Beyond “Great Works of Art”

I didn’t make it to Brian Moriarty’s Apology for Roger Ebert at GDC due to having a conflicting work shift at the time, but the text has been posted online and a few people have been talking about it, so it’s been brought to my attention. I’ve been sick of the “are games art?” debate forever, because in my mind, there’s no debate because the answer is an absolute “yes”, but then I have to remember that when a lot of people say “art”, what they really mean is “great art”, or “high art”, or as Moriarty calls it, “sublime art”. And then, things start to get complicated.

I agree with Emily Short‘s assessment that there’s far too much human diversity in the world to be able to truly say that a “great work of art” touches everyone. I would also like to say — and I can’t possibly be the only one who’s ever noticed this — that the very way in which our culture labels things “great works of art” is steeped in unexamined privilege. As with history, art that’s preserved and remembered for future generations is that created by the winners, is it not? I mean, sure, maybe we’ll have the work of some token minorities sprinkled in for good measure, especially in more recent years, but it’s hard to deny that it’s old white dudes whose voices are, by far, the most dominant.

An online conversation from a few years ago comes to mind, when someone negatively compared a soliloquy in one of my games to that in Hamlet, stating that the latter was inherently superior due to its message being universal. And all the while, I was thinking, Hamlet doesn’t speak for me. Neither do any of the all-white-male Great Artists that Moriarty name-drops in his speech. Of course, we were all taught in school that we should treat Great White Dudes’ musings as universal, because we folks of marginalised groups are pretty much forced to understand the dominant culture as well as our own. Heck, it’s taken me a damn well long time to recognise and acknowledge the ways institutional prejudice has shaped my life precisely because of the fact that such standpoints were so rarely acknowledged in artistic media to which I was exposed growing up.

So you see, the very reason games are so compelling to me as an artist is that they’re more removed from notions of “high art” than any other medium. [1] There’s more uncharted territory and less tradition, fewer obstacles to surmount in getting unknown voices heard. And the ability to make choices that Ebert has famously derided is what gives the medium power for me; finally, now you have the chance to be in another person’s shoes and understand what’s possible for them, instead of seeing their lives play out before you in a detached manner! Talk about challenging and overturning the dominant paradigm!

Granted, the points regarding the difficulty in creating good art in a commercial industry do hold true, and it is indeed sad that most indie game developers, or at least the ones who gain the most exposure at the IGF and the like, are saying basically the same things as the heavily commercialised games except with a bit more edge and maybe some pixel art thrown in for good measure. But the potential to say new things and make more diverse voices heard is there, and I hope more of us take advantage of it in the years to come.


  1. Comics are a pretty close second, though.
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