Resolving the “Games as Art” debate (you’re welcome)

Listening to the PC Gamer podcast this week, I stumbled back into the “games as art” debate. For the uninitiated, it boils down to this: some high-profile critics don’t think that video games are art. Some do. Many fans of the medium do, because they want gaming to be respected. Many don’t, because they play games for fun and don’t care about intellectualising their free time.

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We’re revisiting this debate because the Museum of Modern Art in New York is building a gaming collection, featuring titles like Pac-Man, SimCity, Portal, flOw, and Passage, amongst others. From the MoMA website:

Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design.

I think their reasoning is sound, but they led with what is inexplicably a contentious remark. The gaming community is torn on whether games are art, and on whether they have to be art to be appreciated. They certainly contain art–from textures to voice acting to modelling and more–but are they themselves art? Are they some sort of entertainment experience divorced from what we consider art?

What’s going to follow will undoubtedly anger some, because I am going to attempt to define art. That’s right. Here and now, I will resolve this debate for all time. Assuming, you know, that my definition is accepted.

Art is process, not product. It is the application of critical decision-making to construct a work that will elicit, from an audience, a response.

Under that definition, which, honestly, is as good and as pithy as many I’ve seen, then yes, games are art.  You can then start breaking it down and asking more questions — can artist be audience? What defines a response? How exactly do we evaluate critical decision-making? — but what it comes down to is that games are art and now we have a framework to evaluate whether or not they’re good art.

By basing the definition on process, not product, we can evaluate the quality of the decisions made. This isn’t revelatory, and it’s something already being done by game critics. Why some of those critics themselves define games as something other than art is beyond me, because they’re already engaging them as such. Either way, the important conversations, for me, aren’t about whether games are art, but about how they’re art.

What about you? Do you see games as art? Does it even matter whether they are or not?

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