Game Theory: Game/Art

Nathan Edwards

“Games are not art.”

I said as much, rather pompously, in this spot many years ago. It generated as much reaction as I ever received, oddly enough. Gamers want to believe their passion is more than just a diversion—that it could aspire to greatness, even transcendence. A friend of mine, a game designer, insisted that games were merely awaiting their Orson Welles. In other words, the medium merely needed an auteur to come along to create and refine a new vocabulary for this form that would lift it to the realm of capital A Art.

The games-as-art debate got a bit of a jump start recently with a back-and-forth between film critic Roger Ebert and author/director Clive Barker. Ebert made the case that games can’t be “high art” and Barker said that they can. Ebert was a bit of a snot, but he’s right for the wrong reason. He claims that interactivity, what Barker called the “malleability” of the forms and narratives of games, removes it from the realm of high art.

That’s only half right, and BioShock made it a little clearer to me just why that’s the case. If any game can make a claim to be Art, it’s BioShock, which deals with weighty issues, is beautifully stylized, and breaks the bounds of the medium. Even its use of Randian Objectivism as the source of its dystopia is strikingly original and persuasive. It is clearly the product of artists: writers, visual artists, musicians, sound artists, and designers.

But it’s not, in the aggregate, Art, for a simple reason. Gamers are not lining up to play BioShock for its Objectivist discourse: They are lining up to play, to explore, to solve puzzles, to shoot things. The main purpose of a work defines it as Art, not the incidentals. The main purpose of a game is to be played, like football or poker or kick the can. However rich a narrative, whatever depths of philosophy or human nature or character are explored along the way, these are not the point of the game. They may be central concerns of the creator (artist?), but they are incidental to the gamer: fine wallpaper for the abattoir.

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