Are video games art?
The obvious answer to me would be yes, of course they are, but some people need to be convinced. I’m not surprised, to be honest. When film and television were new, they weren’t considered art either, and it took decades for them to be deemed such. Just like its media predecessors, the gaming industry isn’t taken seriously by the majority while in its adolescent phase. And that’s okay; with time comes wisdom. But for now, let’s dive into this: are video games art?
In order to determine whether games are art or not, one would have to define art, which is complicated within itself. The concept of art has been analyzed by artists and philosophers since the beginning of forever, and no one has ever reached a universal conclusion. To determine whether games are art or not implies that one knows what art is, and since art is different to everyone, that’s difficult to pinpoint. Eric Zimmerman, a game designer who’s tired of this whole games-and-art debate (I feel you, Eric), had this to say in his piece for Polygon:
“What makes something art is not the object itself. You can’t split the atom of a Picasso and find an essential art particle inside. Much contemporary art is about appropriation and recontextualization — putting advertising on a canvas, or a commercial product in a gallery. It’s not about the object in and of itself.”
Zimmerman has a point. With that being said, unless we want to scour the meaning of art and decipher it piece by piece, we cannot say what art is to every single person, especially the more…err…pretentious types. We can be simple and literal, however, and there’s nothing more literal than definitions. How does the internet define art?
So there it is. In the briefest of terms, it seems like art is anything that’s been created and derived from human imagination. Really, any game fits this description. Every game begins as an idea before blossoming into something tangible, and the fact that games are a combination of accepted art forms (visual art, animation, writing, and music) solidifies its place in the art world … or it should, in theory.
The Boss Fights
If we want to go into the heart of it, the idea of games not being art comes from the crowd that believes that art has to be “traditional” in order to be so. Famous critic Roger Ebert once wrote that because of their interactive nature, video games can never be art, or, at the very least, won’t become art in our lifetime:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [Kellee] Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
After being criticized by gamers for this opinion, and playing some games they suggested to him in hopes of changing his mind, like Cosmology of Kyoto, Ebert wrote a follow-up to his previous piece. In the follow-up, he stated that while he had not changed his opinion, he would concede that he was in no position to declare all video games as non-artsy, since he was unfamiliar with the media:
“I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.”
He also allowed that gamers could experience art in the games they play:
“Who was I to say video games didn’t have the potential of becoming Art? Someday? […] Gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don’t know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don’t know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can. How can I say? I may be wrong. But if I’m not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see. I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.”
While I respect Ebert’s opinion, I do find it humorous that someone who made a living critiquing films didn’t expand his thought process of cinema to another form of media. There are films out there that exist merely to entertain, to make the audience shut their brain off for an hour or two and just have fun; they’re not bad necessarily, they just lack substance. Other films that may or may not be Oscar-bait are there to have profound, gripping themes, stellar storytelling, compelling characters—make the audience feel something. And there are gems and simplistic nonsense in every piece of media, be it game, novel or film. For every Lord of the Rings, there’s a Twilight. For every Dark Knight, there’s a Transformers. But regardless of quality, they were all conceived through a creative process, and by textbook definition, that makes them all art.
The End of the Level
No media is exempt from having both the good and the bad, the sophisticated and the simple. Games like Candy Crush are just there to keep you busy while waiting in a particularly long line at Wendy’s, it’s true. But then there are games that fit Ebert’s description of art: games that delve into the follies and beauties of humanity through brilliant storytelling, with themes that make us think. Games that have amazing art design and visuals, unforgettable characters, beautiful soundtracks. Games like Dragon Age: Origins, or The Last of Us, or Beyond Good and Evil (which is a criminally underrated gem – check it out after finishing this!)
Conclusion? One size never fits all, despite what Walmart would have you believe. Some games are artistic giants that want to be taken seriously and leave an impression on players. Others are mindless fun. So yeah, games are art. Duh. They’re creations born from an idea. At its core, that’s what art is.
So instead of asking “Are video games art?” the question should be, “Which games have artistic merit?”
Now, that’s debatable.