Video games are steadily becoming more accessible as an entertainment medium, but are struggling to be recognized as an art.
What was once considered a childish hobby predominated by young boys is now a multi-billion dollar industry enjoyed by people of varying ages, genders, creeds, and colors. Many of the stigmas associated with playing video games are fizzling out as they gain influence in popular culture.
A survey conducted this year revealed that 59% of the American population plays video games. It’s becoming commonplace to play video games, and game developers are making efforts to produce content that will appeal to the increasing diversity within the community. To put it simply: things have changed a lot since the first time you picked up a controller, and it’s great.
Despite being a commonly accepted form of media, video games have had a difficult time establishing themselves as an art. Even when games such as Fez and Braid attempt to push the boundary between art and games, there are critics and hobbyists ready to dismiss them. The controversy stems from the subjectivity of art. Although many gamers do believe in the validity of their hobby as art, others see video games only as entertainment, but how do video games differ from other forms of entertainment, such as cinema, theater, and literature? All three are universally recognized as art, but according to some video games just don’t make the cut.
To understand this debate it’s important to define what art is. Merriam Webster defines art as: “Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” To assess whether or not video games are a valid art form I’m going to break this definition down to a set of criteria.
- The product is created with imagination and skill
- The product is beautiful, or
- The product expresses important ideas or feelings
This definition is in no way absolute. Philosophers much wiser than I have held discourse over how we should define art for millenia. As I have mentioned, it’s a subjective concept, but it’s integral that we have a foundation on which to base the discussion.
Certainly video games require imagination and skill. Without a bit of both they wouldn’t likely come to fruition. In most cases they are the the effect of many people’s laborious efforts, all of whom contribute to the whole by specializing in various aspects of the game. Everyone from the sound designer to the programmer is putting forth creative energy, finding ways to overcome obstacles during development, and working together to make the various parts a cohesive, functional, and hopefully enjoyable software.
The subject of whether a game is beautiful and what makes it beautiful is less apparent. Many developers seem to think the answer is high graphical fidelity, and although that can be true in some cases, it isn’t the only answer. There are many examples of games that aim to wow consumers with their graphics, but fall short due to dull color palettes and uninspired environments. The modern military shooter genre has become notorious for this. There are also examples, however, of games over a decade old that still hold up as visually stunning due to their aesthetic. Jet Set Radio and The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker are two games that are well regarded for their vibrant aesthetics. Both came out over 10 years ago. Although HD re-releases of these games have enhanced the games in recent years, they weren’t necessary. The visuals of the original games are still easy on the eyes.
We shouldn’t just chalk a game’s beauty up to it looks, however. A game’s sound design can set it’s tone, further immersing the player. Faster than Light’s soundtrack reflected the vast emptiness of space. Hotline Miami’s highlighted its fast and frenetic gameplay. Not only is sound design an art in its own respect, but it adds to the overall experience.
Another potentially beautiful aspect of a game is its story. A game’s story can be uplifting, provocative, heart breaking, and anything in between. The “Leave” ending of Silent Hill 2 was one of the most raw, compelling, and powerful endings I have ever found in a game. I managed to make it through the barrage of monsters, rust covered hell worlds, and mind bending puzzles, but I was not prepared for the emotional shit storm that was about to befall me. It left me feeling disillusioned with James Sunderland, the protagonist, but at the same time I experienced his freedom alongside him as he was consoled by the apparition of his dead wife. When the scene ended and the letter she had written prior to her death was read in its entirety I felt my guts twist and my eyes well. For a moment I was crippled by the emotion I felt. It’s a bit ironic that a series known for presenting graphic images of the grotesque and horrific was the one to open my eyes to the intense feeling that can be experienced through video games.
Perhaps more so than any other form of media, video games can instill powerful emotions into their audience. This is partly because they’re kinetic. When you play a game you are actively engaged in it. The separation between story and audience that usually accompanies storytelling media is absent. The gamer has agency.
This is what sets games apart from other forms of entertainment. It has the ability to allow you to experience the world firsthand. Valve understood this lack of separation and took it one step further in their critically acclaimed series, Half Life. When I played Half Life 2 I was able to project myself onto Gordon Freeman. The character has a name, but no personality, and in that way I could make Gordon a reflection of myself. This furthered my immersion in the story. The relationships Gordon formed and the adversity he faced mattered to me because my experience went beyond empathy.
There are plenty of less inspired games, but that doesn’t mean as a whole the medium is not artistic. We have an overabundance of modern military shooters trying to take advantage of the market Call of Duty popularized.
However, we rarely doubt the artistic merit of music, an art form that is also over-saturated in its genres. Mediocrity thrives in popular music, and although much of what receives airtime is catchy it isn’t necessarily created with the intention of provoking introspection or intense emotion. Even so there are exceptions we must consider.\
There are talented and passionate musical artists working within the music industry. Likewise there are talented and passionate game developers working within the games industry. We shouldn’t forget about them.
When Spec Ops: The Line was released critics were pleasantly surprised to find that a game in the modern military shooter genre was much more than just another dull game. Instead it was lauded for providing thought-provoking commentary on war, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the grayness of morality. The game’s purpose was to make its players reevaluate the games they play and how they depict war. It created dialogue and communicated a message through its gameplay and story. The concept was absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately the game didn’t sell very well, as it was marketed as a generic cover based shooter, and it’s mechanics reflected that. Regardless, it is a prime example of what’s possible in video game narrative.\
Are video games art? They fit the criteria I outlined. They are works created by passionate developers, capable of depicting beauty, evoking emotion, and expressing and communicating ideas. Although I think it is obvious games can be art, it isn’t too surprising that they haven’t been accepted as such yet. The medium is still young, after all. In fact, this debate has been hashed out before in regards to film. Early film makers wanted the media they made to be considered art, but many dismissed them as some dismiss games now. We can’t say for certain if video games will ever become a widely recognized art. All we can do is look forward to the future.