But are they Art?

I recently saw The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Hudson River Museum. It’s an interesting look at the history of console games from an artistic perspective. I found it to be more effective as a history of the video game genre than any actual artistic criticism. Partly because the exhibit is laid out in chronological format, but more because there’s still something lacking in the field.

All the film clips of interviews with designers and experts are nice; so are the descriptions of the selected games being exhibited. However, I didn’t really feel that I was truly understanding that these games were actually “art” in any sense of the term. Certainly, like movies, video games include artistic elements. But how are they different from movies? And how does that difference make them their own art form? You can paint a house both inside and out, but that doesn’t make it a “painting”.

Perhaps a look at the history of movies can give us a clue. It took about twenty or so years after their invention for “movies” to become what we would recognize as feature films. During that time period, movie technology changed almost every year as both new equipment and new techniques were introduced. The audience and movie makers also had to be “taught” what was acceptable as entertainment. How long a movie would a person be willing to sit through? What visual effects were understandable?

We are seeing the same sort thing with video games. The technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, and it’s still a Work In Progress as to what the customer will accept as a “game”.

So perhaps the difficulty in evaluating video games as “Art” is simply a matter of the genre still being in a state of flux. As a result, critics, scholars, and non-industry experts are still trying to come up with a paradigm that will allow them to discuss the field. This is easily visible in the exhibit itself. After chronology, the basis for organizing the games in the exhibit is by the game platform (Sega, Nintendo, Xbox, etc.)

The vast majority of the games displayed are properly “console” games, in that they require a console connected to a television. Only two of the twenty individual exhibits cover games for desktop computers. This shouldn’t be surprising, since it seems that almost all of the media attention given to games (from advertising to genre magazines) covers console games. Why shouldn’t desktop computer games get equal coverage? Especially since some of the console games in the exhibit first saw light on desktops (e.g. Sim City).

If they were really trying to promote the artistic merit of the games, wouldn’t they have been grouped according to artistic themes first?

If this exact same exhibit were to be done ten years from now, I feel certain that the games would be given a completely new interpretation. By then, we’d have decided on ways to properly judge their artistic merit, and come up with a vocabulary with which to do so.

To continue the analogy with movies a little further… Right now, I’d say we are at the equivalent stage in gaming as movies were around 1920. The basic technology had stabilized, the audience knew what to expect when they went to the cinema, everyone had pretty much agreed on what made a good movie and how to make one.

And in less than a decade, movies talked. And a decade after that, color…

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