Brock Rough is a graduate of Northern Illinois University (2010, MA in Philosophy), and currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, Department of Philosophy. His research focuses on the art status and ontology of videogames, their role as a test case for theories of art, and the ontology and intersection of games and art. Before pursuing philosophy, Brock spent several years working as a portrait painter.
Videogames are a massive cultural phenomenon. They have come far from the early days of Pong, Pac-Man, and Super Mario Bros. to become productions with Hollywood blockbuster-sized budgets and sales records, like the Call of Duty, Madden NFL, and Grand Theft Auto series’. With such popularity, it was inevitable that some would begin to question the art status of, at least some, videogames. And for some, the issue has been put to rest by the recent inclusion of videogames in some world-class art institutions, including the travelling exhibition put together by the Smithsonian and the permanent collection started by MoMa.
But it can be questioned whether the recent inclusion in the artworld really shows that videogames are artworks. To base their art status on this inclusion sounds a lot like some form of Institutional Theory (IT). Consideration of the kind of theoretical concerns that endorse institutional theory reveal a problem for the inclusion of videogames. As it stands, videogames serve as an excellent contemporary litmus test for an institutional theory of art, a particular test case that has not been available since the theory was developed, and is unique in its capacity as a test subject. I hope to show briefly how videogames serve as this interesting contemporary case and how it shows the inadequacy of this popularly appealed to form of IT.
Many of the reasons given in favor of videogames being art are along the lines that being selected to be in art museums makes them art, and thus take some form of Institutional Theory. There are several variations of IT, each with different degrees of the broadness of the artworld institution(s). Roughly, the relevant form of IT to this debate says that something is an artwork if it is selected for presentation in an art institution by a relevant member of the artworld. If something like this definition is correct, then it is straightforward why videogames are now artworks, as they have indeed been included in what are uncontroversially art institutions and were selected to be presented there by what are certainly relevant artworld members. But, of course, we must back up and ask more carefully about the relevant questions: “What is the artworld?”, “What are artworld institutions?”, “Who are the relevant members of the artworld?” and “What kind of selection did they make?”
Donald Judd famously said, “if someone calls it art, it’s art.” For some, this maximally broad notion of what the artworld is, who the relevant members are, and what selection consists of is sufficient. Some people have started calling videogames an artform, or at least some videogames artworks, and this is enough. This, of course, is problematic, as art status does not reside solely in someone calling something art. If this were the case there would be no room for accidentally or mistakenly calling something art, for once one called it so, so it would be. Clearly, taken literally it is false that just anyone can transform anything at all into art simply by calling it so.
Judd is speaking with a characteristic flair, highlighting the importance of an element of so-called Idea Art at the time, in response to a Formalist tradition that was concerned with craft and the way an art object appeared, and so we can take his comment in context and with a grain of salt. A more reasonable interpretation of his statement understands him as defending the view that an artwork is not so because of its morphology, not because of its formal properties, but because of some kind of intention directed at it on the part of some relevant person, primarily the artist. What is the appropriate intention? Well, it would be something like intending the object to be considered alongside other artworks, or as other artworks have been considered, which generally includes an intention for them to be included, at least as potential members, in art institutions like museums and galleries.
But in the present case, it is not simply that someone has called videogames art. They have been put into the right kind of buildings, recognized by the right kind of institutions for inclusion as art objects. Or at least so some claim in defense of videogames’ status as art objects. But if we look more carefully at the way videogames have actually been exhibited, their inclusion is not so, well, inclusive. The Smithsonian exhibit, now travelling the country, is not a permanent collection, at least not yet. Perhaps this is a small point, and we should note that the faddish attention of the artworld does not destroy something’s art status, and says even less about standardly temporary exhibitions. What is of more interest, however, is how the exhibition was presented.
The Smithsonian exhibition was by most accounts, and my personal experience, devastatingly tame and conservative. Almost none of the videogames included were playable, and I use ‘playable’ to mean whatever engagement is appropriate to the work, and not to bias acceptance of videogames as artworks on the basis of them being playthings. Most of the exhibition was taken up by a dry, historical presentation of the development of various videogame systems and a handful of videogames from each. These were accompanied by still images and videos of the videogames being played. The reasoning behind making the exhibition like this is understandable, though it ends up being at odds with the inclusion of videogames as art. The Smithsonian is an august institution, and large segments of videogame culture is not. To treat videogames like the other art objects in the museum might be seen as too inclusive to those who hold a dim view of videogames, as well as being inappropriate given what videogames are and the way we engage with them. However, to simply set up some consoles and let the public have at them would seem to be at odds with the kind of engagement that we think appropriate for art institutions. So a staid, compromising, perhaps bastardized, exhibition was made, and what we were given is an institutional inclusion on the level of an interesting cultural phenomenon. So while the Smithsonian exhibition is inclusion in an artworld institution, the Smithsonian created and couched the exhibition in a way that meant to sanitize that inclusion to some degree.
The MoMa collection is different in that it is permanent. It is importantly different in that, when reasonably possible, the videogames are playable in their entirety. MoMa has taken seriously both the technical and experiential aspects of videogames in a way that the Smithsonian exhibition did not; when the games are not feasibly played in the museum, for reasons such as duration or the necessity of engaging with a massive amount of other players, they have prepared narrated video guides to present the works. All of this is less dryly historical and more focused on the experiential quality of engaging with videogames. MoMa, however, has not added videogames to its permanent art collection. Rather it has put them in the Applied Design section of the museum, to share space between vacuum cleaners and the cardboard coffee sleeve. It should be of no surprise that videogames can be objects of high aesthetic value and captivating design sensibility, which is why some have defended them as art candidates. It is less clear that inclusion in a collection of applied design in an institution that also houses art is sufficient to make them art.
So maybe the particular way that these particular games have been selected is not sufficient to make them art. But let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that they were fully included in the right institutions, embraced by these lauded art institutions as art objects. Are those who included them qualified to include them as art, as opposed to, say, objects of cultural significance or curiosity? Another way of asking this is, “Are the criteria for inclusion as art objects relevant to their inclusion qua art?” The selection process used in the Smithsonian exhibition seemed caught between the categories of art and videogames, and seem unlikely to have represented either category well. The exhibition was made up of 85 videogames which were voted on by the public from a list of 240. The list was put together by a group of videogame industry professionals along with Chris Melissinos, former Chief Gaming Officer at Sun Microsystems and founder of PastPixel, who also served as curator of the show.
This should give us some pause, as the worry here is about who are the relevant members of the artworld who are bestowing the art status on these videogames. The videogames included were selected by a public online poll, so unless we are willing to grant the public as a whole the status of artworld member, and this seems like a move to be resisted, then they were not selected by members of the artworld. Thus their selection doesn’t seem appropriate for the kind of artworld inclusion that IT prescribes.
Perhaps, however, the relevant selection was done in the initial 240 choices. This raises two interesting questions. First, are the guest curator and the videogame industry professionals who were chosen to make this selection adequate artworld members? It appears that they were not selected for their artworld expertise, but rather their videogame expertise. Melissinos’ current work is on the preservation of videogame media, and this is obviously relevant to the curatorial practices of art museums. However, it is also relevant to preservation and curatorial practices broadly, for many media other than videogames. Maybe it is the artworld member at the Smithsonian who chose the selection committee that is able to confer art-status-granting powers, but this seems like an unreasonable stretch of transitive powers, even by the most permissive forms of IT.
Is there an appropriate party who possesses the relevant artworld and videogame expertise to be an adequate judge? Perhaps, but if defining and finding such a party is necessary it begs the question as to what would qualify them as such, and attempting to answer this question further shows the insufficiency of IT to settle the matter on videogames as art.
Second, what do we make of the remaining 155 videogames that were on the ballot, but did not receive enough votes in the poll? Are they art? Not art? Stuck betwixt in an art-like limbo? None of the answers are satisfying. Were the games that were selected not art all this time, and only became art once selected? Furthermore, even if the right kind of person included them in the right way, does this say anything about the rest of videogames, those not (yet) included in the right institutions? IT is not meant to grant art status to whole categories of things, but rather to selected individuals. Thus taken strictly, even if a videogame is selected appropriately by an appropriate member of an appropriate artworld institution, this does nothing to expand the banner of art to include all videogames, unless by some convoluted transmission of artworld institution status the Smithsonian and MoMa are somehow able to turn XBox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam into artworld institutions themselves.
None of this is to suggest that videogames are not artworks, as they very well may be, or at least some of them. What this is meant to show is that for any videogame, if it is art, it is not because of the recent selections made by the Smithsonian and MoMa. Furthermore this discussion has avoided too much talk of artist’s intentions, meant broadly to cover creators of works and potentially art. Perhaps there is a way of intending their work to be art that allows videogame developers to confer art status on a videogame, but this is a separate issue from whether a museum’s selection is sufficient for granting art status, and thus we must reserve consideration of this possibility for another time.