The following article is a work of opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of Gamnesia as a whole.
These weeks past have seen the latest spin on the endless “Are Games Art?” debate that continues to sweep the gaming press on a cyclical basis, this time around triggered by the highly-rated PlayStation 3 exclusive The Last of Us. Although, I really don’t need to tell you that — it’s been nigh on impossible to go anywhere online that has at least a rudimentary focus on gaming without hearing about this title.
This happens every time a major new game that tries to do something meaningful gets released now: gaming journalism sites begins to ramp up the amount of posts and articles dedicated to GAMES AS ART as part of some nebulous effort to prove to an imaginary entity of creative arbitration that, yes, video games have themes of socio-cultural importance just as much as any other creative medium.
But I’m here to bring down the rant-hammer. It’s long past time gaming journalists everywhere stop feeding into this endless cycle of discourse on video games’ ethereal status as art. In fact, it was time for those arguments to be set aside as early as the late nineties.
The reason for this is incredibly simple: games are art. That’s it, all there is to the discussion. Sure we can throw around all kinds of fancy jargon and faux elite terminology about the ins and outs of what makes art “art,” but the actual definition of art — stripped of all the ridiculous subtext it’s taken on over the years — is basic and easy to follow. Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” To put it another way, this is how you determine whether or not something is art:
1) Did you or a group of people make it?
2) If so, did you use creativity to make it?
3) If so, did you make it with the intention of deriving an emotional response from another person?
If the answer is yes, then it is art.
Oh sure, we can debate what constitutes “low art” versus “high art,” or whether or not quality is an innate part of art, but all of that boils down to semantics in the end. If a thing follows the above flowchart of questions, then it is art. Even the absolutely horrendous (hysterical) picture to the right is art. Movies, books, paintings, sculptures, video games, photographs, songs, comic books, poems — they’re all art. They all use different ways to get across the emotion they’re transferring to the person appreciating them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re basically art.
So that’s it, really — art is self-evident. So where’s the problem with this, and how does it tie into gaming journalism?
It all boils down to the reaction to some throwaway comments made by various film critics and other people in the entertainment industry on video games’ status as art. Why do these people have any more say on what makes something art than the definition of art itself? Well that’s just it: they don’t. But for whatever reason (hits) gaming journalists from all corners of the internet began a full-scale assault on anyone dumb enough to flub up a definition, riled up all the Joe Gamers at large, and turned it into a media feeding frenzy (one has to wonder if baiting gamers is practiced because it’s a surefire way of bringing the spotlight back on yourself).
But the issue couldn’t be left alone like that — it had to be absolutely and fully resolved for time eternal. Thus began the never-ending quest to find “The Game,” the one game that would forever cement the idea that video games are art in the hearts and minds of the nonexistent group of people that care about games’ artistic status as validated by an incredibly small group of elitist artists. Never mind that most people are either pretty much aware that video games are and have been art for years now, or just plain don’t give a crap about it either way. “The Game” must be found at all costs — and if it isn’t, the entire purpose of people who report on games is moot.
That’s a lot of the psychology behind this issue. A lot of game journalists understandably want to feel that their hard work is being paid off with something greater, and they won’t be emotionally paid off until they can convince the infinitesimal group of snobby artists who write off 90% of creative work as meaningless that games are not only art, but magnum opuses of inventiveness. This is a completely fallacious way of thinking, of course, but that doesn’t stop it from pervading many (if not most) video game-centric sites.
This is in large part why we get drastically inflated video game reviews that herald so-and-so game as the “greatest masterpiece of the generation,” or “gaming’s equivalent of (insert beloved classic movie here).” If gaming journalists can band together to declare that the next great title is “The Game,” then they will transcend into a better position in life. That’s not to write off the games being declared in this way at all, mind you — most of them are pretty damn great-to-excellent. It’s just that referring to a game right as it comes out like it’s the second coming of Christ is needlessly self-important and melodramatic.
A favorite ploy of reviewers when discussing games like this is to compare them to great films. I won’t name site names in particular, but one that floated around just recently was that “The Last of Us is the Citizen Kane of games.” This is massively ridiculous on numerous levels.
For one, you can’t declare a piece of art to be a masterpiece as soon as it’s revealed to the public for the first time (as much as you might want to). Movies, books, games, whatever — pieces of art become masterpieces over time, as we grow and look at them with new eyes. The classic films of today are the ones that people kept going back and watching. It’s just too damn early to say The Last of Us is a masterpiece; it came out about a month ago for Christ’s sake.
Perhaps more importantly, no video game will ever be the “Citizen Kane” of games. In fact, no book will ever be the “Citizen Kane” of books. The same goes for television shows, albums, etc. There is only one “Citizen Kane”, and it is the “Citizen Kane” of movies. It’s name? Citizen Kane. You can’t just throw around the names of beloved films and think that raises a game’s status — it doesn’t work that way.
The bottom line is that games are art, have been art, and that the entire discourse on games’ status as art is unnecessary, over-dramatic and leads to endless articles ruminating on what constitutes art. This whole focus on validating video games as art is leading to poisonous review inflation in search of “The Game,” and if we don’t collectively stop it’s only going to get worse.
On that happy note, have a nice night!