Are Games Art?

To be perfectly honest, I find it completely ridiculous that this debate has raged for so long. If videogames cannot be considered legitimate examples of art, than all other art forms must be illegitimate as well. For many, including myself, gaming is a way of life. The popularity of this medium is staggering, consistently ranking among the highest-selling works of entertainment media of all time. Recently Grand Theft Auto V has broken its seventh world record, earning over 1 billion US dollars mere days after its release. It goes without saying that a staggering amount of people worldwide consider themselves gamers, unfortunately however there are still many who would question the validity of videogames as a respectable art form.

Bioshock

All forms of art are creative works designed to illicit emotion in its audience. That’s all it really is. Before computer technology, the only games (such as chess or water polo) were by very nature competitive. They required skill, or intelligence or just simple luck to emerge victorious. Of course, it is impossible to argue that games could be considered artistic at this point, much like the very first grainy, over-exposed films are by no means an example of the awe-inspiring beauty and complexity in which cinema would eventually achieve. Similarly the dirty, centuries-old surviving photographs are a necessary precursor to the development of photography as an art form, but by no means represent the limits of its capabilities to stir the soul. As new technology develops, so too do the art forms attached to it. Critics of games as art such as the l are often of the opinion that no game has ever achieved the intellectual status of great works of poetry, film or music and though I disagree with such a claim, I can’t help but wonder, how does the quality of a work of art diminish its status as an art form?

The Internet is rife with bloodthirsty keyboard warriors who believe it is their duty to declare that just because they can’t stand it, Justin Beiber’s songs cannot be considered music. Now believe me, I hate overcommercialised teen pop as the next guy, but like it or not Justin Beiber still falls under the realm of music. Every art form has its fair share of terrible examples; videogames are no different, however there are also truly remarkable works of gaming brilliance, capable of deeply captivating moments, rich, interesting characters and commentary on challenging social issues. Bioshock, released in 2007, created the disturbingly fascinating world of Rapture and explored themes of free will and the dangers of unregulated capitalism in a narrative that begs to be studied just as surely as classic works of dystopian fiction like Brave New World or Atlas Shrugged. What’s unique to Bioshock, and all videogames, is that there is an exclusive artistic convention only possible due to interactivity: gameplay.

Just as different musical instruments may play the same note at the same pitch but with a different sound to each other, art forms vary in their complexity (or perhaps you could say, ‘purity’). Whereas visual art exists purely between the artist and his or her canvas, film combines many art forms into one cohesive format. Elements of photography (shot selection and lighting), music (film score), drama (acting) and choreography (positioning and timing) all work together seamlessly to create an experience in which none of those art forms are individually capable. Videogames incorporate all the intricacies of cinema but with added feature of interactivity thrown into the mix. Creating entertaining gameplay requires intelligent manipulation of many technicalities such as physics and artificial intelligence. This can be considered an art form all its own. Just as architecture requires great skill in disciplines that seem unartistic (mathematics, engineering) in order to produce works of beauty, so too does do videogame creators (programming, game engine design). Like art, great ideas and innovation are required to ensure gameplay remains compelling, such as Deadspace’s signature limb dismemberment feature.

However, the interactivity that defines all videogames also poses a big problem in arguing that they should be considered artistic, making them appear to be fundamentally different from other forms of art. Whereas film or music or visual art revolves around the passive appreciation of another’s work, videogames allow users to actively engage in an immersive world. You cannot interact with a painting whilst it hangs in a gallery, or push Rose into the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean so that Jack can live while you watch Titanic. Interactivity would instantly destroy other forms of art, however utalisation of this powerful feature serves to prove just how versatile videogames have become. It’s also worth noting that interactivity doesn’t inherently imply absolute freedom. Despite what many marketing teams are so eager to claim, there is yet to be a game created (with a storyline) that allows users to do absolutely anything. In Deus Ex there were many choices as to how to approach each situation, far more than a lot games these days can match, but if wanted to, I couldn’t decide to just forget about the whole conspiracy thing and simply spend all my time walking into women’s bathrooms. Well, I suppose I could, but the story wouldn’t significantly adapt to that decision because the programmers and writers didn’t allow for it. These restrictions conform to those existing in other art forms; the brilliance of games is they make you feel like you’re creating you’re own story, whilst in reality you’re being pushed down a predetermined path.

Game artOver the last decade or so videogame narrative has grown immensely in sophistication as the average age of gamers has increased; providing a platform, through fun and exciting gameplay, to tell a thought-provoking story to those who might otherwise never read a novel or watch a film more compelling than the latest in the series of Scary Movie rip-offs. Character-driven games have emerged such as Far Cry 3 which creates a fascinating dynamic between Vaas Montenegro, an antagonist every bit as unpredictable and psychotic as The Joker from The Dark Knight, and Jason Brody, an adrenaline junky rich-kid, who undergoes Heart of Darkness style transformation in which not only does he become just as savage as the man he strives to defeat, but struggles to accept that he genuinely enjoys being the monster he’s become. This story is would be fascinating to watch, but the emotional impact is heightened by the players freedom to craft his or her own narrative by controlling Jason’s actions, further intensified by Ubisoft Montreal’s gameplay decision to never let go of the first-person perspective, even during cut scenes or when driving vehicles. This mastery of narrative is impressive, but are videogames really capable to inspiring emotion in its audience as effectively as films or music? To that end, I call upon Journey.

When it comes to Thatgamecompany’s universally acclaimed 2012 PSN title, there is little left to praise that hasn’t already been said. Intense, refined beauty is an understatement. The first time I played this game I was in a terribly toxic mood. I instantly disabled my Internet so I wouldn’t be disturbed by any unwanted guests due to Journey’s much-touted feature that seamlessly connects players with one another. I had to forget everything around me and hope this game would pull me out of the pits of frustration. Needless to say, it delivered. It delivered in a way no other art form was capable of; controlling a nameless character, tiny in comparison to the huge, sprawling world he or she was forced to occupy. It reminded me of me, and at that final moment perfect moment walking into the light, knowing my little cloth friend would no longer be alone, I wept. It was so beautiful. Skiing across the shimmering golden sand nestled inside a vast, mysterious ruin; the sun setting behind a mountain so distant and yet so absorbing I am powerless to gravitate towards it. Cascading light washing over the sand like an ocean before being cut short by each pillar only to be born again. As I was captivated by this scene of absolute majesty I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, how can anyone possible deny this games status as art?

Journey

Though they began as simple, entertaining ways to pass the time, through computer technology videogames have evolved into works of brilliant interactive storytelling, capable of exploring complex themes and illicit strong emotions in the audience through the challenges and plights of the characters. True, there are still games with simple narratives (or no narrative at all) that are created purely for fun but it cannot diminish the status of the entire medium. To what extent does Shut Up by the Black Eyed Peas examine the human condition? How exactly did Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill touch on contemporary social issues? Really neither of these works has much to say about anything important, but they are each an example of their respective art forms just as surely as Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan or The Godfather. If Journey is undeniably a work of art, so too is every other videogame. Sculptors have their clay, musicians have their instruments, and videogame designers have their code.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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26 Comments

  1. Like all entertainment mediums there are examples that have valid artistic statements and those which don’t.

    Unfortunately, the whole ‘art’ thing has become a lazy handwave line for developers to justify or ignore their own failings by hiding behind their “creative integrity” (see: BioWare after they almost completely destroyed Mass Effect with a pretentious, meaningless ending devoid of context or clarity) which ignores the simple fact that their videogame is, first and foremost, about making money. In the case of Mass Effect 3, the so-called creative integrity of the project had ALREADY been compromised by their decisions to change the ending due to the original one being leaked – why should that have mattered? – coupled with the decision by Casey Hudson and Mac Walters to totally exclude everyone else in the team from having any input on the ending, which we later discovered was because they wanted it to be controversial and get people talking about the game. Those to me are CORPORATE decisions, not artistic ones. Heavy Rain’s another one that is only artistic on the most superficial level, with a weak, incoherent and emotionally-prescriptive story that would frankly be laughed out of a B-Movie script, but David Cage hid behind the subject matter (a father trying to save his son) in order to try and make people feel bad about finding fault with it. That isn’t art, that’s cowardice.

    For real artistic endeavour, have a look at Journey, Braid, Limbo, Flower, and quite a few others that are download-only titles. The developers know they’re not going to get as much money per sale as a blockbuster release, but they don’t care – they make the game for the sake of making the game, not to make financial gains. That to me is as close to art as this or work in any media can get.

  2. Matthew
    0

    I’d say plenty of video games have artistic moments and elements but I wouldn’t specifically say any are “art”. Some come damn close though like Spec Ops: The Line, Bioshock Infinite, Journey. Heck even Asura’s Wrath I enjoyed so much and was so invested in it felt like art to me but I can’t objectively say the game is art.

    I’m sure their will be a game someday that everyone plays and universally agrees is art, probably won’t even have a single defining genre or form of gameplay.

  3. GoThrones
    0

    Video games has always been art, it has just like any other artform been explioted to death by very rich people so they can be even richer and hence lost alot of the character that we today identify as art. Video games, just like movies, music, and pretty much any other artform are no longer being made to entertain. They are made so a few people can earn alot of money using the same formula as in above listed artforms: Mass Apeal. And how do they recive mass apeal? By dumbing it down, make it easy for anyone to get into it, and hence removing the art from the product.

  4. It’s certainly an interesting Topic. And personally, I’d be willing to see gaming as High art. It’d be intriguing to see a biographical game, in the vein of Biographical movies.

    • Lachlan Vass

      That’s actually a pretty good idea, you’d have to choose the right subject so it doesn’t get weird though. Like seeing Barak Obama battle Repuplican’s to the death to save U.S.A. from the government shutdown

  5. Bradley Gordon
    0

    I actually keep a folder full of shortcuts to games I can pull up for people who argue that games are not art. Among them are Silent Hill 2, a game that tells a seemingly straightforward horror through complex symbolism, and Planescape Torment, an epic fantasy story that eschews the standard high fantasy schtick to tell a tale about the nature of humanity through a character study of an immortal everyman.

  6. chelsea
    0

    Yes, they are art. There is no question about it.

    One cannot deny video games as art and still recognize movies as art. A lot of people use the argument “yeah, a few games can be considered art but doesnt mean they all can.”, but that applies to all things; not all paintings are any good, and the vast majority of movies are pure crap without substance. Hell, music is considered art, and are you really going to tell me justin bieber is high art?

    Let’s praise:
    Flower
    Limbo
    The unfinished swan
    Journey

    All of these either use a remarkable visual style to tell their story, or break from common game conventions to tell it.

  7. Lindsey Ptr
    0

    What makes videogames unique is the possibility of immersion. So far, my favorite game is MAfia. Despite there are no many choices to make, the game has an atmosphere that makes you feel a part of it like no art form can do, and the story is great, the ending is epic.

    The problem with games becoming rek art may be related to costs and how the industry works. KOTOR 2 could have been a fantastic game but it was rushed so the final product looks incomplete. Mass Effect trilogy should have been rek art, but they ruined it with that silly ending (I still cannot understand why they did what they did).

    A good candidate to be considered ART may be The Witcher. It was developed by a Polish company and coming from a growing economy in search of recognition they put some sort of national pride on it, which I think is another element of art: not just a product to be sold, but something to be proud of.

  8. Soul Cora
    0

    I actually wrote a paper about this very topic for a college English class. I used Roger Ebert’s article as a primary source.

    Strangely enough, he died while I was working on it. Between the first and final draft was when he died, though that didn’t really change the paper at all.

    For this debate, I personally believe games are already art, but the person I’d like to point to with the best opinion on this matter is Yahtzee Croshaw, who also did an article on this.

    Yahtzee upheld that each person has their own individual definition of art, and it’s for each person to decide for themselves what is and isn’t art. That was sort of the final point of the paper.

  9. Josefina
    0

    I have been at art exhibits that were, in a matter of speaking, interactive.
    In other words, if that is considered to be art, video games, at least most of them, should be considered art.

  10. Videogames are considered art in Spain since a decade ago. They are considered in the same category as cinematography, music or literature.

    Now, if you want to make a videogame in Spain, you can ask for grants if you don’t have the money to develop something, as well as tax deductibility.

  11. Okay, i know no one wants to hear this, but i’m gonna give a little story about why this is an art form. I used to think graphic were everything to a game, which is part of the reason i didn’t like half-life, but it was later on i found, it’s the story aspect of a game i love most. unlike a lot of art forms out there, video games can create a world you can only dream of, it can grip you with a story, forge bonds with you with characters like sweet little clementine from the walking dead, bring you to tears with a death, no spoilers, and do so much more, if anything, it’s more of art than anything I’ve seen in a while.

  12. Benton C
    0

    I don’t thing that we should consider video games art. It’s not because they aren’t, frankly a lot of the ones I have been playing probably could be considered art,but it’s because of what happens to art. I feel that often, and even very often with the current trends in art, that their is a shift from art that the common man can enjoy, to art that only educated people can. A brief talk with someone who studies art will tell you that even they have to learn a lot before enjoying some modern pieces of art. That should not happen to video games.

  13. Lauren Gabourel

    I whole-heartedly believe that videogames are art. They require skills and imagination beyond the average story teller to keep the audience engaged. The people who say that video games are not art are just being pretentious.
    Great article, fun read!

  14. SeanHutchings

    A good point well made. It always seemed such an open and close question, though surely games on all platforms evolved into a more complex art form just as film did historically and graphic novels have more recently. Though the artistic integrity of Crash Bandicoot is, I think, open to debate somewhat.

  15. Although I’m not a gamer myself (for financial reasons haha), I believe 100% that video games are an art form. It is as simple as that. I don’t think the word ‘art’ is a complimentary tag, as in ‘that film is a work of art’, because ALL films are part of an art form, the art form of cinema, it’s just that some are far, far better and more accomplished than others, but they are all art, I think. Film-making is an art form, even if a diabolical film is produced.
    I also think it’s pretty inspiring and exciting to agree that video games are an art form for the simple reason that art is not a rigid collection of creative forms but an ever-evolving and widening group, and so the first person that input a few lines of code onto a computer screen probably didn’t realise that they were taking the first step on the road to creating a new art form, just as you or I could create something new tomorrow that will one day be a form of art that moves, entertains, or confuses people. That’s exciting.

  16. Ewan Wilson

    I don’t think this a question with an easy answer, if only because, as others have noted above, the definition of ‘art’ is still fairly fluid. There’s a module run by the Philosophy department at my university which examines the question for a full semester, and the status of video games as art is one covered.

    In so far as they are the product of a creative process, an amalgamation of visuals, music and storytelling, they certainly fit the bill. The mass production element can be used as an argument, bringing in the question of advertising and packaging etc as art – they are still drawn, designed, the product of creativity – but as you say, if film, by nature directed at a mass audience, is accepted as an art form, why not video games?

    Perhaps then it is a question of meaning or intent, of the message imparted by the finished work. But if we pursue that argument and suggest that not all films or games are art, then we must assert that the term ‘art’ must be attached to individual instances rather than the form as a whole.

    In short, its a question that for me has no definitive answer. I’m inclined to argue that yes, video games are an art form, but providing a watertight argument as to why is problematic. I suppose it comes down to opinion in the end.

    Very interesting article!

  17. lewpeet93
    0

    It always seems to me that too many of the mainstream video games are created and controlled mainly by corporations looking to spend as little in order to make some money. I don’t think I could honestly call the latest Call of Duty or Battlefield ‘art’, however I completely agree with you some games exhibit more artistic merit than most films. It’s impossible to play something like Journey or Bioshock: Infinite without admiring and speculating to how it must have been created. Great article by the way.

  18. I think video games are an art form, but they are so fundamentally different from other art forms that a lot of people without a high view of video games are hesitant to respect that. Games have the story and visual aspects of movies, but also have the ability to vary so much based on player decisions. Games like The Last of Us or Far Cry 3 (but honestly that game would have been better without the story) are very movie like, and people have even started making youtube videos of the cut scenes and essential story in game play to pretty much make movies out of the games. But then something like Team Fortress 2 is so much different, and yet the amazing game play that TF2 has is an art form in itself.

  19. Dan Furmansky

    Excellent article. Eloquently and convincingly put into words something I have known from the second I finished playing Bioshock for the first time. That game reached me on such a deep emotional level I don’t hesitate to credit it with shaping me into the person I am today. Brilliant video games have influenced my writing, found their way into my casual conversations, and bonded me with people that feel as strongly as I do that they should take their rightful place as an art form equivalent to movies, music, etc.

  20. I always personally thought gaming was art, and I remember myself looking at Halo on Xbox the first time and saying “Wow, that’s water.”
    It’s so objective; One can’t find something art if something doesn’t resonate within themselves when consuming the media.
    I had the same experience you had with Journey playing the first Dead Space. Ah man, the story, Isacc, the Ishimura, everything. It was like playing through the best sci-fi film ever.
    Great article, man.

  21. I get the feeling that in a few years the powers that be in the art world (if there is such a thing; I can’t claim to be a very art savvy person) will finally decide “Okay, video games are art too. I guess.”

    And I completely agree with you on Journey. You also reminded me that I need to finish that game.

  22. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    IT IS INDEED DANGEROUS TO CONSIDER GAMES ART
    when they merely emulate other media classified as art.
    For instance, we find Fez to be in relation to Cubism, thus the
    game is art. This is a dangerous notion, as it only recycles
    ideas on art and disallows them to grow. All games are art
    just as all games are media.

  23. Austin

    I agree with a lot of the points you mention, but think you neglect an important aspect of the interactive nature of games that is absolutely crucial when inspecting whether video games can be considered art, and that’s the ability to illicit emotion in a way no other medium can. You kind of touch upon it, but never mention it explicitly. By that, I mean the fact that as a primarily interactive experience, you, the player, are essentially the character in many games. Let’s use an example from above. The Walking Dead exemplifies this perfectly. Play the game long enough, and when you allow someone to die, you feel it. You’ve feel like you’ve let someone in the real world go, and in this vicarious, half-real way, you can explore the human condition like never before. Experiences aren’t limited to those that are felt “IRL” and you can observe them from characters in game or from your own perspective of going through a series of emotions, and this kind of intimacy is exclusive to games. Great article. Sums up many common points of the “video games as art” debate.

  24. Luke Martin

    Video games are an art form, like music and films. And yes, like every other art form, there are examples that lack artistic credibility. But that takes nothing away from the art of video games, just like radio singles don’t detract anything from the art of music.

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