Newspapers, critics, and scientists can never seem to make up their minds about video games. Do video games cause obesity, or can they have a positive impact on your health and the health of the elderly? Do video games promote or in fact prevent violent behavior? Is there any educational merit among video games for children, or are they harmful for child development? As video games are shifting toward the center of mainstream society, more people are gaining exposure to games and seeing that, “Hey, maybe video games aren’t so bad after all.” Video games are now held in regard for their musical scores with symphony performances and for their social impact with museum exhibits around the world. A rather significant battle in the video game industry is that of video games as art, a battle which video games seem to be winning after years of criticism from those outside the industry.
In a previous article, I highlighted the recent appearance of video games in well-regarded museums such as the Grand Palais in Paris (from November 10th 2011 to January 9th 2012) and at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington D.C. (beginning March 16th 2012, followed by a traveling exhibit throughout the US through September 30th 2012). While the Paris exhibit focuses more on the cultural impact of games, the American exhibit is called “The Art of Video Games,” featuring video games with impressive and influential art. The opening of the Smithsonian’s exhibit will also include the release of a book called The Art of Video Games, with 40 years of game art and “over 100 illustrations, interviews and commentary.” With museums now recognizing video games as art, why is there so much resistance to crediting this medium as art in a broader spectrum? Jérôme Neutres (advisor to the head of Grand Palais) said, “Videogames suffer from being a young media, with its share of clichés and preconceptions, much as cinema in its early days.” There is a lot of truth in that statement.
Though these clichés and preconceptions are far from complete abolishment, the video game industry is making headway in portraying games as something other than a time sink for pre-teen and adolescent boys (especially given that adult women now comprise a much greater percentage of the market than boys 17 and younger!). Even film critic Roger Ebert has toned down his campaign against video games as art. In 2010, Ebert claimed on Twitter that video games could never be art, as “no one has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” He is a critic and a film critic at that – a critic of an entirely different creative medium. Critics are supposed to be ruthless, and often their opinions don’t match up with that of the general population (think of all the movies bashed by film critics that are entertaining nonetheless). From certain theoretical frameworks, such as auteur theory (author theory), it is unlikely video games will rise to the standards of certain critics. (Auteur theory is the ability for film directors to make their vision come through as their own no matter how many other people have worked on their film. Example: Tim Burton movies always look very Tim Burton. There’s no disguising his work, even though hundreds of people work on his films.)
Ebert has since shifted his claim to say, “No video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” He cites a comparison made by Kellee Santiago (video game producer and designer) at USC, in which she compares prehistoric cave paintings “kind of chicken scratches on walls” with Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. She denounced Ebert’s claim that video games can never be art, since he is “foolish to assume they will not evolve” from their current level of “chicken scratch” art. An article on ComputerAndVideoGames.com cites Ebert’s opinion and yet asserts that some stories can only be told through the use of video games. In reference to the incredibly popular indie game Braid, the article states, “[Braid] is a story that can only be told in a videogame, where the theme and the mechanics powering the game are one and the same.”
These gaps between video game professionals and critics (particularly critics of other industries such as film) can be bridged through formal university programs for video game criticism. While there are a good number of video game studies programs in universities around the world, you will be hard pressed to find programs focusing specifically on video game criticism like you can find for literature, art, and film. It does not work to apply film criticism to video games because, well, video games aren’t film. Although some overlap occurs within criticism of the arts, each art medium has its own specific criteria for which professionals base certain pieces as art or denounce it as art. Video games need to carve out their place among critics within the humanities, developing theories specific to the industry so games are no longer subject only to the criticism of critics outside the field. After all, you can’t criticize if you don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the subject as a whole. The problem is that people are both dismissing and defining video games as art without a universal understanding of what it means for a video game to constitute as art. Symphony performances and museum exhibits are only a first step in defining video games as art.
KitGuru says: We are a long way from developing a collective definition of what it means for video games to be classified as art. Beyond impressive graphics, cinematic cut scenes, and special CGI effects, what more can lend to a video game’s reception as art? Perhaps fluidity of gameplay, revolutionary ways of interacting with games, innovation…maybe even their influence on other mediums such as film? Criticism is largely subjective, though it would be a step forward for games to have a well-established body of critics trained in university video game theory programs (like critics of film and art). Video games are changing and so too are the public’s perception of them. It is exciting to consider that someday our current library of video games could be equated to “chicken scratches” on a wall as opposed to the masterpieces our descendents will see in the future.