And if they weren’t regarded as such by most, why should you care?
Several decades of game development certainly hasn’t. A lack of mainstream artistic acceptance is yet to stop people from developing their artistic vision with discipline and integrity, applying it toward refining gameplay and turning it into exploratory pop-art pieces for their audience.
In 2010, Roger Ebert challenged the industry at large, standing his ground with his statement, “Video games can never be art,” and a shock subsequently cascaded forth. At the time, there was much debate over precisely what this meant. For him then, it seemed to be that the medium had failed to engage or move him as broadly as film could do, even for someone who had never seen a movie. Many seemed taken aback, viewing it as a personal attack. Their reading of Ebert’s statement culminated in the notion that game *creation* wasn’t an artform.
It’s pretty absurd to say that art doesn’t go into games, or that games don’t feature art. But, that’s not what was stated in the original piece; rather, it was that at the time in 2010, there was no piece that stood out to him as a watershed moment, a Citizen Kane of games that would cement the artistic merit of the medium in his mind, justifying its recognition.
Over the next several years the discourse snowballed around emotional reflexes, to the point that people still obsess over it nine years later. “It’s not just a criticism of games, it’s a criticism of ME as someone who likes games/makes them!”
But, he gave us a quintessentially artistic out. Stop caring about what those outside the artform think.
At the end of the piece containing the contentious statement, he briefly discusses the idea that the yearning for recognition of games as an art form is rooted, at the core, in insecurity. The idea that your parents, coworkers, friends, and family view your work as, at best, a hobby, or, at worst, an obsession. A toy, a plaything, which reflects on you as an implicit stain that you are still interested in childish things. It’s easy to feel like you’re being personally attacked if a criticism comes off as patronizing or being talked down to. He recognizes this, and shrugs.
And he has a point. Not every established elder of any industry or genre will always look down on its newfound peers (or necessarily should), but many will. And that’s a reality any fledgling artistic medium or artist is going to have to cope with (try discussing modern Japanese animation styles with a college art professor, for reference). It’s a survival skill learning how to do things for yourself and not for others, and this is something which indie games not only do, but exemplify.
Shortly after Ebert said this, a few people took it on as a challenge. An arthouse game scene propelled upward, producing myriad works on GameJolt, itch.io and elsewhere. The Indie Auteur was alive and well, beating its chest to prove it was alive in defiance of such claims, refusing to be a missing link or a mythic cryptid. This was our New Wave experimental period that lasted many years, and in some ways continues to this day.
Still, however, both in our industry and in animation, this myth that games or animation aren’t art or need outsider validation persists. People still fret, bemoaning that they aren’t taken seriously, or are generally dismissed.
After writing an article countermanding his previous perspective on video games, the medium breathed a collective sigh of relief. “We Won! Video Games Are Art Now! Hooray!”
They were always art, and people let someone’s (albeit informed) opinion deprive them of that confidence, that pride. The truth is that nobody can grant anyone else a sense of validation or meaning in this world, especially not in the world of art. It’s a subjective topic, and one person’s Citizen Kane is another person’s The Last Jedi.
For those of us at Rebind, games, be they on tabletops or on computers, were one of the few art mediums that allowed us radical queer representation rarely seen at our level of accessibility. No thick literature, no banned books, no digging through libraries. We suddenly had at our fingertips participatory worlds that were not only available to us, but demanded our engagement alongside our friends. We grew up and discovered ourselves through the medium, so it is art to us; it always has been. It’s more meaningful to us than television or, at times, even literature, and on occasion, memories of virtual places from our childhood are so meaningful as to supersede those from reality.
Don’t let the craving for validation starve you of the sustenance of personal development, or of finding your own meaning in your art. If you like a game that’s critically panned on steam, that’s fine. If you hate a game that’s almost universally well-received (dissent against titans like Half-Life 2 grows day by day), that’s okay too. Inversely, conformity won’t save you from a lack of internal meaning, and you will never glean validation from simply giving into the consensus, cynically or optimistically. There will always be an hollowness left behind from projecting your own essence into vessels other than your own, and it’s alright to just be a triangle instead of trying to fit in with the squares.
Roger Ebert is no longer with us, but somehow his statement lingers. I encourage you to comb through his original article and really read between the lines for what he was actually trying to convey. Because if you’re still hung up on the question of whether or not video games are art and not doing something about it, you’ve trapped yourself within an electronic Plato’s cave.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice