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1:26pm on Friday, 25th June, 2010:

Cahiers des Jeux


Film is an artistic medium.

Originally, Film's claims to be an artistic medium hung by the thread of its similarity to Theatre. Apart from the efforts of a few avant garde film-makers in the silent movie era (when making a movie wasn't so expensive that people couldn't easily experiment), its attempts to gain artistic legitimacy were confined to creating adaptations of established forms of art, principally Literature and to some extent Theatre. These were regarded by the art establishment as being worthy, but inferior to the work upon which they were based; regular, "popular" movies, of the kind being churned out in Hollywood, were low-brow cultural artefacts of little artistic merit.

This attitude persisted through the 1940s. Hollywood movies were slick and had high production values, but they were not regarded as works of art. Government funding for movies was directed either at making documentaries (in the UK), literary adaptations (France) or propaganda (everywhere). When people consciously made films that were intended to be "art", the results were mainly political: art in film-making meant using Film to make an overt point. As is so often the case with artistic forms, entertainment was perceived to be a distraction from the integrity of the message the film-maker wished to convey; art is serious, and entertainment gets in the way of that unless it follows precise (and therefore neutered) conventions.

It wasn't until the 1950s that this way of looking at Film was challenged. The French, who because of the war had been starved of Hollywood movies, were suddenly allowed to see a wave of the best of them. It was clear to a group of French film-makers that these were more intelligent, self-confident, independent and alive than the staid, high-brow French movies they had been watching for the past decade. They saw that movies did not have to duplicate the art of other forms; they could be art on their own terms. The likes of André Bazin, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut, writing in the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, re-evaluated Hollywood-style movies as stand-alone art forms, and in so doing opened up Film to new analyses. Disregardeding whatever reasons practitioners of other art forms might evaluate a Hollywood movie as art, they considered instead the reasons why such a movie might be art in and of itself. Their work finally established Film as a legitimate art form, and led to what today we know as Film Studies.

So: games.

Several years ago, I tore into an art gallery curator speaking to a group of us in the USA, who dared to suggest that games could be used to make art. It wasn't that I disagreed with this assertion — they can indeed be used to make art — but it was her insistance that they can only be used to make art that I found outrageous. She did not regard them as being mediums of artistic expression themselves. Thus, for example, the ghastly, woeful, pretentious AgoraXchange was highlighted as art because it was created to offer a "political alternative" to the current world order (one which brooks no alternative to its own world order, incidentally). It was envisioned by an artist, funded by the Tate, positioned as a new media version of Thomas More's Utopia — you can see where it was ticking all the "art form" boxes. Unfortunately, though, it utterly sucked as a game. It sucked as a virtual world. Its design was nonsensical, as any designer could have told its creator in 30 seconds had she cared to listen. It was as if she'd decided to put double-decker buses on the London Underground to show a new world order in public transport, and it hadn't occurred to her that they were too big to fit in the tunnels.

The gallery curator proceeded to describe to us a number of such projects, none of which she had apparently played (otherwise she would have used the word "twaddle"). She seemed to be expecting that we would be joyful that our nerdy little toys could be repurposed to artistic effect. When mildly criticised by Ted Castronova for suggesting that these were all tired ideas by people who knew nothing about games, she replied that games people knew nothing about art. Games aren't art.

That's when I gave her both barrels.

Games are art, and game design is an art form. Instead of patronisingly telling us games can be used to make art, people should be thinking about why they are intrinsically art. Instead of trying to read them as Film, people should be trying to read them as Games. As well as writing games to be art, people should be examining why the games we have are already art. The intersection of art and games isn't "art games", it's games. To say that games are only art if they conform to the conventions of other art forms is as out of line as it was for Film.

Start from the premise that a game can be nothing more than a game and yet still be art, and we'll get somewhere.

Why isn't there a Cahiers des Jeux when you need one?

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).