In Which I Weigh In On Games As Art

So Roger Ebert’s stirred up a stink on the interwebs.  I want to offer my two cents.

Let’s say you were to give an artist, maybe Werner Herzog or Cormac McCarthy, a city, and tell him that he could control everything about the city – all the people, all the cars and buildings – except for one person, who we’ll call the “player” from here on.  Then you tell the artist that he should use his control to create an experience inside the city for the player – that would last anywhere from 10 to 100 hours – that the artist feels could be considered art, or artistic in nature.

Do you think the first two things that artist would do would be to to put a gun in your hand and tell you to steal a car?  And then tell you not to worry too much about dying?

Okay, maybe Cormac McCarthy is a bad example.

Regardless, or irregardless, I feel that the biggest obstacle to games becoming art right now is the centrality of the gun (or weapon in general) in the gaming experience.  How many games can you name, especially games from a first-person point of view, that don’t put a weapon between you and the world?

The gun simplifies the player’s interaction with the game world: there are people you shoot and people you don’t shoot.  In many games, the player isn’t allowed to shoot certain characters – which simplifies the world to people you shoot and people you can’t shoot.  The worst part is that most games do this without any sort of self-consciousness.

Sure there are moments – the nuke scene from Modern Warfare, or the entire premise of Shadow of the Colossus or Bioshockmaybe.

But there are so many other modes of interaction, and so many other sources of tension, available to artists.  Requiring that every story boil down to kill or fail to progress really limits the scope of games.  I believe that until we see a triple-A title that doesn’t put a weapon between the player and the world, there will not be a mainstream acceptance of even the possibility that games can be art.

I do want to address one specific issue I have with Ebert’s article about how video games can never be art: Braid.  In my opinion Braid, while operating within the medium, takes an artistic approach to the subject of video games.  Braid is ultimately a sort of commentary on older games (specifically Mario and any game that borrows that premise and approach).  The problem there is that if you don’t accept the possibility of art in the medium, then you – a priori – must reject that Braid can employ any sort of artistic method.

Maybe labeling is the ultimate problem.  Maybe unless we change the name of the medium from “video games” to “interactive storytelling,” or some such nonsense, no one will be willing to entertain the idea that there’s the opportunity for art.  But nobody would be shallow enough to argue over labeling to enforce some arbitrary delineation between art and non-art…right?

P.S.  Roger, most books and most movies aren’t art anyway.


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4 Responses to “In Which I Weigh In On Games As Art”

  1. Allan Hough Says:

    Taberinos is art:

  2. Dan Says:


    • Will Kaufman Says:

      Which was a huge commercial success – I remember they used to sell it in the gift-shop in the Exploratorium. Yeah, Myst was a huge step in that direction, but I can’t think of any game that’s lived up to both the promise of Myst and its commercial success.

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