Are video games Art? (yes that old chestnut again)

“What is art?” appears to be one of those impossible to answer questions.

Except that it isn’t. To me it is perfectly clear what art is, and when you accept the definition I have in mind (and I maintain that no better definition exists; please prove me wrong if you can) then it becomes unarguable that video games are art.

To understand art, one first must explore what art has that non-art lacks.

It seems clear to me that we as human beings have two sides, almost literally. See Jill Taylor’s brilliant TED talk on that subject

The left side of our brain appears to be concerned with language, logic, intellect, reason, boundaries, time and causality.

The right side of our brain is concerned with everything else, pretty much. The right side does not care about time, or boundaries, or logic (as in a sequence of reasoned steps), causality, boundaries, intellect or language.

The left is the computer within us. The right is something else. Something that cannot be explained by intellect. It is concerned with the experiential, and confounds the intellect with such simple questions as “what is the colour blue?”.

Sure we can state what the colour blue is in terms of language; for example says:

The pure color of a clear sky; the primary color between green and violet in the visible spectrum, an effect of light with a wavelength between 450 and 500 nm.

That really does not explain what blue is, however. It does not explain the experience of blue. The left brain can’t help too much, here.

Yet, in order for someone to convey what blue is with language, the left brain must translate the words for the benefit of the right brain.

What has this to do with a definition of art? Well, let’s look at a poet’s attempt to describe the colour blue:

What is Blue?
A little boy once asked me,
“What is blue?”

I wonder how such a question should be answered,
As it doesn’t say,
But after deeply thinking,
I come up with a way.

I bend down low,
And begin to speak,
Ready to give him,
The answer he seeks.

“Blue is a sapphire sky,
On a hot summer’s day,
It stimulates the senses,
And lets you melt away.”

“Blue is the ocean,
Deep and crystal clear,
It draws you in and reminds you,
Of what you hold so dear.”

“Blue is a bird,
As wild and as free,
It never fails to give you,
The comfort that you need.”

“Blue is a forget me not,
Blowing in the wind,
It heals and protects you,
Even when the lights are dim.”

“Thanks!” he said to me,
As his mother came up behind,
He took off his sunglasses,
And I saw that he was blind.

by Mary

From a left brain point of view, the poem is certainly using a lot of words in a highly inefficient manner. Intellectually, one can argue, the poem does not say very much. And intellectually this is probably correct. But all those words are not appealing to the left brain. The left brain should simply translate it and shut up.

The reason for all those words, is that there is an attempt to convey something that cannot be conveyed solely intellectually. Language is such a poor tool for this purpose that one has to almost dance around the subject and reveal it not through what is said, but through what isn’t said.

And that is the key to answering the question “What is art?”.

Art is communication that is not purely intellectual.

If the communication is purely intellectual, such as “I want for a walk in the countryside and saw a field of daffodils”, then it is not art.

If instead we say:

I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

… then we are engaging in communication beyond intellect and are firmly in the domain of art.

The poem is of course by the appropriately named William Wordsworth, written in 1804.

Certainly, there can be various levels of art; a communication might be almost entirely intellectual with a touch of art or almost entirely art with a touch of intellect. But let us be clear: Intellect and Art are two orthogonal axes in communication between human beings. And thus we can clearly understand what art is.

So, to answer the question of whether video games are art, one actually needs to ask:

“Do video games communicate to the game player something more than what is purely intellectual?”

And the answer is a most emphatic yes; video games are about the experiential as much as they are about the logical. Clearly the ratio of art to intellect varies from game to game, but this is true of all other media already labelled as art.

So when you next see a game player absorbed in a wonderful world of make believe and experiencing things that they could probably never experience for real and feeling the impact of it all in a way that pure intellectual communication could not convey, you will be witnessing art.

2 Responses to “Are video games Art? (yes that old chestnut again)”

  1. Richard Morris Says:

    Interesting piece, but you have fallen into an over simplification of the left right brain divide. While language centres are found on the left its certainly wrong to say that the two side have such different characteristics. This distinction is, perhaps, a nice poetic device but not really as pronounced scientifically, see for example by article on the subject Left brian, right brain, whole brain

    As to your definition of art, this is one of the most liberal ones I’ve seen. So much could be included under your definition, much of which would not be considered as art. Such a wide description actually weakens the word Art giving it little discriminating power.

    There certainly are games which are art but many which in my mind do not reach that. Take for example your generic flash platformmer with some cute animals, an entertainment, a bunch of pop-culture references, some visual appeal, a few gags, but not Art. Still such a game is not really communicating anything so you definition may have a point.

  2. Dino Dini Says:

    It really does not matter so much about the physiology of the brain; the point is not that the brain is divided, but that human experience is divided into the analytical and experiential components, which as I say lie on different axes. These two sides of the human experience often conflict; the biggest such conflicts being between science and spirituality. Science can explain many things, but it probably will never be able to explain our existence (as a classic example).

    As for my definition of art, I stand by it. Definitions are merely language tools, and such tools should be valued for their usefulness. My definition may seem liberal, but it is I believe the only possible useful definition.

    Indeed, we can complain about the value of the content of any art, not just games. The accusation you level at some games is equally applicable to music.

    The question then arrises “is pop music art?”. Strictly, this depends not only on the artistic artifact, but on the observer of it as well. My definition requires that there is communication; that you might not be communicated to meaningfully by a piece of pop music (as a random example) does not deny that the same artifact might communicate to someone else. Thus, their opinion may differ on the work to yours.

    So, whether something is art is subjective. If it communicates something to you beyond that which can be communicated intellectually, then to you it is art (if you agree with my definition of course).

    Then to answer the global question on whether something is art or not (such as the question “are video games art?”) we must ask “do video games communicate to their audience solely intellectually?”.

    If the answer in general is no, then video games must be art to some people.

    This only leaves the question “How many people must consider something to be art for it to be, in fact, art?”. This, of course, is a political question… but at least it is now possible to have meaningful debate on the subject by using my definition. Just my opinion, of course.

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