Category Archives: Games and Society

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.





Do Copyright Laws Kill Art?

I write a lot about intellectual property protection on Quora because I don’t like the idea of people pirating my games, and recently a Quora user asked me whether copyright laws “kill” art.  Well, he didn’t really ask me.  This was someone who apparently liked posting other people’s music on YouTube and was complaining about how strict he thought copyright laws were.

But answering the question literally, I replied that copyright law does not prevent anyone from creating an original literary, musical or artistic work. What it does is prevent someone else from copying, distributing, recording, or performing that work, or making derivative works, without the creator’s (or his/her assignee’s) permission.

The primary purpose of this is to prevent other people from using someone else’s work – such as their music – without compensating the creator. This is prevented for a limited amount of time after the creator’s death (50–70 years, depending on the laws of individually countries) so that the creator’s heirs can inherit wealth generated by the work. This is no different than allowing someone to pass on physical property (house, land, stock shares, possessions) to one’s heirs.

It also has a secondary purpose of allowing the creator to retain artistic control over sequels, mash-ups and other derivative works. “Appropriation art” is the only type of art that is “killed” by copyright law, and even then, it isn’t doesn’t really kill this art, but rather restricts it.

Someone wishing to make a derivative work can ask the original creator for permission to do so, which usually involves compensating the creator. However, this is no different than an artist needing to purchase materials and equipment needed to make creative works.

The United States and some other countries also recognize the doctrine of Free Use, which allows creators to use another creator’s work without permission for a transformative purpose. This doctrine allowed, for example, The Harvard Lampoon to write Bored of the Rings, a parody of Lord of the Rings, and Andy Warhol to use Campbell Soup cans and photographs of Marilyn Monroe in his own creative works.

As for wanting music for your YouTube videos, if you are too cheap to license it from the person who created it, YouTube offers a whole library of music you can use for free.  They may not be the most popular tunes in the world, but you get what you pay for.