CAN VIDEO GAMES REACH ARTISTIC HEIGHTS?
By Leyla Resuli: Arts Columnist
From arcade classics like Pac-Man to modern titles such as Breath of the Wild, video games have come a long way since their inception. They’ve become more and more popular over the years; in 2018 it was revealed that nearly 70% of people in the USA play games on a phone, PC or console, and it’s likely increased since then. The quality of video games is growing constantly as technology updates and improves, allowing greater visuals, gameplay, and storytelling. Long gone are the days of the simple back and forth of Pong; now you can partake in epic adventures across sprawling landscapes with multiple quests, inventories full of different items, customisable outfits, dialogue options, and the chance to ponder moral quandaries while you do it. Despite these great advances, video games have always struggled to be seen as part of the art world. The question is do they deserve to?
That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because it leads to yet another, more challenging question: how should we define art? The Oxford dictionary explains it as an expression ‘of human creative skill and imagination’, to be appreciated mainly for ‘beauty or emotional power’. This seems simple enough, and a lot of different works, including video games, would fall into this category. However, a dictionary definition is often surface-level, and there is nuance to language and the terms we apply to things. Jonathan Jones, writing for The Guardian, said that art is ‘one person’s reaction to life’. Some argue that it must evoke something in the audience, be it emotion or thought. Others say that it must communicate a message, inviting you to question what you know.
It isn’t difficult to list many games that fit these criteria. A recent example is Detroit: Become Human, a story-driven game set in the not-too-distant future where androids have become commonplace in our homes. The player controls three of these android characters who are in different circumstances: a nanny for a little girl with an abusive father, the leader of a revolt against human oppression, and a new addition to the police who are investigating ‘deviant’ androids. The player decides how these characters act and what they say, leading their stories down different paths and altering their fates. The game invites discussions on technology, free will, and what it means to be human. With so much to unpack, it’s not hard to see why games such as this would be considered art.
However, Michael Samyn, writing for The Escapist, claimed that games are simply ‘digital sport’, and their entire purpose is to ‘provide fun to their customers’. Likewise, Jones expressed that since players can’t ‘impose a personal vision of life’ on the game and creators have apparently ‘ceded that responsibility’, there is no artist and video games therefore cannot be art. But this is surely subjective. To say that the creators of games haven’t included any vision of life is a bold statement, and inaccurate at best. It may be true that it’s difficult to incorporate a vision of life into these choice-and-consequence games; with the genre so focused on personal choice, the player is (somewhat) free to weave their own narrative. Still, it could be argued that the player then paints their own vision of life into the picture, and the art is complete with their participation.
Perhaps the ability to convey a message is more overt in other genres. Video games by their nature are incredibly diverse. Many people likely picture traditional platforms such as Mario Bros when thinking of video games, but there are far more genres than can realistically be listed, including shooters, RPGs (or role-playing games), adventure games, and simulations, to name but a few. It may be difficult to picture Mario Bros as art—what meaning can be gleaned from a pixelated man jumping from platform to platform to reach a goal? Perhaps the artistic waters then are muddied by games that call themselves ‘walking simulators’: games which feature little action for the player, instead providing an experience based on exploration and observation. They feature story-lines, which are usually quite in-depth, that the player experiences first-hand as they uncover clues or objects that reveal more of the story. Dear Esther, for example, sees the player reading letters from a man written to his dead wife, and details of her death are revealed with progression through the game. In a genre so focused on narrative, discovery, and the provocation of emotion, perhaps walking simulators can reach the classification for art?
It seems clear that there are a great deal of video games with carefully crafted narratives, themes, and emotive qualities. There are also many games that are much simpler, and based primarily on the entertainment or enjoyment of the players. So, does this mean that some games are art and others are not? Perhaps this is the most reasonable answer: games such as those in the Mario Bros series are not art, at least in the traditional sense, as they are simply designed to orchestrate a fun time between players; whereas those that create an emotive or thought-provoking experience can be considered as art.
In any discussion of art it’s worth noting that there’s an undeniable problem with snobbery in the art world, and an apparent desire to keep it ‘pure’, free from the clutches of technology, popular culture, and one-dimensional enjoyment. More importantly, ‘art’ is an abstract concept, and all the definitions in the world cannot concretely decide what it is and forever shall be. If two experts in the art world have differing opinions on what art is, who is right? Is it even possible to be factually ‘correct’ when defining such a broad concept as art?
Arguably, then, the most important definition is every individual’s personal idea of what art means to them. After all, if somebody finds meaning in stomping on enemies in Mario Bros, telling them they’re wrong won’t stop their experience or change the fact that they took that reading of the game. They could argue, for instance, that Mario’s ambitions of reaching goalposts over and over again mimics humanity’s endless drive for achievement and the continual pursuit of happiness. So Mario Bros becomes art to that person. It seems obvious, therefore, that many if not all games have the potential to be considered as art, even if some have less obvious reasons for it. There is also something to be said for simple enjoyment. When asked why they have artwork on the walls of their homes, many people reply that they simply enjoy looking at it. If a work of art’s job is to evoke something, then in this case it has done so: it has evoked enjoyment. The same could certainly be said for video games, and maybe that is enough.
What are your thoughts on the ideas discussed in this article? Keep the conversation going and share with others across your social media platforms and widen the discussion.