Confessions of the Philistine Critic

August 12, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Over at, the argument rages on: Can video games be art? This discussion is into its second year, and has its genesis further back. A few e-mails have asked my opinion about this issue. They presume - rightly or wrongly - that since I have been known to play a computer game or video game from time-to-time that I might be qualified to venture a few words. So, for what it's worth, here I go. Can video/computer games be art?

I don't know and I don't care.

Everyone has a personal definition of "art," and it doesn't always agree with what one might find in the pages of a dictionary. ("The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.") What is art to me may be garbage to someone else, and vice versa. Given that art can encompass a wide range of subjects and areas, can anyone make a definitive statement in 2007 about whether or not the potential exists for video games to open a new branch of art? Just as film evolved from awkward, silent shorts to massive, multi-channel, color spectacles, so games deserve the opportunity to develop beyond where they are today before a summary judgment is passed for or against them. Yes, they have come a long way from Pong, Breakout, and Pac-Man, but there's still a lot of ground to cover.

But what does it really matter? When I'm playing a game, it's for entertainment and enjoyability. I don't worry about whether it's art or not. This is pretty much the same way I approach movies. When I go to see something, I'm not concerned about whether it's purely artistic, purely escapist, or somewhere in between. That's a determination to make after the screening, while ruminating over what I saw or writing a review. (Caveat: Okay, I don't expect the same experience from an Ingmar Bergman film as from something by Michael Bay.) Likewise, when I'm playing a game, I'm just having fun. Questions of artistry don't come into it. It's not as if everything I do in life has to have a lofty purpose.

Confession time: my personality is not conducive to enjoying the arts. I would rather slit my wrists than go to an opera or the ballet. The only museums I enjoy are natural history museums. (I could lose myself at the one in New York.) A trip to Paris to see the Louvre sounds marginally less appealing than staying home, lounging by the pool, and cutting the grass. (Admittedly, the airplane ride adds a lot to the element of distaste.) When it comes to purely artistic movies, I often find myself stifling a yawn. I don't have anything against art or those who immerse themselves in it, but it's not my thing.

Back when I was naming this site, there was an alternative title I elected not to use. Instead of "ReelViews," this could have been called "Confessions of the Philistine Critic." Even today, I could probably still use the title. Since the mid-'90s, the Internet has given birth to the Filthy Critic and the Cranky Critic, but I don't believe there's a Philistine Critic - at least not yet. So I'll claim the title for myself: James Berardinelli, Philistine Critic.

I have probably just scandalized many of my fellow critics, some of who will now pretend not to know me. How could anyone who calls himself a critic make such blasphemous comments about art? The elite will look even further down their noses at me - so far, in fact, that they're likely to go cross-eyed. It won't change anything about how I go about reviewing, however. When I watch a movie, my first and foremost concern is whether it's worth watching and recommending. Artistry comes into the equation, but as a single variable not as the solution. It's the same way with life. Life without art would be drab and dreary, but life without non-artistic entertainment would be no more colorful. It's all about balance. You can have your modern dance recitals; I'll take my baseball games. (Although, with 10,000 losses under their caps, the Phillies have elevated their brand of playing to the level of epic tragedy.)

As for video games, arguing about their artistic merit (or lack thereof) seems about as wasteful of time and energy as sitting down and playing one. More erudite perhaps, but probably not as fun.