Computer Games: Art or Not?

MOMA's acceptance of Pac-Man and other games raises the question again.

Posted Nov 30, 2012

myst 5

A scene from Myst 5. Any art to be found here?

A few years ago film critic Roger Ebert provoked a storm of controversy when he wrote an essay arguing that computer games are not nor could ever be art.

Now the Modern of Museum of Art has accepted a handful of computer games. It seems to me that their choice of games is based on the game's popularity, originality, and influence on other games, rather than artistic merit:

MOMA's move prompted this blog post by Jonathan Jones entitled "Sorry MOMA, video games are not art."

Ebert's critique is basically that computer games are not emotionally moving or transcendent in the way that great works of art are. He's not much of a gamer, but he does not feel the art when he plays. That's fair enough. He's working from the idea that if art is ineffective enough, it doesn't count. That is, really bad art is not art at all. It's a better argument than Jones's.

Jones takes an essentialist view of art. He says that "a work of art is one person's reaction to life." He says that art requires a human creator. He brings these up as necessary characteristics. We've known since Wittgenstein that necessary and sufficient conditions are terrible ways to define concepts, but that hasn't stopped most of philosophy and a whole lot of other people from trying to do it. The better way to think about concepts is that they share a bunch of characteristics, none of which might be necessary or sufficient. 

Why? Because you can almost always find exceptions. Let's take Jonathan's "one person's reaction to life" bit. This discounts all collaborative art, including Ebert's beloved film. Films usually require huge cooperation among many people. We might counter that a film has a director, and it's her vision that keeps it a coherent artistic whole, but the same can be said for the director of a computer game. 

This also excludes "art" made by computer programs and non-human animals, which Jonathan might be just fine with.

a painting by the computer program "Aaron."

The painting pictured was created by Aaron, an artificial intelligence. When people see Aaron's paintings, they often read drama into them. This is how we react to art, no matter who (or what) makes it.

Which makes his next critique is even more baffling. He thinks that the interaction between the game and the player works against it being art. The most obvious counterexamples to this are--no surprise here--interactive art installations. You know, the kind of thing where your actions cause reactions in the work. 

But it's generally accepted in art scholarship that the audience brings a whole lot to just about any work of art. When you read a novel, and have a vivid image of what's happening, you and the book are both causal agents in creating the world you experience. If a novel never sparked this kind of imagination in the reader, wouldn't that make it a less effective work of art? Jonathan says for computer games "experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme." Well I would hope so. Different people get different things out of works of art. Think of music, abstract painting, and poetry. Audience participation, be it passive or truly interactive, is a better candidate for a necessary condition for something being art than anything Jonathan came up with.

It was a long, difficult time getting film accepted as art, and I suspect it will be the same for computer games. Jonathan says that accepting computer games as art will "mean game over for any real understanding of art," as though looking at games as though they were art will sully our understanding of other works of art. Nonsense. 

It's mistake to try to define art with necessary and sufficient conditions. I'm even not sure why it's important to say what's art and what's not, fun as it might be. However, if games ever move people in ways similar to the way that art moves them, then perhaps what we know about how art affects us can help us understand how people are reacting to the games. 

And whether you want to consider those games art or not, we'll have increased our understanding of how people behave.  

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