Video-Games-Posters.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

I opened up a book on arts criticism the other day, "The New York Times Reader: Arts & Culture", and there I saw the end of the games as art debate. The first review in that book: Grand Theft Auto IV, preceded by a paragraph on the significance of video games in recent years.

I think that means we win.

I know this isn’t the ending we envisioned. I too hoped to be among those cheering while Mario and Master Chief led Roger Ebert up to the guillotine. But this might actually be more satisfying.

Video games were recognized so seamlessly as art that the video games press and community were the last to know. We’re still stuck thinking that video games won’t be art until all the nonbelievers recognize it as such. But we don’t need all of them, just The New York Times.

Overcoming Our Fear

Roger Ebert may be one of the best arts journalists alive, but I’ll take the entire NYT over him any day of the week. He is just one man, and the NYT is the highest authority on what is and isn’t culture in the land (just ask them). And as a bonus, unlike Ebert, they actually play the games they talk about. The NYT accepting games as art is good enough for me--it may not be good enough for everyone, but some people will never be convinced.

Now the NYT has given us permission to talk about games as art without always, first, having to argue the case that games are art. This has already been going on for years, of course, but that little twinge of fear--that games aren’t worth talking about--has always been there, even as excellent examples of criticism like Kill Screen have appeared.

In Tom Bissell’s interview with Harper’s about his book "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter", Harper’s points out the thread of anxiety that runs through video games writing, echoed by a quote from that book: “all of us want the reassurance that we are not spending absurd amounts of time on something without merit.”

Winning this debate is important because it lets us move on. We need this debate to be over so we can talk about how games are already art. Because as long as the games-as-art debate remains alive, when we talk about “games as art” we’re really talking about two different things: whether or not games are recognized as art, and our own personal cases for how and why and in what way games are art.

The former is decided by the New York Times, is fairly arbitrary, and ultimately just makes us feels slightly better about ourselves and what we do. The latter is decided by us, and it shapes how we play and understand games.

Talking Openly

Thanks to the NYT, however, games are now art and this state of affairs is permanent, no matter how many people disagree. There may still be people who think modern visual art is pretentious nonsense. They hate Jackson Pollock and think his art looks like someone gunned down a high school art class. These people are entitled to their opinion, but nothing they say or do or think will get that stuff thrown out of a museum: it's too late.

The debate matters for the very real reason that anyone who writes about games as a legitimate part of culture has until now been typing furtively with their back to the wall, hoping that Jack Thompson doesn’t burst through the door like that other Jack in The Shining.

We grew up hearing video games being accused of literally causing murder, and we are still jumpy. There’s a court case going on right this second that could force games to be regulated like a controlled substance. Although we can’t change whether people like games or approve of games, their inclusion in the New York Times is an active approval of them as art and culture.

We needed this, not because it changes the way we talk about games, but because it lets us no longer worry about how we talk about games. Now that the New York Times has been generous enough to end this debate forever, we can start focusing exclusively on doing the meaty work rather than having to argue that our work is legitimate at all.

A lot of great journalism about games and their role as art has definitely come out of the games-as-art debate, but being stuck on the first premise of the argument has been holding us back.

How many words do we waste with throat clearing before we get to the real meat of what we want to say? How many words do we waste just trying to convince readers that talking about games as art is even possible?

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses things that, like videogames, are totally awesome, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]