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The Art of Video Games - Are video games art?

The question of “what is art?” isn’t as simple as it should be. Creative figures, icons of the Renaissance and people with large brains in general have all got different opinions with little to back them up; and asking Google spits up the most ethereal and vague definition possible, but hell – that’s art for you. If you can understand it, it isn’t complicated and pretentious enough.

Hold on, let me dig out some of my old philosophy notes from college. Let’s see… Figures from the school of aesthetics have often connected art to beauty. Tolstoy said that art IS beauty, and beauty is anything that gives us pleasure without desire. Right, that makes some sort of sense.

Except that Veron said that art is emotional expression through visuals, movements or sounds. Oh, and Hegel said that it’s any creative endeavour intentionally created for the benefit of human beings, with a grander purpose than mimicry of the world. And I say we need to decide this pretty damn quick, otherwise this is going to risk becoming a large book.

So I’m going to take a shot myself, and here goes: art is crafted cultural or emotional statements, which are designed primarily for the purposes of being cultural or emotional statements. It’s a disgustingly broad definition, so feel free to challenge it in the comments, but until there’s a wider agreement of the specific criteria, it’s the best we can do.

So by that criteria it would mean that most video games are art. Hell, it would mean that games were art even if we looked at the older definitions above. But that doesn’t make them GOOD art. That’s even trickier to decide on.

Sif Dark Souls 3 boss fightSome people have said that video games have yet to have their version of “Citizen Kane” yet, and I don’t know if that’s true. Undertale was incredibly clever and emotionally affecting, and the best game of last year because of it. The Stanley Parable dove deeper into its own genre than most films have ever dared. Dark Souls visualised an incredible, mournful world dripping with atmosphere and entropic, existential ideas of time and passing.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all games are art. I don’t know why, but something in my gut and the way I see the world makes artistic endeavours and commercial products separate. You can only ever be one or the other, but not both, not totally.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s always going to be a tiny element of commercialism in all artwork. Even Van Gogh was trying to sell his paintings. But when the commercial becomes the ultimate priority, when the need to profit takes priority over the artistic statement… Yeah, that feels less like art, and more like marketing.

Angry Birds 2 official artFor example, Angry Birds 2 is not art. It has artistic elements in there, like the character design and animation, but at the end of the day there’s no statement or grander purpose beyond profit. Even the artistic elements seem in service of financial gain. Angry Birds 2 is here to be a product, it’s here to cash in. If there’s some arty bits in there then that’s probably a good thing, but don’t go out of your way to make it so, yeah?

But that sounds crueller than it should be, because games don’t even have to be art to be good. I don’t consider Rocket League to truly be art, but I’ll be damned if anybody tells me it isn’t good, simple fun. Shooting somebody with a Nerf gun isn’t artistic either, but it doesn’t stop it being satisfying and often worth doing.

And there are artistic games I don’t like, such as The Path. Or if you want something more recognisable, Hideo Kojima works to put deeper stories and messages in his games, I’ve just never liked any of those stories so far. Like I said, there’s a difference between just being art and being good art.

But what are the arguments against letting these games attain such titles? Some have said that video games can never reach those lofty heights, precisely because they’re games in the first place. Writing for the Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones seemed to sneer wholeheartedly at the medium, claiming that:

The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. – Jonathan Jones

Don’t worry, it sounds better than it actually is, and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny in my view. When impressionistic painting was created in the 1800s, people said that wasn’t art either. Ditto the works of Andy Warhol. Ditto Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”. Ditto for nearly every music genre that was created in the last century. Oh, and the idea of film itself was put under this spotlight for a good, long while. Yes, some folks saw movies as a whole as something that was just base entertainment, without any cultural or spiritual value.

I wonder where those people are now?

But the fact of the matter is that this stance (taken usually by those who don’t play games much, I notice) reveals a certain lack of flexibility or even imagination on the critic’s side. These people never take into account that interactivity could be an essential part of the author’s vision, or that such experiences could be specifically designed to feed the idea of different interpretations from the viewer, much in the way that some poetry is thought to seem ambiguous and subjective. The late Roger Ebert made the same claim in 2010, and within a month admitted “I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games”.

A dignified and honest retraction, to be sure, but I do wonder – why are so many people determined to lower games in this way? Whenever people say that games aren’t art, it’s clearly meant as an insult, or at least portrays them as lesser in some way. I presume it’s a bunch of things, like the stubborn need not to accept anything new, the inescapable connection these games have to being simple playthings, or maybe even a sense of annoyance that comes from being overshadowed by them. Video games, in just a few decades, have leapt from being a minor pastime to the largest entertainment medium on the planet, eclipsing everything else by comparison.

Competitive gaming and other eSports gamesWell, what better way for the cultural elite to burst that bubble than by saying they still don’t have any real value? The detractors look down their noses, shaking their heads and saying that games are toys, they’re playthings, that they’re commercial and shallow at the core, that they’re separate from art on a fundamental level.

Aside from the fact that such people always give the impression of having come up with the opinion first and the arguments later, it’s almost amusing that half the games industry doesn’t care what these people think of it. And I’m not talking about the corporate titans at EA or Ubisoft, I mean those who are creating. Dan Pinchbeck, one of the designers on the (very artsy) indie game Dear Esther, seemed rather unconcerned by the question of video games as art.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s actually a very interesting question. I don’t think games need to aspire to being art, like art is an inherently more worthwhile form of cultural expression – people were playing games long before they were making art, so it’s certainly not an older one. A more interesting question is, why is it so important to some people that games are NOT art? Why do they feel so threatened by games being art? – Dan Pinchbeck

Presumably for the reasons above, but even so, I do feel irked by the degradation either way. Like we said, the boundaries of what art actually is remains as temperamental as the sea, so debating that games are an art form is like taking a penalty shoot-out whilst blindfolded, with your opponent moving the goal back and forth all the time. If you tell the opposition that games ARE art, they’ll tell you that art is something else. And because nobody can agree on terms, the whole thing is moot.

But here’s my final thoughts on the matter – art should elevate us in some way. And video games have absolutely done that, at least in my personal experience. Spec Ops shocked me, Deus Ex challenged me, Bioshock bewitched me and Elite: Dangerous awed me. These creations contain genuine vision, that need to do something significant. Admittedly, the games industry could help its own reputation by not making half its AAA products as shallow as paddling pools, but there are artistic games out there. Not only that, there’s good ones.

Elite: Dangerous flyingLook, I’ll admit again that this all stems from my subjective opinion on what art fundamentally is. Different people might think it’s a faulty concept, but until there’s agreement, it’s the best we can do in terms of strict definition.

But until then… Well, try the best games you can find, and see if they affect you. Do you speak to you, inspire you, or connect with you? Because I can’t think of what else true art should be doing. I can’t think of a nobler purpose. And if good art isn’t that need to connect with people at the core, I don’t care whether games are art or not.

Now that this article has been long enough, I’m going to find something much simpler to get good and cross about instead. Man, what’s the deal with those tough-to-open sealed plastic containers, amirite?!

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Joel Franey
Joel Franey was born in 1994, and has been thoroughly disgusted with everything he’s experienced from that point. He hopes one day to call down a fiery apocalypse that will wipe the world clean, but has since realised the budgetary restrictions involved and settled for complaining at anyone who will listen.
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