Games are a much-celebrated medium with a huge part of the Western population playing video games regularly. Still, there’s a long debate over whether video games can really be classed as art. It’s not like sitting at your gaming PC playing round upon round of Fortnite can be compared to gazing into the smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre. However, there are many games that do evoke profound emotions in those who experience them, so should the medium be shunned from ever becoming high art?
Is it as simple as yes or no?
At a glance, it seems easy to just say “yes”. After all, the Oxford dictionary defines art as ‘the expression of human creative skill and imagination’. Games are created by teams of artists just like any film or theatre production. For example, it takes a team of visual artists to bring a concept as visually striking as the underwater city of Rapture in Bioshock (2007). Surely that’s enough to classify a game as art, right?
The fact of the matter is that this isn’t really a debate of whether they are or are not art but one of validation in high culture. There are some select cultural gatekeepers not wanting to let video games into the exclusive ‘high art’ club. One of the most vocal gatekeepers was the late film critic Roger Ebert, who denied that games could never be art. With the amount of reverence held for Ebert in the film culture community, I’m sure many believed his arguments but did his arguments hold ground?
Is interactivity a barrier?
One of the biggest criticisms that Ebert had with the games being considered art is that games have rules and objectives, unlike other art forms. The game of chess or football isn’t widely considered to be art and the players are not considered artists. Why would video games be any different? In the modern landscape of eSports like Dota 2 (2013) and Overwatch (2016), it would certainly seem like the aim is to win against your opponent rather than marvel at the creative expression of the games themselves.
While a good point, it doesn’t take into account the variety of experiences games can provide. A game like Flower makes a poignant message about preserving the environment through the simple act of controlling a flower petal that ignites the vibrant colour of grey landscapes. Or games like The Last of Us (2013) or God of War (2018) whose narratives centre on the emotional struggles of parenthood. Many would argue the interactivity of these games are what makes their themes resonate more than any other work of art could.
Artists behind the game
There’s also criticism that since games are interactive, meaning is only derived from the interactions made by the player. Assuming none of those experiences could be authored by the game developer. It’s clear to anyone that’s played a game that what you experience is hardly ever accidental. Most narrative-driven games are linear experiences that are authored by directors and writers driving the project.
Video game directors certainly exist and they’re celebrated on the same level as film directors. Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid series) and Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us series) have both been praised for their cinematic directorial style in their respective games. Kojima’s game Death Stranding even had a cast of celebrities from Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) and Lea Seydeux (007: No Time to Die) performing the characters of the game.
Death Stranding even had public support from big-name directors like George Miller (Mad Max) and Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water).
The support of the film industry does give some high brow validation for video games but is that only because it’s following in film’s footsteps?
It would seem hypocritical to say so considering film owes its origins to the likes of theatre and photography for the medium to be possible in the first place.
Video games borrowing film techniques is just another step in creating more expressive art in its medium.
Will we see video games hanging in art galleries?
For some people, something is only art if it hangs in an art gallery or museum.
Well if that’s all it takes to become art then video games are already there! There’s a National Videogame Museum based in Sheffield dedicated to showcasing the craft of game design and exhibiting the classics of the medium.
Even the United States Library of Congress collects video games to preserve them for future generations. It certainly seems like video games are being treated as highly valuable cultural artefacts.
Video games may be stuck in the limbo of never being considered high culture but really the debate is of little significance to the gamer. It’s a subjective debate that will struggle to reach a conclusion in our lifetime. All that really matters is: if you enjoy a video game enough to call it art, then it’s art.
Author Bio: James Sayers has a passion for writing on media such as music, film and video games. He works at Tillison Consulting as an SEO Campaign Manager working on blog content and SEO improvements for clients.