…Are gamers themselves.
The first problem that surfaces in the vast majority of the discussions also happens to be one of the biggest ones, namely that ‘art’ is an unusually vague term. Over the centuries, libraries worth of books have aimed to provide definitions and different visions of art, but still it seems difficult to explain what exactly the concept embodies without generating a tidal wave of dissent among experts on the subject. In the debate on video games as art, many supporters of this idea will thus see the ambiguity of the concept as proof that the term can be applied to virtually anything. While there is a core of truth in this, it is an absolute misconception that art is anything you want it to be. Some experts would definitely underline that everything has artistic potential, but that does not automatically mean that everything is art. The absence of an absolute authoritarian truth on what art is does not omit the fact that you will need to justify your views, whatever they may be. In literary science, for instance, the reader is free to interpret the work in question as he sees fit, but only if he is able to justify his claims by using accepted theoretical concepts. So while this science is far from exact in nature, its flexibility does not give leeway to an endless stream of wild, baseless claims and interpretations. This also applies to art in general, in the sense that the term enjoys an equal amount of flexibility, but also has to withstand excessive amounts of relativism that would leave the concept bereft of all meaning. After all, why are we so eager to label video games as art while, according to a lot of gamers, the term does not even mean anything?
Still, the main problem with gamers in this debate is not so much that they frequently have difficulties reasoning why they think games are art, but rather that they demonstrate through all of their behaviour that they do not actually perceive video games as art even when their proclaimed stance on the issue would suggest otherwise. The proof for this claim can be found anywhere on the internet. Whether it is an article on the portrayal of women in games or a forum discussion on the alleged negative portrayal of Brits in Assassin’s Creed 3: a considerable chunk of the reactions by gamers will always consist of little more than “chill out, it’s just a game”.
It is at least remarkable to see that many gamers are open to the idea of accepting video games as art, yet when someone tries to assess its cultural and social implications, this brand new art form is just as easily dismissed as mindless entertainment. Now, I have attended a few literature classes in my ‘career’ as a university student, and while I was encouraged to think for myself and form my own opinions on the topics at hand, I severely doubt that “it’s just a book” would have been accepted as a valid argument in an analysis of, say, the concept of captivity in Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels. This comparison may seem a bit far-fetched, but that is because most of us feel instinctively that video games and literature are still rather far from being on the same level intellectually. This is not so much because games have, as Ebert claimed, no artistic potential, but rather the result of the complete lack of ability and/or willingsness on behalf of gamers to view and judge video games as pieces of art rather than products of entertainment.
However, the relative lack of artistic vision among supporters of the idea of video games as an art form does not exclude its opponents from frequently having equally naive or even downright infantile ideas on what art is. An often-heard claim, for example, is that entertainment cannot be art. If this were true, ‘true’ art probably would not even exist. Paintings, classic pieces of literature and operas may not be entertainment in the same way that football, Jackie Chan films and show wrestling are, but at the end of the day, even something as abstract as poetry often aims to satisfy our senses and provoke certain emotions, which is, at its core, what entertainment embodies.
An even bigger misconception is that whether or not something is art depends solely on the intentions of the artist. While I am not much of a supporter of the whole “the artist is completely irrelevant” bandwagon that seems to be touring universities across the globe these days, I have just as much difficulty swallowing this antiquated, romantic ideal of the artist as a solitary, hermitical genius that creates his work purely out of aesthetic considerations. Despite this being an attractive image, it does not correspond with reality in the slightest. The renowned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, wrote his magnum opus Crime and Punishment out of very earthly motivations: he simply needed the money to be able to buy food. Still, you will be hard-pressed to find a scholar willing to dismiss this book as a piece of art. Similarly, it would be illogical to deny the artistic potential of video games because they were primarily conceived for economic purposes. Art does not stop being art just because its creator had a commercial mindset.
With the discussion on video games as art already being as redundant as it currently is, it is perhaps a rather unfortunate conclusion that it will still need much more time before it can develop into an intellectually mature debate. But it will be a necessary step to take if we are to ever reach an acceptable conclusion of this issue. As it stands, both supporters and opponents are too often hindered by a limited perception, which prevents them not only from understanding where their opponents are coming from, but also from supplying conclusive arguments that are acceptable for both sides of the fence. Ultimately, a more satisfactory course of the debate can only develop with a change in perception on behalf of gamers themselves. Until then, we may find comfort in the fact that games can be worthwhile and admirable even if they are just games.