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In April of 2010, the late and deeply mourned film critic Roger Ebert said that video games could never be art, and the whole Internet fell down on him. This began a long and vigorous discussion between Ebert and the games community about definitions, values, authority, and expression.

In July, Ebert concluded (correctly) that while he still felt that games were not art, he simply didn't know the field well enough to reach a valid conclusion and shouldn't have said anything: "I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn't seen."

As we move forward with Metagames, it's important to spell out some of our baseline assumptions in the interest of a more fruitful conversation. So let's be clear about my position: yes, video games are art. Games are not only art, they're arguably the most important form of art humanity has yet invented.

That's going to be a hard sell for many of you—even many gamers. And it is, I admit, quite a provocative statement. In order to address this topic, we'll need to look at games from a few different angles: subject matter, perceived populism, creative vs. commercial vision. But most of all, we're going to have to talk about what art does—and what makes games unique.

Shooting Aliens Isn't Art

The first and most common argument against games-as-art is that they address unserious and insignificant topics, and do so in shallow ways.

Science fiction fans, if anyone, should already reject this premise on the face of it. We're accustomed to looking beyond the surface layer of a story for deeper messages, intended or otherwise. Starship Troopers and its modern descendant Old Man's War are by no means just stories about shooting aliens, and Halo isn't either. And if you reject alien invasion as a premise suitable for the creation of a rich, meaningful artistic experience, then the masterwork Ender's Game will have to be thrown out right along with Mass Effect.

And yet, just as not all science fiction is about alien invasions, so not all games are about shooting aliens. Games today have engaged with topics ranging from racism and slavery to the cost of nuclear war. Ultima games deal with what it means to be a virtuous person, and what to do when those virtues are in conflict with one another. BioShock games grapple with objectivism and utilitarianism. Countless video games provide moral dilemmas with no easy solution, just like life.

I shouldn't need to remind you that not all art needs to be serious, either. The famous Magritte painting The Treachery of Images (you'll know it as "Ceci n'est pas une pipe") manages to be a joke and meta-commentary on the nature of art and of reality all in one elegant rectangle of canvas. Warhol's Campbell’s Soup cans were originally dismissed on the same grounds that games are today: a topic unsuitable to be raised to the echelons of art.

We can do better than that, and we can think more deeply than that.

Popular Stuff Isn't Art

Another arrow shot toward the games-as-art narrative is the idea that popular things can't be meaningful or carry artistic value. In any avenue, this is the worst kind of exclusionary elitism: gatekeeping to grant authority only to a set of artists valued by those in power.

But games are by no means alone in being written off as lacking in artistic value due to excessive popular appeal. Often what we mean by this is that it isn't acceptable for a work to have both commercial and artistic value, and so if it’s commercially successful it must necessarily be an artistic failure. Every form of popular art has its detractors. And yet deep, important topics are addressed even so.

The Dark Knight is an action-packed blockbuster superhero film. It's also a moving and deeply philosophic examination of the nature of good and evil.

The Hunger Games is a hit dystopian YA book about boys and fashion. It's also a heartbreaking character drama about growing up too fast, having a parent with a mental illness, and how relationships can grow or break when survival is on the line.

In comics, the X-Men universe is about a bunch of super powerful mutants variously saving each other and the world. But it's also a philosophic opus about exclusion, oppression, and the cultural zeitgeist that leads to genocide.

And underlying the idea that games can't be deep artistic expression is generally a false impression that the big-studio console games are all the games there are. There's a profound difference between games made for widespread popular consumption and the smaller and often more thoughtful games made with less attention to maximizing what sells.

Film has its arthouse circuit and publishing has its literary fiction; games have independent artists like Jason Rohrer, who has made games like Passage and Gravitation that struggle with the human condition. Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest tries to replicate the feeling of clinical depression. You Have to Burn the Rope is a commentary on the tropes of video games (and a funny one, too).

True Art Isn't Made by Committee

Another reason games are difficult for some to consider as capital-A Art is that many of us maintain the illusion of the lone auteur or artist pursuing a unique artistic vision. This is now and has always been a fallacy. Warhol employed a studio of art-workers famously called The Factory, but he didn't invent the practice. Even the great works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were created with teams of assistants. Today's haute artiste Damien Hirst has employed over a hundred workers to keep production moving.

Other arts are more widely understood to be collaborative, and yet the credit accrues to a single visionary more often than now. We've become accustomed to thinking of film as the creative expression of a director, but in fact film is a collaborative dance between the director, writer, performers, production crew, and editing team. Each one of these parties brings something new to the table that shapes the final work.

Games are, like film, the result of many creative teams harnessed together in synchrony: writing, acting, music, mechanical design, graphics. But what that means is easy to undervalue.

Take graphics, for example. The environment of a game is completely designed; that means that every element you see is there because someone chose to place it there. No tree, no chair is present on accident. Dark corridors are dark for a reason. Every freckle, every wrinkle or scar on a character's face is there because of a creative choice.

It would be nearly impossible for an exceptional work requiring such a range of skills to be created by a lone creator. But should the creative output of hundreds of people be valued as less than that of an individual?

Games: The Ultimate Art Form

Now let's get controversial.

If the purpose of art is to make another human being feel a particular way, then games are the best form humanity has ever invented to do so. Most art forms rely primarily on our sense of compassion to propagate emotional states to an audience. We feel the story's victories and losses deeply, but only secondhand.

But games trade in emotions of agency. We don't just celebrate because the good guys won; we have ourselves won. This element of responsibility for the events in a narrative fundamentally transforms the emotional texture of the experience. Films, books, theater can make you laugh and cry.

But a game can make you feel guilty for a wrong you have done. Proud of a hard-fought victory. A game can make you feel betrayed, and a game can make you fall in love.

That's because you assume the identity of the hero of a video game more completely than you identify with a book or film character. You're not just consuming a story about the hero, you are the hero. The hard decisions are yours, the victories and losses are yours, and you are complicit in every mistake, every sacrifice.

That means that video games are an unparalleled way to experience other ways to live and feel. Farmville isn't just a way to waste time; it's a pastoral fantasy in which hard work always pays off. Dragon Age games don't just let you feel powerful and stab dragons, they also let you experiment with gender and sexuality in a space free of external judgment or consequence.

How can that not be art?

Meanwhile, did you know Kim Kardashian has a video game? She's not the only celebrity with a game on the horizon, either. Bjork has one. Taylor Swift announced a game on February 3, and Kanye West announced his own on February 11. These announcements have been met (at least in my circles) with a mix of disbelief and mockery. But when you understand that games are about experiencing a different life than our own, it becomes much easier to accept.

As much as many of us love to feel like we are ineffably better human beings than Kim Kardashian, her game promises to give you the experience of being Kim Kardashian. That's a powerful sell.

It's only been five years since Roger Ebert declared that games could never be art, and that no game could ever measure up to Huck Finn's adventures. But it took the novel hundreds of years to grow into our modern literature. Video games have only been around in a meaningful sense for perhaps sixty years.

Don't worry, it'll catch up. And when it does, it'll be amazing.




Andrea Phillips is an award-winning game designer and author. Her debut novel is the snarky SF thriller Revision, which totally got good reviews and everything. You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.
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30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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