Games as art – are we there yet?

Just this week, former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ekow Eshun and actor, comedian and author, Charlie Higson had a debate over at the BBC on whether videogames can now be considered as art. Their conclusion – not yet.

While I was originally ready to fly the flag for videogames, ready to fight the good fight on behalf of Braid, Shadow of the Colossus and the utterly gorgeous El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, it was only when I read the below quote that I really started to question whether videogames could truly be considered as art in their current form,

“I’d suggest that the things we really consider art are the things that allow us to ask profound questions about who we are, how we live and the state of the world around us. I think most games don’t get to that place, and it’s important to set that bar quite high.”

Based on Eshun’s very reasonable definition of what art should be, I tried to think of a videogame that truly had a profound effect on me, a game that genuinely resonated with me at an emotional level or made me think differently about the world around me, and honestly, I couldn’t think of any. Sure, I have played some undoubtedly beautiful videogames in my time but if you were to consider a videogame as art based on Eshun’s definition, I agree with him that the industry isn’t quite there yet. In fact, the closest thing I have come to an emotional connection with a videogame came when playing the brilliant Lost Odyssey on the 360. Problem is, that connection was made when reading the collection of short stories by the award winning writer, Kiyoshi Shigematsu that made up the 1000 Years of Dreams and, if we are going to be honest, doesn’t really count. Sure, they were part of the videogame itself but their delivery was far too detached from the core videogame experience for these stories to be considered in this argument.

The fact is, as Eschen states, “Video games are entertainment”. While there are a few games that certainly push the boundaries, for the most part, videogames are primarily concerned with entertaining above all else. But hey, is that such a bad thing? Art or not, videogames have come a long way in recent years and in terms of competing with other major forms of entertainment, videogames are already hugely hugely relevant and successful on a cultural level. As Higson argues, “Hollywood films – most of them look like computer games. Most of them aren’t as good as computer games.” Videogames may not be at the level to be considered as true works of art just yet, but let’s be honest, for the most part, videogames have been competing with Hollywood movies rather than high art and now that the industry has reached a level in which it can be considered to be at least on par with the big summer movies that videogames are so often so keen to emulate, I guess moving the industry into a more artistic realm might well prove the next logical step. Videogames can do stupid fun, they can do the Hollywood blockbuster but in terms of high art, they still have a way to go.

Still, saying that, I can’t underestimate just how important one’s definition of what actually constitutes art is to this argument. The thing is, art is different to everyone, not just in what they regard to be art but also on what they regard art to actually be. While Eshun obviously sets the bar pretty high, many would consider something beautiful on a purely aesthetic level to be art and, if taken from that perspective, there is little doubt that many of today’s videogames could be considered as works of art. Take the aforementioned, El Shaddai for instance. Be it movies or the more traditional forms of artistic entertainment, El Shaddai deserves a place at the very top of the table in terms of purely aesthetic achievement – there really is very little out there quite like it.

Whatever the case may be, having given the argument some serious thought, I agree with Higson and Eschen in that videogames haven’t quite scaled the heights of high art just yet, but equally, I also agree that the industry is moving in the right direction and based on advancements in the last ten years, it certainly won’t be long before this argument becomes all but null and void. Videogames may not be art quite yet but the industry will certainly get there, and when it does, I’m sure it’ll be quite the sight.

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