Are videogames art?

A stranger recently emailed me, pretty much at random, to ask me, “Are videogames art?” I studied bronze-casting and I teach people to draw the human figure in perspective using charcoal. Am I really the best person to ask about this?

Are videogames art?

However, I reject the premise of the question. Asking “Are videogames art?” is like asking “Is a suspension of pigment particles in an emulsion of egg yolk, vegetable oil and water art?” Of course not. Egg tempera paint isn’t art, it’s a medium. A violin isn’t music, it’s an instrument. “To be or not to be, that is the question” isn’t theatre, it’s a script. Art is a big tent that already covers Rachel Whiteread’s space inside a demolished houseKara Walker’s sugar sphinx,  Felix Gonzalez-Torres giving away candy and Marina Abramovic staring into the eyes of strangersMarcel Duchamp died in 1968, and someone thinks we’re still having this debate? None of the artists I know is.
I will offer you someone else’s definition of art, which works for me. Brian Eno said:
Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. (Roy Ascott’s phrase.) That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andres Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.

Footnote for readers who are still thinking about whether videogames are art: There has been an extraordinary amount written about the question. If you’re looking for threads to tug on, start with the famous Roger Ebert dismissal and the backlash that ensued. Watch Golan Levin’s TED talk or visit his website and use those as entry points into the world of artists who work primarily in digital media, the people most likely to explore videogames (and things that look like them) as creative means of expression. If we were having this conversation in person, one of my first points of reference might be Vectorpark’s delightful Metamorphabet.

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