Brave New Worlds: The Continuing Debate on Video Games and Art

The question may never be solved as to whether or not video games really are art. Maybe this article will resolve it though.

The question may never be solved as to whether or not video games really are art. Maybe this article will resolve it though.

My readers, I hope you will forgive this one indulgence on my part. I know that we here at GameSkinny are primarily dedicated to providing you with up-to-the-minute news on the gaming world, reviews of some of the industry’s most promising titles, and general tips for games, but this is a subject I’ve wanted to address since I started writing for this website. I am sure most of you are completely exasperated with this seemingly endless debate, which has been raging on since video games rose to popularity with the creation of Pong. However, that being said, I cannot help but come to defense of the medium.

The debate in question, of course, is whether or not video games really classify as “art” (whatever that ambiguous term really means).

Trying to put our fingers on it

Part of the beauty of art, part of what makes it such a riveting aspect of human existence, is that it’s something that is inherently ambiguous. There have been countless definitions and theories posited by some of the smartest, most learned minds in the history of man, and still there isn’t one that totally encapsulates what exactly makes something a work of art.

One of my personal favorites was written a few thousand years ago by the storied Greek philosopher, Aristotle: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Operating under this definition–which, as I’ve said,  is purely my own subjective preference–video games most certainly can, and most often are, works of art.

Take the game Shadow of the Colossus, for instance. There’s a reason why this game is one of the cornerstones of the argument for video games as art. The vast, minimalist scenery and massive Colossi that the Wanderer battles certainly evoke feelings of awe, but it is the subtle hints at the Wanderer’s underlying emotional torment and the game’s Earth-shattering ending that truly elevate the overall experience.

As I’ve said, however, this is simply my view on things.

More importantly, this is but one of a long, long line of excellent games that truly exemplify what gaming has to offer to the ever-shifting monolith of art.

Where we stand with the matter at hand

Though I admit that all this rambling might just be the skewed perception of a gaming enthusiast, I don’t feel like I’m alone in my admiration of the sheer artisanship that goes into making a game. But, if that’s true, then why is this tired debate still going on?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the 18th century.

The year was 1740. An aspiring writer named Samuel Richardson wrote and successfully published his version of a morality tale, which he called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Though it was a run-away commercial success, it was generally derided by critics, looked down upon by art enthusiasts, and even garnered enough attention to warrant a satirical spin-off, Spamela

You may be wondering why I’m telling you all this historical nonsense you probably don’t care about. The reason is that a few hundred years later, Pamela is not only widely considered a literary gem, but, more importantly, it is considered the first novel ever published.

In the same way that 18th century critics looked down on this new medium, I believe that modern art buffs look down their noses at video games. This is arguably due, in part, to the fact that these experts are frightened by the possibility of not being well-versed in a new mode of expression. As they say, “what we don’t know, we fear.”

This isn’t the first time society has experienced this resistance to assimilation, however. Let’s not forget that, believe it or not, there was a time when both movies and television were considered incapable of giving the world art. Now we have movies like Casablanca and television shows like The Sopranos, and the world has collectively shut its pie-hole.

No one man should have all that power…

There is a theory which questions whether the power of art lies in the artist, the work of art itself, or the viewer/listener/player, etc. As you might imagine, it is nearly impossible to decipher precisely where art derives its strength, and so most people who run across this conundrum fittingly say that it lies somewhere in the middle of all three.

If we do consider video games an art form, then there is an innate aspect of the medium that distinguishes it from all other art forms: the intense, inextricable emphasis on the power of the gamer. There is no other artistic mode that relies on its perceiver to further their own immersion into the work itself.

Let me put it like this: Imagine you’re watching a movie, any one of your choice. Got it? Now imagine that every few minutes or so the movie was paused and you were asked questions about it and unless you answered correctly, you could not advance the film. It’s hard to picture, I know, but this is essentially what video games do.

Moreover, while movies can give us unique insight into a character’s perspective and motivations, games take that concept a full step further and actually put the character in your hands. Whether you decide to act for good or bad in inFamous, fight through the entire game or give up at the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, or even if you decide to heed Peppy’s advice to “DO A BARREL ROLL!” in Star Fox 64, the game gives the player an unprecedented level of agency.

Video games put it on you, the gamer, to not only shape the enlivening of the art, but to also make it happen in the first place. In short, the power is all yours.

Where do we go from here?

It may take some time, but with more and more games that challenge both our graphics capabilities as well as our emotional capacities, the art world will assuredly catch up with the gaming one. Who know, maybe one day we’ll even have our kids playing through games like Heavy Rain as a homework assignment. 

Until then, us gamers will have to hunker down, enjoy all that our favorite medium gives us, and, as pop star John Mayer once cooed, keep “waiting on the world to change.”

About the author