Are Video Games Really Art?

2 Dec 2009 | Posted by

braid01Are 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?

12 Comments »

  • Mitch said:

    Great article, Anthony! I give obeisance to your mad skillz.

    That being said, I do feel that I have differing opinions with you on some points. First off, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you find something artistic in a game, then isn’t it, by definition, art? Sure, many people will not agree with your opinion, but art is inherently personal. There is a lot of what we term “art” that makes me scratch my head.

    Second, like you said, games are a mesh of several disciplines, and the combined man hours of making a game more than exceeds the time it takes for someone to make a painting. In a gamer’s mind time = excellence, right?

    OK, that last one was a bit of a joke, but if games keep trying to break the magical barrier that separates entertainment from art, then no one’s going to get anywhere. Games are first and foremost a visual entertainment medium. So are movies, which is why a lot of studios ape the cinematic experience. As the closest touchstone, movies are going to serve as inspiration for games for a long time and vice versa.

  • SkubaPatr0l said:

    In case I missed it, Heavy Rain wasn’t mentioned and it has a situation based on the creator’s life where he lost his son whilst shopping. What happens in-game is different to what happened in reality, it still had his heart, soul and emotion put into it, therefore his experience of fear was used as a motive for making that scene as powerful as possible. However, I can’t answer your final question. Surely art is what you perceive to be art? I was at the Louvre last year on a french trip with my school (we toured Paris and, yes, EuroDisney was fun). I didn’t see what all the fuss over the Mona Lisa is. Opposite it however is a VERY large painting. Me and one of the girls in my class viewed it as a far more interesting product. I admired the sheer scale of it and the detail. The same thing happened with many other more famous pieces. I found myself gravitating more towards those which I felt better resonated with my tastes. Also, with Borderlands and L4D I perceive them as art where people generally must co-operate and interact with each other to succeed. And that’s why I would argue that it is a unique artform. You play a game: different experience each time. It’s the only media where it’s not just the creator that ‘makes’ the stories. Everyone has their own unique and special experience no-one can emulate perfectly. Also, I view any game by Io Interactive to have artistic music. Jesper Kyd always pumps out some amazing compositions. Also, I treat LBP as both art and a blank canvass (that was an afterthought).

  • Anthony (author) said:

    Skuba,

    Heavy Rain is not out yet, so I didn’t want to mention anything I don’t know about.

    There is a difference between liking art and something not being art. I just am not sure about the latter

  • Cossack69 said:

    You make an excellent point, Skuba. Video games can go beyond just a powerful story – it really is the gameplay intertwined with the story and characters and such that makes a game a masterpiece. The fact that L4D is shaped as a cooperative experience is not within the grasp of movies; a movie might have characters being a team, but in a coop game the players themselves are the characters interacting and working together. The story is the gameplay. Sometimes, this notion of story in the gameplay is lost because we don’t really have much emotion for a virtual story, but if a game can engage and involve a player, and then have a great story inspired by an emotion or whathaveyou, that is what games can accomplish. Involve the player in the story, characters, and environment.

  • Eddy said:

    Really loving this feature, Anthony. It reminds me of some articles I’ve seen discussing the idea that gaming has had no true “Citizen Kane” yet- that one game that makes the whole medium grow up.

    I think you’re right in that games come from different places than other forms of art, however, I do think there are a few studios who are allowed some freedom to come up with stories and worlds that are unique, without the added pressure of the business side. Sure, it’s always there, but it’s usually the same with movies. Honestly, if I had to name one game that came close to being art it would be Shadow of the Colossus, hands down.

  • Julez said:

    some people shit on canvas and let people pay millions for it. all it takes is a guy with a fedora and a french accent to say it’s excellent.

    for example, i like great music while a lot of people like rap and hip-hop. we disagree, but i hope we can agree that both are forms of art… its just that some art takes more thought and feeling.

    Video games started out like music. Only the geekiest people could produce it and it was mostly formulas and predictable movements. But the common person didn’t have to have any understanding of how it was made to appreciate it. However, the people who were “inside” had a greater understanding, which usually made (and makes) them arrogant and gives them some sense of right to review everything….

    Oops, come look at my poo, it looks like Jimmy Fallon!

  • Anthony (author) said:

    Eddy, you are right, there are a few, but not many. Games have great potential, not only in story-telling, but in gameplay.

    We all agree that painting is art and so is music and film and poetry.

    But video games? We have not all come to the same conclusion and we won’t until someone makes a game that changes everything

  • glebe said:

    Art isnt fun to play. And, i thikn its been said, but art is subjective, and games have to cater to the masses, so making something to crazy would probably push people away.
    On the citizen kane argument, couldnt it be said the Mario 64 was one?

  • Julez said:

    @ glebe.

    “Art isnt fun to play”…

    I guess you don’t play any music? Trust me, it’s easily the most fun and most fullfilling thing I can do in a day.

  • floorspider said:

    There are 2 types of games out there. Ones which want your money like your call of dutys and final fantasys genraly things which your buying the same game but a slighty diffrent cast and story. Or you have your independant games like Braid which i have ,thank steam for a 75% of deal on 8 games best £24 i spent in the last year. These games strive for something diffrent, to explain braid i would have to say mario + time warping + the use of your brain.

    Arty games arent oftern 3d games they are 2d from what i have seen.

    Independant games are 10 times better then any main stream game.

  • Anthony (author) said:

    floorspider, I don’t agree with that, especially the Final Fantasy being the same game.

    As we have written about before on this site, no franchise has taken bold risks like Final Fantasy.

    And saying independant games are automatically better is not true. Uncharted 2 is better than most of the games on PSN or XBLA

  • Snoddie said:

    Hi, I just like to say that I love the conversation on this site so far and hope that my view point will contribute to site and not drag everyone down too much. So without anymore stalling I’ll get started. For starters I would like to remind people that video games are still a very new form of entertainment, I mean around 30 – 40 years old, depending on when you want to start counting. The film industry was just barely starting to add sound to their stories at 40 years long way off from a “Citizen Kane”. That being said, I think that video games are on the brink of their golden age, with titles like Call of Duty and Halo people are starting to see that games or a legitimate form of entertainment. If you like these titles or not you have to admit they did sell a lot, and did get people into gaming that aren’t typically interested also I think the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games are now responsible for this as well. So I feel in our lives we will see the Golden Age of gaming. Now onto the question of is gaming an art form? I think the problem is that you guys are looking for one game that has changed the industry and forgetting game engines.
    @ Anthony engines that have changed the market and industry.
    64 bit 3d worlds
    Unreal Engine
    Crisis Engine
    I don’t think you can argue that they didn’t. Plus I would argue that games have come out that have “changed everything” and the way we look at gaming, and just because these “Citizen Kane” or “Gone with the Wind” have launched doesn’t mean that we won’t see developers still pumping out “Meet the Spartans” or “Epic Movie” type games, and there I set up my diving board to spring into the topic of how the art of the spoof movies has died.