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Revisiting the tired "are games art?" question after a run-in with an artist. Featuring an old dude on a ferry boat and the Russian ballet.

Tim Conkling, Blogger

October 14, 2015

6 Min Read

(Reposted from my game development blog)

“Are Games Art?” and the Intellectual Value of Design

Recently, I had a funny run-in with a capital-A Artist that made me reconsider my stance on the whole tired “are games art” thing.

I was taking a ferry to an island off the coast of Maine for a short vacation away from game development. This was a few weeks ago, in late September, so school was in session and the tourists that swell Maine’s population every summer had thinned out. It was a warm fall day and there were no other passengers above decks, so the plan was to relax in the sun with a book and forget about the world for a bit.

And then, before the boat had even left the dock, an old man climbed the stairs to the top deck, sat next to me, and asked me if I knew Nijinsky, the great Russian dancer. (I didn’t then, but I sure as hell do now.)

This is literally how the conversation started. No pleasantries, just straight to the Russian ballet. “I’m quite mad, you see,” he said. He looked and spoke like Werner Herzog, only older. His name was John. “Nijinsky was also mad. You need madness to make great art.”

I spent the next two hours being talked at by John, who was 87 years old, and was, it turned out, an accomplished playwright, set designer, and painter.* He was also excellent at rattling off names of painters, dancers, and writers I’d never heard of - and would act aghast or disappointed or both when I admitted as much. I was disappointed, too. I hated feeling like such a philistine.

Eventually there was a break in his monologue, and John asked what I did for a living.

“I design computer games.”

“Oh. Games.”

I might as well have copped to working on Wall Street, for all the relevance my job had to art or any other sort of intellectual pursuit.

I can’t really hold this against John. At the very least, games weren’t part of the landscape when he was a young artist. But I wanted to be validated by this man! Even as I began answering his question, I was on the defensive. I acted (and felt!) wounded as he questioned what I knew about the artist’s struggle, and I told him about long hours, and pouring myself into my game, and being under-appreciated. True sentiments, but also calculated to make him more likely to see, in me, someone who understood “madness.” Part of me was mortified that I was seeking approval from a stranger who was negging me, but I plowed on. Eventually I found some - but only after telling him that Antihero borrows thematically from “Oliver Twist,” which is kind of a stretch, and anyway is the least interesting thing about it.

It’s not just old dudes on ferry boats that make me insecure about my work. It’s long been a familiar feeling. I’m pre-emptively defensive when I tell people what I do, especially if they’re of a certain age. If you were born before 1970, I have a good guess about your interest level in videogames. And while knee-jerk dismissals of games are stupid and annoying, I will still usually go out of my way to seek approval of my chosen medium from people I respect.

And it’s certainly not just me - this is well-trod territory. When Roger Ebert proclaimed that games can never be art, the games industry lost its collective shit, falling over itself to try to convince him otherwise, or to proclaim him old and irrelevant, so who cares anyway.

As a game developer, I operate - of course! - from the perspective that games can be art; and I don’t find it an interesting topic to argue anyway. But more importantly, I think the debate is a red herring, or at least distracts from a more important point.

I’m not actually sure that Antihero is art. Or rather, yeah, it’s “art,” but its creation has much less to do with me trying to express ideas about the human condition, and much more about the exploration of a specific design space: short-session, asynchronous multiplayer games with lots of depth. I don’t know or care if my game will be seen as art. But it is an intentionally designed piece, and I care very much that it’s seen as something deserving of intellectual respect.

The notion that design is intellectually relevant is uncontroversial. Nobody would ever seriously write off, for example, an Eames chair or a Gehry building; whether these objects fit some random definition of “art” is inconsequential to their perceived cultural value. But outside the industry, I don’t think that games are really understood as designed objects.

And this is where I land. “Are games art” is ultimately a question of semantics. If you confine your definition of art narrowly enough, you can exclude anything you want. But “are games worthy of respect from intellectuals, and of intellectual respect” - THAT is what I care about, and that’s what stung so much about Ebert’s (and John’s) rejection. Here was a respected thinker, writer, and critic, who couldn’t be bothered to take the time to get know a medium before essentially writing the whole thing off.

There is a hopeful ending to this particular story. My wife, father, and I had tea with John on the island later that day. He spoke, again, about his work and about artists he admired. He expressed frustration that his recently written memoirs weren’t getting the attention they deserved. He told us to read King Lear. (“It’s my favorite story. I read it every day. Lear was completely mad.”) And finally, as we were leaving, he mentioned Antihero - by name! such pleasant validation! - to make some suggestions about characters he thought I should put in the game. They were based off another Shakespeare play I’d never read.

  1. As well as a friend and collaborator of Edward Gorey, whose visual style I pilfered for my first game… and then again for Antihero, my current project.

(If you’re interested in running your own thieves’ guild, you can read more about Antihero, my in-development game, or follow me on Twitter.)

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