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Video games as art

Concordia PhD candidate William Robinson’s master’s thesis contends that in some cases gamers and designers should be viewed as artists
September 3, 2015
By Christine Zeindler

Computer and video games have come a long way since the early days of Pac-Man, when teenagers would crowd into an arcade. Now video games can be played anywhere on portable devices such as smartphones and tablets.

William Robertson Game enthusiast William Robinson, MA 12, is now in Concordia’s PhD in humanities program. | Photo courtesy: William Robinson

This evolution has led to a change of demographics from teenager to adult; the average Canadian player is now in his or her mid-30s. Production of these games has also become a huge industry, and Canada is the third biggest producer worldwide.

Despite this large offering and history, video games still get a bad rap. Parents, spouses, school boards and even governments see gaming as non-productive, antisocial and addictive. The common sentiment is that video games are a waste of time and consequently have no value.

Gamers as artists

But what if the player were viewed as an artist — an actor who interpreted scenarios and played out dramas? Would perceptions change if the game creators were appreciated as choreographers? Would this bring new meaning and authenticity to this pastime?

This new perspective is what William Robinson, MA 12, examined in his master’s thesis.

“The goal of my project was to see if I could bring a new appreciation to the gaming world,” says Robinson, who was supervised by Bart Simon, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “My thesis asked whether it’s possible to define gamers [those who play video games] as artists and their games as pieces of art.”

The caveat, he adds, is that not all games and not all players can be included in the art category — just as not all paintings can be defined as artistic.

What is art?

Robinson’s first step was to define art. He chose to focus on the criteria of creativity, value and flair.

“Being original and doing something that you or someone else hasn’t done before seems to be an important characteristic of art,” he says. “Bringing value, worth or recognition to the object is also an important distinction, as well as flair, which involves taking a risk and not knowing the end result.”

Robinson suggests Starcraft One and Two are examples of games and players that can be categorized as art and artists. The online, multiplayer real-time fantasy games have complex storylines. They also have a large following, especially in South Korea, where two TV stations broadcast game sessions.

Starcraft gamers are providing valuable performances that are being watched by millions of people,” says Robinson. “They are creative and they develop unique strategies and take risks. They gain notoriety and in some cases win cash prizes. By my definition, they are artists and Starcraft is an art form.”

Robinson concedes his viewpoint on video games might take time to gain popularity. “In the end, it is not my definition that counts,” he says. “Usually, academic institutions or art museums have the final say on what can be called art. This is an evolving process and my hope is that my thesis has begun the discourse.”

It is interesting to note that the Smithsonian American Art Museum, home to one of the largest collections of American art, hosted an exhibition of video games in 2012 called “The Art of Video Games.”

It seems that Robinson’s theory may have already gained acceptance.

Robinson calls for more players to play games artfully. “Gamers have every reason to play beautifully, creatively, skillfully, with the intent to make art,” he says. “Game developers and designers should consider players as artistic collaborators.”

Bart Simon Bart Simon is director of Concordia’s Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Research Centre.

Concordia ahead in game studies

According to Robinson, the field of game studies is gaining in popularity and Concordia is ahead of the pack; there are already 10 faculty members participating in the game studies and design research stream offered through the School of Graduate Studies’ individualized program.

Robinson and Simon are involved in Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Research Centre, an interdisciplinary centre for research and creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art based at Concordia. TAG brings together scholars, artists, designers, engineers and students who have a shared interest and concern with digital games as objects for cultural research, artistic creation, technical innovation and social mediation.

“Concordia remains my only choice to pursue my studies,” he says. “For my master’s thesis, I was fortunate to have a supportive supervisory committee and grants from national institutions such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, private support from Hydro Québec and donor support provided through an entrance and a program bursary. I strongly believe I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this work anywhere else.”

Robertson is currently a candidate in Concordia’s PhD in humanities program, where his research focuses on materiality, game studies, player creativity, digital labour and aesthetic analytic philosophy.

About Bart Simon

  • Associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and director of the Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Research Centre
  • Areas of expertise include game studies, science and technology studies, and cultural sociology
  • At Concordia since 2001
  • Has directly supervised 21 graduate students

What he says about his students

“In the field of game studies and design students are the reason we are here. It was largely ambitious graduate students around the world that started our field and it was they who demanded that academia wake up to the possibilities and potentials of digital games as culture. William is part of this global network; interdisciplinary to the core, he is driven by the problems and questions that are in front of him, in the world we belong to, and not simply those that have been passed down from those who have come before.”

His motivation

“Academic research is still playing catch-up to a digital culture that is already years beyond what most of us are thinking and writing about. Our traditional disciplinary structures are simply too slow to make sense of this experience, so if we are going to make a difference in how we think, reflect and act in a digital world we are going to have to get creative; not just with our ideas, but how we develop, organize and articulate those ideas. TAG is meant to be one model for how we can proceed to do this in the context of the university.”


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