Let me give away my position on the matter right here at the top: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
A post from a few days ago by Art Radar Asia focuses on works by five Asian contemporary artists who use video games, or the aesthetics or iconography of video games, in their art. They highlight Cao Fei’s “RMB City,” a creation created entirely within the virtual world of Second Life, and Feng Mengbo’s “Long March: Restart,” an actually playable platform-style game (think Mario) which makes extensive use of Maoist iconography and imagery.
Above: An Art|21 segment on Cao Fei’s “RMB City.”
Below: Feng Mengbo’s “Long March: Restart.”
The article also links to something posted by Roger Ebert a few years ago, explaining Ebert’s opinion that video games are not and cannot ever be “art,” and asks the reader, Can Video Games Be Art?. Here is my response, copied from the comments section on the Art Radar Asia page:
I think the work of Cao Fei and Feng Mengbo just goes to show that video games can absolutely be art. The only things that separate their works from something like Jenova Chen’s “Flower” are (1) being previously already recognized as an “artist”, (2) the commerciality of the creations and connection to a corporation, and (3) the size and type of team involved in the creation of the work.
Video games are creative creations in their visuals, sound, and gameplay/concept. I think that most of the argument against video games being “art” focuses too much on them as “games,” i.e. with rules, goals, and puzzles/challenges, and too little on them as “experience.” Flower is a great example of a game that is visually stunning, and quite creative/innovative in concept. Playing it is not just about earning points, or completing levels – it’s about experiencing the game and having an emotional reaction. If the same exact thing had been created by Cao Fei or Feng Mengbo, would we not call it art? If it were not interactive, but were created as “video art,” or for that matter as a still photo, as digital art, and shown in a gallery or museum, would we not call it “art”?
MMOs like World of Warcraft, GuildWars, and LotR Online, along with giant-sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls Series, and visually stunning RPGs like the Final Fantasy series likewise involve exploring massive worlds filled with beautiful, really, truly stunning environments, each of which is designed by professional concept artists and digital artists with much the same training/background, i.e. as art students, as many more widely recognized as “artists.”
Admittedly, there are also many games out there which are, perhaps, not so clearly beautiful, inspirational, innovative/creative, but all were created by artists, designers, creative minds. All bear the same features as those games – e.g. Flower and WoW – which are, perhaps, more clearly artistic, creative/innovative, and/or aesthetically attractive. So, where do we draw the line? If some games are clearly artistic, or art-esque, then why would other games not be?
If the design of a car or a skyscraper can be considered “art,” if marketing posters, postcards, etc. can be considered art, if arms & armor (such as included in many of the world’s greatest art museums) can be considered art, then why not video games? If it’s the commercial element, or the corporate rather than individual creation element, that is the problem, then why cars, skyscrapers, dresses, and not video games? Those of us coming from a background in Studio Art or Art History are likely to be in favor of the conception that anything can be art. So why not video games?
Roger Ebert, of all people, if he recognizes that art is not only limited to static images (paintings), but extends to incorporate cinema as well, should be able to recognize the strong cinematic qualities of video games. Like video games, films too are the creations of not a single, inspired, genius artist, but rather of a collaboration between directors, producers, costume designers, set designers, actors, musicians/composers, and many others. Unlike paintings, they incorporate motion, narrative, and music, and yet, they are still considered by Mr. Ebert to be art. So, why not video games? Because they are interactive? Because none have yet been canonized? As a critic, Mr. Ebert should be especially aware of the haphazard and arbitrary nature of the construction of the canon – created by scholars, random tastemakers, and critics like himself – and thus, he of all people, should not be taking this to be the determining factor in what is (and is not) masterful. Who decided that George Melies was such a genius, that his creations were such great art? Is Mr. Ebert simply parroting the attitudes of cinema scholars and critics of the past?
Those who fixate on the great names, on the canon, of the inspired/genius artisté, forget that many of those we revere today as great artists were in fact quite commercial in their day. Rembrandt was a commercial painter. Hokusai and all of his ukiyo-e brethren produced emphemera, perhaps no more appreciated in their time than movie posters today. And so many we do appreciate, we appreciate only because the canon tells us so. Was George Melies truly such an artistic genius? Was his creation truly so wonderful as Ebert seems to think it was, or is he just buying into the same canonization that makes us all appreciate Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Picasso without actually considering whether or not we ourselves (as individuals) see the artistry, the beauty, in it? I, for one, see absolutely nothing in Jenova Chen’s creation – aesthetically attractive, masterfully created, innovative in concept, emotionally impactful – that should disqualify it as art.