Why video games are still not Fine Art (yet have art in them)

I was a heavy contributor to the infamous Roger Ebert thread on why he thought video games can never be art, Video games can never be art. I concurred with Mr. Ebert, and a few of my answers where highlighted by Mr. Ebert. I duked it out with some of the best pro-games-are-art word-ninjas and logic-dodgers, and have a few trophies on my wall to prove it.

That said, of all the arguments in the 5,000 comments left on Ebert’s post (before it was closed), few are more potent than one presented a recent article at CNN, which adds a novel and potent twist to the thesis that video games can never be art. But we’ll qualify “art”, as I did in Ebert’s comment section, as Fine Art. This important distinction escapes 99.999% of all the video-games-are-art enthusiasts:

Why most people don’t finish video games

“…Only 10% of avid gamers completed the final mission, according to Raptr, which tracks more than 23 million gaming sessions.

Let that sink in for a minute: Of every 10 people who started playing the consensus “Game of the Year,” only one of them finished it.

How is that? Shouldn’t such a high-rated game keep people engaged? Or have player attention spans reached a breaking point?

Who’s to blame: The developer or the player? Or maybe it’s our culture?

The correct answer is, in fact, all of the above…”

Houston, we have a cultural problem. Without rehashing the endless permutations of what-is-art theory and charges of “you can’t define art” followed by “I define art as…” soliloquies, we will simply dive right in to what this study means. It means we have scientific proof that video games are not Fine Art. It means video games are…games! Whoa nelly! But how?

Can you “not finish” a Monet? Certainly you write and ponder a Monet for this or that amount of time, but you can never say you didn’t “finish” it. You either saw it or you didn’t. And you comprehended to one degree or another. Now of course there is a certain kind of very delimited relativity to comprehending art, but it’s not nearly as complicated and relative as some make it out to be.

Who ever heard of a general pattern of 90% of movie-goers “not finishing”, say, Citizen Kane or The Godfather? On the other hand, how many sessions of Monopoly, Solitaire, Risk, and Chess have people abandoned? Yeah, thought so.

Perhaps the rate of abandonment for chess games played withartfully hand-carved chess sets is lower than for your run-of-the-mill plastic chess set from Target, but only because playing with beautiful set is probably more of an occasion. The chess-is-art argument falls short for the same reason.

Yes, you may have to run out of the museum to pay the parking meter and thus not finish taking in your Renoir.

Yes, you may have to pause Citizen Kane to take the dog for a walk. But you’ll be back. And you’ll finish the predefined journey that Wells has taken you on up to that point. You don’t have a general apathy about not finishing a movie. Unless, of course, it’s awful, like most of what is on Netflix streaming these days.

But unfinished video games? They are unfinished because they don’t speak to the heart and don’t compel it to continue. They don’t rouse the desire of the beloved. They don’t stoke soul-thirst. They speak of logic, of dexterity, of thrill, of adventure, and even imagination. But we can leave these kinds of things, willy-nilly, without shedding a tear or being moved or overcome with emotion or insight.

Art is in video games. Art is in the beautiful lamp on my desk. Art is in the design of my car. But Fine Art, especially the best that the cultures of the world have created, preserved, and handed down to us as our legacy, is about the human condition, the state of our souls, our place in the world, and our place in eternity. Video games are about our place on the couch where we don’t think about those kinds of things—except in the most trivial and trite kinds of ways.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a comment of mine that Ebert highlighted on his famous post:

The 20th century tyranny of mediocrity that has obliterated objective standards of beauty is slowly grinding to a halt under the weight of its own internal contradiction. There is a nascent renaissance for the recapturing of beauty in art as conceptual art runs out of steam.

And remember, don’t feed the trolls!

18 responses to “Why video games are still not Fine Art (yet have art in them)”

  1. JF

    I reckon I’ve finished about 10% of the fine art novels I’ve started – Albert Camus amongst others being someone I’ve dozed off a few times trying out. Yet I’ve finished pretty much every trashy novel with lots of guns that I’ve read. But I wouldn’t argue that the novels that I read to turn my brain off are art, but I’d be happy to concede to fans of Camus, etc. that their books are art. Just art I struggle with!

    Comparing trashy games with fine art from other genres isn’t comparing like with like – perhaps the games that could compete haven’t been made yet (I wouldn’t know, I’m not a gamer) but that’s not to say they can never exist.

  2. Halley | Poster Prints

    There could be a lot of factors involved as to why gamers don’t complete the game’s final mission. I tried playing an online rpg but stopped because I was so caught up with my work that I didn’t have the time to play.

  3. JL Ohly

    First, I have to mention, you speak of looking through the lens of fine art, but then you go on to talk about Hollywood films and, inexplicably, board games. I thought i would help by giving you a couple of critically accepted ‘fine art’ films. And then, I thought I would dare you to finish any one of them-
    – “The Clock” by Christian Marclay 
    ( 24 hours long, it won The 2011 Venice Biennial’s Golden Lion for best artwork in the main exhibition) 
    – “24 Hour Psycho” by Douglas Gordon 
    (same length, won the Turner Prize, wide acclaim)
    – “Sleep”, “Empire”, or any comparable Andy Warhol film. 
    (Runtime of either of these is only about 8 hours, but they are completely unwatchable. I won’t belittle you by listing Warhol’s credits.)

    I won’t short you, either, as you did make some mention of fine art. This particular sentence jumped out at me the most: 
    “Yes, you may have to run out of the museum to pay the parking meter and thus not finish taking in your Renoir.”
    I won’t argue whether or not skimming a painting is “finishing” it, as much as I wouldn’t argue with someone if they said they beat a video game, but skipped all the side quests. How you choose to consume your media is yours, and there is almost never a definitive, all-encompassing correct way to do so.
    However, if you leave a showcase, exhibition, etc, in the middle, you have not ‘completed that art’. Curation is an art form. If you were to walk into a gallery or museum or art school and ask whether or not curation is, in itself, art, likely the answer would not change. Very often the same schools, programs, or campus divisions that teach painting, or any other fine art medium, also teach curation. In movie terms, it is as if you are implying that a still frame and a full length movie are the same thing.

    Finally, if you look at art history in the 20th century, I find that an interesting theme arises. If you’re questioning whether or not something is art, it’s probably art. If you demand something is not art, it unquestionably is art. The fact that a popular critic insists that video games aren’t art has practically doomed this medium to the fate of fine art. 
    You mentioned Monet, but do you know his cultural significance? He founded an art movement called Impressionism. It was named by way of Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” by art critics. Critics used the name to mock and imply that the impressionists’ paintings couldn’t possibly be considered finished, labored works of art. They were doing something too vastly different from the historical portraits and landscapes of the old school. But, in time, it gained  public favor, and the old way of thinking fell away. 

    And as the argument rages on, there are children who are consuming movies, television, video games, and fine arts. Without precedent, without distinction.

  4. PlayItLive

    AS masters of remediation, video games borrow and repurpose from every form of media that can be digitized. If it can be said that video games contain art, then they also contain that initial experience or response that the original piece of art contained. The experience will undoubtedly be altered when placed in its new video game form, but it is still an experience. There is still an elicited response.

    The thing that is tough to balance is whether the new experience contains both a cognitive and physical reaction from the participant. Games have a tendency to disconnect us from the interpretive suture that we might get as we gaze and try to unravel the semiological workings of movies or a painting. If we are not actively participating in a mental discourse, then I think video games are not art. But do we not also take time to admire the brushstrokes and texture of a painting outside of any meaning it might hold? Do we not have to go through the mundane task of paying for a movie ticket and finding empty seats before the artistic interpretations can begin. Within any game, or any other medium for that matter, there can be moments of art and moments of living in the reality of the medium.

    Even after playing a game though, the experience lives on in our minds. Hmmm…I am inclined to agree that video games definitely house art and, in their best moments, challenge us as all art does.

  5. someone

    Programming is art.

    Designing is art.

    Writing is art.

    Acting is art.

    Drawing is art.


    A collection of art is… art!

  6. someone

    “There is an “art” to blowing big soap bubbles on warm summer day. That does not mean that that “art” has anything to do at all with the “art” of Da Vinci or Picasso.”

    What validates anything as art?

    Who decides?

    Do we really need someone to tell us what is art?

    Does art need to be “sanctioned”?

  7. Bloofishbloo

    I’m curious as to which games you have been observing. You said “Who ever heard of a general pattern of 90% of movie-goers “not finishing”, say, Citizen Kane or The Godfather? On the other hand, how many sessions of Monopoly, Solitaire, Risk, and Chess have people abandoned? Yeah, thought so.” I can’t say that I’ve ever “finished” looking at a painting – I can walk away from it but that does not mean that it is complete for me. I took inspiration away from the painting and that touches me where ever I go. For me, at least, that experience is not limited to just “fine art” – I have felt that way about movies (which were completed), books (same), and video games (same).

    Video games are not in the same genre as “fine art”. Just like graphic design isn’t fine art and my car isn’t a monkey. I know a lot (lot lot lot) of people in the game designing world and I’ve yet to meet one that has said to me “Bloofishbloo, what I am doing is fine art and should be hunt in a gallery permanently”. Video games are experiences – some like Heavy Rain, Dragon Age, Uncharted, etc tell a story that you actually do want to follow along with. In order to get to the end of the story, though, you have to get to the end of the game. Some of them are interactive movies, whereas some are full of whimsy and are fun to play after a hard day at work like Little Big Planet.

    Now, does the fact that they’re not “fine art” detract from the beautiful work that the artists put into character and set design? Hell no. At the end of the day you still have a beautiful, interactive experience which you can take with you where ever you go. Just like a visit to a painting in a museum.

  8. Bloofishbloo

    Wow, I must say I really did expect such an acerbic response regarding this from you. I guess what it comes down to, at the end of the day, is that we hold different opinions. Which you could have said without questioning whether or not I have an education. I don’t think you full understood what I was trying to convey – which was either my fault as a communicator or your fault as a reader.

    I grew up with video games – as a child of the 80s they were always there, always getting better. They unfurled from platform games (which I guess you’re thinking of when you think of games) to games that can tell an elaborate narrative. A lot of modern games include movie like cinematics (unless you also don’t count 3D movies (i.e.: Pixar films) as movies because they don’t contain real people) in between game play. The object of some of the better games is to get to the end of the story.

    Let me put the rest of what I want to say in more basic terms, so as you can understand:

    – After I FINISH a book I carry the story along with me for a while. Thus, I am not done reflecting on bits that inspired me or characters that grabbed my attention for the duration of the read. In that sense the book isn’t finished, because I could imagine different endings, etc.

    – After I FINISH a movie I will do the same.

    – After I FINISH a game I will (say it with me now) do the same.

    – Video games are NOT fine art, NOR are they pretending to be. They are video games and want nothing to do with the pretension that surrounds the fine arts. Did someone from a game studio come up to and say that they felt that the field was in league with the “fine arts” or something? Your blog post, as thus, confused me. Why would anyone pose that video games fancied themselves as a “fine art”?

    – In my previous response I was just trying to point out some..inaccuracies in the points you have made within your post. I wasn’t trying to claim that video games had a place among your precious masters. I pointed out that video games WERE experiences and thus there was no reason to compare them to a completely different genre. I mean, I get it. You have no respect for video games and clearly don’t really know much about them. Right on, good for you.

    – You’re right in that a lot of people don’t finish video games. But that goes for books, movies, relationships, etc. I don’t really get why finishing something makes it more artistic to you.

    Also, questionable business practices if you’re insulting to people who happen upon your business blog and try to engage in friendly dialogue about an article you’ve written. I found this by looking up graphic designers in RI. What would potential clients think of this?

  9. JabXIII

    first off…

    Fine Art: “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.”

    I don’t agree that Video Games can never be Fine Art. Although not every game fits into this category, there are some that would most defiantly fall into the description above quite well.

    I can understand how it might be confused as not being art, generally speaking other forms of art aren’t as interactive, and the majority of the games out there are more concerned with selling games to the wider audience than being “Fine Art”. It’s very much like comparing Hollywood films to Fine Art films.

    Though some mainstream games are reaching to be fine art. Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind. A game which takes the standard adventure game and stands it on its head, its an entirely different aesthetic that pushes to be both entertaining and beautiful at the same time.

    Denying video games the right to be art just because they are a game? Or the general audience doesn’t complete them? that seems a bit unfair, some games may not even have definitive endings. I could spend a lifetime creating a single piece of art and never complete it… but it doesn’t make it any less of an art piece.

    if a sculptor designs a piece as a bike rack, does that functionality cause it to no longer be art? Video Games are just a more functional form of art. It’s a medium we use to delve into stories or blow off steam.

    “The finer point is that fine art doesn’t have an “abandon rate”: games do.” This sentence is completely untrue. You can go into an art gallery and soak up a painting for hours on end, but theres going to be a point when you “abandon” the painting and move on to something else for a while. You may come back to that painting again but for the moment your done with it. The same goes for a video game. Some people may tire from a particular game for a while, some may never come back to it… BUT the better games, the games I’d consider fine art are the games that people DO come back to. I have friends who play some games annually.

    So what if the medium is played through an X-Box, a painting is hung on a wall, or printed in a book. Just because you didn’t connect with a piece of art doesn’t mean others haven’t.

    The entire argument of “Are Video Games Art” is just an extension of Duchamp’s Fountain in my opinion. Some artists and critics couldn’t handle his ready-made art, even some artists today find it intolerable. Yet its now considered one of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th Century. Yet at the time the gallery HID his art out of site during its premiere show.

    “conceptual art is in a different category of art than the traditional skill-based forms of art.” Yes but its still fine art. Would you exclude Andy Warhol or Salvador Dali’s films just because its conceptual art? Thats frankly absurd.

    There are plenty of under appreciated arts out there. Just because some can’t wrap their heads around it as art doesn’t mean it can never be art. Never is far too finite of a word to use when art is concerned. There are plenty of artists who weren’t recognized until after their deaths, Van Gogh being among them.

    Finally, it seems to be that the reason games aren’t considered Fine Arts to some, is simply because they haven’t been looking for the proper games. As I said before making a game is more about the money side of things. Making a Fine Art game is likely not going to sell very many copies. And those games that I consider “Fine Art” are really more underground, and don’t get much attention in the major video game venues, but I can go to a convenience store and buy some cheap painting and a copy of the newest Mario Brothers. Neither may be “fine art” perhaps somewhere out there is a Gallery that contains “fine art” games. Would you go up to the artist and tell him what he made is in fact not art? I think not.

  10. Bobika Smith

    I guess it depends on the formation of the cookies aerial surface codes. :S

  11. Victoria Adams

    “Video games are about our place on the couch where we don’t think about those kinds of things—except in the most trivial and trite kinds of ways.”

    I’m going to suggest you play Journey. Hell even Catherine made me think a lot about relationships and infidelity. Curious what you think after playing those games.

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