I won't summarize the entire argument, as you can read it for yourself, but the crux of Leibovitz's argument is that games are not art because they are code. As Leibovitz puts it, "[...] a few lines of code aren’t an artistic statement, but rather an action-oriented script that performs a specific set of functions. And there are only so many functions computers know how to do: While art is bound only by its creator’s imagination, code is bound by the limitations, more numerous than you’d imagine, of computer comprehension."
Let me be frank: I am a person who doesn't care at all about whether video games are "truly" art. I might be interested in games as an aesthetic experience, but "Art" as deployed in these sorts of debates is always about trying to erect some sort of taste-based bastion around certain types of things. I find that in almost all cases, "debates" around this question are always about something else: anxieties about changing technological and aesthetic landscapes; the desire for one's hobby/obsession/fetish to be taken "seriously"; an effort to acquire funding for one's aesthetic exploits, etc. The specter of art seems to be raised with little attention to the fact that art is not a freely floating transcendental signifier bestowed by god upon appropriately sincere, lovely or serious objects. And this is the same sort of looseness I see in Leibovitz's essay.
So, as copied almost directly from my Facebook rant, this is my response to both Leibovitz's essay and the nay-sayers of this debate more generally:
- The ontological status of a game cannot be reduced to its code. Games are condensations, assemblages, systems, networks--pick your metaphor/theorist--of many components. My counter to Leibovitz's proposition that games = code would be a riff on "if a tree falls in the woods": "if an instruction set exists, but no one is there to play it, is it still a game?" While code is a foundational asset of digital games, it is not *all that a game is*--even platform studies theorists would agree to that. Leibovitz only talks about 2 components of games: representation and code. This overlooks: interface, hardware, control input/output systems, users, social systems of play, institutions that distribute gaming hardware and software, as well as packaging, advertising, design and that ever tricky "culture and context." What is being posited here is an argument about computational primacy that is highly reductivist, and I would even argue masculinist in its attempt to ontologize games as a single knowable thing. To paraphrase Raiford Guins, in his recent SCMS presentation, if all we talk about in game studies is code, then we're not going to have much to talk about in coming years as file formats become inaccessible, technologies obsolesce, and games succumb to bit rot. Furthermore, several "monuments" in the history of games had no code all--including Tennis for Two which was computational but was not code-based, as well as Ralph Baer's Magnavox Odyssey.
- Other code-based aesthetic forms are accepted as art. Software art, glitch art, net art, procedural art and other "code-based" artistic forms are generally accepted as forms of art in contemporary museums/galleries. I am not an art historian and cannot go into tremendous depth here, but it seems Leibovitz's argument would undermine years of work being done by contemporary digital art historians, as well as folks like Nick Montfort who've brought attention to the aesthetic contributions of ludic software (as Montfort discussed in great detail in Twisty Little Passages). If code is the basis of what is and isn't art, what is Emily Short's Galatea (or any interactive fiction, for that matter)? Corey Arcangel's Photoshop prints (essentially manipulations of code, output as color data)? Machinima (which has both its populist and more avant-garde forms)? Hell, even digital photography would seem to be circumspect if something being code ergo prevents it from being art. Leibovitz's claim that "art is bound only by its creator’s imagination" seems rather naive, given the fact that most artists work within the limitations and affordances of a medium, to say nothing of non-aesthetic or non-medium-specific limitations such as race, class, gender, sexuality--the way one's horizon of "imagination" is shaped the process of living.
- Such arguments misunderstand the aesthetic and cultural mission of MOMA. Whenever these debates about "are games art?" comes up, the same props of a generic, Eurocentric, canonical art knowledge are summoned. "Is Zelda the Mona Lisa?!" some gasps. "Can you compare Pac-Man to Picasso?!" another cries. These arguments turn cultural complex art objects into scaffolding for a vacant, under-interrogated, and utterly Westernist aesthetics debate. I always wonder if complainants have ever strolled through MOMA's exceptional design wings, which indicate MOMA's commitment to collecting all manner of aesthetic objects. I've seen shows on everything from typography to kitchen appliances at MOMA, and no one is losing sleep over whether the Bodoni font should be down the hall with a Francis Bacon. MOMA attempts to collect the strongest showings of our contemporary aesthetic heritage (whether is succeeds in this is another matter)--but I think this would be a better vocabulary to throw around than "art," and one which I actually do believe video games have a stake in.