As part of a recent chat hosted by independent game portal Manifesto Games
, MIT’s Henry Jenkins, video game theory professor Jesper Juul, game designer Santiago Siri and gameLab’s Eric Zimmerman were invited to tackle the difficult question of whether games can truly qualify as art.
The debate was predicated on film critic Roger Ebert’s comments on the subject late last year, when he wrote, “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers... for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Provoking Strong Emotions
Jenkins used Gilbert Seldes’s theory of art as the starting point for the discussion. “I have written an essay
,” said Jenkins, “which draws on Gilbert Seldes notion of the lively arts. For him, the function of art is to enliven human experience.” For him, games, too qualify as art, “because they provoke strong emotions, because they encourage the imagination and playfulness, and because they teach us to see the world in new ways,” – even if abstractly.
Narrowing the scope, a questioner asked if art could be truly mainstream and accessible and still qualify as art. “Absolutely,” said Jenkins, “art can and should be accessible. That was Seldes's point. Art isn't just what happens in museums. It is what happens when everyday people are encouraged to play with the materials of their culture. Seldes was arguing well before his time that comics, jazz, and cinema were art, and we don't question that conclusion today.”
For Zimmerman, who struggles with the idea of assigning games to a more narrow definition and understanding of art, an "old-fashioned" and more high-brow one, the danger in classifying games as art sees developers creating games to imitate those older art forms.
“The trend towards thinking of computer graphics as on a quest for increasing realism is related to a naive understanding of ‘art’ as based on the Renaissance window of pictorial representation,” he said, “so a discussion of games that tries to bring them into the realms of ‘art’ for me is a parallel naive track.”
Don't Map Art Onto Games?
Jenkins agreed, saying that if the “narrow definition of art” was imposed on games, that games themselves “will become pretentious and lifeless,” and the only games regarded as art would be those that are novelistic, painterly, cinematic or literary.
This response brought about the example of Myst
, with Juul reminiscing, “There was a big ‘games as art’ moment with the interactive CD-ROM games of the mid-1990's, where games tried to be many things that they weren't in order to be more highbrow.”
Jenkins noted that Myst
was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and praised by literary critics. “It is the game most loved by people who hate games,” he said. “What they were responding to was its literariness -- that and its Rembrandt lighting and texture.”
Added Juul, “I think the outsider status of games makes them interesting - how can we discuss the potential of games without
trying to frame them as ‘almost as good as movies?’ Trying to use the "art" category forces us to make comparisons that may not be helpful in describing what games are best at doing.”
Miyamoto, The Artist
“That's why I always raise Miyamoto,” said Jenkins. “What makes him an artist is what makes him a great game designer. It is hard to read him through standards from other arts.”
“Super Mario Brothers
remains the work that got me excited, really excited, about games as a medium,” he continued. “For me, it explored unique possibilities of games -- the idea of spatial exploration, of expressive architecture, of an immersive microworld, of imaginative design. It isn't about making a comment about our reality -- it's about teaching us what it would be like to inhabit a different reality. Miyamoto is our Winsor McCay.”
But for Zimmerman, despite the potential drawbacks and narrowing influence on classifying games as art, the effect of their acceptance as such has far-reaching and serious consequences. “What is at stake in defining games as art or in comparing the two? Part of it is legislation of culture. Another is the growth of the game industry -- expanding how games are funded, who plays them, and how they are considered within cultural history.”
Within this line of thought, “it is not about abstract philosphical discussions defining art. In that case, art is a cultural category defined by money and institutions.”
Summing up the chat, the panel took its final vote on the topic. “GAMES ARE ART,” said Siri, “they were meant to be played with soul, just like we play music.”
Said Zimmerman, “I vote NO NO NO NO YES NO NO NO SOMETIMES NO.”
“This ballot is just too confusing,” added Jenkins, “Can I put in a write in vote for Mickey Mouse?”
[The entire 'Are Games Art' chat log can be found at the Manifesto Games website.