In this post I’ll reflect on how games could be seen as art, and how they fit (or do not fit) into art culture.
Games as Art
The core of art, for me, is its aesthetic intentions. It’s something that was conceived or created in order to appeal to our aesthetic sense, rather than as a practical tool/innovation. Whether it’s sad, scary, delightful, fun, beautiful, the whole range of aesthetic experiences apply. Games are largely created for these intentions, with the small exceptions of edugames and things like Kriegsspiel. Fun is often dismissed, because in other mediums fun is largely relegated to genre fiction/movies and other art that isn’t very respected, and some wouldn’t call art in the first place. But Football means too much to people to put it in the same box as brainless fun action movies like The Fast and the Furious (Universal Pictures, 2001). Decision making, physical mastery, pattern recognition and more ensure that games created for fun are generally an entirely different experience than movies and books for that same purpose. Their narratives are power fantasies, but that’s where the similarities end, and most games cannot be reduced down to just narrative.
Not that you would get this impression from the culture itself, however. Games critics occasionally delve deep into e.g. the meaning of The Last of Us’ story, or analysis of what Problem Attic is really about, but there’s little critique of this nature that concerns gameplay. How Dark Souls’ world is tangible through little things like your weapon pinging off walls. The absolute depth of Nioh. How parrying works in a combat system. I will simply link a few critical pieces I think do this well, the purpose being to show what game critics can open our eyes to, but currently fail to. I think if this approach was the norm, it would be much less controversial to call games (and not just walking simulators) art.
Nioh Review – Somewhat Soulful Action (Pressgrove, 2017)
God of War Case Study (Matthewmatosis, 2018)
Dark Souls 2 – Series Strengths and Sequel Changes (Anderson, 2015)
The Monte Carlo Player (Goodwin, 2018)
Saving Zelda (Thompson, 2012)
Shadow of the Colossus and Ico (Wagar, 2016)
There’s also something to be said about their utter lack of variety, even besides approach to gameplay. I would be fine if reviewers had consistent criteria and standards that they formalistically broke down games according to, but in the absence of that they at the very least need to communicate a meaningful subjective position (which is not necessarily contrary to the consensus, but out of hundreds, some are bound to be). As braindead as the gaming community at large can be, it still has more variety of opinion than all the major gaming sites combined. Tevis Thompson covers this exhaustively in his 2013 article On Video Game Reviews.
The Cultural Ghetto
Just like movies and comic books were dismissed as soulless entertainment before, so too have games gotten the status of non-art by people, mainly those outside the medium. Roger Ebert’s 2010 post called “Video Games Can Never Be Art“, is one such dismissal. One oft-repeated point he brings up, is the idea of great artists within the medium: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” If you take games as a purely narrative medium, I will empathically agree. Reducing every game down to its narrative experience, it is indeed lacking in any great works. I think it’s a great disservice to the medium to cite Inside, The Last of Us and Journey to convince people that games are art and reinforcing this idea that art has to be narrative. Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) and Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) are two of our earliest video games, yet they are often cited as perfect works, touchstones of early video game culture that are still played to this day. This is just within video games of course, while the broader medium spans back much further – if games were invented before man became man, only achieving artistic status in the 1980s would be quite damning. Go and Football go further back and are just as, if not more, applicable. Go is older than Christ, and the very rules in these games exist to appeal to our aesthetic sense (as opposed to the rules in maths, though beautiful). They are, evidently, extraordinarily successful in that regard.
This is not the cultural consensus, however. Going back to Ebert, he opens up the possibility of video games to be art by essentially predicting the walking simulator (or secret boxes as I prefer): “a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film”. I agree this isn’t a game, and again does a disservice by putting them at the forefront of artistic progress in the medium. If Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) is what shows that games can be art, then games are not art at all. These are fundamentally different in their nature and design, so I don’t think that using them as evidence will give us any chance of leaving the ghetto. If Ebert witnessed the walking sims, there’s no reason for him to change his mind on art not having rules and goals (which I can’t argue against, as they are entirely arbitrary and subjective qualifiers). Similarly, most people could see a game being art due to it containing traditional art (narrative, visual art, animation, music etc.), but if they don’t acknowledge the underlying rules themselves warranting calling it art then that’s where it stops, there becomes this arbitrary line between video games and traditional games for example. The Museum of Modern Art (Paola Antonelli, 2012) is another entity perpetuating these biases – it includes video games in its collection, and not just walking simulators, yet it doesn’t include traditional games like Go or Chess, let alone contemporary board games. It may be a lot easier to simply think of game art as interactive paintings or design pieces, but it also means games, fundamentally as a medium, are not art.
ANDERSON, J. (2015). Dark Souls 2 – Series Strengths and Sequel Changes. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9jrShSwjPU
ANTONELLI, P. (2012). Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/29/video-games-14-in-the-collection-for-starters/
EBERT, R. (2010). Video Games Can Never Be Art. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/video-games-can-never-be-art.
FULLBRIGHT COMPANY, THE. (2013). Gone Home.
GOODWIN, J. (2018). The Monte Carlo Player. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: http://www.electrondance.com/the-monte-carlo-player/
MATTHEWMATOSIS. (2018). God of War Case Study. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IERHMMXeshc
NAMCO. (1980). Pac-Man.
PAJITNOV, A. (1984). Tetris.
PRESSGROVE, J. (2017). Nioh Review – Somewhat Soulful Action. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://gamebias.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/nioh-review-somewhat-soulful-action/
THOMPSON, T. (2012). Saving Zelda. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://tevisthompson.com/saving-zelda/
THOMPSON, T. (2013). On Video Game Reviews. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://tevisthompson.com/on-videogame-reviews/
TSR. (1974). Dungeons & Dragons.
UNIVERSAL PICTURES. (2001). The Fast and the Furious.
WAGAR, C. (2016). Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. Accessed on 13.12.2019 from: https://critpoints.net/2016/02/14/shadow-of-the-colossus-and-ico/