Art is a Dirty Word

Thoughts from BAFTA

One of the benefits of being a student is you get to attend things you otherwise wouldn’t be invited to for free. One of the benefits of attending things you otherwise wouldn’t be invited to for free is the free drinks.

On a wintry Tuesday evening we made the trek over to BAFTA’s glitzy Piccadilly property for its Annual Video Games Lecture. Speaking this year were Bioware men Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk. To an audience of some 100 people the duo responsible for the best Star Wars story in 31 years delivered a talk on the popular topic of videogames as art and did a remarkable job of alluding to just about every EA franchise in the mega-publisher’s canon in the space of 90 minutes. Videogames are art, was the message, and if you disagree well then you probably haven’t played too many of them. (It’s worth mentioning here that for the Doctors, to qualify as art the article in question needs to evoke an emotional response within the receiver and they cite Tolstoy repeatedly.)

The are games art? debate is one I’ve had infinitesimal interest in previously, mostly on behalf of the fact that it’s one home to needlessly irate forum nerds reeling off ICO, Shadow of the Colossus and Portal as absolute proof of games being art, and equally irritating folk spouting nonsense about how games don’t “allow us to ask profound questions about who we are, how we live and the state of the world around us.” Speak for yourself, Ekow Eshun.

Regardless, it’s an argument that orbits games websites like a perverted and goading moon and I can’t help but think sometimes it’s born out of an incendiary choice of words. Replace ‘are’ with ‘can be’ and what’s left to talk about? Videogames aren’t unanimously art the same way none of film or literature or theatre or puppetry or air shows are unanimously art. They can all be art, though.

The lecture brought up some dusty memories of an A-level exam I sat at a time where I’d have happily quarreled for hours with anyone that dared suggest my beloved videogames weren’t art. It was an exam in either General Studies or Critical Thinking – no need for specifics when those two are involved – and the question posed to a rabble of disinterested 17 year olds was: “Is Britney Spears’ music art?” Coincidentally, this very question came up at the BAFTA talk.

Aged 17 I was too stupid and wilfully argumentative to see beyond the 2 blank A4 sheets of narrow-rule lined paper. Truth was I needed just one line and 11 letters to answer. I took the bait but the answer needn’t have been any longer or more complex than the word ‘potentially’. Art, as Team Bioware believe, is to some degree about evoking a gamut of emotional responses in the recipient. Surely then, as we’re each wildly different, the question what is art? is subjective. Videogames are art. Videogames aren’t art. Videogames can be art. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. This is horrendously Lamen, I have no doubt.

Well anyway the Doctors argued their case good and proper but, at the end of the day, they were preaching to the converted. Attendees were eager to share their own stories of emotional moments experienced in one pixelated universe or the other, be it Bastion’s or Plainscape’s or even Gears of War 3 and in the process accepting them – by the Doctors’ metric anyway – as art. Incidentally nobody mentioned any Bioware games.

But why does it even matter? Even the Doctors, when asked that very question, skirted around it awkwardly like a couple of virgins holding out to see who’d slip a hand down their first, first declaring it to be important because art is important and eventually arriving at, to paraphrase: we want games to have more media coverage and for more people to buy more games. Would Tolstoy agree?

By closing time the Doctors had semi-concluded that not all games are art, that perhaps only 2% are, that ultimately it’s subjective. I agree. So why the definitive ‘are’? If games can be art and we accept that most likely aren’t, then why cling to a word so loaded and so needlessly provocative. More importantly, why do gamers – not multi-millionaire EA businessmen at a BAFTA event or the former director of contemporary arts – but we slack-jawed plebeian players trouble ourselves with other peoples’ conceptions of our pastime. If I truly believe that Zombie Apocalypse is art of such pedigree to rival Nineteen Eighty Four then that is that, y’all be damned. The adult-film makers of the world wouldn’t hold conferences if Steven Spielberg mouthed off on Radio 4 about how there’s nothing artistic about smutty smutty porno. They’d make even raunchier flicks and focus on every sticky detail in glorious 32x HD slow motion just for Steve.

Getting prickly when the matter rears its head only makes us as useless at getting balls deep in the nitty gritty as those who know jack-fucking-nothing. The Doctors’ talk was interesting but I don’t think even they had a truly good reason for giving it. If art is subjective – as they insinuate – then it matters not what any one person thinks over another. If it’s not subjective, and Eshun is to be believed that to qualify as art a game must pose questions about us as human beings, then we have to be critical and accept that precious few games – if any – have had the kind of culturally resonating and meaningful impact that, say, Orwell or Shakespeare or Beethoven or Dali have had.

But who knows, give it time, maybe one day Kane & Lynch 2 will be taught in high schools on Pluto. Nascent art is, after all, often derided in its early stages. Perhaps the people of 2800 will herald it as the grand masterpiece of the 21st century while some schmoes making an actual working virtual reality where we all live in harmony and live with impossibly beautiful partners with perfectly shaped sexual organs and poverty is no more and death and disease is vanquished and everyone has Lamborghini spaceships fuelled by rainbow dust, well maybe those guys will be debased for being crude, puerile, artistically bankrupt fucktards.

To wrap up, then: Are all games art? No. Are some games art? Perhaps. Can games be art? Yes. Does it matter? Probably not.

I think we’ve made real progress.

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