4-Player: The Vindication of Artistic Video Games

4-Player is a new, weekly video game column examining gaming culture on campus and online, documenting a previously unrepresented segment of BU’s culture. 4-Player is co-written by Jon Christianson, Ashley Hansberry, Allan Lasser, and Burk Smyth.

We all know video games are fun. But are they art? This is a question that has raged across Internet forums, IRC chats, and middle school lunchrooms. Critics like Roger Ebert have written that video games can never be art. Proponents disagree. And so on.

Mrs. Pac-Man Arcade Machine
Pac-Man was added to MoMA’s collection. Mrs. Pac-Man wasn’t. I’m sure somebody somewhere must have a real problem with that. | Photo via Flickr user Marcin Wichary

Recently, this debate has taken a new turn. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA), an undisputed institutional authority within the art world, has added 14 videogames to its collection. Among these are a mix of classics—Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, and SimCity 2000—and contemporary games—Portal, Katamari Damacy, and Canabalt. The Museum sees these 14 games as “a seedbed for an initial wish list of about 40.” Games they hope to aquire soon include Pong, Donkey Kong, Street Fighter II, Super Mario 64, Animal Crossing, and Minecraft.

It’s easy to pick apart MoMA’s initial collection and bemoan that x game wasn’t included in the first draft pick (as the comments on MoMA’s announcement will attest). But ask any jock gamer for his favorite game, and chances are it won’t appear on this list. There’s no Call of Duty, no Skyrim, and no Halo. And ask any “sophisticated” gamer for his favorite title, and chances are it won’t appear on this list either. There’s no Braid, no Shadow of the Colossus, and no Killer 7. So what is going on here, exactly? What sort of video game is MoMA including in its collection? What allows a game to be canonized as “art”?

Paola Antonelli, the senior curator in the Musuem’s Department of Architecture and Design, wrote that while video games are art, they “are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity.” Antonelli goes on to associate these different interactions into categories like behavior, aesthetics, space, and time. Placing video games within the canon of interaction design frames their capacity to communicate as a built object. This framing removes any ancillary conversation about narrative or entertainment-value. Instead, it attempts to create a very particular artistic definition for video games: an artistic video game, the definition could go, is a medium that uses an aestheticized rule-set to control and focus the experiences and actions of its audience.

Critics and proponents of the theory that games are art can—and will—continue to fight over the question. But as for those who don’t care? The next time they step foot inside an art museum, they could be confronted by a video game. The question is no longer, “Are video games art?” but, “What kind of art are video games?” How we answer—or fight to answer—that question will undoubtedly shape our experience and understanding of classic, contemporary, and coming titles.

Allan Lasser

Allan Lasser

Allan Lasser is a CAS senior double majoring in Computer Science and American Studies. He publishes The Quad, but that doesn't mean you can send him angry/solicitous emails.

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