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Do computer games even want to be art?

July 31, 2007

I’ve been considering whether to state my perspective on the ‘games as art’ debate that recently kicked off between Clive Barker and Roger Ebert (although I don’t think the two have actually engaged in conversation on teh subject). But a couple of blogs got me excited about the prospect again, this articulate critique of Ebert and this whimisical piece from Wired.

To be fair to Ebert, he is from a different generation, it’s not like I’d expect my grandad to apprecaite computer games, and most of my parents generation are also deeply ambivalent about the medium, so it’s difficult to expect him to back down at this stage.

That computer games have already crossed into the official medium of art has been acknowledged by neither Ebert or Barker, perhaps because on the global stage the 2004 Turner Prize entry by Langlands & Bell entitled ‘The House of Osama Bin Laden’ was a relatively minor event (read more about it here). It’s not as though one example of computer games as art will change the perception of the old guard, as anyone from the UK will tell you, the Turner Prize is as much an opportunity for the tabloids to vent their disapproval of contemporary art as it is the artworld to celebrate it. But undoubtedly fine arts courses across the world are rife with interactive 3D digital mediums and it is only a matter of time until the medium becomes part of the cannon.

I’m sure at this point Ebert would acknowledge all I’d said then smugly point out that the Turner Prize is not considered ‘high art’ or at least isn’t considered so by him. My first problem is that Ebert doesn’t explain what he means by high art and to be fair to him once again, Barker doesn’t define what he thinks art is either.

Ah, the eternal problem, art is all about taste, nobody can define what art is, it’s subjective etc. We all know that’s just not true, Bourdieu proved it in the 80s and despite the attempts of more recent writers to argue the contrary this argument holds about as much water as Duchamp’s urinal.

Gallery owners, the academy, art dealers etc. are hugely influential in deciding what constitutes art. Far from making people “more complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on)” these are precisely the qualities many art appreciaters wish to be associated with, whether they truly possess these qualities or otherwise. The artworld is elitist, exclusive and very money driven so I’m not sure I’m keen to see computer games get co-opted into this particular fraternity.

The truth is that while the ‘interactive 3D medium’ will become a respected style in the art world in decades to some, computer games won’t, because they’re commodities and commodities only become art in rare circumstances, much like ‘primitive art’ where some pieces are considered gallery worthy and others only museum worthy (see books like The Social Life of Things and The Traffic in Culture for some good examples).

The debate then becomes not about high art or institutionalisation but how computer games stand in relation to other commodity ‘artforms’ like books, TV programs, films, paintings, sculptures etc. Currently they are probably at the bottom of the heap, with books at the top, the real challenge is to change this anachronism.

As far as I’m concerned I don’t want computer games to become art, look at literature, painting and sculpture there is a hardly a work of the last 50 years that is seen to compete with ‘the classics’. At least computer games are seen as progressive rather than soulsearching for some non-existent gold age, I don’t want to imagine the gamers of 2407 rhapsodising about Pacman and how the games of their day just can’t compare, I want them to be as excited about the latest releases as I am about Crysis or Spore now. I think it would be very unhealthy if computer games were considered art – it would only result in more boundaries being set in place just as the goal has become to break them.

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