Article Tags / art (2)

Keep Liking What I Don't Like: Art, Kitsch, and Video Games

A comic in which one person is watching sports, a second starts mocking this, and the first covers the second's mouth and says, 'Let people enjoy things.'

Oh no! You just found out that somebody likes a thing you don’t like. What do you do?

If your answer is “keep my mouth shut so they can keep enjoying the thing even though I know it’s trash,” then I congratulate you for at least mastering the first step of basic civility. But there’s another step beyond that one: open-mindedness. It’s recognizing that you almost certainly don’t know that the thing is trash. It’s genuinely seeking to understand what it is that people enjoy about the thing. And if you master this step too, your life can be much richer.

I’m going to explain why this is the case, but first I need to talk about kitsch for a minute - after all, “kitsch” is practically shorthand for “art only liked by people with worse taste than me.“

"Are Video Games Art?" was Always the Wrong Question

The debate has been over for a while now. Video games are art.

I knew it was over not when the National Endowment for the Arts added grants for games, or even when the US Supreme Court ruled that video games are protected speech. I knew it was over because of a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me.

It was from a column called “The Arty Semite,” and it discussed the then-upcoming Biblically-inspired game El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. (Full post here.) It didn’t make the argument that talking about heavy stuff like the Bible sure is artistic. It didn’t claim that this represented a step forward in the expressive significance of video games. It just said hey, here’s an interesting upcoming game. In a column about the arts.

In other words, my grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping that took it for granted that games are art. That’s how I knew.

Why was this debate so long-lived and vitriolic? “Are video games art?” seems like such a straightforward question. The problem is that it’s really two very different questions. The first is, “Is the medium of video games capable of artistic expression?”

This is the more useful question, and also the simpler one. It’s a matter of definition - if your definition of art precludes interaction (as did Roger Ebert’s) then video games can’t be art. Period. It’s not a judgment on video games, or an insult, or anything remotely offensive - it’s just the logical implication of the terms involved. It’s just what the words mean.

My answer to this first question is: “Yes, duh, of course the medium of video games is capable of artistic expression. Games can be beautiful, they can impart emotion, they can convey messages. What more do you want?”

The second question is, “Have any video games yet been made that can be considered profound works of great art?“