Should video games be considered an art form?

I’ve been meaning to write an article on this subject for a while now, but when I started to write I realized I wasn’t exactly sure where I stood on the issue. So, I decided to take a different approach when writing this post: I wrote a draft of it off the top of my head, in a free-associative sort of way, and then cleaned it up to be more coherent and readable. Writing like this helped me understand the issue and form an opinion and I think my thought process is well represented in the article (deductive reasoning ftw). I re-wrote some of it so that it will make sense even to readers who haven’t played the games I’m talking about.

The one aspect to this problem that I’ve never seen anyone adequately address is: how do you define a video game? Now, bear with me here. Is it just the sum of its parts (ie: the graphics, the music, the gameplay, etc), or is it something more? Personally, I define it to include the overall experience of the player. The Longest Journey has extremely dated graphics and simplistic gameplay by today’s standards, but in terms of experience I (and many others) consider it one of the best video games ever made thanks to its wonderfully immersive, complex, and deep storyline, dialog, and characters. Conversely, Crysis has stunning graphics and evolved, modern gameplay, yet you’ll have to search far and wide to find someone who considers it a work of art. That isn’t to say that the graphics aren’t important, but I think the overall experience is the best objective criteria because it is essentially the sum total of all a game has to offer (ie: Bioshock’s amazing graphics are a central part to its overall immersive experience, but only because they help to elevate the wonderfully crafted atmosphere and ground-breaking storytelling).

Even more difficult to define is art itself. Art could be defined by all the arbitrary rules one would learn when studying art, but that would exclude most of modern art. You could look it up in a dictionary, but then you’d just get something like: “human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature,” which sounds cool but doesn’t really help us. So, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to say that art can be defined as something that expresses a feeling, idea, or truth in an aesthetic manner. I know this isn’t perfect, because “aesthetic” implies beauty and art doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful, but let’s live with it for now.

I mentioned modern art above, and I think I should elaborate: some would say that you have to be knowledgeable about traditional art to understand and appreciate modern art. To the average Joe, it may look like some dude wearing a beret just flung paint at a canvas, but to an art critic it is a work of genius. Similarly, I think you need to be a gamer to understand the artistic nature of many games. The first example that popped into my head was Half Life 2. To truly appreciate how polished the gameplay is, you need to have played all the Quakes and Dooms and Unreals. A gamer that has played FPS games for years can see Half Life 2 as the product of game design evolution, where the best aspects of all previous games were combined, distilled, and worked to perfection. To someone playing an FPS for the first time, it will just seem like a mindless game where you shoot things and solve simple puzzles.

One idea that’s often brought up is whether a video game can make you cry. Critics claim they can’t, but I disagree. I remember crying my eyes out during Final Fantasy 7 when I was maybe 12 or 13, and looking back on it I can understand why I was so upset by Aeris’s death. She didn’t dramatically sacrifice herself to save someone; she didn’t mumble a 20 minute clichéd speech while on the ground dying. Her death struck a chord because it was realistic. In the real world, people don’t die dramatically like they do in Hollywood movies. They die of accident, of disease, suddenly and for no reason, no great act of altruism or message of love. They die and they disappear, and all that’s left is emptiness.

And FF7 certainly isn’t the only game that’s known for being emotional. Ico is famous for bringing a tear to even the most macho gamer’s eye. The problem isn’t that games cannot make gamers cry, but rather that most gamers don’t play the sort of games that do. The perception of games as mindless entertainment is based on the most popular and best-selling games. Counterstrike and Madden are not particularly innovative or creative, yet they are practically synonymous with pc and console gaming, respectively. Psychonauts, on the other hand, is an amazingly creative and fun game that sold less than 100,000 copies the year it was released (a very low number for a major multi-platform release). In this sense, games mimic Hollywood; big companies like EA just pump out the same stuff every year, and all the innovative stuff comes from the little guys. No one would argue that cinema isn’t an art form, however, so I don’t think this should preclude games from being considered art.

So, basically my position is this: most games aren’t art, but some are. My personal criteria for judging the artistic qualities of a game is based mainly on the experience, which includes visuals, sound, gameplay, story, etc, but also includes something more abstract that is exclusive to interactive media. And, by my definition of artwork, video games are perhaps the most expressive form of art available today, though they rarely reach their potential.

About probabilityZero

I'm a rather boring, geeky college student. Most of my time is spent at a computer, reading a book, or sitting in (mostly uninteresting) classes. My hobbies include reading, blogging, creating and running websites, creating amateur video games, arguing incessantly on discussion forums, and buying books on amazon.com because I'm too lazy to go to the library.
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11 Responses to Should video games be considered an art form?

  1. NPC says:

    For the same reasons that you don’t consider some games to be art is the very same reason why many don’t consider games to be art in the first place: You must know how to play them. Not only that but to really get the full experience you must sometimes be able to play them correctly from start to finish. Games are an interactive media after all, what you put into them is what you’ll get out of them.

    For example, my mother wanted to play Super Mario Galaxy, which is an excellent game. However she couldn’t grasp the game’s entertainment value based on her frustration with the controls. She ran in the wrong directions, sometimes couldn’t even figure out how to run, or shook the controller when it didn’t need to be shaken. She’s 50-something so I didn’t expect much, but I could tell she didn’t enjoy playing the game as much as she did watching me play it.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to make more people appreciate the media for what it is, they need to be eased into the game. Brain training comes to mind, but I only look at it as one possible route. For instance you mention “The Longest Journey” having a great storyline, and hey, many people love to read. If there was a game with an equally fantastic story, I’m convinced it could use that to actually ease someone like my mom into the medium. Or in other words, games could mimic another medium, then ease the player into the gameplay working at a pace where the player would become very familiar with the controls or concept of the game. It’s all about making it approachable from the start, and then keeping them interested while not frustrating them.

    Anyways, for a short list of games that I would consider to be highly artistic based upon my experience: The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Ikaruga, REZ, Super Mario World.

    Another thing to add is some games seem less artistic in comparison to others, this is a funny example of how gameplay/interaction effects our perception of a game.

  2. RockKillsKid says:

    I agree for the most part. In my opinion, art is any medium of expression that can invoke feelings. Paintings, but also Cinema, Literature, and Music are normally associated with this. But why can’t a videogame have that? They contain every single one of those aspects to at least some degree. It’s almost impossible to really create a realistic world that is expected to captivate the viewer like Photography or Cinema would with less than 64-bit graphics. But single screenshots of certain games (Bioshock, Shadow of Colossus, etc.) hold more appeal to the eye than some artwork now; that is no longer an issue (If only developers could understand that, and focus on writing and music/sound design). You point out in HL2 that it’s game design, which is true–if you play the game with commentary, it becomes noticeable the amount of painstaking detail that goes into the most mundane features of the game–but the storyline too. In the previous 2 episodes, there has been such a huge amount of character building. Alyx’s emotions feel entirely true (trying not to give away massive spoiler), and the sad moments create waves of empathy for the characters. Even the background NPCs have emotions and back stories. At this point it’s better than 90% of the stuff coming out of the movie industry. And just like Hollywood, people have to take most of the industry’s work at face value as a time waster/ movie go-along, but there WILL ALWAYS be that game that goes the distance, just like most movies are not Oscar worthy. And with the ideology that professional voice actors and a true orchestral score (Halo) can really sell a game, I hope to see more serious attempts at games. It took a while for anime to become accepted as a form of art in the mainstream community; we’ll get ours too.

  3. grunt says:

    lol, emo kids cry while gaming

    anyway, games are art… just look at halo 3, orcestral music and the great graphics

  4. fell says:

    Yay! Ive been waiting for someone to articulate my thoughts on this. Yes video games are art but its also stupid to just say “LOLZ HALO LOOKS PURDY SO ITS ART!!1″

    The issue is more complex than that and you captured it wonderfully.

  5. april says:

    Of course they’re an art form.

  6. Anonymous says:

    other than the fact that you sound like a hippie art fag and borderline emo, your right

  7. Wide Circles says:

    Wide Circles Read all about these spammers

  8. Pingback: Talking in Circles » Blog Archive » The Longest Journey and Dreamfall

  9. peter1900 says:

    Absolutely video games are an art. Because an art means the creativity. A painting is an art because an artist is created it if so a programmer creates something for others to view and enjoy. So this is very good opinion.

    ============================
    peter
    Wide Circles

  10. Anonymous says:

    The problem is that “art” is really a term with no definition. Ask an avid gamer and he will tell you that Gears of War or Bioshock could definitely be art.

    And ask many art critics, and Andy Warhol’s tomato soup can and other modern artists imitations of 2 year-olds’ finger paintings are considered the epitome of art.

    Art is what the audience thinks it is. It is as simple as that.

  11. dipak says:

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