The Question I Hate Most
Above: Grim Fandango cover art
Are video games art? That’s one of those late-night, dorm-room-type debates everyone loves to argue but nobody can settle. Not a month goes by on any medium-to-large-sized gaming message board without someone bickering over it, yet again. We keep coming back to it because there’s no answer—and that’s why I hate the question so much.
But by way of purging, I’m going to put my stake in the ground. I take the side of people like Roger Ebert and Hillary Clinton: Games aren’t art. They’re clearly something other than art. At their best, they’re the love child of the Mona Lisa and the telephone—beautiful yet also functional. They’re deﬁnitely not high art, and to explain why, I’ll borrow some arguments I’ve heard about jazz music.
The “high art” that’s survived from before the 20th century had to be built like a cathedral. We’ve had millenia of pop culture, centuries of folk music and plenty of folk storytelling. I’m sure when the lute was big, there was a John Fahey of solo lute playing, and he was probably mindblowing. But none of that matters, because none of it survived. To get something that would stick in recorded history, you had to preserve it, which took a lot of effort. At the end of the day, the work had to stand on its own. Beethoven’s force of personality is pretty much a footnote to his compositions, and Mozart’s own quirks don’t really do much to enhance his work, Amadeus aside.
In the 20th century, it became easier to record everything, and to catch ﬂeeting moments and live-wire personalities. The brilliant men and women of jazz, though, have a hair less prestige than the Bachs and Beethovens of yesteryear, and in part that’s because they rely on the players and the performances for their greatness. Miles Davis is great for how he challenged his bands as much as the music he wrote or arranged. Ornette Coleman has written many great pieces, but his melodic improvisations and top-notch collaborators cemented his legacy.
At the same time, jazz has a problem: it has turned out few “perfect” albums. Sure, there’s A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue, and maybe Black Saint and Sinner Lady and The Shape of Jazz to Come, but even the best jazz records include a few bum notes, a weak track or a sloppy bass line. The best day of your life has a little dead air; jazz sessions work the same way. Consistency is anathema to the work, and nobody goes back to scrub it to perfection. That’s also why, if you’re a serious jazz fan, you’ll delve into a complete-sessions box set or collect ﬁfteen different versions of “My Favorite Things,” or best of all, catch the greats on stage—on a good night.
So let’s look at games. And at the same time, let’s look at the Internet. All of a sudden, everyone can participate. Everyone can play and contribute, to some extent. There’s a Duke Ellington back there somewhere writing the charts, but we’re his soloists. Games aren’t high art because they depend on the player as much as the software. But not all of the scenarios you give the players are equal, and the great game artists are the ones who create the most engaging and thoughtful scenarios: The designers whose games teach the players about themselves, through thought and action. The alternate-reality game designers who drive people into the streets and teach them to work as a team. The massively-multiplayer game designers who create the most vibrant virtual communities.
I don’t just love games for their own sake. I love them because they’re the easiest point of participation in the larger conversation that’s going on across the Internet, around the world and inside our heads. The Internet gives us many new ways to share ideas and share ourselves—but games give structure, pleasure and reward to participation. They create spaces where this happens more easily. And I don’t want to have to defend that craft as “high art.”