Are video games art? This is a question that sends some people into a tizzy, as gamers plot revenge against Roger Ebert for answering in the negative. I personally have always been of the opinion that games are art. They have writing, music and visuals, therefore, since all of those elements by themselves are art, when they are combined, that must be art, too. But lately I have been wavering in my conviction.
The problem I have is that art should mean something. It should express an idea or explore something about the world or our humanity. And some games do this, such as Braid or Bioshock. But for every one of those, you get 50 of Left 4 Dead or Borderlands, great games, but not really stretching the limits of the medium’s potential. These games do away with story in order to focus on gameplay, which can be an art itself. Not every game has to move the medium forward, but the gems are few and far between. Where is the video game equivalent of Casablanca or The Godfather? We have one of the most amazing media platforms in history and we waste it on zombies and ninjas?
The medium most copied by games is film. It seems ever since the dawn of games that there has been a concerted effort to make games more cinematic. This is not the ideal direction for games to take. Games are unique in that it is an interactive experience and even communal at times. Why should games try to be something it is not? A movie tells a story. You sit back and watch it unfold, passive in your viewing, knowing that nothing you do will change the events on the screen.
Games are radically different. A game still tells a story, but you are an active participant. You are still being driven along a pre-set path, though some have more freedom than others, but you decide if the plot moves forward. In some games, there are choices that take the story along a different path, although this aspect of games is still in it’s relative infancy and much more can be done with it. But games are not movies and I really believe that developers should stop trying to force a square peg in a round hold. Games have the luxury of defining themselves and what kind of methods they can use to being a story to gamers. Even games like Uncharted 2, while amazing, are trying to be like movies. There is a freedom in games that is being squandered and it would not be beneficial to the industry if games became stagnant so earlier in it’s still young life.
The main issue that I have been dwelling on is that most art starts with an emotion or an idea that the artist, writer, singer or director wants to express. Maybe someone had their heart broken and they write a book about a similar person that allows the writer to have a cathartic experience. A director reads the screenplay and is moved by it and makes a film out of it, adding their personal touch to the tale, but still maintaining the original vision. The same thing happens with music. Someone is compelled write a song from an experience they had. This is not to say that all movies and music originate from this point. Indeed, many movies and songs are written simply to make money, but the best movies and songs come from something personal.
With video games, this is not so. I have no figures, but I would estimate that 90% of all games originate from a business plan. Very few games start off with someone trying to capture an emotion or some essence of humanity. It seems that many games start off with an idea for a gameplay mechanic and then a story is woven around that concept. Now, this is not always the case, but I don’t see people writing original game scripts and shopping them around, hoping that some studio will take a chance and make a game based on it. Games are largely a team effort and so are movies, but the key difference seems to be that the original impetus for a movie usually comes from one person, or perhaps a small group of people writing together. Games seem to be formed in meetings and committees. This does not make them lesser stories or ideas, but it does seem to focus on the business side of things and not the artistic side. This seems just be the nature of the beast.
But it is this aspect of games that is making me doubt whether all games are art. I guess what I can say for sure is that some games art art, but all games have art inherent in them: the music, the design, the writing (Except for Resident Evil games) and everything that goes into making a game all come from people who are artists in their own way. But what a game means, what it is about, are the factors that determine if a game is art. It’s a difficult object to judge, but I don’t need all games to be Picassos. But it would be nice to see a drive to move video games forward. Games like Bioshock have shown that this can be done without sacrificing success. I only hope it happens before video games hit the wall that comic books did.
What do you guys think? Are all games art? Only some? None? Am I dwelling too much on the origins of a game’s idea or am I on the right track?