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What do Videogames do to Art?

A response to the NEA frenzy

Last week the National Endowment for the Arts announced their new call for proposals in an "Arts in Media" category. This category, in the NEA's words, "seeks to make the excellence and diversity of the arts widely available to the American public through the national distribution of innovative media projects about the arts and media projects that can be considered works of art."

The Arts in Media category replaces the previous "Arts on Radio and Television" category, mostly to expand beyond the limits of those two particular platforms. Again, here's how the NEA put it: "The expanded category now includes all available media platforms such as the Internet, interactive and mobile technologies, digital games, arts content delivered via satellite, as well as on radio and television."

It's the last part that got the most attention, largely due to the addition of "digital games," a kind of media that has not traditionally received support from national arts funding.

I've been fielding a lot of press inquiries about the NEA, games, and art since this announcement, and I've been surprised that most of them have mirrored the game trade and enthusiast press's simplistic headlines, all of which amounted to variants on the headline, "Games are Now Art." A few examples:

Escapist, Games Now Legally Considered an Art Form (in the USA)
CNET, Video games are 'art' eligible for your tax dollars
IGN, Government Considers Games Art

This is an unfortunately unsubtle and rather silly response to the NEA's interesting and encouraging move. The reality of the situation is a bit different. Here's how I explained it to Fast Company, which nevertheless ran the sensationalist headline "It's Official: Video Games Are Art":

Ian Bogost, a game designer, critic, and researcher, says that the real news from the NEA announcement wasn't that it had reclassified games as art, but simply that it was actually funding the creation of art again in the first place. Though the Bush years, said Bogost, the NEA mainly relegated its role to the funding of distribution and other peripheral components of art-making. He also called attention to the fact that not just any indie gamer could apply for the grants. The NEA restricts applicants to "nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3), U.S. organizations; units of state or local government; or federally recognized tribal communities or tribes," and while indie game artists could apply, it would have to be in partnership with a nonprofit.

Bogost also wanted to throw the brakes on a tendency he had seen among gamers to celebrate the supposed "legitimacy" the new designation conferred on games. "I think this is encouraging, and we shouldn't belittle it," he conceded of the NEA announcement. At the same time, though, "This is not how culture works," he says. "The way that art and culture develops is messy and weird," and shouldn't come down to the funding decisions of a few government bureaucrats.

"It's best to look at this for what it is," he sums up, "an earnest gesture on the part of the NEA to include more media, and to fund art again."

And that's the truth, right there. It's not bad or anything, it's just far more subtle than these ridiculous ledes lead on.

Another point that I couldn't get across fully in the context of the Fast Company article: the idea that the government has "officially" endorsed games as art is preposterous. They've certainly extended an invitation for the arts community to partake of games, and for (eligible members) of the games community to partake of the extended conversation about art.

See, the games community has it backwards: the point is not to "legitimize" games as art, whatever that would mean. The point is not to shoehorn games into some received, stable, agreed upon notion of what art is, as if there is such a notion. The point is to ask the question, what do videogames do to art? How do they change art, turning it into something new? It's encouraging that the NEA has invited us to consider this question. But its answers are hardly a foregone conclusion.

(Cross-posted from

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