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But Is It Art?

By Jona Tres Kap

Video games have come a long way since the days of ghost gobbling and asteroid annihilating. They are a thriving multi-billion dollar industry. But is their value also artistic in nature? It's a subject that's being debated in classrooms, museums and conferences across the United States.

"Bang the Machine," a recent exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco featured gaming art and artifacts. At a Stanford University exhibit and conference, video games were perused, praised and criticized. At the University of South Florida, students critique video games like they would film, music or painting.

The dispute over the definition of art is older than America itself. From cubists to impressionists, famous artists have claimed over the centuries that art is beauty, reality, illusion, emotion, fantasy or relief from the banality of life. And it is true; art can be all of those things. Will Wright, creator of The Sims, says he finds the word "art" to be pretty much useless. "Everybody has a different interpretation of art. Just about anything can be considered art," he said in a Los Angeles Times interview.

How true that sentiment rings in this global age, although I do have my doubts. Take a recent Tate Modern exhibit in London, for example. It featured only objects dredged from the Thames River. Interesting? Yes. Art? Maybe not. But I do feel that art is a personal experience that excites emotions, encourages introspection and celebrates self-expression. However you look at it, art is not just a handicraft, as Leo Tolstoy once said, but the transmission of an experience from one person to another. As the late 18th Century French artist Odilon Redon once proclaimed, "true art lies in a reality that is felt."

When viewed from this angle, digital art must be taken more seriously, simply because of its potential to convey feelings and experiences more strongly than other more traditional forms of media. "We will be emotionally influenced by computer games as much as we are by films, pictures, or music," said Peter Molyneaux, creative director and CEO of Lionhead Studios. "We will laugh and we'll smile and we'll talk about them and we'll be emotionally invested in them."

Video games are a unique hybrid of other creative media, such as music and animation, but are not wholly reliant on them for financial or popular success. In fact, good game play can exist without art. According to Molyneaux, the vast majority of games are about as "artistic as a road accident. But some of them, the few gems in the rough, are art."

I do believe that place where games can truly be art is in the storytelling realm, where games seduce the imagination. Video games are becoming 50-hour epics of adventure and discovery akin to literature. But they are a more expressive, impressive line of storytelling that involves sight, sound, touch and feel.

Additionally, the line between creator and participant is blurring, as players are allowed to create their own worlds, control destinies and discover their own creative selves. The game itself is only a tool, a simple foundation, and the imagination is the playing field, making the possibilities endless.

Regardless of what one believes art to be, one must acknowledge that digital art is making a good showing and will be around for quite some time. Its influence is already gaining momentum and acclaim. The future is still being shaped, but it's easy to predict that video games will continue to own space in museums. The next time you take a walk past Rothko, Klee or Picasso in an art gallery, you might just run into The Sims.

Jona Tres Kap is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.