Are video games art?


The video game art debate has been raging for decades but the voices in support for the argument have been getting louder in recent years. Now that technology has caught up with human imagination games designers are doing things that only ten years ago would have been deemed impossible.

Does the jump in technology really play into the argument? Are video games an art form?

Where to start?

The most logical place to start of course is by examining the rhetoric…what is art? According to the Oxford dictionary art is;

“[MASS NOUN] The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

 If art is truly just an expression of human’s creativity then it is surely impossible to argue against video games being included with this wide reaching definition. They are created by human minds and are often as metaphorical as good literature (check out this great top 7 on Video games are slowly catching other popular media with regards to complex characters and narrative; given time to mature and it is possible that we will see people who don’t play games but admire them vicariously.

If we go by this then there are several obvious contenders in the argument for including ‘ICO’, ‘Shadows of the Colossus’, ‘Journey’, Telltales ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Last of Us’. These titles have had a profound effect on those who have played the games until their close, no-one could argue against the emotional impact all these have on those lucky enough to play them. There is no doubt if we go by Oxford that games are art.

So we’re finished?

However debates are never that simple. There are a multitude of definitions one of the most popular rebuttals i’ve heard is the concept of “L’art pour l’art” or “art for arts sake”. This was a popular notion in bohemian areas of 19th century Paris. Edgar Allen Poe outlined what is meant by this credo (as it was more than an idea, it was a movement) was outline in his essay ‘The poetic Prinicple’;

“We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.”

If we take Mr Poe’s words here then it is impossible to define video games as art as they do not exist, to exist – rather they exist to entertain and to make money for a lot of people. However this train of thought will lead us to several stations that go against popular belief. For example Michelangelo was paid to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as a result that was created as a means to an end. It was not the spontaneous expression of Michelangelo’s creativity, it was a job. Is it possible to argue against the Sistine Chapel as art? (no it isn’t too many high profile scholars have written books outlining why it is art. Basically the result was way beyond the prescribed contract).

It’s getting complicated…

…and it is about to get worse. Within these two (and there are countless more, believe me) definitions we have further distinctions within them. We can all agree that movies are an art-form however it would take a very special person to argue for the ‘Transformers’ movies are art. Likewise literature are an art-form ’50 shades of Grey’ however is not.

What sets these apart is the intention behind them, much like no-one would argue shovel-ware is art because they are a cynical exercise in money making, the same is applicable above (Transformers 4 inexplicably making more than a billion dollars says it all).

Popular culture is being pushed out of the realm of art; an irony really considering Shakespeare was very much a ‘pop’ writer in his own time, and I feel that this is a primary reason behind the movement against recognising video games as art. Another reason is the public and media perception of our hobby – all too often we see sensationalist headlines about how Call of Duty turns us all into raving psychopaths, and GTA makes us all murder our neighbours.

Are video games art? I have to argue yes they are. As a medium it is in it’s awkward ‘teen’ phase; but when it gets it right it really is unrivaled in emotional impact. The fact that the players are active participants in the stories and not passive observers makes the difference…these stories are our stories and those feels; when they hit, hit hard.

Will video games ever be recognised as art? Not until the snobbery that surrounds art is lifted. This will only be lifted if gaming can get through the ‘me too’ culture it is currently going through, there are a number of developers that are pushing the boundaries of gaming, both in narrative and content and these are the games we should be championing. Next time you hear about a game that moved a friend, or blow them away with the world, or even made them want to spend time in it’s world, do me a favour and play it. These are the games that will be remembered. These are the games that are art.

What do you think? Are video games art?

Please participate in the discussion and leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

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