Are Video Games Art? Why Games Should Be Taken as Seriously as Novels, Films, and Other Forms of Creative Expression

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Are Video Games Art? Why Games Should Be Taken as Seriously as Novels, Films, and Other Forms of Creative Expression


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


"Video games can never be art," thundered movie critic Roger Ebert in 2010. Responding to a provocative TED Talk that argued the opposite, Ebert dismissed the examples mentioned in the presentation, sniffing that they "do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic."

Following Plato, Ebert argued that "art should be defined as the imitation of nature" (emphasis in original), that it is "usually the creation of one artist," and that games--unlike painting or literature--have rules and winners, thus disqualifying them from consideration as artistic expression.

Famous for having introduced stark, gladiatorial judgments to film reviews, Ebert (who died in 2013) didn't just give video games a big thumbs down, but two thumbs smack in the eyes. "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?" he asked, exasperatedly name-checking great competitors in chess, basketball, and football. "Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form.... Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care. Do they require validation?"

Ebert was likely channeling the scorn he must have endured for decades as a defender of an expressive form that has only recently (if controversially) joined the hallowed hall of "serious" art. If you've gone to college in the past 40 years and told anyone you were taking a course in "film studies" (or worse yet, confessed you were majoring in the same), you doubtlessly inspired an eyeroll or two. In his essay collection Boxed In (1988), New York University's Mark Crispin Miller recalled the skepticism he faced upon entering the academic job market in the late 1970s. "You're solid in the Renaissance, and you do this film stuff," his advisor told him. "It's always good to have a traditional field ... and to do some bullshit on the side.... 'Film studies.' Feminism. 'Children's lit.' It looks good. On the side."

So do "gamers"--those who make games, those who play them, and those who consider them as something more than a "pathetic" form of passing the time--require validation? Of course they do: just like devotees of all other forms of creative expression. This validation takes two basic forms.

The first is political and legal. Pretty much since the introduction of the arcade version of Pong in 1972, video games have been attacked for either causing or aggravating all the sins of the modern world. In this, they follow in the footsteps of virtually all new forms of popular entertainment, from novels to film to television to comic books and rock music. "There are no Hardys nor Chekovs in the movies," wrote a critic in a 1926 issue of The Dial, the journal that was in some ways the house organ of literary modernism. While the Dial piece held out hope that film might one day transcend its "primitive stage," its thrust was summed up by this all-caps headline: "NOTTHEATRE, NOT LITERATURE, NOT PAINTING."

Video games, we've learned over the years, induce hyperactivity, epilepsy, and obesity in kids ("step away from the video games," counseled President Barack Obama in 2009). They desensitize us to violence, coarsen our language, and ruin our sleep habits. They've killed reading as a pastime and promoted unhealthy body images. They have single-handedly destroyed--or maybe just further dumbed down--the movie business.

Given their vast popularity among younger

Americans, it's not surprising that game makers have labored under constant threats of censorship, stifling regulation, and legal action. In the early 1990s, a "voluntary" ratings system restricting who could buy what games was foisted on the industry after Congress held dramatic hearings in 1993 about the ultra violence in tides such as Mortal Kombat, in which combatants kicked, punched, and hacked away at each other until blocky, heavily pixelated fountains of blood spewed from amputated limbs and decapitated torsos. …

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