Flatiron Hot! Gamer: A Look at the “Are Video Games Art?” Debate
Art. It’s a bit of a tricky thing to talk about, since there isn’t really one clear definition to it. If you ask ten different people “What is art?” you’ll probably get about ten different answers. But even so, people will generally agree on what the major pillars of art are, the pieces of media worthy of this title: paintings, literature, theater, film, music, etc. But in recent years, many have been calling for another medium to join the ranks as a form of art. I am, of course, talking about video games.
Video games have come a long way since their inception. The very first video game dates back to as early as 1958, created by psychiatrist William Higinbotham. Of course it wasn’t until the 70s and 80s that games first really became popularized as an entertainment form, thanks to arcade machines and and consoles like the NES and Atari Computer System. These early games were fairly simple, featuring simple 8-bit graphics and simple objectives: Pac-Man was “go through a maze and avoid the ghosts,” Super Mario Bros. was “run and jump on stuff until you reach the goal,” and Pong was a basic game of tennis. But in the mid-90s, we saw games begin to evolve. Consoles like the Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation blew people’s minds thanks to their ability to push fully three-dimensional graphics. And it wasn’t just the visuals of games that became increasingly advanced and over the past 3 decades, but the gameplay too: platformers, RPGs, action-adventures, first-person shooters, third-person shooters, racing games, fighting games, life-sim games, real-time strategy games—these are just a handful of the multitude of genres gaming has spawned over the years.
But the last thing that has evolved about games is people’s attitude towards them. In the 90s, games were relegated by most as children’s toys. But nowadays, people of ages from 5 to 50 can be seen not only playing video games, but having a passion for them. And it’s this passion so many possess for this medium that has brought forward the question of whether or not games are a legitimate art form. I’ll be diving into both sides of this debate, so that hopefully you form your own opinion when I’m done here.
So why do some think they are indeed art? In a Time article, Chris Melissinos, author of The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect, gives a few reasons. He believes that out of all the forms of media that exist, gaming is the only one that allows you to personalize the artistic experience, “while still retaining the authority of the artist.” He sees games as “a collision of art and science,” as he puts it citing how they consist of many different traditional forms of artistic expression, which includes 3D modeling, illustration, narrative arcs (an example being the story present in The Last of Us, which has the level of complexity and poignancy you’d expect from an Oscar-winning film), and dynamic music (an example being sweeping, John Williams-eque musical score in Super Mario Galaxy). All these aspects “combine to create something that transcends any one type.” Melissinos states that in a video game, we see three distinct voices: the creator, the game, and the player. When you play the game you’re “following the story of the author and are bound by the constructs of the rules,” but at the same time, you are creating your own personal experience based on the choices you make. Heck, some games like Minecraft and Super Mario Maker give creative control directly to the player by allowing you create your own levels and worlds.
Because of all this, no two people’s experiences with a will be exactly the same. And according to Melissinos, “If you can observe the work of another and find in it personal connection, then art has been achieved.”
Now this same author actually wrote another article for CNN Style, where he gives multiple examples of games that exhibit qualities of art. He talks about the “deep, emotional engagement” had in the story of Shadow of the Colossus, which pulled him in in a way that felt no other medium could, because the better he was playing, worse he felt about his actions. He also cites the hit Atari game from the 1980s Missile Command. At first glance it seemed like a simple target game, but was actually much more than that.
“Reflecting his views on the threat posed by the Cold War,” Melissinos explains, “Theurer decided to make his game one of defense. The six cities the player protects are all in California, where Theurer lived at the time, and he suffered nightmares about the possible devastation they could be subject to for several years. Here is an artist who created a work imbued with his morality and observations of the world around him, and who suffered for it. It is no different than the experience of anyone else who has brought art into the world.”
Finally, there’s a game called That Dragon, Cancer. Now this one is truly one of a kind. This one is an “autobiographical game,” one that walks the player through experiences of its creators, Ryan and Amy Green, raising their son Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one, and died four years later. The creators’ goal was to make us relate their story by utilizing the interactivity and immersion a game can bring that a film can’t, and they succeeded wildly.
“Because video games demand our attention and effort to truly engage with them,” Melissinos concludes, “it’s easy for those who don’t play to be dismissive of the medium. Movies may last two hours, a book may take three days to read, but some video games need 40 or 50 hours of dedication to fully unpack their tale.”
But on the other hand, there are plenty of people will argue for why games shouldn’t be regarded as an art form, with one of the most prominent voices being the late film critic Roger Ebert. He ultimately believed that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great filmmakers, novelists and poets.” If games such as chess, football, baseball and even mahjong are not considered art, however elegant their rules, he finds little reason give video games a pass. One if his most damning arguments that you can win a game. Art, to him, is purely the expression of ideas, while key components of a game include rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.
“One might cite an immersive game without points or rules,” Ebert says, “but I would say that it then ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, play, dance, film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
He goes on to refute examples that have been made for the pro-art argument. One of them a game called Braid, described as one that “explores our own relationship with our past.” The gameplay includes solving puzzles and encountering enemies, but what makes it unique is that A) you can’t die, and B) you can turn back time to fix your mistakes. Ebert likens this to taking back a move in chess, something that undermines the discipline of that game. He remains unconvinced that a video game can help you learn about your past by allowing you to erase your errors, and also remarks that game’s story “exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.”
And then there’s an article from VentureBeat by Hilary Goldstein. While she’s also on the anti-art side, her perspective’s a little different compared Ebert’s. While he saw video games as beneath art, Goldstein says that art is beneath video games, and that is because art, in her opinion, “is bullsh*t.” She recalls a recent trip the MOMA in New York, and to say the least, she wasn’t impressed. She believed that only thing that made these random items art is that somebody hung them on a wall and said, “this means something.”
“Art of this nature,” Goldstein argues, “is often defined for the consumer, not by the consumer.” She believes to idea of “art” itself to be corrupted, because it’s the industries, not populace, that is determining what is and is not artistic, because people don’t want to make that decision for themselves. According to her, “We risk that same level of corruption of integrity if we stress that games must meet similar artistic standards that we see in museums, in theaters, and in novels.”
Melissinos stressed the interactive nature of games as a key reason for why they are art, but Goldstein claims that this is precisely why they aren’t. Video games shouldn’t be held to the same standards as a something like a play or a movie, because with those forms of entertainment, you sit back and watch a story be unfolded for you. But with a game, you’re doing it yourself.
“Gamers worry that if what they play isn’t recognized as an art form, it loses validity,” she says. “That’s a very limited view of what video games offer. Games are something that can’t be so easily defined as “art” or even as pure entertainment. Emotions are elicited in a whole new way with games so that even something as basic as Pong can cause a more visceral reaction than just about anything shown in the MOMA. Don’t confine a whole new way to experience and think about the world to old concepts. Games are something new, something different.”
So in other words: leave the so-called “art” to the snobs. Video games entirely are their own thing, and they don’t need anyone’s validation.
So as you can see, you can make a strong case for either side, so it’s really up you to reach your own conclusion. Truth is we’re a culture of nerds, all passionate about different things. And even if don’t share someone’s passion, it’s just important that you respect it.