Video games: the great underrated art

Video games are suffering. Despite recent technological advancements and the success of certain games consoles (the Nintendo Wii has managed to attain true popularity with those who would usually be seen as non-gamers, a first in the Half Life 2history of video games), video games remain either intellectually underrated, abused, or just simply ignored. As an avid gamer myself, I spend a lot of time both bemused and confused as to why this is the case. After all, I would seriously consider certain games (such as Dragon Age: Origins or Half-Life 2) to be some of the greatest works of art I have had the pleasure of experiencing. Unfortunately, many people seem to consider video games to be either downright harmful or simply distractions from more important things.

Praise for video games

Despite this, I am not on my own in voicing my praise for games. A recent book entitled Fun Inc.: Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business by Tom Chatfield surveys the state of play in society with regards to video games, and attempts to dispel many myths surrounding them. For example, he reveals that 40% of gamers are women, that most of the bestselling console games of all time involve no real-world violence at all, and that in South Korea it is more socially acceptable to hang out in a “PC bang” (a kind of internet café) than a bar, where people play networked games with their friends over a bowl of ramen and a coffee. I highly recommend this book; he gives a fair and clear headed analysis of violence in games, something which is very rare in an area mired by moral panic. Furthermore, this author collates various sources of evidence which all point to games being “useful” in some way (i.e. inspiring creativity or certain kinds of learning). Whilst I welcome these arguments, I am interested in defending a different stance. I wish to claim that video games are art, worthy of consideration by any academic working in art or aesthetics.

Dragon Age: Origins screenshot

Academic examples of art

Most of my recent reading has been centred around Dennis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct and selected works from Lamarque and Olsen’s aesthetics anthology (I’ve been doing a bit of seminar teaching). Like in almost every domain of academia, the authors of the various works always end up using several paradigm examples of specific kinds of art to illustrate their arguments. This is useful for understanding their arguments, of course, and I have no problem with it. What is surprising is that all the examples tend to disproportionately originate from certain genres of art. I have seen many mentions of classical music, opera, theatre, classic literature, Renaissance painting, sculpture, and contemporary art (which I suppose encompasses many genres, but is pretty much always only used for one purpose: that is, to challenge some preconceived definition or understanding, and, to be quite honest, if I read another paper which uses Duchamp’s Fountain or Cage’s 4’33’’ to illustrate a point I will probably snap). I have not seen any examples drawn from modern indie/experimental music (modern pop music, however, is discussed briefly in Lamarque and Olsen), modern popular fiction (Harry Potter, anything by Dan Brown etc), technology (let’s face it, the iPhone is a really beautiful thing), architecture (surprising considering its cultural and historical importance) – or video games.

A plea to academics

I want to plead with the academic community to accept video games as art, because – quite frankly – I have seen them dismissed much more than praised. In Lamarque and Olsen’s book they are simply ignored altogether, but Dutton decides to have a swipe at them in this passage:

Video games are complicated and visually arresting forms of make-believe that allow viewers to jump onto the stage and participate in the action. This is regarded by video-game enthusiasts as an earthshaking advance. In a way it is less of an extension of storytelling art than a regression to its precursors. While the themes and content of video games may be complex and adult, the logic of viewer participation in the story reverts back to the child’s tea party with teddy bears… Video games do not produce a new kind of make-believe entertainment, or much improve on the older kinds of games and fictions, except by the addition of intense visual or virtual-reality effects (p. 133)

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion screenshotIt is quite hard not to be offended by such a dismissive attitude. Dutton, for his part, is trying to argue that games are not a huge advance as stories, and that other kinds of art can tell stories equally as well. This is fair enough. Lord of the Rings tells a spectacular story, and it tells it just as well as Dragon Age: Origins or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. He is very misguided, however, to dismiss player participation as a “regression” because it is like a “child’s tea party with teddy bears”. I say this not because player participation is nothing like childhood pretend play. In fact, it is rather similar. My problem with Dutton’s attitude stems from the idea that there is something less valuable in this kind of endeavour; that because it is somewhat similar to what a child might do then it is some kind of artistic regression. This is an insufferably pompous attitude. One of the many joys of games (for me) is that they allow me to experience an almost childlike sense of wonderment through play – that feeling of boundless opportunity, virtual freedom, the ability to be truly immersed in a rich world of fiction within which I am the centre. This is a feeling like no other, and to dismiss it as childlike is a spectacular mistake. If anything, it is something which has been missing from art for so long, and it is thanks to modern technological advances that we can finally participate in huge, beautifully rendered worlds that look and feel believable, in a way that we have never been able to before.

Aside from Dutton’s sweeping dismissal, I am yet to see any philosophers properly engage with video games. If work of this kind exists out there, then I would greatly appreciate it if someone would let me know.

The burden of proof

The burden of proof, for me, lies with the person who wishes to claim that games are not art, for they possess so many of the features of other kinds of works accepted as art that to disregard them would seem rather hypocritical. For example, Dragon Age: Origins is essentially an epic fantasy story, featuring Tolkein-esque characters and deep, complex narrative development. It is a heroic fantasy tale, featuring a Blight that is set to destroy the world until our hero emerges to save the day. It is visually impressive (bar some slight texture problems with the PC version) with many beautifully rendered areas and people. So far, it is almost indistinguishable from an epic fantasy film, which (I hope) everyone would agree to be a kind of art. Most importantly, however, it features a huge degree of freedom for the player. You are able to make many choices which significantly alter the game’s progression, causing many characters to love or loathe you, story arcs to close or open – choices which eventually lead to one of four very different endings. This is the beauty of the art, the childlike sense of wonderment through play as I mentioned before, and it is this which separates it from an epic fantasy film.

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15 thoughts on “Video games: the great underrated art

  1. Hi Andy,

    There is some philosophical work being done on computer games, or at least good-quality philosophically informed academic writing. Ian Bogost is the first person to spring to mind, and his site here is worth checking out. I’ve been following his discussion of the possibility of a metaphysics video game, for example. He has written more directly about some of the philosophical issues surrounding video games themselves too. There’s plenty of his material online plus a few print books too.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    You are right that the academic community should accept (some) videogames as art. But there is, in fact, some pretty good philosophical work on videogames being done. Grant Tavinor just published The Art of Videogames (Wiley-Blackwell 2009). It’s a good book, and he makes a robust case for videogames as art in the last chapter. Other serious aestheticians (e.g., Stephen Davies and Berys Gaut) have started to address videogames in their work. See, for example, Davies’ recent presidential address to the ASA published in JAAC. There’s some discussion of videogames in Dominic Lopes’ new book on computer art. And I’ll send you my co-authored paper (presented this past summer in Oslo)!

    Nice blog. I look forward to keeping up with it.


  3. Excellent, thanks Aaron. I’ve just ordered Grant Tavinor’s book from Amazon; it looks great. Looking forward to reading your paper too.

    Looks like there’s quite a lot of work actually being done – not sure how I managed to miss all this! I think I’ve had my nose buried in The Art Instinct for too long….

  4. Personally, I think video game are as far removed from art as say comics or pop music or Hollywood movies. They are technically clever but so are many things that have nothing to do with art.

    The recent focus on video games by some writers on aesthetics is, to my mind, one of a number of indications that the field of aesthetics is fast becoming intellectually moribund.

    Meanwhile, to make matters worse, there is a range of truly important issues in the theory of art that aesthetics continues to steadfastly ignore…

    • Why do you think they are not?

      Do you think there is no qualitative difference between a Superman comic and a Rembrandt, between “Friends” and “Crime and Punishment”, between one of the umpteen, ephemeral, thumpy-wumpy pop songs that assail us everyday in shops etc (where unfortunately I can’t avoid them) and a Mozart piano concerto?

      Art seeks to respond to our deepest questions about life; this other stuff, video games included, has only one aim – to make money. Many people worry about the violence, sex etc in them. The real worry is that they relentlessly impoverish life, and make us everyday just that little bit less human.

      The focus on video games among certain writers in aesthetics – including a few leading names in the field – is to my mind an admission that the notion of art, which should be their central concern, has ceased to mean anything to them. If this tendency prevails, aesthetics (aka the philosophy of art) is on the road to uselessness, and will merit the extinction that will probably await it.

  5. Assuming that art equates to a response to our deepest questions about life then I fail to see why certain comics, games, pop songs, and Holywood films cannot be classed as art. You may be entitled to claim that they are not very good art and are aesthetically worse than the classics in some way (a point which, in certain cases at least, may well be true), but to claim they are not art is to draw an imaginary wedge in the centre of a continuum. For instance:

    1) Comics: I am no expert in comics, but I have many friends who claim that some of the most talented artists in the world draw comics. Comic-style drawing is highly skilled and is at least as technically impressive as many of the classic painters (in some cases, not in all comics). Furthermore, there are many challenging, surreal and complex graphic novels which are far removed from popular comics such as those set in the Marvel universe and which try to create something akin to an art house film in graphic novel form.

    2) Games: In my post, I mentioned the games Oblivion, Half-Life 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. Unless you were to dismiss all epic fantasy and science fiction as not art in some way, then to claim that these games are not art would be hypocritical. I completely fail to see how these games “make us less human”, unless both Tolkein and Arthur C. Clarke also “make us less human”. Perhaps you should play them before making such claims.

    3) Pop music: Some of the worlds most popular bands produce music equally as complex and moving as any classical composer. Have you listened to Radiohead at all, especially their albums Kid A and Amnesiac? What about Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody? The Beatles’ White Album? You may disagree that these are examples of good music. But to claim they are not art would be entirely unwarranted.

    4) Holywood films: What about any of Charlie Kaufman’s films – Being John Malkovic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, for example? Mulholland Drive by David Lynch? Dogville by Lars Von Trier? I agree that there are many poor Holywood films, but this does not mean they are not art. Again, bad art does not equate to not-art.

  6. Certainly there is a “continuum” between art and non-art and often the dividing line is quite hazy. Sometimes there are elements of both in works by the same author (Wordsworth is an example – he wrote some awful stuff as well as some of the finest poetry in the English language) and sometimes there are even elements of both within one and the same work. That is one reason (among others) why the attempts by certain aestheticians to draw up hard and fast rules separating art from non-art are a waste of time.

    You ask me why the works you list are not art. The difference between art and non-art is felt not legislated. Anyone who has a real love of good literature, for example, knows instinctively that Dostoyevsky is a great novelist, that Dickens is also an excellent novelist though in a more limited sense than Dostoyevsky, that John Le Carré is an accomplished writer of thrillers but not to be compared with either of the above, and that by the time you get to, say, Dan Brown you have reached literary trash – very lucrative trash, of course, but trash nonetheless. None of these judgements is demonstrable; there is no rule that will establish them. But anyone who claimed, for example, that Dan Brown is a better novelist than Dostoyevsky would certainly have demonstrated that they were impervious to good literature.

    The same reasoning applies to the works you list. I cannot demonstrate that they are not art, any more that you can demonstrate they are (whether a work is “complex” or not won’t get us there – some works of art are apparently quite simple; and whether they are “moving” depends very much on who and what is being “moved”). I don’t know most of the works you list, anyway, so I can’t comment. I do know “Mulholland Drive” and think it was a rather pretentious, silly movie whose reputation is greatly overblown.

    As for the distinction between “bad art” and “non-art”, in the end that’s largely a matter of terminology. I would call Dan Brown’s stuff, for example, non-art because to call it bad art seems to me to elevate it to a level it doesn’t warrant. I would also call video games and things like “Mulholland’s Drive” non-art for the same reason. But I don’t think that question is vital in the end. “Art” itself is ultimately just a word; there is nothing sacred about it. What is vital is to recognise the difference between works that, as I said, respond to our deepest questions about life, and ones that merely entertain and distract – works designed for mere delectation (and of course for the profit of those who make them). Only the former are worth the serious attention of the philosophy of art. The current focus on things like video games, pop music, Hollywood films, and jazz – partly, I suspect in an effort to put bums on seats – will get the philosophy of art nowhere (though I do notice that books with names like “Philosophy and Batman”, “Philosophy and Any-trivial-thing-you-like-to-name” do seem to sell…) .

    • There clearly is something sacred (or, at least, important to a lot of people) about the word “art” if we (and many other academics in the world) are prepared to have long arguments debating whether something reaches the status of art. Why would you have even come here in the first place unless you thought that your definition of the word “art” was worth defending?

      I believe I can demonstrate they are art, and I believe that I have. In fact, I pointed out (in the case of games at least) that many features of games like Dragon Age and Oblivion are IDENTICAL to those of works by Tolkein or other respected fantasy writers. I claimed that Half-Life 2 contains elements IDENTICAL to the works of many respected science fiction writers. If that is not a demonstration that they are art based on shared intuitions of other forms of art then I don’t know what I can do.

      To be quiet honest, I find your attitude insulting. Funnily enough, I GENUINELY believe that certain games, pop songs, Holywood films and comics are art. I am not claiming that this is so just to get “bums on seats”. This is not some deliberately popularising, money grabbing ideological stance. To dismiss my beliefs in such a way is pretty appaling form, especially for an academic philosopher. If you can give me some well argued, rigourously rational explanation for why I am wrong, then go ahead. So far, you have just asserted your opinion in an appalingly non-rational way, and that is not what I have come to expect from fellow academic philosophers.

      • I think you are jumping to conclusions.

        First, in saying there is nothing sacred about the word art, I simply mean, as I indicated, that it is the quality of the object that is important, not whether one labels it this or that. Art is a word conventionally reserved for objects of a certain quality but the word is not important in itself.

        Second, I do not “dismiss” your views. I simply disagree with them. You and a number of others think video games, Hollywood films etc merit the term “art”. I do not. You express your views. I express mine. I do not believe, as I said, that I can prove my point of view any more than you can prove yours. No one has ever proved that any object is or is not a work of art. As I said “The difference between art and non-art is felt not legislated.” (Your claim that video games “are IDENTICAL to those of works by Tolkein or other respected fantasy writers” is neither here nor there. Respected by whom? I for one would never call Tolkien or any science fiction I have ever read (certainly I usually avoid it) art. But again I cannot prove my position any more than you can prove yours.

        There is a large number of interesting and important things to be said about the nature of art – many of which are often overlooked. But laying down rules intended to distinguish art from non-art (or “bad art”) is not among them. It is a waste of time. But this does not prevent anyone from expressing their opinions based on their own reactions. For me, video games belong to the same world as Dan Brown fiction. I may be wrong. They may be the equal of a Dostoyevsky novel. Personally I seriously doubt it.

  7. I suppose the intuition against computer games as art is that they aren’t perceived as sufficiently encouraging contemplation of meanings/qualities.

    I’d identify two basic drives involved in aesthetic experience- play/make believe and empathy for objects (einfuhlung). Clearly computer games satisfy the play aspect and are continuous with a wide variety of arts that stimulate as-if emotions.

    Meanwhile, I think simple abstract games like Tetris and Breakout are more profound than any of those story games. And the thrill you get when you break through that line of rectangles with a little dot and it goes buzzing all over back wall can’t be beat. Perhaps this counts as empathy for objects?

    • How encouraging, exactly, would a game have to be to could as art? Does Tolkein sufficiently encourage us to conteplate certain meanings/qualities? What about Arthur C. Clarke? If they do, then I fail to see why Dragon Age and Half-Life 2 don’t. Maybe you should actually go and play these games and see for yourself.

      • Note that I said ‘perceived as’ indicating that it’s a view I guess others have. I think at least some games could encourage contemplation. I recall contemplating the absurdity of existence as I machine-gunned baddies endlessly while stuck on a loop playing Goldeneye.

        Also check out this footnote from Greg’s essay on empathy for objects:

        “One of the concerns about the recent installation by Carsten Höller at London’s Tate Modern (October 2006-April 2007) is that the experience of going down the slide is one that does not help to give us a significantly better understanding of the slide itself; the slide is more like a brute cause of the experience. There ought to be a stronger degree of intentional relatedness between the experience and the slide itself for it to count as an art object.”

        To simply ‘play’ something seems not enough. And this could apply as equally to playing a computer game as using music like a warm bath for relaxation.

  8. Dominic McIver Lopes (UBC) has a pretty new book called “A Philosophy of Computer Art”. It’s one of the few philosophical defenses of computer art out there (as opposed to merely digital art). Anyway, the point is that he devotes a chapter to video games as THE computer art par excellence. He doesn’t really deal with the game-aspect, unfortunately (viz., why are these elevated to art-status rather than staying at game-status, like hopscotch, and how do we differentiate between video-game art and regular old games/video games). Still, it’s an excellent book, and a great starting point for the subject. It’s also one of the very, very few items on the subject out there: IIRC, Lopes himself is aware of about six articles/books on computer art and/or video games.

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