This is the question whose answer is very much in danger of disappearing up it’s own arse. I had to tackle it in a recent podcast and my co-host Tony and our guest; YouTube gaming lecturer – Daniel Floyd had to be very much to-the-point. Firstly you have to define art, then discuss which games fit into that category. Cooper Hawkes of Gamehounds maintains that “To me, art is imagination brought to life, and ANY game you play is that.” My counter-argument is the deluge of entirely financially-motivated movies out there. To me at least; Saw V is not art, Epic Movie is not art and the complete works of Pauly Shore are definitely not art. Hawkes and I are going to argue that one out later but in the meantime we defined it on the show as “Anything that”s been created with the intention of provoking emotion taking precedence over financial gain.”
Now by that definition Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Flower, Braid all qualify. Aside from being achingly beautiful at times they tell a story that evokes emotion. They don’t have to; they could just have been standard adventure fodder. Braid could easily have been just as good on a technical level without any poetic references or back-story, purely based on its mechanics. In fact I know a few people who would have preferred it that way. The reason it qualifies as art by this definition is that Jonathon Blow chose to paint a different picture with it. He chose to tell a deeper story. Littlebigplanet as I have said is absolutely a gigantic art project started by Media Molecule and added to by thousands of players the world over, continuously recreating a collage of gaming experiences, some good, some bad and a few fantastic. It uses platforming mechanics as an end product but the tools the creators use are the components of the levels themselves. It’s quite possible to tell an emotional story using the LBP engine and not one of its contributors outside of the Guilford-based developer stands to make a penny of profit for the time and effort they put in. I know nothing about high art, I’ll freely admit that, but I do know that not all modern-day artists are that selfless.
Roger Ebert has stated in the past that games will never be on a par with films artistically speaking because there is a degree of interactivity that takes away authorial control, but I see this as a gross oversimplification. It doesn’t apply to all games, but some that can be argued to have more artistic merit are going to tell a story no matter what you do. The author always has ultimate control of where you’re going. Sure I could play a game erratically, keep doing the same thing again and again, stop halfway through, skip all the cut-scenes and shut my eyes for the ending but I could also stand in the Louvre and stare at just the bottom-right hand corner of the Mona Lisa, thus taking away all control from Da Vinci in communicating what that painting represents. In either case I’d be being a dick. And Ebert, thanks to the fast-forward and eject buttons we’ve had for the past thirty years, we can do that with films now too.
The conclusion we reached on the podcast was totally unexpected. Even though we could argue the point until the cows come home, it’s based on our personal definition of what makes something art. Daniel Floyd surmised that maybe he didn’t want games to be art. They’re fun, and most art isn’t (to him anyway) and more importantly isn’t it just our own insecurities about what we’re passionately into that made us ask that question in the first place? We want games to be taken seriously so that when we say “Hey, Dad, I’ve decided what I’m going to do with my adult life; I’m going to write about Sonic the Hedgehog.” Our fathers will nod their heads appreciatively because they understand how important games are. We want them to be accepted as a valid, adult pursuit and when it comes down to it, art will never be considered to be just for kids.