Playing Games with Art: The Cultural and Aesthetic Legitimation of Digital Games

by Felan Stephen Parker

Institution: York University
Year: 2015
Keywords: Mass communication ; Aesthetics ; Art history
Record ID: 2060849
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10315/28164


Like other popular cultural forms before them, digital games are undergoing a process of cultural and aesthetic legitimation; the question of digital games’ legitimacy as art is being raised with increasing urgency in a variety of different contexts. Mobilizing a conceptual framework derived from media studies, the sociology of art, and certain traditions in philosophical aesthetics, this dissertation proposes that art is constituted in a complex, historically-contingent assemblage made up of many diverse elements and sometimes called an “art world.” The legitimation of a cultural form as art is achieved through a process of collective action and interaction between not only art makers and art objects but also thinkers, talkers, watchers, and players, as well as ideas, organizations, places, and objects. The central question of this dissertation, therefore, is not “Are games art?” but rather “How are games being reconfigured as art, where, and by whom?” In order to understand the legitimation of games as art, it is necessary to attend to the specific social-material processes through which it is taking place in different contexts. This dissertation focuses on the historical period between 2005 and 2010, and is made up of several case studies, including the highly public debate precipitated by popular film critic Roger Ebert’s derisive comments about games as art; the cultural reception and canonization of blockbuster “prestige games” that pursue artistic status within the boundaries of the commercial industry, such as Bioshock; and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the construction of independently-produced “artgames” such as Passage as a gaming analogue to autobiographical indie music and comics. Each of these overlapping contexts represents a particular conception of games as legitimate art, mobilizing different elements and strategies in pursuit of cultural and material capital, and establishing the terms and stakes for more recent developments.