It’s been over a month, so I decided to do a post that I’ve had in the bag for awhile, but don’t think adds anything to the discussion. This is what happens when you are taking classes, teaching classes, writing things up, and applying for jobs I guess.
Are video games art? What a bizarre question. It has been debated through the years, but I’m not sure there is anyone out there that has seriously thought about the question and is willing to defend that they are not. The debate seems over and the conclusion is that video games are art.
The one notable opposition is Roger Ebert, but his position boils down to a “no true Scotsman fallacy.” It is such a classic example that it should probably just start being used to illustrate what the fallacy is. He says games cannot be art. Then when shown a game that he admits is art he says, “But that isn’t a real game.” That would be like arguing novels cannot be art by just declaring that any novel that could be considered art is not a real novel. It is a silly argument that doesn’t need to be taken seriously.
First, we should notice that there is a “type error” (as a programmer would say) in the original question. No one would think “Are books art?” is a properly phrased question. What does that mean? If you find one book that is not art, then is the answer no? Do you merely need to give one book that is art to answer yes? The answer isn’t well-defined because “book” encompasses a whole class of objects: some of which are art and some of which are not.
For our purposes we’ll say a medium (like video games) “is art” if an artist can consistently use the medium to produce something that can be broadly recognized as art. This brings us to the difficult question of how to determine if something can be broadly recognized as art. Some things that come to mind are aesthetics/beauty, the ability to make a human being feel something, the ability to make someone think deeply about important questions, originality, and on and on we could go. Any given work of art could be missing any or all of these qualities, but if something exhibits enough these qualities, then we would probably have no problem calling it art.
In order to argue that games can be works of art, I’ll take two examples that are relatively recent from the “indie game” community. These are both games in a sense that even Ebert could not deny. I’ll stay away from controversial examples like Dear Esther or Proteus (which are undeniably works of art but more questionable about being games).
The first is Bastion. The art direction and world that has been constructed is a staggering work of beauty on its own. Remove everything about this game except just exploring this universe and I think you would find many people totally engrossed in the experience:
We already have check mark one down. But there’s more! The music is fantastic as well. But let’s get to what really sets this game apart as a work of art. The story is fantastic and is mostly told with great voice acting through a narrator. I won’t spoil the ending in its totality, but I’m about to give away a major plot point near the end.
Your good friend betrays you and comes close to destroying everything (literally the whole world) in the middle of the game. It hurts. Then near the end he is going to die and you have the choice to save him. The game branches and you can either keep your weapons and safely fight your way to the end of the game, or you can carry this traitor through a dangerous area possibly sacrificing your own life for him.
Books and movies can’t do this. You have to make this choice and it affects how the story progresses. It reveals to you what type of human you are. You have to live with the consequences of this choice. If you save him, then you slowly walk through an area where your enemies shoot you from afar and there is nothing you can do. When they realize what you’re doing they stop in awe and just solemnly let you pass. The visuals plus the music plus the dramatic climax of this moment brings many people to tears.
I know this because you can just search discussion boards on the game. Gaming discussion boards are notorious for being misogynistic and full of masculine one-up-manship. No one makes fun of the people who say it brought them to tears and usually there will be a bunch of other people admitting the same. If this sort of emotional connection isn’t art, then I don’t know what is. Not only that, but this type of connection can only really happen through games where you are wholly invested because you’ve made these decisions.
Maybe Bastion isn’t your thing, because it is a “gamer’s game” with a bit of a barrier to entry since it involves experience points, weapons, items, leveling up, and real-time fighting of monsters and bosses. That could be a bit much for the uninitiated. We’ll move on to a game that every person, regardless of gaming experience, can play and really see how elegantly simple an “art game” can be.
Thomas Was Alone is extremely simple. Thomas is a rectangle. You move him to a rectangular door. End of level. The game is in a genre called a “puzzle platformer.” As the levels progress you get different sized rectangles to move and moving and jumping in various orders will help you get to the end. This is the “puzzle” aspect, because you have to figure out the correct order to do things otherwise you’ll get stuck.
Why is this art? Well, why is writing a book about some animals on a farm art? Because it isn’t really about animals on a farm. The same is true here. The game is a huge metaphor. A deeply moving one at that. I consistently had to stop playing at parts because of how overwhelmed with the concept I became when I allowed myself to think about it.
Just like Bastion, this game is truly magnificent visually. The style is opposite. It has minimalism and simplicity as the guiding aesthetic virtue:
The music is perfect for the mood, and the narration which tells the story is beyond superb. You grow attached to these rectangles which have such nuanced personalities. What is the metaphor? Well, there are all these obstacles in your way, and you can’t get past them without working together. The whole idea is that there are seemingly impossible obstacles in life, but when humans cooperate and work together they can get past them.
The thing that makes the game so moving at parts is that your rectangle friends are so humanly flawed. They get upset at each other for such petty reasons. They have crushes on each other. They hate each other. But in the end they overcome those differences to work together and accomplish great things. If you haven’t experienced it, then this probably sounds totally absurd.
Again from discussion forums, I quote, “I just finished the game and a group of coloured quadrilaterals made me cry.” Or “Everything about this game makes me feel incredible. I feel as if I can achieve things I could never think of being. This is the best thing I could have experienced, and it’s worth everything…This game makes you love and cry over shapes.” When people have these reactions, that is without question the definition of art.
I think we’ve firmly established that games can be art. I thought I’d just bring up a few cultural tidbits right at the end here. Some famous art galleries across the world have started to recognize the importance of including works of art in their collection that happen to be games. MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in NY) has a collection of 14 games in its collection currently. Paris had an exhibit that included Fez. The Smithsonian American Art Museum had one last year. There have been many others too.
I’ll try to wrap up now. If you’re the type of person that reads literary novels and goes to the symphony because you think experiencing art is an important and enriching experience, then you probably also write off video games as a mindless waste of time. This is partially warranted because so many of the most popular games today are mindless wastes of time (just like most popular music and movies are too).
I hope that after this maybe your mind has changed a little. If you are willing to make time in your schedule to read a book or go to an art gallery, then I’d argue that you should also be willing to make time in your schedule to experience great games. The medium has all the same artistic qualities as a great film, but has added value given by the interactivity you have with the medium.