Art and Entertainment

Jordan Magnuson's picture

The question of whether video games are art has long been dismissed as silly at best, and harmful at worst. Frans Mäyrä, editor of the Computer Games and Digital Culture Conference Proceedings says that “Games have established themselves as a traditional ‘low’ cultural form with self anarchic freedom to explore bad taste, sexual stereotypes and simple competitive or violent confrontations without the restraints of established culture” (Stalker 6).

Video games are about entertainment and making money—they’re about a multi-billion dollar industry that earns its keep by selling violent thrills to teenage boys. One reason that we have been so loath to consider video games for our museums is that art has had a long and prestigious history of being useless, of standing for nothing outside of itself. Now granted, there have been political works of art, and in our current day and age we are moving more and more towards an art which serves philosophy, but still there is an overarching theme of art for art and nothing else—especially not entertainment. If we do it and it’s just beautiful, or it’s just strange and unusual we will grant that it may be art; but if it becomes a fad, or too many people are coming for thrills, or too many people are making too much money producing and selling whatever it is, we become very suspicious—we sense ulterior motives, and that will not do.

It will not do because all of us in the West have been grounded consciously or unconsciously in the theories of Kant and Collingwood, and other formalist and expressionist aestheticians. Kant speaks of “purposeless purposiveness,” and the idea that “Beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from… an end” (NR 291, emphasis added). Collingwood meanwhile throws “Amusement Art” into his “pseudo-art” bin for selling its birthright (artistic expression) for money and laughs. “The work of art, so called” he says, “which provides the amusement, is, on the contrary, strictly utilitarian” (NR 134). We have long distinguished between aesthetic pleasure and entertainment, and knowing that video games entertain we dismiss them as inartistic.

But this is not the first time that entertainment and art have clashed: they are clashing, and to a large extent have already clashed in the film industry. Film, a medium which was once dismissed as a mere novelty, and is still associated to large degree with entertainment has nevertheless managed to exorcize itself from the category of pseudo-art thanks to the efforts of Alfred Hitchcock, D.W. Griffith, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and countless other visionary artist directors.[1]

Video games are still very young, and as Chi Kong Lui, creator of notes, there are many ways in which “the evolution of video games as a creative medium mirrors the growth and maturation of motion pictures.” Motion pictures which, if we’ve learned our lesson, have shown us that a multi-billion dollar industry is not enough to invalidate artistic potential. With the birth of the “art game” genre, the increasing number of games designed by self-proclaimed artists, and the rising presence of video games in museum galleries, I think it is time that we gave video games another look.


[1] The fact that I mention only directors here doubtless gives away my auteurist leanings, but of course many films owe a great deal of credit to their cinematographers, set designers, editors, sound engineers, etc.

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