It's Official: Video Games Are Art

The National Endowment for the Arts says so, and is even putting its funding where its mouth is. But the gaming community says it's probably too soon to pop the champagne corks.

Mona Lisa on monitor

The National Endowment for the Arts recently made an announcement that was MIDI music to our ears: It was now considering "interactive games" among the art forms to which it would offer funding. Games blogs across the web threw confetti: "It means that if a developer wants to create games for people, doesn’t want to charge money for them, but still wants to be able to eat, there is an option," said Icrontic. The savior had arrived, lending long-sought government legitimacy (and dollars) to a much-maligned form.

The NEA announcement is a major step, to be sure. But as a few members of the gaming community tell Fast Company, it's too soon to bust out the party hats. The NEA announcement is a milestone, but raises as many questions as it answers.

"Some people were kind of eye-rolly about it," Erin Robinson, an indie game maker (and one of our Most Influential Women in Tech) tells Fast Company, speaking to some skepticism among the gaming community. "I'm not sure anybody went out and celebrated." She added that while her own personal hope was to make games that the market would support, she did have friends who "make weird little art games" and might benefit from the funding. "They're very much the starving artists, and it'd be very neat if they were able to tap into that fund now."

Robinson said that she was in the market for funding herself--she wants a more professional visual look to her next game--but that she would likely be appealing to Kickstarter, not the NEA. Why? "I'd have to know more about the NEA money, if it comes with strings attached, or whether I could sell commercially." Many starving, or hungry, artists, have chosen their path very deliberately, she explained. Indie game makers are skeptical of the big-publisher model--of the creative control they'd lose, for one thing, but also of potential profits if their game became a blockbuster, like Jonathan Blow's Braid, for instance. It's not all about starving for their art--it's about starving in the hopes of a bigger feast down the line. "I think perhaps secretly that's a big desire for all of us," she says. Her own game, PuzzleBots, became something of a hit on Steam, the indie game distribution platform by Valve.

Ian Bogost, a game designer, critic, and researcher, says that the real news from the NEA announcement wasn't that it had reclassified games as art, but simply that it was actually funding the creation of art again in the first place. Though the Bush years, said Bogost, the NEA mainly relegated its role to the funding of distribution and other peripheral components of art-making. He also called attention to the fact that not just any indie gamer could apply for the grants. The NEA restricts applicants to "nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3), U.S. organizations; units of state or local government; or federally recognized tribal communities or tribes," and while indie game artists could apply, it would have to be in partnership with a nonprofit.

Bogost also wanted to throw the brakes on a tendency he had seen among gamers to celebrate the supposed "legitimacy" the new designation conferred on games. "I think this is encouraging, and we shouldn't belittle it," he conceded of the NEA announcement. At the same time, though, "This is not how culture works," he says. "The way that art and culture develops is messy and weird," and shouldn't come down to the funding decisions of a few government bureaucrats.

"It's best to look at this for what it is," he sums up, "an earnest gesture on the part of the NEA to include more media, and to fund art again."

[Image: Flickr user centralasian]

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