Thursday, September 8, 2011

Telling Hamlet What to Do: Video Games, Art, and Cultural Hierarchies

Brace yourselves: This week's PopMatters post is about games and art. I figure it's best to get this off my chest as we enter the big release season.

I try not to get bogged down by the "Are video games art?" question for a few reasons. There are other folks out there who have stronger philosophy and art history backgrounds. I also think that proving the case by highlighting good design and producing insightful criticism is just as important as constructing a theoretical argument. It's also easy to get sucked into a black hole inhabited by subjective statements masquerading as fact and lose sight of specific games altogether.

Fittingly, it is this last reason that prompted me to write the essay. People (myself included) often treat art as if it is akin to a physical law: "Somewhere out there is the One True Art that can be applied to all human expression!" The reality is a whole lot messier.

I use Lawrence Levine's book Highbrow/Lowbrow to demonstrate one recent example of art's ever-changing definition. In the U.S., the current concept of "high art" is a relatively recent phenomenon. By the dawning of the twentieth century, Shakespeare's works had been transformed from central pieces in U.S. popular culture into sacred icons of high culture. Along with things like classical music and the nature of museums, Shakespeare was used to solidify a change in what social elites considered "art." A cultural hierarchy that prized an artist's "pure" vision as opposed to one that could be molded and appropriated by the audience was constructed. The Shakespeare that people parodied for political satire and that audiences modified mid-performance morphed into the Shakespeare that is considered an untouchable artistic symbol.

As my editor G. Christopher Williams pointed out, this tension between the sacred and the profane (or perhaps secular?) ideas of art is not a new one, nor is Levine the first author to discuss it. For centuries, people have been writing and arguing about the impact that authorial control, democratization, and accessibility has on the things we consider art. I used Levine's study of American culture as convenient example of just how rapidly cultures change their beliefs. Spontaneously calling for a musical interlude or the extension of a fight scene in Hamlet would be unthinkable today, despite the fact that such actions were once common. The ideal form of "art" changed, and along with it our relationship to the material.

Video games pose a direct challenge to the idea of the untouchable, sacred version of art. Like early-American theatergoers, players have the ability to interact with even the most scripted material. Video games return us to a place where human expression can be a system rather than a sequence: Instead of following a single path through a film, book, or play, games explore the human condition through interactions that model our thoughts on philosophy, art, and the environment. These models are often unpredictable, but that does not necessarily mean they are less meaningful than non-interactive works; they simply don't conform to our current definition of art.

As I say in the essay: we have to be careful when arguing that games are art. All to often, we are simply chasing an ever-shifting historical illusion. Whether or not games are considered art is more of a commentary our definition of art than it is on the games themselves. The sands of time will eventually erode our current historical, ethnic, and cultural dispositions about art, but the games will remain. Therefore, we should worry less about the status of our games and instead celebrate their beauty.


  1. It's a topic a lot of people have gone over, but I'm just posting to say I really enjoyed this particular article and hearing your take on it. (And that Soulja Boy video always cracks me up.)

  2. I very much enjoy your guys' site. It's simple and not overly... how do I say this... annoying, I guess would be one way. There's no blasting ads and the articles are both well written and informative. I just started a website of my own (link included). I'm not just advertising. I actually like your site. I just wanted you guys to know that it is sites like these that inspired me to create one of my own, so thank you for that.

  3. Speaking as an artist, I've always found the ivory tower priesthood that tries to impose a definition of "art" from on high to be utterly unsufferable. Games are a medium that art can be created with. Some who use the medium are shameless, talentless hacks. Others are experts. Those who truly seek to explore the medium's potential design space are the maestros. As with so many other things, it's definitely best to just do our best and ignore the naysayers.

  4. Thanks for dropping by everyone, and for indulging me. I try to avoid the whole "art" can of worms most of the time ("Methinks players doth protest too much"), but sometimes I can't help myself!