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 clichÃ©d 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.