Monday, March 7, 2011

Are Video Games Art?

The story below is about an exhibit coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum called "The Art of Video Games". This is a great opportunity for all of us to explore the imprecision of language we use when referring to the visual world.

There is a book by the same name that is about the design of the images in video games - the characters, costumes, props, settings, etc. That book should have been called "The Design of Video Games." The exhibit at the American Art Museum isn't about that. The exhibit should be called "Video Games as Art" because they are talking about the whole experience - user participation, sound, story, playability, etc. - and asking "Can a video game be art?"

If a video game isn't art then what could it be? There are four domains of the visual world - visual communication, design, visual culture, and art.
(1) Visual Communication (far left) includes maps, charts, diagrams, scientific illustration, photojournalism, and a variety of visual forms used to communicate ideas and information in a straightforward manner like the drawing of the human skeleton. If someone created a video game intended to teach some facts, for example, it might be considered Visual Communication.
(2) Design (second from left) includes 2D graphic design, 3D product design, 4D spatial design, and 5D experience design as in these fashion designs. The imagery in video games is created by professional designers and the games themselves are created by Experience Designers (interactive designer).
(3) Visual Culture (right) includes folk arts, crafts, vernacular forms, popular culture, mass media and other everyday visual forms like the gnomes people put in their yards. Video games as a whole are part of Visual Culture.
(4) Art (far right) is personal exploration that is unique, rare, and usually challenges contemporary norms like the Cubist work by Picasso which was highly controversial at the time.

Video games generally fall under the domain of Visual Culture because they are designed to be enjoyed for recreational purposes by mass audiences. That's why it seems somehow appropriate to have a place for the public to vote on their favorite video game. The American Art Museum wouldn't have the public vote on their favorite "Art" for fear that they would then have to display the works of Thomas Kinkade.

The creation of video games is done by professional Designers who are hired to create visual solutions for other people. Sometimes architects are hired to design buildings for a video game. Some other designers, like graphic designers, animators, fashion designers, and industrial designers, have found their professional skills useful in the game design world.

If someone (like Matthew Barney) took the video game format and explored it with no intent to garner sales, reach mass audiences, or tell a story, they might be able to create a video game that fits in the domain of "Art". If and when someone does that it still wouldn't mean that all video games are then Art.

The exhibit at the American Art Museum would be more accurately called "Video Games as Visual Culture Created by Designers." As you talk with students about this exhibit try to use the terms "Design" and "Visual Culture" rather than "Art" and see if it clarifies the meaning rather than confuses the four domains of Visual Literacy.

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