Is Video Game Development Art?
Last Friday my wife and I attended an art gallery reception hosted by the Santa Clarita Artist’s association, of which she is Vice President. During a conversation with another couple, my wife said that we were driving up to the San Francisco area later this week to participate at an outdoor art festival in Los Altos. The couple then asked if I were an artist like my wife, and I rather sheepishly explained that I was just her “roadie.”
When talking to painters and photographers, I never describe that the work I do in video games as art. I suppose that I feel self-conscious about making that claim, knowing that many people still think of video games as a wasteful pastime for children and juvenile adults. I remember reading the late film critic Roger Ebert’s answer when asked if video games were art:
“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
While Roger Ebert did admit that video game art can have artistic merit, he did not make such a concession to video game writing. Of course, now video game writers such as Amy Henning and Neil Druckmann are finally receiving critical recognition for their work from the Writers Guild of America and other writing peers who see that video games can tell meaningful stories about the human condition.
But what about the work as a whole? Is assembling different artistic components together into a video game make the collective work an artistic one. To answer that question, I look to another quote, one from the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, in which Aaron Sorkin wrote this exchange between the characters of Apple founds Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs:
Steve Wozniak: What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?
Steve Jobs: Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.
I suppose that what I do as a video game designer and producer is play the orchestra of programmers, artists, writers, and sound engineers. Yet still I call myself an artist, even in my best work. For me, art is not art when an artist thinks it’s art, but when the critical consensus says it’s art. And until the day when the Producers Guild of America or the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences starts bestowing video game production awards like the British Academy of Film and Television Arts does, I must be satisfied with considering myself to be a video game roadie.