January 3, 2013, by Jonathan

Video Games: Are They Art?

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has recently admitted a number of video games, ranging from arcade classics like Pac-man to rather more esoteric titles such as flOw, into their hallowed halls.

Predictably, this move has been met with a flurry of voices asking the ubiquitous question ‘but is it art?’ Jonathan Jones, in a recent editorial for the Guardian, answers this question with a resounding ‘no’. However, judging from the range of views expressed in the online comments on Jones’ piece, public opinion is far from united on the issue.

Unsurprisingly given the flurry of recent interest in video games and the inescapability of the ‘but is it art?’ question, there has already been a great deal of interesting philosophical work on the art status of videogames. My primary aim here, though, is not to add to the debate over whether video games are art but rather to highlight a pair of problems which often make it difficult to see exactly what question is being asked.

My first concern is that the scope of the question under discussion is not always obvious. Are we interested in whether all videogames are art, or merely whether some are? If the former then I think it is fairly obvious that the answer should be in the negative. Not all videogames are art — but then not all paintings, drawings, photographs, films or dead sharks are art, either (Hitchcock’s Rope is art but the emergency information films shown on aircraft aren’t). If, then, Tetris or Pac-man fail, as Jones claims, to qualify as art works – something which, despite their merits in other respects, I find extremely plausible – this will not show anything very interesting about the art status of videogames in general. Tetris is in many respects a wonderful game, but in artistic terms it stands in the same kind of relation to fellow puzzle game (and fellow MoMA honouree) Portal as my photograph on our department’s webpage stands to Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece Migrant Mother.

Talk of masterpieces leads us to my second worry, namely how easily these discussions can slip from asking ‘is it art?’ to asking ‘is it a masterpiece?’ Jones is keen to push comparisons between MoMA’s collection of videogames and (almost) universally acknowledged masterpieces such as van Gogh’s Starry Night and Picasso’s Ma Jolie. Like many others I am a huge fan of Portal and its sequel – regarding them as both great games and impressive artistic achievements – but I certainly don’t take them to be on a par with the masterpieces Jones mentions. I cannot see, though, how this is relevant to the question of whether Portal is a work of art. How to define ‘art’ is, of course, a bone of much contention — but I doubt that anyone would seriously wish to contend that to qualify as an art work an object must be on a par with Starry Night. Adhering to this standard would require removing a lot more than videogames from MoMA’s collection and would empty art galleries and museums of the overwhelming majority of their exhibits (including many on which Jones himself has, rightly, heaped a great deal of praise . Nor, I think, does the inability of any current videogame to stand up to the works of Picasso or van Gogh tell us anything interesting about the artistic potential of the medium. Videogames – and even more so videogames which seriously aspire to the status of art – are a very recent phenomena while painting, by contrast, has a history dating back over 40,000 years.

While I have no doubt my own position on the ‘but is it art?’ question has been made abundantly clear above my purpose in this post has not been to convince you that my own view is correct but instead to show that here, as elsewhere in philosophy, it pays to make sure that you are asking the right questions.


Dr. Jonathan Robson

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