Yes, But Is It Art?
Why should gamers care about the recent decision by the National Endowment for the Arts to include video games in their list of types of media eligible for grants? The answer that immediately leaps to mind is that this decision now technically makes video games an art form. However, as others have pointed out why should that matter to gamers? For many this may seem like a mild revelation, little more than the government finally catching up a realization that many of us came to years ago. To a certain extent that’s true, but what it ignores is the impact that the NEA’s decision might have on the development of games, and on the issue at the heart of all of this.
What gamers really, truly want is legitimacy. For many of us, we grew up facing scorn from peers and parents over what is essentially a hobby. In contrast, few children grew up with their parents telling them that playing football or practicing the violin were pointless, a waste of their time, or unhealthy. But if we look at a student athlete’s chances of ever going pro and making a career out of it, it seems like they’d be better off playing Halo or learning a trade skill. A lucky 5% may be able to use it to go to college, but beyond that their chances of going pro are really bad. As for musicians, they get to look forward to an extremely fierce job market, and pay that will likely put them below the poverty line. To be honest, I’m ignoring the benefits that come from athletics and musical training at an early age but, to reiterate my point, the youth in question often have both the support and encouragement of their peers and families. Gamers on the other hand, have rarely had their choice of hobby smiled upon by society despite the fact that it turns out that being a gamer has some positive outcomes. According to the Department of Defense, gamers tend to perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than non-gamers, and one medical study found that when performing laparoscopic surgery gamers made 32% fewer errors and finished the procedure 24% faster than their non-gamer counterparts. Despite this, many gamers feel that to the rest of the society gaming is seen as little more than a waste of time, or a diversion for children.
If we look at where most of the anger, excitement and attention in the gaming community is directed, what we see is outrage at anything that demeans gaming and acclaim for anything that legitimizes it. We seek to legitimize our hobby and many have claimed that it would happen when games were finally recognized as an art form. Much to those people’s displeasure the NEA’s decision won’t actually achieve a damned thing. Making video games an art won’t stop people from attacking it any more that it has stopped them from attacking movies or books. The only difference now is that it’ll be a little easier to defend the gaming industry from people who seek to stamp it out or keep it mired in the realm of children’s amusement.
There are those who will claim that this decision won’t actually make video games an art. The NEA’s decision won’t make video games an art form, but that’s because they already are one. Games are a form of interactive media in which writers, artists and programmers come together to create a product that is able to evoke a strong emotional response in those who view it. Look at Bioshock for an example of this. The game takes Ann Rand’s objectivism and satirizes it in order to create an engaging world. However, depending on how one looks at it, the game is either pointing out the sheer idiocy of objectivism, or is mocking the way it’s often misconceived by its critics. It’s a game that’s both visually compelling, well written, and encourages inanely long debates about philosophical issues.
That’s not to say that all games are art, but rather that video games are an artistic medium like film or paint. While the NEA’s decision won’t mean a thing to those who already view video games as an artistic medium, it does matter to those who have yet to make that realization. While some may detest the concept that this now legitimizes video games as art, the fact is that in the eyes of non-gamers and non-artists, this decision now makes them an art. Artists and critics will argue for hours over whether or not something should be considered “art”, but the sad fact is that the great majority of society just doesn’t care.
Here’s the sad reality of this issue for gamers. If they don’t already, your parents will never accept your hobby or look favorably upon it, and many of the older law makers will continue to attack it. Only two things will actually completely legitimize gaming and help raise it out of the land of childish things and up into the realm of grown-up media as we’ve all dreamed. First, the majority of people who were born prior to the rise of video games will have to grow old and die. Now I’m not advocating that anyone goes out and start reenacting the plot from Logan’s Run. Only that while some members of that generation are able to understand gaming, the majority still remember it as that thing their children and grandchildren did instead of going outside to play. Second, people born after video games emerged into our culture will have to either go into politics or raise their children based on our experiences growing up with this form of media. As one generation passes the world over to the next, there will be legislators, parents and grandparents who understand that a rated M game is just as harmful to a child as a rated R movie, and that video games are just another form of media that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Though by targeting older populations with casual games (a point I must grudgingly give to the iPhone), we can probably speed up the transition and make it a bit more pleasant on all of us.
The other issue I mentioned concerns the development of games in the years to come. The NEA’s decision will likely have a major impact upon the kind of games that we see in the future. The whole point of the NEA is that it allows artists to create without having to worry about starving to death in the process. An artist comes up with an idea for a project, fills out an application with the NEA, and if he or she is lucky, they’ll receive a grant for anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 to complete the project. While including video games in the list of approved art forms for grants might not have a big impact upon the big gaming companies, it might just shake up the whole independent developer community. Grants will allow aspiring young game designers to work full time on projects that they previously might have had to put aside for financial reasons. It might open up the industry to more artistic and oddly entertaining game concepts. We may see an influx of games designed to do little more than make people think. Not to mention that if they’re made using grant money, we’ll probably be getting these new games free of charge.
We’ve been claiming for years that games were an art form, and many games are as they elicit strong emotional responses from those who interact with them. On the other hand, there’s a lot of crap out there that utterly fails to be of any artistic merit whatsoever. So are all video games art? No, not by a long shot, but many games can be considered artistic. While we can complain about what actually makes something art, it’s a moot point. The NEA has acknowledged video games as an art form, and once something’s considered an art form it’s hard to take that status away. The real benefit of the NEA’s decision is that it might just provide game designers with the opportunity to step up and prove that video games can actually be art. The NEA’s given us a chance, so let’s not piss it away.