Are Videogames Art?

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My dissertation defends a positive answer to the question: “Can a videogame be a work of art? ” To achieve this goal I develop definitions of several concepts, primarily ‘art’, ‘games’, and ‘videogames’, and offer arguments about the compatibility of these notions.

In Part One, I defend a definition of art from amongst several contemporary and historical accounts. This definition, the Intentional-Historical account, requires, among other things, that an artwork have the right kind of creative intentions behind it, in short that the work be intended to be regarded in a particular manner. This is a leading account that has faced several recent objections that I address, particular the buck-passing theory, the objection against non-failure theories of art, and the simultaneous creation response to the ur-art problem, while arguing that it is superior to other theories in its ability to answer the question of videogames’ art status.

Part Two examines whether games can exhibit the art-making kind of creative intention. Recent literature has suggested that they can. To verify this a definition of games is needed. I review and develop the most promising account of games in the literature, the over-looked account from Bernard Suits. I propose and defend a modified version of this definition against other accounts. Interestingly, this account entails that games cannot be successfully intended to be works of art because games are goal-directed activities that require a voluntary selection of inefficient means and that is incompatible with the proper manner of regarding that is necessary for something to be an artwork.

While the conclusions of Part One and Part Two may appear to suggest that videogames cannot be works of art, Part Three proposes and defends a new account of videogames that, contrary to first appearances, implies that not all videogames are games. This Intentional-Historical Formalist account allows for non-game videogames to be created with an art-making intention, though not every non-ludic videogame will have an art-making intention behind it. I then discuss examples of videogames that are good candidates for being works of art. I conclude that a videogame can be a work of art, but that not all videogames are works of art.

The thesis is significant in several respects. It is a continuation of academic work that has focused on the definition and art status of videogames. It clarifies the current debate and provides a positive account of the central issues that has so far been lacking. It also defines videogames in a way that corresponds better with the actual practice of videogame making and playing than other definitions in the literature. It offers further evidence in defense of certain theories of art over others, providing a close examination of videogames as a new case study for potential art objects and for aesthetic and artistic theory in general. Finally, it provides a compelling answer to the question of whether videogames can be art.

This project also provides the groundwork for new evaluative, critical, and appreciative tools for engagement with videogames as they develop as a medium. As videogames mature, more people, both inside and outside academia, have increasing interest in what they are and how to understand them. One place many have looked is to the practice of art appreciation. My project helps make sense of which appreciative and art-critical tools and methods are applicable to videogames.