Gaming Ontology (Can Games be Art?)

04 Oct

Yesterday Youtuber JennieBharaj posted a video asking the question, “Are video games art?”. I’ll confess that the only thing I know about Bharaj is that her musings are more popular than mine… which isn’t exactly difficult to achieve (insert self-deprecating smiley here). Fortunately, I don’t need to be familiar with ouvre for her to pop up in my Twitter feed, and the video in question deals with a subject that falls pretty firmly into my magisterium. Asking “Is X a Y,” an awkward way of expressing, “Is this particular thing part of this larger category, such as in this case do video games deserve to be classified into the broader realm of ‘Art’?”, is an example of an ontological problem. Even seemingly simple ontological problems, like what does or does not make a thing geeky or qualifies someone to be a geek… they don’t tend to stay simple for very long. For sake of completeness, I should also confess that our ontological problem is also an axiological problem – that is, it deals specifically with a question relating to things like values and the idea of beauty (aesthetics). Which is a handy thing to know, so while you shouldn’t forget it it needn’t be the foremost thing in mind as we move forward.

I hadn’t intended to write this post, but after a sleepless night watching Wrong Turn 5 and Phantom Racer, I’m ready to get it on.

Before I dive into the thing itself, it might behoove ask to take a moment and ask if video games qua art matters as such? I mean, what fucking difference does it make, yo? First, there’s the “prestige” that comes with being classified as art; after all, if these games are instantiations of art then they’re not some frivolous pastime or childish endeavor but are srs bsns worthy of respect and admiration. Doubly so if they can be considered “high” art, rather than being relegated to the “low” art ghetto of pop culture (another one of those pesky ontological distinctions). Alas, wanting bragging rights, or avoiding a sense of “shame” is hardly worthy grounds for making an ontological decision.

With that in mind, let’s start taking a look at the pro and con arguments as presented by Bharaj.

Starting off in the pros category, we’re told that video games are made up of elements which are considered forms of art in and of themselves, thus is games are made up of artistic elements they must be art, yes? This is… it’s not a good pro to start from, because this line of reasoning is what we might kindly (okay, not so kindly) term utter bullshit. This is pretty much a textbook example of a variation on what is commonly called the genetic fallacy; insisting that because a part of the whole is (or contains) X, then the sum total is of course X. While I might be made up of my cells, that does not mean that all the qualities of my cells are qualities possessed by me in toto. Bharaj herself even gives an example of this (perhaps unknowingly) when she mentions plays. Theatre is generally considered to be a performing art (different from performance art). Having been involved in different capacities in various productions, I’m well acquainted with the amount of work involved in putting on a show. Much of that work, such as lighting, sound, and costume design, demands both technical proficiency and aesthetic judgement. These are not easy tasks, and yet it is rare for these things to be considered art qua art in and of themselves; they are simply work products, much like individual brush strokes in an overall painting, that go toward the creation of art qua theatre. While this can, and has been debated, it’s an example of an established artform that is considered only in and of itself.

So if video games are to be considered qua art, we must consider them on the result themselves.

As to her next point, corporations are also legally considered as persons. Relying on the legal definition of what is or is not art isn’t particularly helpful, particularly when we bear in mind the court’s history with obscenity cases. This legal standing is useful to determine if a game designer should be arrested for using the word cocksucker in a game (see the sad, strange life of Lenny Bruce), or if store owners should be arrested for carrying it (look up the saga surrounding Ginsberg’s “Howl”). When it comes to answering ontological and axiological questions, legal definitions of what is or is not are are significantly less useful.

What does it mean when we say that one game is more “artistic” than another? If we’re asking the question of whether or not games are art qua art (versus games qua entertainment or pop culture, for example) to begin with, how is this even a meaningful question? Is “artiness” a spectrum along which something is more or less art? Generally, what we’re doing when we ask these kinds of questions or make these kind of statements is referring to gradients of technical or aesthetic quality. Yet when we do so we are often ignoring both context and content. For example, Michelangelo’s (we’ll touch on him again in a minute) Pieta is often considered the exemplar by which all other pieta pieces are measured. It’s hard to deny that the Big M’s Pieta is a beautifully rendered piece, particularly when compared to something like the Roettgen pieta. Of course the Roettgen piece was done during a time period not long after the reintroduction of fully three-dimensional sculpture to northern Europe (an event generally considered to be marked by the creation of the Golden Virgin of Essen). The unknown artist responsible for the Roettgen piece simply did not have the same amount of technical training that Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists did. Moreover, the unknown artist was producing the piece during a time when artists as such, that is to say a distinct class of person whose profession was to produce objects of art, existed. Does this make the Roettgen piece less a work of art? Does it mean we should interpret it differently because it focuses on suffering as such? While various scholars have done both, in doing so they ignore both the historical identity of the myth of the artist, as well as viewing the Roettgen piece in the larger context of images focused on Mary and the Christ-figure.

In short, that some games might be technically or aesthetically advanced than others, or we might find them impressively done, is again not enough to make a determination of whether they are art in and of themselves.

So, now we get to Chris Crawford insisting that since video games are meant for entertainment, and as a product for sale, rather than as an expression of and exploration of beauty, they can’t be art in and of themselves. As the wonderful ladies of Girls Gone Geek discovered in 2012, this is one of those points on which I will nick Professor Elemental’s fighting trousers and go to town.

That Michelangelo guy I mentioned above? He didn’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for free. Big M was all about making that paper. So much so that he was one of the most prolific hype-men of his day. The story about how he was so dedicated to painting aforementioned chapel that paint dripped into his eyes and partially blinded him? A lot of people think that story originated with Big M himself to make him seem more badass, and thus ultimately demand higher prices from his patrons and a larger place in the myth of the artist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in and of itself (as while it might mean the Big M was a bit of a dick as a dude, it doesn’t make him less an artist). More than once, Alan Moore has stated that what really started him writing for a living was the fact that his wife was knocked up and he needed to get off the dole. Molly Crabapple, whose work often explicitly critiques capitalist systems and structures makes money from that same work.

We really, really, really, really, really need to get rid of this masturbatory, dilettante fantasy that art for art’s sake, and wanting to make money from one’s work sit across an ontological divide and never the twain shall meet. Many of the greatest works of art were created solely based on a profit motive, and that does not a damn thing to decrease their status as art. So sure, we can side with Crawford et. al. provided we’re willing to ignore the entire history of art from at least the Renaissance forward.

Aw, shit, Ebert and authorial intent. This one is so flawed that I’m not even sure where to begin. Yes, authors and creators often have a vision in mind. Yet like combat, these plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. The themes and meanings behind any number of famous works of film and literature have been endlessly debated. Often the resulting interpretations are widely at odds with what the original author intended. When we have evidence to suggest otherwise we can state that these interpretations are wrong, and yet that these wrong interpretations have been drawn does nothing to diminish the status of the original work as art.

When it comes to the idea of interactivity, things get even trickier. I’ve talked more than once about how the idea that we passively consume media is simply wrong. We do not consume so much as we engage with art. Even if we conceive of ourselves as passive viewers, are neurons are going pew pew and whooga whooga. These are the actual noises that neurons make – I have proven this with science. Even if it were true that we are merely passive consumers of art, there are multiple examples of art that is specifically meant to be interacted with.

Yet this idea of interactivity is an important, even crucial one. I’ve talked before about how the act of game design is essentially an act of artificial metaphysics. While my primary focus in that post was tabletop roleplaying games, the same is as, if not more true for video games. Even the simplest platformer has metaphysical conditions – miss a jump, fall down a pit and die. Some games try to get fancy and introduce messy morality systems. Just as I said there, much of the problem is that when we engage with a video game what we are truly engaging with is the operant conditions of the game; our behavior and engagement with the game are ultimately controlled by the nature of the game’s coded metaphysics in the form of rules. While the art and music of the game are all part of that experience, in most cases they are there not as the main event in and of themselves, but as supporting mechanism by which to present the game qua game.

Thus when we are considering the question of video games qua art, I find that it is with this experience of game qua game that should be the focus of any such discussion. Even the most immersive visuals and captivating storytelling are only there to make us want to engage with this central element. Can that engagement be experienced as an engagement with art, or are we always so focused on the bounding rules and conditions that make the game a game for it to bridge the ontological gap in which game makes sweet, sweet consensual love to art?

So before asking if video games are art, we need to struggle with asking the question if there’s even the possibility that they can be, or if the essential nature of being a game inhibits the possibility of art.


Posted by on October 4, 2014 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture


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2 responses to “Gaming Ontology (Can Games be Art?)

  1. John

    October 4, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    As an aside, what the devil does a law recognized and formulated in the United States have to do with ontology? A 250-year old nation state isn’t even a blip in human history, and its legal opinions are no more important to questions about being than the stupidest bits of Leviticus. Less important, if anything, since Leviticus has been something that has been “applied” to (or at least, safely ignored by) a greater number of people, both in the present and across time. Can a video game magically be art in France, but not in Cambodia? If so, the discussion isn’t a useful one.

    • Josh Benton

      October 4, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      As it’s not an argument I consider meritorious, and for all I know is one she was simply repeating rather than supporting, I can only guess. That guess would be that much like the genetic fallacy it’s a claim that sounds convincing to some people. “If important legal entities consider vidya games srs bsns that qualifies as art it must be art!” As I mentioned, and as you point out, that’s only useful for defining games as a legal entity, in which what it art in France might well not be art in Cambodia; this obviously does nothing to solve the ontological problems involved.


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