Definitely Art: A Response to Michael Samyn’s “Almost Art”

I was browsing Facebook yesterday when I happened upon a link posted by a friend. The link was that of an article from the online tabloid, The Escapist.* The article is titled “Almost Art” and was written by Michael Samyn (published February 01, 2011). In his article, Samyn argues that video games are “almost art.” Well, technically and plainly put, he claimed video games do not belong to any forms of art there is. His main argument is that “art is about something; games are not,” and to quote him: “videogames are bland, unforgiving, meaningless, cold-blooded, rigid systems.”

As an artist and gamer myself, I feel offended. If one has to determine something as a work of art or not, one should define first what art is. Merriam-Webster defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced.” While the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Yes, these are merely definitions from dictionaries, and the actual definition of art can even be broader. With these two definitions given, let us consider if video games are indeed art or not.

In his articles, Samyn claimed that despite the almost art–like appearance of games, they have not yet reached the status of being a form of art as people have set aside those factors and only focused on the fun they are having, and those graphics, sounds, and storylines are nothing but additions to make gaming more fun because “[u]nlike other commercial media, what videogames are about is rarely significant.” Samyn also called art as “manufactured as commodities produced to fulfil a certain need.”

But what the author failed to realize is that art, aside from being a form of self-expression, it also evokes emotions. And that is one quality of games that nobody can deny. Based from the aforementioned definitions of arts given by two of the most trusted names in lexicography, games can be considered as art—they are “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” and they are “appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

When creating video games, developers not only think about the fun that it can give to the gamers; they think about the storyline, the character profiles, the visual designs, the audio, the controls. All these are products and application of one’s imaginations and creative thinking. Thus, video games are almost an incorporation of literature, visual arts, cinematography, music, and virtual technology—and still it is not art? If the argument falls on the line that games are meant to entertain, aren’t movies, songs, short stories and novels, dances, stage plays—different forms of arts—are meant to entertain too? Then, what disqualifies video games as art? If Samyn says that “videogames are bland, unforgiving, meaningless, cold-blooded, rigid systems,” aren’t there movies, short stories and novels, songs, stage plays, and other forms of arts that exhibit the same quality? Should they also be disconsidered as art forms?

Art is also “appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Games have both. They have visual and auditory beauty, and they evoke emotions in more ways that one can imagine. Just like songs, movies, plays, books, etc., games can evoke different feelings before, during, and even after the gameplay: excitement, sadness, anger, frustration, joy, disappointment, disbelief, and the list can go on. Gamers will know what I mean.

“Art Is About Something. Games Are Not.”

In his article, Samyn stated, “We minimize the importance of the story and draw attention to our cool mechanics and the fun our players are having. . . . Instead of embracing the artistic potential of the medium, we have retreated into the comfortable zone of gaming.” However, have we not done the same with movies and songs? Don’t people jam to a song they do not even understand just because the music is so catchy (Gangnam Style to cite an example), and don’t people simply watch movie not because of the story it offers but because they are huge supporters and/or admirers of the actors? Should these facts give demerits to songs and movies and make them less of an art?

Despite what the author thinks, games are not “not about something.” Each game has a certain story that each gamer follows, no matter how ambiguous or trivial the story maybe. It could be about a plumber rescuing a princess, an elf looking for the abducted princess, a group of counter-terrorists defending a territory, students aiming to be a top performer of their class, or whatever else. Just because games are made differently from other forms of (traditional) art forms does not make it any less or just almost art.

Don’t games make people more involved, thus, taking art to a higher form? Then why just call games “almost art” when they are, in fact, definitely art themselves.

“How Art is Made”

Although I agree with Samyn’s statement that art is created on purpose, I do not agree with what he implied that art looks for a place in the museum. To quote him: “The fine art on display in museums of contemporary art has long lost the social and cultural relevance that we are after. . . We’re not looking for a spot in the museum; we’re looking for a place in the heart of the public at large. And for that we will need to work as artists. . . . [art] is created from an entirely different motivation: to explore certain themes or to convey messages that cannot be said in any other way.”

Not all art targets a slot in museum walls. As an artist myself, I can say that a place in the heart of the public at large is what we are after when we make art. The place in the museum? Well, that is more of an acknowledgement of how great of an artist you are. The fact that you were able to make it through to the hearts of people makes your work art in itself.

Perhaps what Samyn might have missed is the fact that art itself is not something that can be defined and limited. Although language and philosophy were able to come up with definitions to describe what art is, it is not often enough to simple point out what is art and what is not. The complexity of art’s nature does not end; it goes on. As long are there are new inventions made, the nature of art rapidly expands. If we limit our idea of art to what the books say, then, we will not come to appreciate the contemporary and post-modern creations as art.


* For those who do not know, The Escapist is an online tabloid covering video games, gamers, the gaming industry, and gaming culture.


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