Ekow Eshun, former director of the UK’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, doesn’t think games are art right now but he sees their potential.
Debating the topic with author, comedian and regular panel show ghost Charlie Higson on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Eshun stated quite plainly that “Video games are entertainment.” Now, before you scuttle off to grab your debating stick, he did go on to say; “most of the things we enjoy in life are entertainment. Lots of books, lots of TV shows, lots of films aren’t art. That doesn’t make them bad, it makes them really enjoyable.”
“Most of the things we like, enjoy and admire are really good but whether they’re at the precise high level where we say this changes how I see the world in a significant and deep way, well, actually they don’t.”
When asked whether Minecraft, one of the usual suspects wheeled out by the games-are-art crowd, counted as art, Eshun replied in the negative. “No, it’s not art and I think it’s probably not trying to be art either,” he said. “I’d suggest that the things we really consider art are the things that allow us to ask profound questions about who we are, how we live and the state of the world around us. I think most games don’t get to that place, and it’s important to set that bar quite high.”
What separates Eshun from, say, Roger Ebert, is that while he believes no current games can be counted as art – though you do have to wonder how many games he’s played – that isn’t a condemnation of the entire medium. “I think the likelihood is that at some point there will be games that ask profound questions,” he noted.
Higson, a gamer himself, didn’t disagree, but he did argue that the impact games have had on other mediums is undeniable. “Hollywood films – most of them look like computer games. Most of them aren’t as good as computer games,” he pointed out.
“In terms of storytelling, a game like Grand Theft Auto is enormously complex and works on loads of different levels, and it looks amazing too.”
Though the games-as-art debate remains as popular as ever, you do have to wonder if there’s any point to it. “Art,” both as a concept and a definition, is often arbitrary and nebulous, there will never be any real consensus on the matter. A far more interesting question is why acquiring the “art” label, a label you’d be sharing with such luminaries as Tracey Emin, matters to the gaming community in the first place.