Graphics, Pixels, and the Art of Video Games
Video games as contributions to the world of art are highly contested and debated among gamers and non-gamers alike. As the author, I’m going to begin this piece with a short, first-person story to set the stage for the motivation, structuring and research behind this article. Then we’ll critically examine video games through the artistic lenses used to judge paintings, film, and other contributions to the world of art.
No one likes playing video games with me.
While my younger brother was excitedly bundled on the couch, anxious to watch me game through The Last of Us on PS4, I was forsaking the plot in favor of staring at the dust particles in the synthetic sunlight; the way the sun blinded me when I looked right into it; the tears in the abandoned furniture; and the gentle sway of the animated grasses.
The poor kid could only nag me to continue the story so many times before giving it up as hopeless, and abandoning me to my observational endeavors.
I can spend–and have spent– hours admiring the artistic minutia within a video game universe, continuously gobsmacked by its stunning audiovisual qualities. My awe is to the credit of new and powerful game engines, allowing for highly configurable workflows and runtimes, covering all aspects of development from audio, animation, cinematics, scripting, artificial intelligence, physics, destruction, rendering and visual effects.
In trying to convert a non-gaming family member to my point of view, I fired up the console and loaded a save from Dragon Age: Inquisition. “Isn’t this incredible?!” I demanded, showing them the gorgeous backdrops, the extreme attentions to detail, and the real-time rendering. They sat politely on standby while I jumped into a cinematic cut scene, flailing my hands wildly all the while. “Isn’t this the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?! How can anyone say that video games are anything but a contribution to the world of art!”
With a disinterested smile, the family member shrugged and said “Something can be beautiful without being art.”
The conversation prompted me to plunge into the world of art theory, and I emerge well read and excited to share my in-your-face-my-family findings.
Let’s Talk About Beauty
Before we get into art, let’s talk about Beauty.
Philosopher and Historian Peter Gay helps us to understand beauty’s controversial definition when he writes:
“There is no definition of beauty that can be said to have met with universal acceptance. – ‘among the ancients, the fundamental theory of the beautiful was connected with the notions of rhythm, symmetry, harmony of parts, general unity. We may understand it most clearly in its contrast to the ugly. Beauty should give pleasure. Its characteristic in as far as expressed for sense-perception or for imagination can be purely metaphysical or psychological, but also connect with elements of presentation and elements of enjoyment.”
Gay’s definition is easy to agree with as it’s inherently subjective. The visual appeal of video games is immensely pleasurable to your average gamer, conjuring an abundance of enjoyment. A typical non-gamer might not agree to the thrill and indulgence, but is it the audiovisual that they aren’t enjoying, or simply turned off by the fact that it’s a video game? An intellectual roadblock may inhibit the non-gamer’s capacity for appreciation.
Objectively, rhythm, symmetry, harmony of parts and general unity can be scientifically calculated, if not intrinsically felt. Mathematical equations and golden ratios put numbers to our attractions, calibrating what we already feel. If the Slavic folk art, expansive wilderness, and exhilarating cinematics of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt repeatedly conform to measurable standards for beauty, how do we decide whether or not that beauty is art?
Everyone’s a Critic
The criteria by which a classic painting or piece is normally judged is: (1) whether or not it is finely crafted, (2) original, (3) beautiful, and (4) requires great skill. While many video games immediately check all four of those boxes, the aforementioned criteria is for a traditional painting, not your state-of-the-art RPG.
While Harry Potter paintings may move and talk, our less magical world more may draw more parallels between video games and film regarding the conversation about art.
In their 2013 article “Observations on Film Art”, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell explain, “[Film is] Not necessarily high art. Cinema is often a popular art, or in Noël Carroll’s phrase, a mass art. From this angle, there’s no split between art and entertainment.” They go on to say film is, however, “photographic, narrative, performing, pictorial, and audiovisual art.”
Why can’t film be high art?
David Thomson tries to address this with his critique in The Whole Equation, “As viewers, are we watching heightened things—great danger, great desirability, intense loveliness—without being tied by the responsibilities that attach to real onlookers? We are,” he suggests “like voyeurs, spies, or peeping toms.” In requiring a passive audience, film is unable to fully engage.
Texts awaken, so the argument goes, while images stultify.
When Art Comes To Life
In the same way cinema fails to sore, video games truly shine. Reflected in much art, we see a need for some sort of enchantment or mysticism. You can be enthralled in that wonder in of cinema, and long for it that wonder when viewing a painting, but you live it when you engage as the user in playing a video game.
American essayist Elaine Scarry has written at length about art and aesthetics. Scarry focuses on the problem of emptiness in so much of the beauty we see around us in her work On Beauty and Being Just.
“It sometimes seems that a special problem arises for beauty once the real of the sacred is no longer believe in or aspired to. If a beautiful girl, or small bird, or glass vase, or a poem, or a tree has the metaphysical in behind it, that realm verifies the weight and attention we confer on the girl, bird, vase, poem, tree. But if the metaphysical real has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the case, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems self-centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard… But beautiful things always carry greetings from other worlds within them.”
In an intensely researched, well-written, flushed-out video game universe, we’re given the unique ability to understand the beckoning of its unearthly realm. The other-worldliness of its beauty is answered with a straightforward: it is another world! The artistic beauty we see in video games thrives from a developed, populated, thoughtful, intensely personal universe.
The ache for the extraterrestrial is planted in a painting, explored in literature, shown in film, and directly experienced and gratified through the interactive medium of video games.
Video Games: Art’s Evolution
In June of 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that video games should be considered an art form, as deserving of First Amendment safeguards as “the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them.”
For decades, video games have enthralled and inspired, and in 2012 they were the subject of a Smithsonian exhibit that viewed them as serious works of art. Chris Melissinos was the guest curator of “The Art of Video Games,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that celebrated 40 years of the genre, from Pac-Man to Minecraft.
In defending video games place in the world of art, Melissinos wrote, “They’re the only medium that allows for personalizing the artistic experience while still retaining the authority of the artist.” He goes on to say:
In video games we find three distinct voices: the creator, the game, and the player. Those who play a game are following the story of the author and are bound by the constructs of the rules—but based on the choices they make, the experience can be completely personal. If you can observe the work of another and find in it personal connection, then art has been achieved.
Video Games are the next step in explaining our understanding of the world, our impression of the supernatural, our explanation of self and of each other. Games are able to transport us in a stunning, original, unique and individualized way.
Point for the Gamers
Can something be beautiful without being art? Perhaps. But with the weight of worlds behind it, expanding on the limitations of cinema, and the bounding beyond traditional paintings and textiles, these games are crowned victorious as both beautiful and as contributions to the world of art. It’s high time society gave games the artistic recognition they deserve.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. “Observations on Film Art.” Pbservations on Film Art. Website on Cinema. N.d. Web. 23 June 2016.
Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. accessed November 2, 2013. pg 4-9
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print. Pg 45
Scruton, Rodger. Why Beauty Matters. 2012. Documentary.
Thompson, David. The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print. Pg 157
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