Who controls the audience?
Video games have a short history.
They were first developed in the late 1940s as a form of experimentation, where programmers would push the limits of computing technology. In the 1960s, a group of MIT students created Spacewar. The game was designed not only to be technically challenging to the creators, but to be entertaining to its users. In 1972, Magnavox released the game Magnavox Odyssey to sell more TV sets. A former student and player of Spacewar, Nolan Bushnell, sold the first Pong unit with his business partner Ted Dabney to a bar in California in the hopes of turning a programming exercise into a lucrative business venture. Toy company Coleco was the first major manufacturer to see the profit in bringing games to the most susceptible consumers in the market- children- in the mid 70s.
Since then, video games and the technology that supports them have continued to develop, while their place in our culture has proven equally volatile. The history shows that gaming, unlike other mediums, has no assumed artistic function. Games have been created to teach budding young programmers, or they have entertained the drunk patrons at a bar in 1970s Sunnyvale, or they have distracted your kid for a few hours. There are plenty of people who assume, not incorrectly, that games are not artistic at all.
After all, if games can be examined alongside artforms like theatre and film, where is the theory? Where are the university courses dedicated to the art of gaming? Where are the lofty academic journals, the conferences, the critical bedrock?
Academic validation aids in critical innovation. Being deemed 'art' would bring games into the big leagues, into the clubhouse with opera and theatre. Maybe an academic or cultural stamp of approval would lead to more money. The debate still rages as to whether or not games are art in the first place. Roger Ebert penned a 2010 response to Kellee Santiago's TED Talk, arguing that-
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
Here, Ebert draws a line around the medium of video game to prevent the label of 'art' from being applied to it. Art critic Jonathan Jones echoes this sentiment in his Guardian article from 2012, stating that-
The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds... The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one "owns" the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.
Art is a term with definitions so nebulous that I see this debate as a kind of intellectual red herring. Definitions will always have academics and thinkers wringing their hands. The debate around games as art is, in reality, a debate about who controls art.
My mum and I have been going to the theatre together fairly regularly since I was in high school. She is certainly no novice when it comes to storytelling- she has made a living off filmmaking. In fact, the reason we could go to the theatre so often was usually a case of my mum knowing someone involved in its production. When I was 16 I found out about dramaturgy (Googling theatre careers online and finding the Wikipedia page for it), and when I was 18 I started my degree in it. As I studied, and still tried to see as much theatre with my mum as I could, I started to notice her asking me to explain things. She would defer to my opinion (of which I usually had many), and until fairly recently I hadn't thought much of it. After all, I study the theatre, and she is an expert in film. It made sense to ask me questions about the play.
But the truth is, sometimes I go to the theatre and I don't get it. I'm sure anyone in the arts experiences this but my degree and professional experience has taught me that it's okay to feel that way. Confusion is an invitation. But for my mum, it can be quite destabilising. I have seen strange plays with other friends and family members where the confusion is too much, and it ruins the fun.
This is all very familiar to me. I've written endlessly about the Grand-Guignol, the French theatre of horror, and it's lack of cultural recognition. Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, the preeminent English language Grand-Guignol experts, argue that the lack of attention paid to this theatre has fairly sinister motivations-
It is not difficult to lay the blame for this neglect at the door of institutional conservatism and general disdain in the past for the serious study of popular theatre in academic circles. For many years the Grand-Guignol was simply deemed unworthy of serious consideration and the very recipe for its success with the public was sufficient to secure its dismissal by theatre historians.
(Hand and Wilson, 2002, pg. ix)
When art happens and there is no critic around to valorise it, did the art happen at all?
My mum is an expert in storytelling, and she feels alienated by the theatre. The barriers around the medium can only be surmounted by those with a degree in it, by those who have realised that the barriers were erected by old men hundreds of years ago.
Calling the medium art gives it credibility and unfettered access to our cultural consciousness. But this also tricks us into believing that we need to be a certain way to understand that access.
Video games, whether art critics want to believe it or not, demonstrate that, for the vast majority of people who engage with them, academia doesn't matter. Games entertain players and make developers rich without being extensively examined by the artistic lens, and continue to develop without the help of any manifestos or isms pinning them to any aesthetic obligations. Theatre, a very long time ago, stopped being a medium like video games. The older the medium, the more robust the barriers around it, bolstered by centuries of discourse and theory. Normal citizens in Elizabethan England went to watch Shakespearean plays that are now kept locked behind a barrier that can only be permeated through study. Did audiences become less able to understand theatre in the last 400 years? No- the barrier just became harder to get through.
All of this is to say that the sooner an audience member realises this, the sooner they can embrace their power.
Audiences don't need permission from artists or academics to enjoy work that has been made readily available to them. Audiences are inherently necessary to many artforms. The first thing I learned in my degree was that the word theatre is derived from the Greek word theasthai, which means "to behold". Theatre is a matter of actors on a stage performing from a script, but the secret is that the audience is always doing the most sacred job. Games may have points and winning conditions and designers behind them, but the player is performing the most important role in the entire operation.
Audiences are the most powerful cultural, monetary, and artistic force in any medium. Restricting their power behind academic barriers only helps those who are afraid of what an audience can do once they realise this.
Some critics may feel that allowing audiences to embrace their role as the beholders of art is akin to throwing something precious to the wolves. But those wolves are a blessing, and are asking to be fed.
If I leave only one thought in any of my beholders' heads, I hope it is this- my mum is an expert, even if the cultural gatekeepers don't make her feel like one. Anyone watching a play, taking in its world and validating it with their presence, will always be the most powerful entity in the room.
Smithsonian 2014, Video Game History, Smithsonian, <https://www.si.edu/spotlight/the-father-of-the-video-game-the-ralph-baer-prototypes-and-electronic-games/video-game-history>.
Jones, J 2012, 'Sorry MoMA, video games are not art', The Guardian,
Ebert, R 2010, 'Video games can never be art', Roger Ebert, 16 April, <https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/video-games-can-never-be-art
Harper, D 2021, 'theater (n.)', Online Etymology Dictionary, <https://www.etymonline.com/word/theater>.
Hand, RJ & Wilson, M 2002, Grand-Guignol: The French theatre of horror, University of
Exeter Press, Devon.
Spacewar players photograph © Computer History Museum
Eyes © Wix
Grand-Guignol foyer photograph © TIME Magazine