Video games are art, and I’m not sure if that’s still controversial

Courtesy of Sophie Wood '23.

Video games are an artform, one that is well-established and incredibly diverse. This perspective is a given for many familiar with the medium, but others may find it surprising. They may think of the titans of the industry: “Call of Duty,” “Super Mario,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Fortnite,” maybe “Final Fantasy” or a simple arcade classic like “Pac-Man.” These franchises, and others of similar fame, are reasonably representative of the modern video game industry. Some are very “schlocky” and action-focused, while others are simply fun, like “Tetris” or any of the other classics your parents played as kids.

While these simpler, perhaps less artistically distinct, games can still qualify as art under certain lenses, these figureheads of the medium understandably give an impression of simplicity and frivolity. This conception tends towards a perspective of games as a sort of toy, an image consistent with the usual vocabulary of games: Games are “played,” whereas more traditional forms of art are “experienced” or “admired,” as with film and visual art (these terms are used for games, too, but only by critics who already look at them as art). Play is traditionally associated with childhood, with immaturity, which, while not bad things themselves, are considered distinct from the realm of art, which is decidedly not frivolous, but important and impactful. When one thinks of “high art,” they imagine maturity, an image that can appear incompatible with video games as objects of “play.” While this often-snobbish perspective has weakened over time, its residual effect has certainly stunted the association of video games as art, as both the public and games’ creators took a while to even consider making art out of these silly electronic toys. It’s hard to pinpoint when art started to become a goal for game developers, but the predominant view before that turning point is brilliantly summarized in a quote from John Carmack, one of the creators of the ‘90s smash hit “DOOM,”: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” This is synecdoche for the state of games in the ‘90s. Story was an excuse for play, and it takes no leap of logic to see how developers with that philosophy would care little for anything but the basic fun.

The medium of film is a great touchstone to model how games are coming into form. Film, too, took a long time to be accepted as an art form. The moving picture began as a novel and cheap form of entertainment, something without narrative, whose main attraction was the amusing effect of viewing a photograph in motion.

This compares to video games in the late ’80s and ’90s, when they began to rapidly grow in popularity. Just as film began as a novelty, video games were captivating consumers as a new form of flashy entertainment. An arcade or old Atari cartridge was like a board game with sound effects and less downtime. Still, the act of play alone was the soul goal of early video games, as touched upon by the Carmack quote above. And, just as with the Lumière brothers’ “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,” or, “Train Pulling into a Station,” “Game Card Number 3” on the Magnavox Odyssey (the first ever at-home game console) had no artistic aspirations. One was an amusing showcase of motion, the other an amusing new evolution of play.

After a few decades, however, films developed immensely as an artform. They began to create fiction, telling stories and developing their own artistic language—cinematography—to communicate ideas in ways no previous artform could. Video games are now developing in a similar way. For one, they have already been telling stories for decades. First, they were simple tales, often of adventure, as with the first “Super Mario Bros.” Later, they became more complex, telling stories as deep as many respected films and often employing the pre-existing, already understood language of cinema-narrative. But most importantly, they began to take advantage of the interactivity intrinsic to the medium in service of art, forming their own artistic language. 

One of the most basic uses of this new language is as a vehicle for empathy. For example, the 2013 game “The Last of Us” has the player control the main character, Joel, placing them in desperate combat situations that experientially relate the necessity of violence in the game’s post-apocalyptic setting. First-hand experience is the shortest path to empathy, so putting the player behind many of Joel’s actions makes those actions feel like the player’s, creating a unique relationship between the audience and the artwork that a film or book would have a hard time accomplishing (and “The Last of Us” is a relatively basic example of artistic interactivity). I somehow doubt the upcoming HBO Max adaptation of the game will make me feel like Joel rather than an onlooker.

So, if games have such high artistic potential, why do people seem to hardly consider the medium as an artform? Well, some may refuse to view video games as such due to a lack of experience and, sometimes, an over-tuned tendency to extrapolate, wherein common video game tropes—especially the strictly play-oriented tropes of early games—become inherent aspects of the medium. This would create a simplistic view of games as no more than the novelty they were in their early form.

Another problem may be that most games today still put play before everything else. The best video game developers usually design their games’ interactivity to help communicate the game’s artistic goals; however, especially in the big-budget space, art is often the last consideration game developers seem to have. I need to keep emphasizing the nuance of this topic because many of the best big-budget games (often called triple-A, think of it as gaming’s Hollywood level) are highly artistic and well renowned for their artistry. It’s just that most of the big titles in the industry—“Fortnite,” “Call of Duty,” “Super Mario,” “Grand Theft Auto,” or “The Elder Scrolls”—are sold and enjoyed predominantly as a way to kill time and have fun. They’re like the “Transformers” and MCU’s of the gaming industry. Now, even these can have some artistic merit or untapped potential within them and can thus act as gateways for some gamers to discover even richer works of art in the medium, but it is hard to deny their superficial appearance. I think these games, which are the face of the medium, hurt the reputation of video games as a whole in the artistic community. They’re like Michael Bay films: audiences don’t go to Michael Bay to think; they go to have fun. And that’s okay—I don’t want to imply these games’ existence is a bad thing. The harm they do to the medium’s artistic reputation is merely an unfortunate side-effect.

Having said all that, I’m actually not sure whether the question “Are video games an artform?” is still controversial. A difficulty I have assessing this is how little discussion around video games occurs outside the gaming community itself. It seems to me that most gamers today do accept video games as art, even if they only consider a few “artsy” games as such (“Journey” and “The Last of Us” are common touchstones for that). This lack of discussion outside the community could, in itself, be an indication that most people don’t see the medium as art; however, that isn’t a leap I feel safe taking, as I don’t believe an apparent lack of a consensus means there is a silent one. If it’s not discussed, the question would be dead, and thus no room for controversy to begin with. The absence of any discussion of games in The Miscellany News’ Arts section (over the past two years at least) seems to indicate some apathy for games as art among Vassar students, even as video games hold a firm presence in a lot of social clubs. 

Then again, the few people I’ve discussed this with have mostly been in favor of the artistic merit of games, and even a non-gamer I spoke with was quite enthusiastic about the medium, having gained experienced second-hand through let’s-plays on YouTube. My tentative conclusion is that most younger people tend to accept games’ potential to be art if not its whole actualization, while almost every gamer knows video games can be great art and probably has a favorite “art game” of their own.

Before ending, I must confess that this is not the article I initially planned to write. I actually wanted to write a short analytical piece on a recent game from the Japanese studio From Software, but I hardly got off the ground before realizing that some readers may be surprised to see an article discussing a game as art. But maybe not. Perhaps people by now in 2022, so far removed from the simplicity of games’ philosophy in the ‘90s, and especially young people as I said, are far more open minded about something like this. After all, the prospect of a whole new artform should sound wonderfully exciting! Why be snobbish and exclusionary?


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