Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Are Electronic Games Art?

I was once disconcerted to hear John Carmack state to an entire auditorium full of game developers that electronic games are not art. Film critic Roger Ebert famously chimed in on the same topic at the 58th Annual Conference on World Affairs, resulting in an ongoing debate on his own website, and elsewhere. The debate has spilled over in many places in recent months, sparking all the usual arguments over whether one can even define art, and what the hell "art" means, anyway.

Yes, you can define art.

This is not to say that everyone (even informed academics) will agree on what it means, or that even after establishing a definition, you will be able to abolish all grey areas. Whatever definition you finally settle on, there will always be some Marcel Duchamp ready to gleefully come along and piss on your party.

Because it is the very best fabric I have to work with, I choose to use the classical definition which was taught in my Art Theory course, years ago: Art is recta ratio factibilium. What the hell does that mean? Well, at the very core, art is about making. But moreover, it is the recta, or right making of a work. Making without art is merely brutish labor. "Time to make the doughnuts." When you hear a critic complain that an actor was "phoning in" his performance, that is a perfect example of artlessness.

So, what about games?

The question is somewhat complicated by the fact that games are a compound work. Games are comprised of numerous sub-works, many of which are easily classified as being art, or potentially art. Music, visual assets, writing, voice performances, and many other sub-products within a given game are obviously art. In fact, we call our visual assets "art," and the people who make them "artists." However, I think that this is a red herring. Film is also a compound work, comprised of many sub-products (costumes, sets, writing, music, etc.) which are classified independently as art. However, the completed compound work, film itself, is also a recognized art form. So, we should not let the compound nature of games distract us from the real question -- whether the completed work is art.

Given my working definition, the only clear answer, for me, is that games absolutely have the potential to be art -- every bit as much as movies do. The question is not whether games are art, but rather whether we developers are being true to our work. Are we just churning out fast food? Or do we have the courage to make things right?

For better or for worse, the answer to the infernal question lies in our own hands.

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