Video Games as Art

The debate regarding video games as art rages on, and with both the hardcore gamer and the hardcore artist arguing their side, I am here to argue for the former. Please note that I am also an artist (although, foremost a gamer), perhaps not an accomplished one – and certainly not one who has ever had their art hung in a gallery, but an artist nonetheless. After having read this article I decided to stage a retaliation article, of sorts. Not to attack or demean, but to argue my own points regarding this issue, especially as a budding games designer.

I take fault with this article for several reasons, not least quoting papers that are nearly 200 years old. 200 years ago society was much different to the society we now find ourselves in, and with societal progression comes redefinition and change. After all, why classify games as non-artistic based in the philosophy of peoples who had no idea of what video games even are? But this is besides the point.

The debate surrounding video games as art is an ever-swirling mass of toing and froing from both sides, and the arguments are complicated and ever-going on. To begin with we should find a definition of art.
Art:
The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture,…: “the art of the Renaissance”
Works produced by such skill and imagination.
Synonyms for art include craft, skill, science and workmanship.
So, in the simplest terms, video games would then be considered as art – they are expressions of human creative skill and are the product of imagination. They also require craft, skill and science to create: they take years to write, develop, and produce. However, to look for a more defined concept of what art is would widen, and deepen, the argument for video games as art. 

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I would also argue that art is interpreted through user interaction and integration – how an audience may view a piece, much art is open to interpretation and brings into play wider themes. There is art regarding sexuality, feminism, politics and philosophy and it takes many, many forms, not just a painting. Writing, poetry, even now visual cinema are all considered viable art forms. In this case, video games would again be consider an art if you were to take these aspects into play – video games are the ultimate interactive art form, as you take on an avatar and guide them through whichever scenarios take place within the narrative. Video games too, bring into play politics, philosophy and many other wide-reaching themes; games such as Fallout tackle war, and the standout phrase of that series is “War. War never changes.”  This isn’t even a modern development- in the mid-nineties, Final Fantasy was tackling themes of war and human slavery in their epic RPG Final Fantasy VI and in the late 90s, survival horror was born in the form of Silent Hill which tackled mature themes such as bullying, social alienation, and religion. These may, initially, not be considered artistic themes but these themes have been tackled in literature, painting, and cinema for decades, years even. Whilst they may not themselves, specifically, be artistic themes, the fact that they appear within an art piece is enough to define them as such.

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So, in the basest terms of what the generalised definitions of art are, you could in this case, consider a video game a form of art. I would, however, like to back up my argument and put forward several other arguments, and considerations, not just personal opinions. For example, video games are not a simplistic process, simply putting words into a computer to form a finished product. Months, if not years, of writing, developing, and designing will go into a game before it is a finished product. This includes writing, scoring, developmental designing and a whole host of other aspects which produce a finished product that could, in itself be considered an art-form.

Indeed, many video games are in themselves comprised of many different art forms, put together into a larger art form. Concept art is much like the art you may find in a gallery, and is eventually animated and put into a game in the form of characters, settings, and scenarios. The music of a game has long since changed from chiptune to include full orchestral scores – such as BioShock and Shadow of the Colossus. Then of course there are cutscene and full motion videos, which in themselves seek to emulate cinema and often do.  As is evident, there are many aspects that go towards putting a game together and not only this, these individual elements are often considered an artform in themselves – so why is it that video games carry such stigma? Personally I believe it is to do with the old stereotypes and the personal stigma many people hold towards gamers.

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A piece of concept art from Final Fantasy XII.

One of the foremost arguments against video games being classified as art is that games such as The Sims exist. This, in itself, shows ignorance to what video games are – The Sims are, infact, one of the most successful franchises, yes. But they are not the only example of a successful game franchise – BioShock, Fallout, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy and Mass Effect are all examples of well-made video games, well-received by critics and audiences alike, that encompass many more adult themes. In this, the stereotype of the teenage boy sat alone in his bedroom playing video games is far from accurate –it may have been accurate 10, 20 years ago but these gamers grew up and with their ageing, so their tastes too developed. An ageing audience requires games more suited to their demographic, just as comics in the 80s became an adult market, so to have video games now become a more grown-up market. By including games such as The Sims and Call of Duty, many people arguing against video games as art are infact manipulating their audience and perpetuating old stereotypes as to what games are. They not only ignore that the industry has evolved and produced some stunning works of art, but neglect to mention the wider range of video games in the first place. I am a firm believer in the fact that one cannot argue against something without being fully aware of both sides – and by neglecting to even learn of video games, some people face a downfall.

Now, onto some of the very games themselves. I may hear you ask just what games could be considered art – why, I have mentioned several of them on this blog alone. Silent Hill and Shadow of the Colossus are two such games which contain adult themes, open to interpretation, and beautifully put together. But there are many such games besides that could be considered art. Perhaps my favourite here is Okami, a game based in Japanese folklore and telling the tale of a Japanese god, Amaterasu. She is the Mother of All, God of the Sun, and in the game you seek out to banish evil from the land- and in doing so, much of the game’s beautiful scenery comes to life. What sets this game out from the rest is that the art style emulates traditional Japanese brush art, so the entire world is literally put forward as a painting. This brings into play an interesting dynamic, wherein you “paint” the world; you in a sense become an artist, shaping the world for the better, around you. Not only is the art in Okami beautiful but the score, too, and the adherence to traditional mythology and wide themes such as environmentalism, love, and heroism.

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And another game, BioShock, encompasses wide philosophical and societal themes, with a dash of politics. It takes place in Rapture, a city under the sea overseen by Andrew Ryan (a nod to Ayn Rand, whose objectivist themes are recurrent throughout the game) a dictator who wanted to get away from the government, and rule, to create his own land where people were free to do what they liked. However, things did not go as planned, and Rapture fell – you follow the wishes of a man named Atlas, trying to save his family, and escape Rapture. The game encompasses so many wide themes that to go into it requires its own blog post, but the themes in the game are not only adult, but bring into play an interesting dynamic when a certain act comes to pass. Do not read the following paragraph if you do not wish to have the game spoiled for you.

Within the game, the question of “what makes man a man” and free will come into play frequently – it is man’s free will that let Rapture fall, but was also the catalyst for the creation of a great city in the first place. Throughout the entire game the phrase “Would You Kindly” is repeated by Atlas, as he asks you to do certain things. You control the faceless protagonist under the guise of free will – you as a player are committing these acts off of your own back. Or are you? About half way through the game it is revealed your character has no free will, and the phrase “would you kindly” is a trigger to control you. Not only is your avatar within the game actually being controlled, but the player, as an extension of you, is also being controlled. You thought you were playing the game on your terms. You weren’t. The game itself manipulates you.

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It is themes such as these that bring into play the wider question of video games as art. Not only do some games include themes of politics, philosophy, and art – such as BioShock and Mass Effect, but some games seek to emulate cinema –such as Resident Evil. Other games tackle issues of love and morality, such as Final Fantasy, and finally some games such as Shadow of the Colossus and Okami are simply artistic in their design, execution, and presentation.

Whatever your viewpoint on this very issue, you cannot deny that video games are becoming more prominent, more developed, and are certainly leaning towards artistic direction moreso than at any other time.

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6 thoughts on “Video Games as Art

  1. Great read. I have to agree with you that video games should be considered art for many reasons. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that they are the most interactive form of art. Games like “Bioshock” should be looked at for many reasons, while those like “Shadow of the Colossus” should be considered for more than just aesthetics. Many of the titles you mentioned are exactly what pops into my head when I try to justify the position as well. Nice post!

    • Thank you! There are plenty of games that are overlooked either because they’re sleeper hits or because, simply, not enough people have heard about them – I realise I rather neglected Indie Games within this post, but there are games such as Botanicula, Limbo and Lone Survivor that I would also class as artistic.

  2. You’re absolutely right. Video games now are more developed, whether an art or not is a plausible question.

    Drawings are art. Paintings are art. Novels are art. Video games are series of animation and storylines; so I will classify them as art. And there are good paintings and horrible novels; video games are not different. There are excellent ones, and there are laughable kinds.

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