developments in the dignity of games perception, the ways they choose to level their focus, is almost as backward as the views of those they see as enemies of the games.
Following NEA’s announcement that ‘digital games’ would be eligible for funding as part of a newly expanded Arts in Media category, mainstream headlines were breathless, as if videogames had been certified, by official decree, to be art. The unfortunate thing was that the gaming press did the same: US Government Declares Games Are Art, they said; It’s Official. The Escapist even used the word ‘legally’ in its headline, just in case you had doubts.
The fact that the NEA only funds non-profit, tax-exempt organisations – it’s not like anyone is validating BioShock with a signed cheque, or even funding a worthy indie – was largely ignored, and so was the question of how interactive entertainment can serve the art landscape.
So were questions like these: does bureaucratic validation make videogames any more relevant or mature? What do videogames gain from being recognised by film critics? Why was the Smithsonian exhibit curated primarily by public vote, the way fansites run their year-end polls?
Would we not know what to strive for, or how to identify ourselves if this discussion were ever put to rest? All this time, it’s been ‘us versus them’, and we’ve fought the battle by gabbing ourselves hoarse about all the rare and beautiful moments in big-budget videogames that glimmer with the promise of transcendental experiences. Deep down, maybe we know we’ve been a little heavy-handed, albeit out of necessity. If gamers were ‘valid’, if we were not persecuted, wouldn’t we have to take a hard look at videogames and all of the ways our activist priority hasn’t allowed us to admit they let us down?
Wherever you look, others are welcoming games to the table. Now, the biggest enemy of legitimacy for videogames isn’t ‘others’ any more. It’s us.
Leigh Alexander is a widely published writer on the business, design and culture of videogames and social media. She blogs at Sexy Videogameland. Read and follow Leigh's other columns on her topic page.
Illustration: Martin Davies