Sounds nutty. But let me explain!
So much of the tired old argument that "video games are art!" is based upon a direct comparison of this medium to another. Comparing the emotions, characters, setting, art style and soundtrack to that found in film, television or to a lesser extent comic books. Those things are (usually, at least, though TV has its limits) considered art, and because games have creative aspects to them, games should be art too!
But it's a wasted approach, because none of those mediums are interactive. They are passive, forms of art and/or entertainment that come to you as you simply sit back and watch, listen or read. You do not interact with a movie or a novel, not in the way you do with a game.
So striving to have games wholly and universally labelled as "art" in the sense that a novel or illustration is labelled "art" is a futile effort, because you're trying to have an entire object categorised based simply on some of its more superficial trappings.
A game's look or sound may be art, sure, or its story or setting or statement, but what about how it feels? And I'm not talking about your emotional state, I'm talking about how it literally feels in your hands as you control a character, fly a plane or reload a virtual rifle.
Games are more than art; they are also mechanical, something we can appreciate, sure, but also something we have to use.
Just like cars.
Think about it! The automobile, even the cheapest, simplest vehicle, is a marriage (or conflict!) of art and function. There are engineers and scientists whose job it is to make sure the car works, and runs efficiently, and there are artists and designers whose job it is to make sure the car looks good.
Sometimes the engineers win out, and we're left with a car, like the Lancia Delta, that may perform brilliantly but look like a dog's breakfast. Other times, we can have a car like the Aston Martin DB9 that looks so beautiful it can bring a man to tears…then bring him to more tears when it can't run for a week without breaking down.
You can't have one without the other. A beautiful body - like those seen in the Gran Turismo 5 screenshots around you - without an engine or transmission is simply not a car. An engine and transmission sitting on blocks without a beautiful body to put them into isn't a car, either. It's only when the two come together that we have the final product.
Games are exactly the same. You can have all the art and celebrity voice-overs and moving music and poetic gestures you want, but if there's nothing to interact with, it's not a game. It's just...a collection of various pieces of media. Likewise, the handling and mechanics of a game, or its level design and puzzle difficulty, are just an intangible, unrecognisable collection of 1s and 0s without a character and world to dress them in, or a story to give them purpose and context.
Cars are also a great example of how people can prioritise their enjoyment with a product. Me, I'd never buy an ugly car. Ever. It's just how I roll. My father, on the other hand, would buy a rolling pink cube if it was safe and economical.
Here, too, games are similar. There are some, like Assassin's Creed for whom presentation is everything, and there are others, like Dwarf Fortress, that couldn't care less about how they look, so long as everything you use works to the creator's satisfaction. One, expensive and beautiful, is a Ferrari. The other, cheap and hideous, is a Toyota Corolla. Some gamers will appreciate one, others the, well, other.
It's a direct, tangible issue other forms of "art" never have to confront. Because your appreciation of cinema as a whole is not affected by how you use it, it doesn't matter how difficult a film is to watch, because if it's tough to watch, well, that's just what the creators intended, and maybe it's not for you. Likewise, how a painting is viewed by an audience should not be a concern to an artist, because they are creating art, not a product or service.
But if a game is tough to control, or it doesn't work? If the character you are supposed to be moving across small platforms is not programmed correctly, not designed properly, not tested adequately, everything else about a game –- it's "art" -– is for naught, because no matter how pretty it is, you'll stop playing. The game will, like a car, simply break down.
Just like cars, the "art" of video games then is in most (though not all) cases a luxury, afforded only when the mechanics -– a most un-arty term -– are in order. And they can only be applied to a game - a set of rules, numbers and programming - when there's a game to apply them to, otherwise those beautiful images are beautiful only in their own right, not as an integral part of a larger work.
There is no doubt whatsoever that there is art to be found in cars. In the design of the vehicle's body, the flow of the interior, the curvature of the seats. But do you call cars art? No, you don't. You call them cars, that's what they are, and you leave it at that, a thing all of its own that marries form and function in the one package.
It'd be wonderful if people could do the same with video games. It sure would save us all a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching!
This post was originally published on Kotaku.