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"Can video games be art?"

I hate this question. I really do. I hate it with a passion greater than the heat of a thousand suns. I’ve gotten so sick of hearing it. The Ebert fiasco was almost the end of me.

Recently, I’ve seen a few articles referring back to the film critic’s views; I’m not certain if something specific has brought it up or if it was just chance that I found them. Whatever the case, it’s got me thinking about how much I hate the question again.

Roger Ebert
You've exacerbated the situation, Mr. Ebert.

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I want to be clear: I love video games and believe them to be capable of far more than mere entertainment. I tend to apply similar standards to games as I do to other mediums, including those conventionally accepted as "art." So why do I hate the question? Let me respond by writing another, very similar question:

"Can video games be dstw’xotlp?"

 

"But Dave," you say, "that question doesn’t make sense! The word 'dstw’xotlp’ isn’t a real word! I don’t know what it means!"

That’s correct. You don’t know what it means on account of I made it up and ascribed my own definition to the word, and I haven’t told you what that definition is. And I’m going to make the claim that the question (“can video games be art?") is equally nonsensical for the exact same reason.


The optimum state of communication between people who speak the same language is thus: Those communicating have reached a consensus on what a word means when spoken in a given context.

The result is that arguments over semantics are the most wasteful of conversations. If you look toward a window, odds are you aren’t trying to see the glass. When language is used properly, it should clearly communicate ideas and get as little in the way of comprehension as possible. Vocabulary with unclear semantics is a smudge on the window — it leads to bad communication. And semantic arguments only make the smudges worse.

During the Ebert thing, how many editorials did you read blasting Roger with one of the following arguments:

“Art is subjective! Ebert is operating under a definition of art that I don’t agree with.” And the most famous: “Well, art to me is….”

You see where I’m going with this? Every single article I read on the subject seemed remarkably unconcerned with video games, as though they were a footnote to the conversation. Rather, it seemed that the word "art" itself was the focus of discussion. So let me lay it to rest.

"Art" is a crappy, horrible word, and we should stop using it. Period. It no longer means anything. Most dictionaries list at least seven or eight definitions of the word, and the dictionary I use most frequently has sixteen. We have reached a saturation of definitions of "art." We are at the point where every single usage of the word has to start with "well, art to me means…" and at that point there is no point.

It’s like a bunch of people standing in front of a dirty, broken window, arguing about what they're seeing: Rather than realizing that the window is broken and that there are other, perfectly good windows around, they all choose individual shards of smudged glass to look through and insist to each other that what they see out of their shard of glass is right.

Turn away from the broken window — find some whole, clean words to use.

Preferably, these would be words that don’t have the same problems as "art." Some of them I really like: educational, moving, challenging, enjoyable, satisfying, touching, exciting, frightening, beneficial, harmful, devastating, and healing. All of these are things that have classically defined art, but better yet, they are all words with universally agreed-upon definitions. They can be evaluated upon clearly.

My favorite word to bring up, though, is "edifying," the definition of which reads: "enlightening or uplifting so as to encourage intellectual, moral, or spiritual improvement."

What a great word. I should mention that in the dictionary I use, that is the only definition of the word, and it is delightfully clear. And better yet, it has subjectivity written into the definition, a luxury which "art" does not. If someone says something is "art," there are potential definitions you can use to argue against that claim. If someone claims they found something edifying, there is nothing you can do but impugn their taste because you have absolutely no control over what people find edifying.

The answer to the question "can games be edifying?" is "yes," by the way. Consider Bioshock, which had a far greater impact on my economic and political philosophies than any book I had read previously. That experience was undeniably uplifting of my intellectuality. When I am feeling in low spirits, I can play through Flower in one sitting. By the time I reach the credits, I am undeniably soothed. The moral dilemma posed in Shadow of the Colossus is as poignant to me as that presented in Moby Dick — a quest fueled by self indulgence, wherein those harmed are the innocent (albeit in both cases the innocent are several hundred times the size of the protagonist and have no compunction with smashing things to bits in the line of self-defense).

Flower Screenshot
Is there any game more spiritually uplifting than this? Really?

These are three titles which alone satisfy me. There are many others out there. They can be entertaining, they can teach, they can amuse, they can move, they can distress, and they can heal. Are they art? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. 

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