But is it Art?

There’s been some discussion online recently about video game criticism, arising from The Lester Bangs of Video Games in Esquire and the response Why No Lester Bangs of Gaming? in Wired. A comparison is being made to music and film (as in the cases above), despite the fact that outside of blogs there seems to be little in the way of innovative, creative commentary on gaming. Most commissioned video game reviews are a couple of short press release-style paragraphs of what the game is about, not a substantial reflection on what it means.

Clive Thompson deals nicely with spelling out the answer to the immediate Lester Bangs question in the Wired article – editors don’t know enough about games to appreciate the good writers, the good writers do exist and are already self-publishing online, games take too long to play before reviewing – before getting to the point: everyone just got here, and nobody has yet figured out how to contextualise games, or the act of play as something more meaningful than vapid entertainment, especially in relation to other media. He points out that gaming is simply too different to expect it to fit in the same sphere of criticism as music or film. A broader perspective is needed to assess the cultural significance of games:

You don’t write about Grand Theft Auto as if Rockstar has shot another Godfather. You write about it as if it Rockstar had created the next football.

But that’s not how games are being written about. When it comes down to it then, the question is not yet “where are the cultural critics of this artform?”, but rather that old chestnut that faces any medium finding it’s feet “is this really art?”

It’s not difficult to draw loose comparisons between the history of gaming and that of other media. I think you could say that the heyday of shareware games was gaming’s underground punk phase; people in there for the love it, three chords and the truth being passed around on rewritten floppy disks like cassette mix tapes, guys getting together in basements to tear up the rulebook and just make innovative and edgy new things as quickly as possible, before the whole scene became co-opted and packaged and went mainstream.

Or maybe games today are like cinema of the first half of the twentieth century, advancing only as quickly as the still-developing technology will allow, struggling against the perception that it is are nothing more than entertainment, certainly not an artform. There were well-respected films being made for years, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that American cinema went through it’s own punk phase and became the most relevant popular artform of the decade. It’s probably a bit trite to say that video games are currently in the same state of infancy that cinema was a century ago, but I’m tempted.

Another analogous medium: photography went through the same growing pains, for years having to justify and defend itself against the philosophical and practical criticisms levelled at it. Susan Sontag wrote an essay about this in On Photography:

For about a century the defence of photography was identical with the struggle to establish it as a fine art. Against the charge that photogrpahy was a soulless, mechanical copying of reality, photographers asserted that it was a vanguard revolt against ordinary standards of seeing, no less worthy an art than painting.

The fact that questions about the validity or value of any medium as an artform exist just goes to show it’s relative immaturity, or at least it’s perceived immaturity. It seems to be a rite of passage that new artforms need to go through.

And once all that’s done, and video games are finally high art, we can get around to arguing that the game is in fact not art at all, but the playing of it is.

— 11 Jul 2006