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Are Video Games a Form of Art? Yes… and No

April 20, 2010Written by Mike Hartnett

If you’ve been reading up on your gaming news over the past few days, you’ve probably read Roger Ebert’s latest comments on why he thinks video games are not art. In turn, you’ve also probably seen thatgamecompany president Kellee Santiago’s rebuttal, with both sides making some excellent points. But when looking at the facts, can we really disagree with Roger Ebert?

I am honestly remorseful at the idea that I can’t really disagree with Mr. Ebert, but there are two small words that gamers and naysayers alike seem to overlook in his argument… ‘in principle’. These two words, in all honesty, are the reason why Ebert is essentially off the hook, but only to an extent.

Both Ebert and Santiago have gone back and forth regarding how real art is defined through a unique type of experience. Well, at this point, the definition of experience is called into question. Santiago used Wikipedia’s definition of experience:

Experience as a general concept comprises knowledge of or skill in or observation of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event.

Through this definition, Santiago will inadvertently prove herself wrong. A video game cannot just be experienced, as you must perform an action (i.e. gameplay) in order to get anything out of it, controlling what happens, although one could argue that screen caps could be used as a form of art, but that’s a different story entirely.

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This is where Ebert, essentially, is correct that video games, in principle (and those are the key words), are not art. Ebert chose his words very carefully in his most recent article, because he knew that using the word “never” could, at some point, prove him to be wrong if video games were to take the leap into virtual reality, thus possibly rendering something that could be experienced without the need for action.

However, when looking at the dictionary definition of experience, Santiago gains a bit more leeway.

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through

From The Random House Dictionary:

to have experience of; meet with; undergo; feel

The key word here that exonerates Santiago from being incorrect in her assumption is the word ‘feel.’ The Random House Dictionary’s definition for ‘feel’ does not specify whether or not the word is referring solely to tactile forms of feeling or if it does, in fact, include emotions and changes in the way one thinks due to outside influences, whether brought on naturally or through action/reaction via a video game.

Santiago also gains more ground when we look at the definition of art.

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects

There’s no doubt that when one sits down to play a game such as Flower or Braid, one will be immediately struck by the artful utilization of 2D and 3D rendering to create an aesthetically stimulating experience, with the player’s personal tastes and interests taken into account, of course. So theoretically, the same thing could be said for any other type of video game.

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In the end, are video games art? Well, yes and no. In principle, no, video games are not and cannot be art in their current state–not yet, as they cannot be experienced without action from the gamer. But by definition, yes, video games are most definitely art, as they can invoke strong emotions, feelings, and intense aesthetic stimultion in those who partake in them, on a scale that few other mediums can match, especially today.

One cannot deny the reasoning behind Ebert’s argument, as it is most definitely sound when one considers how art is perceived through experience. Conversely, video games can, by definition, be defined as art through the feelings and emotions they invoke on a daily basis for millions of gamers. So before you knock either side of the argument, take the time to consider what art really is.

Do I think video games are a form of art? Yes. It really is hard to dismiss such an idea when looking at games like Flower and the immensely serene feeling that it conveys when one is playing, but until we can establish a factually sound basis for what is and what is not considered art, the debate will go on and on. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but can art be as well? I’m sure we’ll know soon enough.