What’s the big deal if games are art or not? There, I said it. The debate keeps cropping up on all sorts of game sites and forums, here being no exception. That said, those who say the discussion is getting tired and should end have missed the mark. The dialogue is important for anyone engaged in making games.
It’s a pretty fundamental question: Is the act of making games art, with all the attendant connotations of being worthwhile and of benefit to society; or is game making essentially engaging in the spinning off of fluffy, saccharine creations that distract folks and keep them from being productive members of society?
There’s a lot at stake, in terms of personal identity, for anyone involved in the industry. We’d all rather consider ourselves innovators, modern day Dalis and Elvises (Elvisi?) than the twenty-first century iteration of snake oil salesmen.
But labels aside, my point is this: Who cares what the public at large is currently saying? Many of the people who are cultural tastemakers today did not grow up with games, at least as meaningful elements of their lives. Twenty years from now that will emphatically not be the case.
Winning the debate is fundamentally unimportant because it will work itself out in the end anyway, both as the market grows and cultural standards change. I could point out that films are accepted as art, and to call any film starring Anna Farris art and call World of Goo a mindless distraction is bordering on hysterical stupidity, but why bother?
According to the recent, oft-cited Pew Survey 97% of US children aged 12-17 play video games. It is likely that number will not dip much for the successive generation, or, while not as high, that it is not much lower for the preceding generation.
Games are fast challenging movies and music with sales alone, never mind actual cultural impact, making an effective argument for games as mainstream media. So if games are then mainstream media, does that alone make them art? Taking a look at film and music is instructive.
Some films are going to have artistic merit and others won’t. Some bands are respected as artists; others derisively get called “entertainment”. I won’t go into examples because taste is inherently subjective, and I don’t want to cheese anyone off too badly. (Except Nickelback, because man, do they suck. Can we at least all agree on that?). But both these media reflect a wide variety of interests and ideas of what makes a film or a song qualitatively art, or even just “good”.
Games have matured to the point where they’re an expansive industry, catering to all sorts of tastes and niche markets. When you think of a “quintessential game”, what title pops into your head?
It might be DOOM, Mario, Pong for you old schoolers, Halo, Madden, Final Fantasy, anything really. The breadth of offerings in the industry and people’s experiences with games are varied enough at this point where the idea of games is going to mean very different things to different people.
The same holds for art. There are games out there with art direction or writing that are legitimately described as art. And then there are also games about bikini-clad samurai who chop through endless hordes of zombies, which, heck, might constitute art for some folks. More power to you guys, but seriously, you scare me.
The market for games is wide and accommodates all manner of tastes, and the quality, or even existence, of art in games will vary across games and genres just like it does in other mediums. Consumer behaviors impact this. Why have indie games made such a resurgence? Certainly there are plenty of reasons, but one of them is that these games are satisfying the preferences of players that major commercial games are missing.
There will always be a segment of players in the market, as there are in movies or music, who demand a certain sophistication in their art, writing or design. In essence, the market itself demands games that are art. I know that’s a pretty craven, bloodless explanation.
I wish I could give some spiel about how it has nothing to do with commercialism, and that game developers are all people of pure heart and high mind who will not rest until they create art. There are doubtlessly dedicated people like that. But it is inevitable that art, if it is not in games already, certainly will be there, because there’s money to be made.
Stay tuned for Games, Blood, Art?! Pt. 2. We’ll talk about blood, gore, and Jack Thompson getting angry. And that’s always fun for everybody… er, everybody not named Jack Thompson.