Even though I am not a gamer, I have always considered video games as art. And for a long time, I was under the impression that this was an uncontested fact.
So, imagine my surprise when I heard that there are a lot of people who do not share the same opinion and omit games from the categorization of art. Perhaps the most well-known of these was the movie critic Roger Ebert, who controversially proclaimed that ‘games can never be art.’
Well, I don’t agree with Mr. Ebert or others who share the same opinion. So, I have decided to wear my ‘smartboy’ hat and convince everyone (okay, maybe not everyone) once and for all why games are, in fact, art.
This is a long process. So buckle up.
Step 1: Define Art
Look, before I get into the specifics, I’ll give it to you straight.
There is no standard definition of what art is. In fact, like hangover cures, everyone seems to have their own ‘true’ answer (Like my friend who believes brushing your teeth post-drinking saves you from a hangover.)
Still, if you look long enough, you’ll see the following patterns shared across these definitions.
- Art is an expression of creativity and skill.
- Art communicates an idea and/or instills an emotional experience to the audience.
- Art has both entertainment and aesthetic value.
Based on these definitions, there is zero doubt that video games are a form of art. Games have gotten all of these aspects nailed down.
Now you must be thinking, then, what the fuck are these critics going on about?
Well, you see when critics proclaim that video games are not art, they don’t mean in the basic sense. Instead, they categorize games as low-art.
Step 2: The Real Question - Are Games High-Art or Low-Art?
High-Art and Low-Art are two categories of art, decided based on their ‘supposed’ artistic merit. This categorization can be in the form of specific pieces of art (like The Dark Side of the Moon) or an art form in and of itself (like Rock Music.)
On one side of the spectrum lies high art. In short, high art is for those who have ‘taste.’ According to critics, forms of high-art require active engagement from the audience - and are considered more rewarding. Hence, it is high art that societies generally consider representative of their culture.
On the opposite side is low art. In case the name didn’t tip you off, low-art is considered inferior. It is considered mindless, requiring no taste or sophistication to understand. Hence, it is consumed by the masses and is the representative of a society’s mass culture.
Step 3: Analysis of the New Definition
The people who created these definitions seem to be historically relevant hipsters. Because it has a lot of glaring problems:
It treats ‘artistic taste’ as an elusive and morally superior property that only certain human beings possess - A proclamation that reeks of classism.
It views art through a black-and-white lens, pitting the artistic value on the one side and entertainment value on the other.
It confuses popularity with inferior quality. The Godfather, considered one of the greatest movies of all time, was so popular that it beat box-office records of the time. So, popularity does not mean low quality.
It ignores the evolution that these definitions have undergone. Jazz and Hip-Hop were initially not considered high art, but now are. Because art undergoes appraisal all the damn time.
Step 4: A Newer (And Sexier) Definition and Analysis
So, allow me to formulate one of my own.
I have identified three characteristics that I believe separate high art from low art:
Let us have a look at each of them in-depth.
Most quality art tackles serious topics - war, family dynamics, psychological issues, societal tensions, and more.
Consider John Steinbeck’s magnum opus, Grapes of Wrath, a novel set during The Great Depression. It tells the story of a family that struggles to survive during this period. At the same time, it offers us a glimpse into how life was during this period for a large percentage of Americans.
However, tackling serious topics does not mean it has to be pretentious. There are numerous works of art that are entertaining while being serious.
For instance, take Shawshank Redemption. The movie is the story of a young banker imprisoned for life for a murder he did not commit. It not only tells a timeless story but also shows the crisis of hope among prisoners and the issues present in the prison and judicial systems.
How Games Portray Serious Topics
Video games are an art form that has tackled some pretty serious topics over the years. In fact, games have managed to cover aspects like philosophy, relationships, and mental health in interesting ways.
Let’s have a look at each of them.
Objectivism is a philosophical school of thought that places more importance on self-interest over the collective good.
Bioshock is a video game that criticizes philosophy. The game raises questions about the unbridled individualism and excess capitalism that objectivism stands for.
Bioshock does so through Rapture, a city founded upon the ideas of objectivism by the game’s villain, Andrew Ryan (the name is inspired by objectivism’s real-life founder, Ayn Rand.) The society in Rapture is so individualistic that even the police is a private organization you have to hire for a price.
But like all individualistic societies, there is a main issue in Rapture: those with money hold power.
This imbalance of wealth, and in turn, power, leads to dissatisfaction among the populace. The ones at the bottom of the hierarchy start demanding more. In a short time, these people turn towards ideologies like socialism and collectivism, which run counter to the founding principles of Rapture.
However, the city lacks all forms of safety nets.
And because there is nothing to fall back on, Rapture eventually collapses. Completely. Showing how the effects of unbridled individualism can be just as dangerous as unbridled collectivism.
The second game worth mentioning is The Witness, a puzzle game that tackles the theory of Radical Constructivism. Radical Constructivism asserts that due to the limitations of human perception, we will never comprehend reality objectively. In addition, it asserts that knowledge is not passively acquired but actively constructed through our engagement with the real world.
The Witness explains the philosophical concepts through puzzles. In fact, the entire game is basically a host of puzzles scattered around in an open world. But unlike in other puzzle games, you receive no direction; instead, you have to figure shit out through trial and error.
When you complete puzzles, you learn new things. Like, a certain symbol collapses everything around it when moved to the right. So, armed with this knowledge of that symbol’s mechanism, you repeat the same move in the ensuing puzzles. And it works.
Until it doesn’t. Because further down the line, the same to-the-right movement of the symbol produces a completely different effect.
Puzzled, you then try out various things and eventually learn that your original perception was wrong and that it has more nuances. So, armed with this updated knowledge, you tackle the next puzzle, the next roadblock, and so on.
In short, The Witness gives you excellent insight into how we gain information about the world and how we update it once we obtain it.
In recent times, relationships have often taken center stage in the narrative of games. Most notable are Last of Us and God of War, both of which portray parent-child relationships.
Last of Us is set in an apocalyptic world where a mutated fungus outbreak has turned humans into zombies. The emotional core of the game is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, united by chance in this bleak world.
Joel is a man plagued and hardened by the death of his biological daughter, Sarah. Meanwhile, Ellie is a young girl who has tragically lost both her parents.
Ellie is also found to be immune to the virus. Hence, humanity’s hope lies in finding a cure through experimentation on her. Joel is assigned the mission of transporting Ellie to a specific location for this experiment.
During this journey, both of them come to influence each other. Joel teaches Ellie survival skills and helps her become more independent. Likewise, Ellie helps Joel become his more vulnerable version of his past.
Towards the end, they form a parent-child-like relationship. To Joel, Ellie becomes a daughter figure, and to Ellie, Joel replaces the parents she has lost.
Meanwhile, God of War is focused on the relationship between the father-son duo of Kratos and Atreus.
The story begins with the death of Faye, Kratos’s wife and Atreus’s mother.
The father and son then begin a journey of their own. And throughout this journey, there arise conflicts between the two. Atreus is eager to gain approval from his father. Meanwhile, Kratos berates his son for repeating the same mistakes Kratos did.
In earlier games, Kratos is a blood-thirsty character who rips apart anyone who stands in his way. But in God of War, Kratos is more mature - perhaps transformed by the experience of being a father and husband. So, it is natural that he does not want his son to go down the same path he once did.
The conflicts between the father and son build up. But as time goes on, both of them warm up to the other; Kratos becomes more empathetic, and Atreus becomes more mature.
In terms of psychology, two games stand out: Silent Hill 2 and SpecOps.
Silent Hill 2 is a horror game that follows the life of James Sunderland after the death of his wife, Mary. Three years after her death, James receives a mysterious letter from Mary from the town of Silent Hill. He then decides to follow the letter's tracks.
But what awaits him is not Mary. Instead, he encounters weird and supernatural elements such as a creature made up of women’s legs, a fog that never seems to lift, and a woman who bears a creepy resemblance to his deceased wife.
However, in the end, all these are revealed to be manifestations of James’s guilt and grief - from the avoidance of an uncomfortable secret he harbors and his resentment towards his wife during her final years because of the limitations to his freedom.
Meanwhile, SpecOps explores the theme of PTSD and the devastating effects the disease has on its victims. It opens our eyes to the intense suffering soldiers go through due to their exposure to violent environments where death lurks in every corner (however, in the end, the game veers off into a weird area and confuses PTSD with psychosis.)
But perhaps the game that has received the most acclaim for its empathetic portrayal of mental illness is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The game follows the protagonist, Senua, making her way to Helheim in search of salvation for the soul of her lover.
It also showcases the trauma Senua has experienced and its lasting impact on her. She also suffers from psychosis; throughout the story, she has various visual and auditory hallucinations.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was made after consulting actual psychiatrists and people who suffer from psychosis. The result is a narrative that treats Senua as a whole person and not just as a victim of a disease she suffers from.
SpecOps is also a commentary on games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. The games in these series’ appear to celebrate violence and act as a pseudo-advertisement for the military.
In your first few hours in SpecOps, you see it follows the same template. But as you progress, you notice differences; the characters become more and more unhinged, mouthing swear words at the enemy soldiers, acting more aggressively, and treating others with disdain.
In one scene, you see how the ‘heroic’ actions of the protagonist result in the deaths of innocent civilians. SpecOps underscores the intensity of the scene by showcasing the horror with its visuals: charred bodies, anatomical disfigurations, and half-torn limbs of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds.
This is a complete u-turn to popular war games that show casualties as military and never civilians. Even then, fatalities are shown with minimal gore, if any at all.
Similarly, Paper’s Please shows you the toll war has on the lives of common citizens. You are an immigration officer who has to let people in or turn them away. For this, you have to check the documents each citizen submits and verify the accuracy of these documents.
This seemingly simple mechanic is made complex by its genius implementation. Because you encounter people going through immense plight in their native country as a result of the war - desperate to escape and build a life in a different country. Not all of them have proper documents; some have clearly forged the documents, some have discrepancies in theirs, and some have key information missing in theirs.
You have to carefully sift through each of them and weed out the deserved ones from the undeserving ones. Because some of them would want to enter your country for malicious purposes. If a person you let in causes any issues, then you would be held responsible for it. It results in pay cuts and penalties within the game.
So, each time you have to make the decision to let an NPC (non-playable character) through or not, you face the dilemma of balancing risk and empathy.
Your leniency may see you on the receiving end of punishments. Meanwhile, your strictness may lead innocent NPCs to be denied rightful sanctuary due to a minor error in their document.
A lot of movies ‘use’ the death of a child to ‘force’ you to feel angry and/or sad. Common in these scenes are emotional background music and a large group of crying secondary characters.
Now, take a look at Schindler’s List. This Steven Speilberg movie is about the Holocaust. In it, there is a scene where the main character sees the dead body of a young girl piled on top of other bodies; all of them victims of Nazi violence. It is a scene that lingers in your mind long after you have finished the movie.
A few scenes before, you have seen the same child wandering aimlessly as violence erupts around her. Furthermore, the entire movie is shot in black and white (perhaps to underscore how devoid of joy life was at the time), and the single instance of color is the red dress worn by the young girl. So, the second time you see her, you recognize her instantly, and the horror sinks into you.
Movies like Schindler’s List are high-art because they are complex and require our active engagement. You would fail to grasp its full emotional intensity if you watched it in the background while engaged in something else.
There is a caveat, though: the complexity is not there just for the sake of it. Instead, it elevates the experience.
How Games Exhibit Complexity
CDProjekt RED’s The Witcher 3 is considered one of the best games of the past decade. Its gameplay, graphics, and music have all been praised by fans and critics.
One of the reasons for the immense acclaim is its branching storyline; the choices to make within the game often have unforeseen consequences.
For instance, there is a scene where you have three choices regarding the fate of a character: you can kill them, spare them, or send them to a particular place.
If you kill the character, there is no consequence down the line.
If you spare them, the character’s actions lead to them getting killed at the hands of someone else.
But, if you choose to send the character to a particular place, their fate completely changes. It leads to them finding the love of their life and even finding the cure to a deadly disease that has spread within the game world.
Similarly, at another point, you are forced to choose between two siblings contesting for a vacant throne. The ideology of each sibling is at odds; one upholds tradition, and the other challenges it.
The one you support becomes the heir to the throne and enacts policies in line with their ideology. The ripple effects of this become visible to you long after you have made the decision.
The best thing is that in both cases, you would be unaware of these long-term impacts at the moment of making the choice (much like in real life.)
Likewise, in Witcher 3, each character has a backstory and personal motivations. So, even though you are the protagonist, you do not feel as if the NPCs exist for your mere enjoyment.
Instead, you feel as if you are part of a vibrant world whose inhabitants continue to live even after you have turned off the game.
Fallout: New Vegas also has similar effects due to its in-depth storyline. Fallout: New Vegas has four alternate ‘main’ endings and additional variations to these. The ending you get is based on the choices you make inside the game - such as choosing not to go to a testing site, murdering an entire town, or siding with one faction over another.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild embraces the open-world format and rewards exploration like no other game before it. For example, your decision to explore the top of a particular mountain may lead you to find a rare weapon, One that you otherwise might not have seen.
In this way, it gives rise to highly individualistic experiences termed emergent storytelling. Because the decisions you can make within the game are so vast that the gameplay experience of each player would be different. This makes Breath of the Wild a highly replayable game (in fact, players continue to discover things in the game years after release.)
No Man’s Sky is another game that has a vast setting for you to explore. The developers used procedural generation to create 18 quintillion planets, each with unique flora and fauna spread across 256 galaxies (Sidenote: I don’t think there is bigger proof than this that our own vast universe stems from a few basic rules. A fact unfathomable for a lot of us.)
Finally, there is Grand Theft Auto V (a.k.a GTA V), one of the biggest entertainment products of all time, recording a total sales revenue of almost $8 billion. One reason for GTA V’s popularity is the infinite number of things you can do in the game. Here are just a few of them:
- Fly a plane
- Play golf
- Purchase cars
- Invest in the stock market
- Murder Great White Sharks
- Visit a strip club
- Solve a fucking murder
But ultimately, the biggest factor that determines if something is art is time.
Van Gogh, considered one of the greatest painters, only received ridicule during his lifetime. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, only received acclaim for his masterpiece years after his death.
Hence, if a piece of art stands the test of time, you can be sure that it is a work of art.
How Games Are Becoming Relevant
The most important factor that determines if games can be art is time. But compared to other art forms, video games are an art form still in their infancy. It has been just a few decades since the industry has taken off.
However, early signs indicate that time will grant the title of art to games.
For instance, take a look at the number of people who still play Mario and Tetris. These games were released decades ago. The games that were inspired by Mario and Tetris have better visuals and more features. Yet, some choose to play these classics.
Then, there is the emulation community - a community that creates software that emulates past consoles (like an N64) so you can play games from that generation (like Super Mario 64) on your current device (your smartphone or PC.)
So far, time seems to be the only hurdle games have to overcome. Just because they are not as old as Melville’s novels or Van Gogh’s paintings, their influence can’t be undermined.
So, even if time is the sole metric you care about to consider if video games are art or not, you have to wait for a bit more. Because it is too early to pull the plug.
Step 5: So, Are Video Games An Art Form?
In my opinion?
Video games are art.
The undermining of their influence as ‘mere entertainment’ is a dishonor to the format and the people behind them.
To critics who continue to classify games as not being art, I urge them to look at movies.
Because once upon a time, movies were not considered high art. But as the industry expanded and the movies became better, the opinions changed. Its artistic value and cultural relevance were rightfully recognized.
I believe games will also follow in the same direction, and the debate of games being art or not will soon cease.
I’ll state my point with one of the most profound and saddest games ever released: That Dragon, Cancer.
That Dragon, Cancer is based on the life of the lead game designer Ryan Green and is about his son Joel’s cancer diagnosis and sad demise. It captures the toll both the disease and the treatment had on Joel and his parents.
But at the same time, the game does not portray Joel as a mere victim. Instead, in That Dragon, Cancer, you see him from the point of view of his parents - as just another child with his own desires and personality traits.
It also captures the conflicts that arise in the Green’s relationships, their isolation from their family and friends, their hope, their helplessness, and finally the injustice of having someone you love taken away from you.
If that is not art, then I don’t know what the fuck is.
Also published here.