Videogames Officially Art?

Do you know what this means? Finally! All those years they said I wasted playing my silly games! I was just building an appreciation for the fine arts!

No, but seriously — the Museum of Modern Art is putting together an exhibit focusing on videogames. Which is neat, I guess.

My perspective on games hasn’t changed, but it’s neat to see them getting some recognition by serious artsy-oriented folks. The choice of games is heartening as well. Tetris, Pac-Man, and Portal are pretty obvious, but I’m really glad (and surprised) to see games like Another World and flOw among the fourteen. And… Dwarf Fortress? Dwarf Fortress before Minecraft? I could kiss you.

Anyway, I’m not sure why I would go to a museum to see some games I could just play in my own home, but still… it’s neat. That’s all I really have to say about it.

Some other parties don’t seem thrilled, though. The first result on Google, under the Museum of Modern Art page, is an article by Jonathan Jones of The Guardian. Disclaimer: I’m not up on my news organizations, so I have no clue who Jonathan Jones is or whether The Guardian has a reputation for serious journalism, but the article reiterates a point that’s come up a lot in the past. Something along these lines:

The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.

A lot of folks got all riled up when Roger Ebert said basically the same thing a couple years back. It seems silly to get angry, though. Rather than anger, I just feel kind of sad. This is really an unfair comparison, but reactions like Mr. Jones’ and Mr. Ebert’s remind me of when my father yells at “that God damn computer” because he doesn’t understand it, and because it’s easier to get mad at this newfangled technology than it is to establish a working relationship. It feels like a knee-jerk reaction from people totally unwilling to accept that the world is changing. I mean, look at this bit earlier in the article:

I first encountered this trope of the inappropriate elder’s interest in the newest games a few years ago at a philosophy conference in Oxford University (I was an interloper in those hallowed groves). An aesthetician – a philosopher who specialises in aesthetics – gave a talk on his research into games. He defended them as serious works of art. The art of games, he argued, if I understood him right, lies in their interactive dimension and liberation of shared authorship. But he never answered the question: what was a professor doing playing all these games?

Like… really? Is he being serious here? “Inappropriate”?

Old people taking an interest in things that young people are interested in? Disgusting. Next thing you know, our grandparents will be smoking reefer and listening to that dang rock and roll!

Okay, okay. Back to the original point — games can’t be art because they involve input from the player. I really do understand where they’re coming from with this one, and I wrestled with the problem for a while. Ultimately, I decided I had better things to do than worry about whether videogames were art. If I had to refute this point, though, I’d say this:

Even if the player is in control on some level, he is still exploring the artistic vision of a creator — the artist. He is still operating within the rules established by that artist, and it’s still that artist who shaped the scope and parameters of the experience. The artist is still in control.

But what if this professor — the one that Mr. Jones is so dismissive of — is right that games are about a “shared authorship” and shared ownership of that experience? Why does that disqualify them from being art? You might as well disqualify stand-up comedy. I remember an interview where George Carlin said he modifies his act on the fly based on the reaction of the audience. In other words, the experience is changed because of input from the experiencer. That’s a word, right?

I dunno, man. I’m not invested enough in the whole thing to argue about it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the acceptance of videogames as an art form is going to keep on rolling. If you don’t like it, I hear you, but my advice is to just roll with it.


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