Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Video Games: Art or Not, Why They Should Be Studied in the Digital Humanities

Whenever a jarringly new creative medium emerges, there comes without fail a debate about the merits of approaching and analyzing such media.  This has happened with photography and film, two media which we today do not question the merits of their critical studies (barring, of course, fringe voices), and we now see the same debate raging anew over video games.  One of the most common forms such debate takes is whether or not the new media can be considered art, and with video games this has been a very public debate, as exemplified when Roger Ebert declared "video games can never be art."  While I very much disagree with Ebert's opinion (to an extent; I have a subjective definition and will agree that they were never art to him, but that does not mean they cannot be art to others), this kind of debate is very much welcome, as it intrinsically creates critical discussion of such works, and helps forge a new discourse for how this medium should be studied, regardless of its status as art or not.

Since the study of art is only one aspect of the humanities (as the field is also engaged with culture, history, et al.), I can think of no field of study more suited to picking up the task of engaging video games critically than the digital humanities.  Video games are objects that do not lend themselves well to many of our extant discourses because of their amalgamation of technology, design, creativity, and dynamism.  The digital humanities not only supports the interdisciplinary, multimedia aspect of video games much better than many other fields due to the interdisciplinary nature of the humanities in general, it is also one of the few fields of study to already critically engage other dynamic texts (e.g. such as in critical code studies, since code is practically always dynamic in how we can interact with it).

Granted, new media studies is another more recent field that can also pick up this mantle and help us engage with video games critically.  But what it cannot offer that the digital humanities can is the amount of support needed to connect this new mode of discourse with other extant humanities discourses.  In other words, digital humanities acts much better as an interdisciplinary communicator among various disciplines, and new media studies is but one of those humanities disciplines which the digital humanities can include in such a diverse engagement.  Video games should be studied as new media, as narratives, as historical objects, as visual design, and as more, and the digital humanities will allow such a complex discourse to be created around them.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one thinking this.  In 2012, the Journal of Digital Humanities had a special section devoted to the intersection of video games with the field of history.  While this is far from perfect (in that it only looked at this media from one field's point-of-view, whereas the digital humanities allows for a forum to compare the different insights available through different fields of study), it is still a welcome step in the right direction.


  1. Anyone who maintains that video games cannot be art has not played: even the most basic racing game or first person shooter involves elements of artistic design. One step further, in some cases I think you could argue gaming as a digital 'performance art' wherein a player moves through a level or a world as a modeled representation of their own making.

  2. Hm, I hadn't even considered the intersection of performance art and video games. That's definitely an area I'd like to see more discussion about.

    I think most of the problems with video games being classified as art is that people have very different opinions on what terms must be met for something to be considered art. For example, Ebert's definition is much more restrictive and objectivist than my own, which relies largely on subjectivity.