'Videogames can be art, but art can never be games'

Opinion: Daniel Robson says art is fine, but games are better

The debate about whether games are, or are not, art has always struck me as deeply stupid, for the following two reasons.

First, you have only to turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to answer the question.

Here's how the OED defines 'art': "1 [mass noun] The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. 2 (the arts) The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance." Since games involve the application of human creative skill and imagination, and since the rest of that first definition is optional, and since games are a "branch of creative activity", that's clearly a definitive yes. Games are art. Even the crap ones.


Art is in the eye of the beholder. If it moves you, it's art. Have you "appreciated" the "emotional power" of a game as you brought down its final colossus, or as you pulled off a brilliantly executed bit of co-op warfighting or black-opping, or as you coordinated the perfect assassination, or as you snuck around Shadow Moses Island? Even rolling up oddball objects in Katamari can stir something in your soul. Is that not one of the very purposes of art?

And of course, there are some games that encourage the player to get creative too; so that makes games double-art. Ha. But the other reason it's always seemed a stupid debate is this: Traditional art - the stuff on walls - is bloody boring. When I think of the hours of my life wasted trudging around the Guggenheim or the Louvre or the Mori when I could have been exploring the streets of New York or Paris or Tokyo (or sat in my hotel room playing on a handheld), my heart sinks. Why would anyone who likes games want the medium to be associated with that?


You'd never get the Mona Lisa stuck in your head the way you do with Tetris. The emotions you feel when gaming - excitement, empowerment, amusement, rage, euphoria - are more extreme than anything traditional pictorial art will give you. I guarantee that no oil painting will ever make you feel the breathless joy of survival like a game can.


Gaping wordlessly at van Goghs and Dalis and Michaelangelos, trying to find personal meaning in sunflowers and molten clocks and starry nights, is usually only for the purpose of impressing a girl or looking clever - I've never truly enjoyed myself in a gallery. Even if the paintings and sculptures themselves are interesting, the worst possible place to view them would be a gallery, with the enforced silence, the brooding security guards, the awkward social dynamics and the hours and hours of standing up. (And don't even get me started on modern art. As far as I'm concerned, Emin, Banksy and Hirst should be 'installed' at the bottom of the Thames.)

For that same reason I've never really considered music or film art. Music is clearly on a higher level than gallery art. It's intrinsic to the human soul - it's always been there and always will be, completely intangible, and it can be used to enhance all the other art forms as well. As for film, well, as much as I adore it, it's basically just passive entertainment, isn't it? Oh, alright then - passive entertainment with a heavy dose of crass consumerism. Avengers, I'm talking about you.

Here's another look at our friend the OED: "video game - noun. A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display." Oops, sorry art - that rather excludes you, doesn't it? While the dictionary definition of art clearly leaves room for videogames, the reverse cannot hold true. Videogames can be art, but art can never be videogames. We can appreciate and celebrate a game's looks, the way it sounds, the craftsmanship that went into its creation, its historical value, the emotions it makes us feel - but crucially, we can also join in. And that's something art will never tolerate from its viewers.


Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci was alive today. Do you really think he'd see the creative fire in someone like Hideo Kojima or Ken Levine and denounce them as non-artists? If anything he'd be having a go at game development himself, creating timeless works that would span the ages, just as he did in the 1400s and 1500s - but this time with an online leaderboard.