Jonathan Jones, who blogs on art for the Guardian, has a bone to pick with Chris Melissinos's "The Art of Video Games" exhibit that is now traveling around the country after debuting at the Smithsonian. It's headed next for New York City's Museum of Modern Art.
Ruminating over the exhibit, he concludes that "video games are not art." Art, Jones writes, "is a series of personal visions" and "one person's reaction to life" and, gosh darn it, video games just aren't "an act of personal imagination," which defines the very essence of what makes art art.
To borrow from Jones, I believe that video games are art. They are a series of personal visions that are a reaction to life. Video games are acts of personal imagination.
No Artist, No Art
The crux of Jones's article is that video games lack personal, creative vision: "No one 'owns' the game," Jones writes, "so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art."
To say that video games are not art because they lack artistic authority is to misunderstand how video games are made, and to ignore the work of the human beings making them. A film can be made by a team of one or hundreds, and Martin Scorsese isn't seen as less of an artist because he leads a creative team. The people he works with are often seen as artists in their own right, such as Robert Richardson, his frequently used cinematographer, or Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's editor of 40 years. Games, like movies, can be made by one person or hundreds, and are created by artists working together to produce art.
Warren Spector is the creative owner of Deus Ex, and now the Epic Mickey series. Tim Schafer owns Psychonauts. Hideo Kojima owns Metal Gear. Ed Boon owns Mortal Kombat. Shigeru Miyamoto owns Mario (and many more). Patrice Désilets owns Assassin's Creed (up to Assassin's Creed 3, which was helmed by Alex Hutchinson). Jonathan Blow owns Braid. All of these games were worked on by talented, passionate artists who created the imagery, music, code and more of these digital visions, but the names listed here were the creative owners steering the rudder.
Even Katamari Damacy, a game Jones singles out specifically as "just a game" (it's included in "The Art of Video Games" exhibit), has a creative owner in Keita Takahashi.
It is obvious that video games have artistic ownership. Now, let's find that art.
Acts of Personal Imagination
Let's go back to Jones:
"Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person's reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination."
If video games were not acts of personal imagination, then video games would not exist.
Shigeru Miyamoto is famous for the everyday inspiring his creations. "Much of Miyamoto's inspiration for games like Mario and Zelda came from his childhood exploring in the Japanese countryside;" John Funk writes on The Escapist, adding that "similarly, 2001's Pikmin came from his fondness for gardening." Miyamoto's games are his reaction to life.
Likewise, Hideo Kojima was inspired by the rise of mecha art in Japan. Harvey Smith, creative owner of Dishonored, was inspired by losing his parents at an early age and time spent in the U.S. Air Force. Jonathan Blow was inspired by the adventure games of his childhood and, later, financial debt — the latter being a driver for many an artist in any medium.
It is obvious that video games are works of personal imagination, stemming from the artists' personal visions of the world around them. Of course, there's an important, vital ingredient we're missing here: the player.
It could be that a video game is not art until it is played. In all art, there is a discussion concerning the agency of artists and the people who experience their works of art. Is the artist beholden to the audience? Is it the audience who should acquiesce to the whim and vision of the artist?
Jones touches briefly on the player's role in gaming, writing, "The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility."
Someone needs to play Skyrim. Or FTL. Or The Sims. Or Mass Effect. There is a whole genre dedicated to players claiming to impose personal visions of life in games in role-playing games. Taking it even further, games such as LittleBigPlanet and SecondLife and EVE Online are greatly shaped by the various visions of their players.
Let's go back to Jones for his full conclusion, some of which we've already dispelled, and which Jones posits as "the essential difference between games and art":
"The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one "owns" the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art."
To counter this, I don't turn to a game creator, but a favorite novelist, John Fowles. Fowles, who regularly interacted with the reader directly, paused his fictional narrative in The French Lieutenant's Woman to do just that:
"You may think that novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons… I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that we begin to live."
In the player playing the game, the game begins to live. Fowles is a great embodiment of this notion outside video games as an artistic medium. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles wrote two very different endings, leaving it up to the reader to decide what is true. Even pressed, he never entertained the notion of endorsing one ending over the other.
With Fowles, what you read is yours to own. With video games, what you play is yours to own.
Video Games Are Art
Video games are works of art. Saying anything else is simply gamebollocksing.
I'll leave you with words from the video game creator I find most inspiring, Warren Spector. He said the following at PAX Prime in 2010, as reported by Frank Cifaldi on 1UP:
"We are an artform," said Spector, to applause. "For years I felt silly saying that. But no more. I am never going to feel awkward or strange about that, and I am no longer going to worry about society's judgement."
"We're unique, we're an artform, we're here to stay. End of story."
Curious minds can watch Spector's full PAX Prime 2010 keynote here.