Games can be art, NEA says, but the arguments have just begun

It's been almost six years since Roger Ebert declared video games can never be art, and the gamers of the world have been barking about it ever since, even when he recanted his opinion as being purely theoretical.

Now the National Endowment for the Arts has something to say about that.

The government agency announced earlier this month that it is expanding the rules for media eligible for grant money. The former Arts on Radio and Television guidelines are now known as the Arts in Media guidelines, and include "all available media platforms such as the internet, interactive and mobile technologies, digital games, arts content delivered via satellite, as well as on radio and television."

That means that, yes, video games qualify for federal grant money, as long as they are works "about the arts" and "media projects that can be considered works of art."

It won't be so simple, however; Alice Myatt, director of Media Arts at the NEA, points out to Ars Technica that under these new specs, games will have to compete with plenty of other media: "We'll continue to support television and radio, but we are also going to support content developed for the web, for theatrical release, for mobile phones, content to be distributed via satellite, and even content for game platforms," she said.

So who decides what kinds of video games will qualify for that distinction? Projects applying for grants are reviewed by a panel, the NEA told the site, but those panels haven't even been selected yet, because even the NEA doesn't know what kind of expertise they will need to make that determination.

There's a lot of latitude in that definition, as your average geek could probably expound at length why games ranging from the recently released L.A. Noire's hard-bitten detective story to Pong's minimalist table tennis simulation would qualify. I wouldn't be surprised to see a grant application arrive that argued the thematic motifs of Super Mario Bros.' Mushroom Kingdom nominated that classic for permanent enshrinement in the National Gallery.

But before you go thinking that Call of Duty will soon qualify for your tax money — a ridiculous assertion Miami radio talk-show host Neal Asbury already made on Fox News — keep in mind that there are four criteria the NEA is looking for its applicants to have met:

Creation: The creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence,

Engagement: Public engagement with diverse and excellent art,

Learning: Lifelong learning in the arts, and

Livability: The strengthening of communities through the arts.

Surely there are developers out there with ideas that capture the essence of these four "outcomes," as the NEA calls them. The Danish developers of Limbo, Playdead Studios met them last July, as far as I'm concerned, if for no other reason than you spend the entire three hours their XBLA title takes to finish wondering what the hell is going on. That qualifies as much as any modern art I've ever viewed.

While it's obvious that no mass-appeal commercial title would ever try to apply for a grant, just as no big-budget Hollywood picture would attempt to extoll the virtues of artfully blowing up buildings and crashing cars in a high-speed chase on film, it will be interesting to see who comes calling for the cash (which can range from $10,000 to $200,000, on average). The application deadline is in September, for those interested.

Under those four focal points, who's to say Farmville isn't a contender, since it's responsible for bringing Facebook friends closer together? Or Bioshock 2, for exploring the tenets of free will and the consequences of moral and ethical flexibility? Or the Mass Effect saga, which has woven a complex story universe rivalling any sci-fi movie or novel series?

Surely, the grant panels will give us answers for those kinds of questions in short order. If Ebert could uncategorically state one point of view back in 2005 without ever having picked up a controller, surely a review board of gaming peers can come up with an official counterargument just as quickly.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Games can be art, NEA says, but the arguments have just begun 05/25/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 11:57pm]

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