Art and Video Games - Video Game Week


A cinematic from Diablo II, a new video game from Blizzard Entertainment featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s latest exhibit, “The Art of Video Games.” Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Can a video game justifiably be called a work of art? Can a Citizen Kane, Hamlet, or “Mona Lisa” be made of pixels and points? As with so much in the world of museums, collectors, and elitists — it depends on whom you ask.

For instance, famed film critic and purveyor of the simplistic “thumbs-up” grading system for works of cinema, Roger Ebert, once asserted that a video game could never be a work of art. Declining not to defend his position publicly at first (a “fool’s errand,” according to the man himself), video game developer and co-founder of thatgamecompany, Kellee Santiago, took his argument to task in an TEDx event organized by the University of Southern California in 2009:


Santiago, of course, had a personal stake in the debate. At the time, her own landmark achievement in the industry thus far was a game called Flower for the PlayStation Network, whose appeal relies on the user letting go of typical preconceptions on the objective of a video game. Flower isn’t about killing terrorist avatars, wreaking chaos in simulated urban environment, or catapulting distempered pheasants to sear through easily collapsible structures.

Instead, the game focuses on the player’s ability to find harmony between the manmade and the natural within an artificial environment. As the user controls the wistful winds that toss a single strand of flower petals through a picaresque landscape, no points are awarded and no fictional characters harmed. Sound like fun? Flower would go on to win numerous awards and acclamations within the industry, but still Santiago could not convince the impenetrable Ebert.

In rebuttal, while dissecting the capacities for video game to achieve catharsis or intellectual commentary, Ebert wrote of Flower that the only way he could experience joy or ecstasy from Santiago’s games “would be through profit participation.”

Finally, the film critic closed with a pointed attack on the distinctly profiteering (and therefore inhuman) forces within the creative processes of video game production: “Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.”

In the face of such grumbling contrarians, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is now showcasing an exhibit, called “The Art of Video Games,” across the country. Promotions for the exhibition focus on the various artistic studies that collaborate to make these games possible — “painting, writing, sculpting, music, storytelling, and cinematography” – nearly all of which have an indistinguishable presence from both the most classic and popular works showcased.

Exhibit curator Chris Melissinos stands in the entrance to the museum showcase. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“This is a validation that the Smithsonian believes video games are worthy of examination as an art form in our world today,” exhibition curator Chris Melissinos told Eurogamer. “I think we are crossing a threshold here. I hope the exhibition helps creators in how they view the games they create, and the struggles they have as a growing industry and as a growing form of media. I think it could be a turning point.”

As to be expected, naysayers could not be persuaded, but even the open-minded found the appeal of the showcase incomplete. Deciding that the event was “technologically impressive but intellectually inert,” Washington Post critic, Phillip Kennicott, also made numerous concessions about the artistic capacities of the industry:

“Which is not to say that the 40-year history of video games hasn’t produced supremely sophisticated aesthetic experiences. Or that the virtual worlds summoned by designers of the best of the 80 games on display aren’t every bit as ‘artistic’ as the best scenic design for theater or the movies. Or that people can’t have emotional reactions to the events within a game, though it is clear that this aspect of gaming is a work in progress rather than a fully achieved goal.”

Similarly, comic books have also spent much of their cultural life-span digging their way out of the ‘low-brow’ pile. Until the release of popular, influential comic book series that introduced literary forms to the genre, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the medium was all but ignored in terms of serious academic study.

Jon B. Cooke is a writer, comic book artist, film producer, and college professor who teaches a course on the history of American comic book art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Like many before him, the sheer cost of video game production, and the business models those costs reinforce, make it difficult for the medium to find transcendence in his eyes.

“Because of the extreme expense outlay involving the contributions of maybe hundreds of developers — it’s such a corporate sphere of entertainment,” professes Cooke, though he empathizes with well-to-do creatives like himself. “But so is the motion picture, and the ascendance of a visionary director in near complete control — think Kubrick, Hitchcock, Malick — certainly can produce great achievements of art. Why would video games be any different?”

The controversy, at heart, is a rhetorical war over expanding definitions, and of course, everyone has their own.

“If we mean ‘art,’ the kinds of work seen in art museums and galleries, then this is something completely different,” says John Sharp, game designer, graphic designer, art historian, and educator at Georgia Institute of Technology. “This corner of the fine art world has its own set of concerns and interests that operate outside the concerns and interests of the video game community. If you look more broadly at artists working with more community-focused with broader conceptions of ‘consuming’ artworks, then games can fit.”

But if art is the quest for the “truth in things,” as it is for Cooke, then he feels, as many do, the bigger business of video games may not be capable of delivering clairvoyance.

“The quest in corridor games is to kill humans and/or humanoids, a visceral and vicarious experience we imagine we would find pleasure in doing for real, so long as the ‘enemy’ is ‘different’ and we have endless, renewable lives,” says Cooke. “It’s almost anti-art, because it enforces the lie that people are different, some tribes are better than others, some tribes are worse than others, that some nations are all good and some nations are all evil… It’s the fallacy of duality.”

In the eyes of the developer, however, it is not the production process but the medium’s interactive nature that thwarts simple artistic categorization, “The crux of Ebert’s argument is that art requires a strong voice of an artist that is delivered intact for the audience. Interactivity brings all this into question,” argues Sharp, “If the player or user can have input, then is it still the work of the artist? By many definitions, no, by other definitions, yes.”

Perhaps both sides of the debate can agree that what all these media have in common is a single purpose, and that’s entertainment.

“I think video games waste time, precious time,” Cooke admits, “But so many things do. Bad comics, as bad TV and bad movies waste that precious commodity, too.”