The argument that video games cannot ever be considered art has always kind of baffled me. I suppose I could see the logic if the argument were being made about thirty years ago, with games like Pong or Spacewar, but even then I’d probably have to disagree. The definition of “art” has always been somewhat loose; some would argue that anything from cooking a meal to selecting tile for your bathroom floor could be an art form. That’s why I find it strange that people can look at video games (especially recent, narrative-driven games) and dismiss them so easily. Video games are slowly but surely joining other, more popularly-accepted art forms such as novels, films, and music. Among other qualities, the medium’s ability to allow artistic interpretation, present an artist’s message, and necessitate personal reflection is rewiring the masses’ perception and earning it a spot as an important form of expression and entertainment.
As I said, some would argue that even something as banal as selecting floor tile is an art. The argument there is that each person would do that job differently, selecting different colors, maybe combining and patterning different forms, until they create something completely their own, that nobody else could have done. In a similar way, every last detail in a video game is an artistic interpretation of whoever worked on it – from the look of the trees and water in the background to the way a character’s shirt hangs off their body. These subtle details add to the overall experience of playing a game, in most cases subconsciously. For example, game designer Tim Schafer posted a response on his blog to playing the game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune that was entirely focused on how the main character’s costume design features a half-tucked-in shirt.
“…So, on his left side, he tucked the shirt in, to show his trim figure and stylish belt buckle. ‘What a handsome young man,’ you might say, ‘If he gets that shirt washed, he may date my daughter.’ But his right side is untucked, like the shirt of a wild man, a renegade, a scoundrel. ‘What is that guy up to? Why is his shirt untucked? Does he not give a damn about me and my rules?’”
(Tim Schafer, doublefine.com)
This response also showcases another important aspect of games’ artistic interpretation – the player’s interpretation of the game. While the shirt may have been designed for an entirely different reason, Schafer’s personal reaction to it is his own, and the fact that games have that flexibility of interpretation is more than enough for me to consider them art.
The narrative forms found in games also serve as an excellent soapbox for a storytellers’ message. Entertainment in general is capable of this, be it George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm reflecting the corruption found in politics, or even Paul Verhoeven’s science-fiction film Starship Troopers, a satire about imperialism and the military as a ruling class. Games, too, can sneak in this kind of message. What immediately comes to my mind from personal experience is the 1997 Playstation video game Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, which tells the story of a race of slaves called the Mudokons rising up against their sadistic cigar-chomping rulers, the Glukkons, who are planning to use the Mudokons as food now that almost every other species in their world has become endangered. The characters are cartoony, the world vivid and colorful, and the gameplay is innovative and engaging, all of which caused me to love this game when I first played it. I didn’t realize at the time, but all of these aspects of the game covered up a story with a very environmental (almost vegetarian) message, that also criticized bureaucratic fat-cats and glorified the working class (the Mudokons, in this case) as heroes. I’d argue that these are pretty good virtues for a game to surreptitiously teach its player.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that games are art because they can illicit a personal reaction of self-reflection from the player. These reactions obviously vary from person to person, as one’s experiences dictate whether or not they will see anything personal in a particular work of art. That said, in the same way that an artist’s message can be seen behind the narrative of a game, so too can the author’s experiences provide an emotional message that connects with the right audiences. A deeply philosophical game like Braid, for example, can be interpreted in many ways – there are even theories of it as an allegory for the creation of the first atom bomb, but I won’t pursue that line of thinking too far. At its core, however, the game is about being granted the ability to correct your mistakes, as the main character, Tim, can freely travel back and forth through time, even after death. Surely, anybody is familiar with the feeling of regretting their actions and wishing they could go back and change them. As the game progresses, however, the narrative twists into a sort of cautionary tale, with Tim’s “rescue” of the princess becoming more and more obsessive. The ending of the game reveals that Tim is, in fact, the villain of the story – something that he himself seems to be unaware of. By the end of my own playthrough of Braid, I felt almost betrayed by the narrative, and my own connection to the character and his story (which was influenced by the fact that I, like anybody else, am prone to making my fair share of mistakes – just like Tim) made me question some of my own past actions. It’s very deep territory for a Mario Bros-influenced platforming video game to take you, which is why I would place it alongside any other medium’s example of high art.
There are a myriad of reasons why video games should be considered art, and in my opinion, the fact that it’s even being debated is proof enough that they’re a valid form of expression. However, art is not science, so there’s no canonical rule for what makes something “art.” All we can do is debate it – and I feel that the reasons I’ve outlined above present a pretty fair case. Games are open to interpretation, their narratives mask social and political issues, and they can incite a personal reflection from the player. Any medium that can survive long enough to evolve and provide better and better examples of this is worth my time, whether you want to define it as “art” or not.