Opinion - Games can be art, yes, but we shouldn't demand it

We need to accept that most people enjoy Transformers and would be bored by Citizen Kane

I don't want to discuss this. Really, I don't. Far too much human life has already been squandered on the topic, in reams of text and hours of broadcasting both online and off, and none of it has been to any consequence because the question only recurs again, often by somebody who missed it the last time.

Somebody fresh-faced and often indignant, who will stride purposefully into the debating chamber, comment thread or TV studio and ask, with the sincere and total misjudgement of one who would solve a mouse problem by releasing venomous snakes, "are games art?"

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I now react to such moments with a profound and crushing despair. Not because I think it's a fundamentally idiotic question, although it quite often is, but because it's always asked for the wrong reasons. It's only ever posed by people who believe that the answer is "yes", and wish to establish this to validate their hobby. It's a debate started to make time spent playing games seem as relevant as time spent reading classical literature or visiting art galleries, and it's not only overdone but fundamentally unsound, given the sort of games that are cited in the defence.

If you put a gun to my head - the only situation I would consider addressing this question - and demanded judgement, I would concede that games are creative works and as such may be considered art. My problem is that the vast majority of them are created as works of entertainment, and are very bad examples of the merits of the form. It's like TV fans demanding that Big Brother be shown in the Louvre - technically legitimate, but it's not really the best argument you could be making.

Thing is, almost all games are on the BB level of sophistication. Go to the place! Shoot the man! Stand by the thing! Watch the cutscene! They're tuned for immediate gratification, not to prompt profound critical thought, and when they try the latter it's invariably hilariously incongruous. Consider BioShock Infinite, which is overflowing with self-importance and desperately wants to be considered as art, but is ultimately a series of shooting galleries in a flying city full of magical racists.


There are some nice details in it, but putting Regency wallpaper in the diary room isn't enough to offset the idiocy that issues from it.
I'm not suggesting that you feel bad about this. It's fine! The most popular TV show is Eastenders; the biggest movies are a series of explosions intercut with beautiful people kissing each other and functionally indistinguishable from car advertising. Nobody gets bent out of shape explaining why spud-faced Londoners killing each other is art. It's entertainment, and that's fine. But too many people want to consider the gaming equivalent as something more.

State of play

I think it's insecurity. Stung by accusations that games are for kids, and desperately wanting all those dead-eyed hours spent grinding for Skyrim armour to mean something, we overreact when challenged, and try to claim that five hours of shooting clones mixed with watching mocapped TV actors spout carefully focus-tested dialogue should be considered alongside Citizen sodding Kane. Here's the thing: I'd honestly rather do the shooting than watch Citizen Kane. I'm just not going to claim it's of particular cultural worth.

Instead of claiming that overproduced shooters with GCSE-level writing are art, we should shrug, say they're easily as artful as the last Transformers film, and start looking for - and buying - games that actually try and do things differently. Papers Please or Gone Home or even State of Decay prove that the medium's capable of more than simple gratification, and their rise should make its relevance self-evident. Meanwhile, we can keep enjoying the dumb stuff, and stop wasting our time defending it. Games can be art, but a lot of them are trash, and we shouldn't feel bad for enjoying that.