From the Gamestop to the Gallery

Are video games are legit now? If so, what does that mean for the medium?

The NEA has finally deigned to make video games eligible for grants; The Smithsonian launched a massive exhibition chronicling the history (and art) of video games; Cory Arcangel got a very nice bit of press in the New Yorker about his show “Pro Tools”; and L.A. Noire got a stellar review from the Times (the mere fact that the old Grey Lady has a video game review section is telling).

It’s easy to look at games like L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain as art, because they can be readily compared to other things we’ve already deemed worthy of artistic merit (novels, films). Who could argue about the quality of Cain’s Double Indemnity or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train? So too is it easy to look at a work like Flower or Limbo or Love as works of art due to their pure visual majesty.

While I’m sure there is no end in sight to the churn of abysmally dull murder-core games out there, it’s nice to see that the silver lining is getting a little wider, and that folks doing truly innovative things (in any medium) are getting the praise they deserve. Does this mean that the medium is an art form? Or are there simply bits of artistry within an expanding miasma of product?

Video games are a commercial enterprise. They're meant to be purchased by consumers. How does that impact their artistic significance? It’s an interesting question; one I'm looking forward to seeing further thought on in the next few years.

But what about Mario and Master Chief? These characters represent game franchises that have spawned numerous titles that sold bajillions of units. They'll forever go down in the annals of history as “great games.” But were they art?

The right answer is: WHO CARES?

The argument is totally needless. Their cultural impact is profound and lasting. Turning the art world’s eye to games is nice. It makes an argument for the medium's legitimacy to stodgy old coots who are rapidly becoming irrelevant and societally functionless.* But in the end, whether or not games are ART doesn’t matter; what matters is that they’re still relevant in our expanding entertainment culture. There’s no real question that they are.

*In all fairness Ebert kind of apologized for his dismissal of the gaming medium. But it was a pretty weak handjob of an apology, and it smacked of being more a PR move than a heartfelt reversal of attitude.

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