Here is a good way to tell if a critic is having a moment of madness: they will attempt to define art. The greatest philosophers in history have floundered on the question, many simply avoided it altogether preferring to grapple with more straightforward questions – like the nature of logic, or the existence of God. Art is ethereal, boundless, its meaning as transient as the seasons. When you think you have grasped it, it slips through your fingers.
And yet here we are again (again!), with a respected critic claiming to know what art is or can ever be, and suggesting that video games cannot be included. That critic is the Guardian’s own Jonathan Jones, who has been here before, decrying Moma for including a selection of computer games in its design section. Games are not art because there is no individual ownership, he insisted at the time, a contention which appeared to strike out a whole pantheon of collaborative projects from art history.
Now his affectionately expressed objection – prompted by the gift of a PlayStation 3 and a couple of mainstream releases – is that games aren’t art and that we shouldn’t care. “Electronic games offer a rich and spectacular entertainment,” he declares, correctly, “but why do they need to be anything more than fun? Why does everything have to be art?”
Jones is an excellent writer, but as he admits, he knows very little about games – and doesn’t really want to. When he last strayed on to this subject matter, I penned a counter-piece, in which I showed how generations of art critics have reacted against emerging artistic forms by immediately dismissing their worth. The shock of the new, and all that. But I ended with something along similar lines to Jones’ argument:
“Are games art or aren’t they? Nobody need answer. Games are beautiful and important, we can leave it there and know that we are right.”
There is a key difference here though. For me, games transcend the question because they are so wonderfully complex: they are emergent and system-led, but also narrative and directed; they amalgamate electronics, audio and visuals, but also often rely on text; they need user input, and yet are authorial. But for Jones, they are mere toys, they are playthings. “Why do they need to be anything more than fun?” he asks, and though I respect my colleague, I can’t help but see in this a certain amount of condescension. It is the critic’s equivalent of ruffling a child’s hair and sending them on their way. Why do they need to be more than fun?
So here’s another question: why do films need to be more than just fun? Why does art?
Countering Jones’ argument is a basic truth: games are an expressive medium. They are a form of communication. Naturally, Jones won’t see that so much in the mainstream action adventures that Santa brought him; just as a movie reviewer won’t see much art or meaning in a Michael Bay flick. But deeper communication is clear in the more thoughtful games that he may not have seen. In Journey, in Cart Life, in Papers Please, in Device 6, in The Stanley Parable – games that have more to say than blam, blam blam.
Why can’t games just be fun? Because intelligent, thoughtful designers such as Navid Khonsari want to make games about serious issues like the 1979 Iranian revolution. Why can’t games just be fun? Because Ryan Green is making That Dragon, Cancer, a game about how he and his wife are coping with the terminal illness of their youngest son. Green has chosen games as his medium of expression, his way of coping, because he is a game designer – it is how he thinks, and partly how he processes the world and what is happening to his family. He also sees in games an accessible way of telling people about cancer, and about hope and faith. Shall we just tell him that’s not right? Perhaps you’d like to do that. I certainly don’t.
Why aren’t games just fun? Because games speak to people, especially young people, in ways that films and books and TV don’t.
Games speak to people.
The greatest artists, you see, want to communicate in the most popular media of the time, they want to be heard. That’s why Shakespeare wrote for the lice-ridden but packed theatres of London, that’s why Bertolt Brecht collaborated with Fritz Lang to bring his theories to Hollywood, that’s why Dickens and Dumas had their novels serialised in magazines. Why aren’t games just fun? Because video games are now a language and language is a tool of expression and change. A bit like art, yes?
Here is something I feel more and more these days. And this is not so much to do with Jones, a thoughtful and engaging critic – but it is in the sphere of his article. How tired I am, how utterly exhausted I have become with a certain mainstream standpoint on games. That whole nudge and grin approach you often see when games come up on television news programmes or magazine shows, or in the culture section of newspapers; the shrugged shoulders, the grimaces of affable incomprehension. I think it’s time this ended because it is really not OK to dismiss what you don’t understand. Yet somehow it still happens. It happens because new is shocking and games are out there, everywhere, and they make no sense to some people, and they are closing in.
Defining art is madness, and dismissing a vast, vibrant and creative medium is folly. Here is a thought for all those who think of games in this way. Just a thought. Imagine the future – the future as represented by games, the $60bn a year medium, the most pervasive communication platform of the 21st century – imagine this future as a storm cloud above you. Well, the cloud has burst and your objections are being drowned out amid the tumult. Soon you will realise that you are Lear on the moors railing against the world, and the fool at your side is the only one who nods in agreement.