Video Games As Art

My entry into this discussion comes two years after its height, but it is relevant as a precursor to an upcoming column I will be writing that addresses the presentation of storylines and plots within WoW. But in order to justify some of the statements I will be making throughout this upcoming column, I must state my case that video games can indeed be art.

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control…. the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship [however elegant or sophisticated] to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

This was a statement made by Roger Ebert in response to a question asking him why he had been receptive of comic books and animation, but not video games. And though he acknowledges “a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience,” he still treats the medium with unwarranted disdain. To any video game buff who can appreciate a great storyline with insightful treatment of meaningful themes, it’s almost insulting to have this sort of argument presented by a well-respected critic of any field. And it’s certainly a setback for video games as a medium ever being treated with any sort of respect from critics in general. But as gamers, we should take heart in the fact that Ebert’s argument is a sinking ship.

Ebert assumes all video games require player choices, despite the fact that a large percentage of video games do not require choice so much as they require the execution of actions by the player. In his naivety, he doesn’t understand video games actually provide the largest amount of tools for conveying artistic expression over both film and literature. The pure and simple fact that game developers can choose to either guide players through linear stories or force them to make choices as part of dynamic ones gives them the ultimate “authorial control.” But never mind that the mere act of providing players the opportunity to choose, or forcing them to choose, can have artistic ramifications in and of itself.

It is equally ignorant of Ebert to imply that there are no profound works amongst video games. Certainly, to his knowledge, no one has been able to cite a game worthy of comparison to great entries from other fields. But that’s probably because he knows no one who can name them. Honestly, I’d find it difficult to believe no expert in the field would mention Metal Gear Solid as an interesting treatment of moral ambiguity. Or Planescape: Torment as a complex handling of cognition and mortality with existentialist undertones. Both of these games had their moments in the limelight before Ebert made his comments. And subsequently, after his statements were made, we’ve had BioShock addressing utopian and dystopian concepts presented in almost Orwellian fashion.

That said, I’m of the opinion that there are definitely lines to be drawn between art and entertainment, however subjective they may be. I certainly believe the 1960’s Batman TV series is merely entertainment, while Batman Begins is an artistic representation of themes involving existentialism, justice, fear and morality. But to extend the generalization across an entire medium that has potential to actually outdo other mediums in opportunities for artistic presentation is folly in the most grandiose sense of the word. Especially when a video game can be structured like a movie with the simple added element that the player must control the actions of the character to succeed in progressing the storyline.

But if it’s the case that video games provide the most flexible of mediums for artistic expression and authorial control, why are there so many people who perceive otherwise? Perhaps it is because video games also provide the largest opportunity for the production of pure entertainment. Often developers will rely on the fact that games can be enjoyable without a great storyline. So they let the progression and subtle details of their stories falter in light of the fact that a lot of people won’t care, so long as the gameplay itself provides amusement. Michael Swaim wrote a great article listing games with ridiculous premises but great gameplay proving “you don’t have to be Tolstoy, or even coherent, to design a hit game.” So the percentage of games with great artistic expression is considerably lower than that of movies and literature for this reason. So perhaps this is why there is such a large amount of prejudice held by outsiders that video games cannot be art by definition.

However, in picking Ebert’s argument apart and providing examples of games with a high degree of artistic value, we show that video games have the potential to contain great and meaningful stories that treat abstract concepts and themes with the intelligence they deserve. That is something even Ebert admits. But it is upon the shoulders of video game developers to continue this trend and create more masterpieces that establish video games as a medium deserving respect for more than being simply conduits of entertainment, but also for insightful artistic expression.

9 thoughts on “Video Games As Art

  1. Games are not art, because they are not seen as art.

    Metal Gear games often come under fire for being “more like playing a movie”, with the emphasis being on “actions linked by in game sequences to drive plot”, its a movie you can play, you can direct the outcome to a certain extent, however the boundaries of the game are still defined, in a way its like modern art, viewed from one angle it presents a certain view, while another angle presents something totally different. Taking Deus Ex for example, the game was linear, you moved through it, you choices influenced how you played, but did not impact the linearity, your choice at the end decided how the game ended, what path you took, its like seeing a piece of art and reading into it, it has been done in movies, the new dawn of the dead (I think its that one, am not a zombie movie watcher normally so I may be wrong), the pre-credits ends as a happily ever after, the post-credits presents a different view, your choice of when to leave the theatre created a different movie experience, a good ending, a bad ending, games are but extension of this, letting the viewer, the game, choose in a more direct way.

    Games are not just art in that way though, they are not simply experiences you play through and experience, how many people played Unreal, stepped outside and marvelled at the waterfall, or stood atop a mountain in World of Warcraft simply to take a screenshot of the view. Its no longer simply a game, but the art inside the game as well, again Metal Gear series is famous for it, it includes pinups, mini-games etc involving cameras, the game is not simply a game but the potential to create art, to view what the designers made through your own lens and to find the beauty you wish to. I just started playing Metal Gear 4, (being honest distracted by WoW), its beautiful, of course there are flaws, its a game in finite resolution, but characters react, you see fear, opportunity, its a game but how you play changes your experience, participation art. There is also a level beyond the game play, the environments, the dialogue, the story, the choices you make all add to the artistry, I won’t say Kojima is a genius, the story is not something totally new, something truly unique, what it is is a well told story, with believable characters (with a certain amount of disbelief for the sake of the game), and a plot you want to follow. Final Fantasy games do it as well, as did Warcraft, some people play games as games, enjoying the mastery of the game play, others play games to see the story evolve, the actual scenarios you control being more to move the story forward, to let you have some influence. Yet we are still steered the correct path, in WC3 you could not let certain characters die, doing so destroyed the path, so yes, games are very finite and directed, same as any other art.

    I don’t know if we will ever see games as truly arty, something you go to a museum to look at, but I can’t say that they are not art, and I think anyone who simply dismisses them as games is rather shallow minded, a lot of the time a game is simply a game, a story told and a rehash of something to make profit, other times you play a game that is more interesting for its background, for its lore, for that story, the game itself is fun, but the thing that draws you to it is the story and the artistry. Again though its like cartoons, people look and see art in some, and a children’s show in others, I think art is really in the eye of the beholder, but we need to really consider it to be very broad, and spread through genres we would not consider, immersion and interaction don’t stop it being art, especially if the direction is finite.

  2. Beautiful vistas from atop mountains as part of my entry would not have had the same definition of the term “art” applied to them. Like you say, it’s in the eye of the beholder. In a technical sense, a vista of this type is a product of digital paintings and models textured to create a landscape. But this can be defined as “art” given its broader entries in the dictionary. So I should have clarified my application of the term to be more specific as insightful treatments of thematic and philosophical concepts (since this is often the criteria used by some critics to define a movie or piece of literature as “art”).

    I don’t think adding an element of control to video games is similar to “modern art.” It’s actually applies similar ideas existent as traditional concepts in both cinema and literature. A movie or TV show might have a main character narrating parts of the story during transitions between scenes or describing his thoughts. A novel might be written in the first person or in a stream of consciousness. These concepts are employed to heighten the connection of the viewer or reader to the story being portrayed, and this can often cause the viewer or reader to have a sharper empathetic response whenever the main characters fails, succeeds or otherwise goes through various experiences. Allowing someone to control a character in a game has similar effects on the player. When you succeed at a task, your emotional response is typically heightened, especially because you played a part of completing the task. This contains elements from traditional concepts of film and literature alike.

    Rather, the problems are simple and I agree with you. For one, there aren’t a lot of games that fall into the definition of “art” I used in my entry. And the fact that there aren’t a lot of games makes it difficult for critics outside of the genre to cite masterpieces that apply the definition of art I used. And some critics also can’t look beyond the entertainment value involved in performing simple tasks. While movies and books can certainly apply similar concepts, their possibility to do so does not go as far as video games in this regard. In a movie, you can decide when to get up and leave: before or after the credits. But unless you leave temporarily right before the credits and come back in, or leave before the credits are finished, you can’t choose to see only one ending.

    With video games, the design of how such things is structured is entirely in the hands of the designers. You can code it so people play through both endings successively. Or you can code it so people play through only one ending based on the choices the player makes.

    But that’s not to say film and literature are lesser mediums. Video games have their own limitations. For one, they are expensive to produce, so developers have to try to make the game such that a gamer considers it worth buying. For this reason, you rarely see games you can play and complete that present a story that lasts only an hours or two. However, I think with consoles now featuring broadband as a standard feature, you will see independent games that are much shorter in length, but it will take some time for Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to ramp up support for this style of production. But even long games often take as long to complete as it takes for someone to read a particularly large novel or series of novels. Finally, games often depend on the player’s succession through tasks to progress the story. If they can’t succeed, the story doesn’t progress. So for many, this is not conducive to the simple employment of the type of art referred to in my entry.

    So such reasons are possibly why critics hold disdain for the medium. But then people have their preferences between movies and literature, as well. So that’s why I argue the point that this disdain is unwarranted when it merely reflects a preference.

  3. Thats the point really though, art is horribly subjective, and the line for art more so. Traditional art, paintings, drawings etc, are easy to identify, the purpose of the piece is simply to be that, a rendering of something interpreted by the artist, modern art becomes more difficult, as the boundaries of the artistry are pushed. Theatre, plays etc were originally seen as entertainment, and movies as well, the genre itself was new, exciting and primarily to derive entertainment, the push to art status really comes once that has worn off and people start to create pieces that are designed to exploit the fabric of the medium, to do something that is unique, interesting, or even just shows something in a new light. Video games I believe are still in that early stage, we see some games exploiting the medium, producing artistic works, either through story (drawing back upon film, theatre and literature), through graphics (drawing from art) or through technical art, I know the final one is probably a jump, however hearing people discuss games like Metal Gear, people being amazed and interested in the characters ability to roll, to interact correctly with the environment in new ways is likely also a form of art only expressible through a controllable medium.

    On digital vistas, again in the context of the game we see them as scenery, things to look at while you do what the game intends, however look at the blog sphere and you will see screenshots from WoW posted a lot, often someone sitting on a hill or cliff with a lot of background. Similar things with backgrounds in other games, many people have Halo wallpapers or similar, the game does not make them art, rather they are a piece of art if you want them to be, and to be able to include vistas and interesting works within the game is a very interesting thing. It may not be thematic or philosophical, but its a nice visual scene, composed by the user and likely highly appreciated not only for the relationship to themselves but also for its beauty.

    Control art is perhaps what I wanted to talk about, you are right of course, modern art, movies, books etc do not offer you control, and the control aspect can be simply seen as a tool to associate you with the character, and to select your outcome. However the control itself, when you have control, the level of control and what that control can do for you is a form of artistry, again drawing upon Metal Gear, MGS3 allowed you to control the fight with the end (a sniper boss), you could kill him before you fought him during a cutscene, during the fight with sniper rifles, up close, or by logging off for a week. This control is simply a path through the game, but as a control-artistry point of view it allowed the player to express themselves, and to take a role in the game, that made no real difference, the end still dies, but one which gives you excitement, interest and at least from me to really appreciate what the designer and Kojima did, allowing you to see multiple things in the same final outcome.

    As for leaving the theatre, you didn’t need to leave for a chunk, the “bad” ending flowed from the good one, if you stayed past the credits the salvation offered became a new nightmare, if you left at the credits they survived. Its an interesting play on the tendency of people to leave, it might have been simply designed to make people stay through the credits, or it may have been designed to allow you to watch the movie you wanted, a grimm tale where there is no escape, or a modern disney where it may be bad, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

    I think video games will become more of an accepted art for once there is a genre defining art game, the medium is new, and seen as entertainment, and that gathers disdain, the idea that a game can challenge a piece of art, a movie or a book, yet the genre allows for all of the same concepts as a movie, a play, a book to be presented to the player, with the key aspect of the added control, nothing is truly open as the universe must be defined, but it adds an additional layer to the genre which in many ways obscures the others, since control is not present in most other art forms, other than leaving.

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  5. Would the coincidental arrangement of the coffee grinds I’d throw away in the morning, assuming I actually drank coffee, be artistic? No. Can my thoughts surrounding that arrangement be artistic in nature? Some would say yes.

    Personally, I find little to no value in those thoughts. I’d find more value in using coffee as an example treatment for a human vice, when cutting out the crap about the pattern the grinds make. There’s a reason San Jose State awards the worst literary excerpts annually for the most outrageous and outlandish premises and symbolism, afterall. I stand in that camp. The grinds themselves have a banal existence. They can play a part in something artistic, but for most people it’s a laughable source for art.

    To put it most bluntly, I’d say we should stop fucking around with the laughably avant garde. Are patterned and altered graphics of Marylin Monroe actually art? Ugh. I say innovate more intelligently. Stop trying to be the black sheep. Stop trying to find meaning in excrement just because it’s a human creation. It’s a canine creation, as well. I note most people would agree dogs are not as artistically capable as human beings.

    I don’t mean to offend you by my use of outrageous examples. I realize they are condescending. But then I’m trying to hammer on a point, and sometimes that requires extending beyond the boundaries of comfort and simplicity.

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