Gaming, Video Games

Are Video Games Art? (Part 1)

This is a question that has been asked and answered a million times. I’ll be honest, it’s quite a generic question, but as with the “what makes a gamer” question, there isn’t a specific answer; it’s all up to interpretation. I’m sure that, since I’m a gamer, you can tell what I’m going to say about this. Long story short, yes, I do believe that video games are an art form. Explaining why I think this is much more long-winded, so here we go!

First off, here are two of the definitions of the word “art.”
1. The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. The class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.  See fine art, commercial art.

Let’s start off by testing video games in the first category, and let me simplify that into layman’s terms for you. Basically, the first definition says that art is the expression of extraordinary beauty. So, are video games extraordinarily beautiful? Well, this can’t be answered simply. One might say that Halo is beautiful as compared to Call of Duty, but somebody else might argue that Skyrim is more beautiful than Halo, and somebody else might even say that Super Mario Galaxy is more beautiful than any of those. Have you ever heard the term “beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” A game that I think is beautiful might not fit the bill for you.

This concept is one that I learned in middle school art class. They taught us that anything is art if we say it is art. Therefore, I act as the “institution.” I, as an institution, can declare this font an expression of art. I can declare my dusty computer tower as a form of art, or I might even say that my trash can is art. On the simplest scale, if I say games are art, then that means they are art… to me. Likewise, if I say that a specific title is a work of art, it is art… to me. But how can games be defined as art to the general public? For example, I don’t understand modern art, expressionism, and abstract art, but the art museums say they are art, so I accept that as truth even if I don’t see the art in it myself.

If this is art…
…why can’t this be art?

So, I ask again, how can games be defined and exemplified so that others can look at a game and say it’s as much a piece of art as the Mona Lisa?

Well, that brings us to definition 2: “The class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.  Such as fine art, commercial art.” In layman’s terms, this says that art is divided into groups such as paintings, drawings, sculptures, and others, and each class of objects is subject to a checklist of eligibility. With that being said, video games can be just as much a class of artwork as ancient Native metalworks. But what made these paintings, metalworks, and sculptures into classes generally defined as art to begin with?

Well, the general public saw the works as containing one or more of the following qualities. Some were thought provoking, as in some cave drawings. Other forms of art tell stories, such as some paintings. Others depict a beautiful scene, such as a well drawn sketch.

So, if somebody unearthed an old drawing from my kindergarten days, would they say “Wow, this is art and need to be preserved!” No. It may be thought provoking to an extent (As in, “what the heck is this?) but not much. It’s not appealing to look at, and it surely doesn’t tell much of an engaging story. How are video games any different? We as a gaming community know the answer to that question, but we have to prove its validity to others.

We must explain and show to others that video games are truly art! We need to put forth our best effort and we need to show the best examples of art to others who don’t understand out medium. For example, the most famous paintings are often the most beautiful, and the more drab ones tend to be more inconspicuous and unknown. Likewise, we have to show our most beautiful examples, or else the artistic community won’t give us the time of day to show some of the more mediocre examples we have to offer. This is especially true because when others look at video games, they tend to see nothing but death, violence, and destruction.

With the next generation upon us in two months now (yes, it’s that close) we’re at the beginning of the golden age of gaming art. Why? With the 3D graphics that the next-gen consoles will be able to churn out, a new focus on detail and unparalleled beauty will be unleashed. We have the high-definition televisions to make colors explode like never before. We will now have the ability to create intricate lighting effects and exquisite shadowing that no other artistic medium in history has ever been able to accomplish. With the next generation, we have the power to create the most beautiful and engaging works of art that the world has ever seen.

Technology is so advanced, that we could take famous paintings, recreate them in a digital format, enhance the colors, and even create 3D models of the paintings. We could make the birds in a forest scene become 3D animals that would flutter around and interact with the rest of the painting before returning to their post and dissolving into the background from which they game. Mona Lisa could come to life and carry on a conversation with you. We can take art and do more with it than the creators could. This is an artistic revolution that is upon us in the age of technology.

So in a nutshell, I believe that games are art, and as graphics are being enhanced daily, they will become even more beautiful as time goes on. The time to create games worthy of acceptance by the general artistic community is now. We must prove the worth of our beloved form of media. If we were to present our works of art to be graded and judged, what would we pick? Out of the wealth of artworks we possess, what would we exemplify as art?

Part Two of this article will be posted within a day or two, and it will focus less on the question of “are games art?” and more on the question of “what specific examples prove that games are art?” If you have any candidates, let me know below. Tell me the name of the most beautiful game you have ever played. This beauty can be in graphic design, level design, storyline, musical scores, or other aspects of the game. Just let me know what games you think are the most beautiful.

Until Part Two

Matt Shiflet


7 thoughts on “Are Video Games Art? (Part 1)”

  1. I agree totally, and some games I believe could be good examples are:

    The Kingdom Hearts series (nice animation, great story, BEAUTIFUL music every step of the way)

    Shadow of the Colossus (I don’t know much, but the screenshots are gorgeous.)

    Journey by Thatgamecompany (If you don’t know it, look it up.)

  2. Also, World of Warcraft on Ultra graphics. I could never run it, but I would just switch it to that and look at the forest.

  3. gaming is art, just like movies is art. Ancientwolflordyt is one 100% percent correct in naming Shadow of the Colossus which was an absolutely breathtaking game which fulfilled an emotional type of art. Journey looks amazing while the score is haunting. One other thing though for me personally, is that, like you said in your article, ones persons art maybe scenery of a cliff side over looking the ocean with a lighthouse in the distance, mine though are the levels that have been designed by Naughty Dog. Take a look at the Uncharted series and the Last of Us, and see how much detail is actually there.

    Uncharted especially, has old languages inscribed in walls, and the such…completely amazing

  4. I’ll approach this through bullet points, while contending that video games can be art.

    1) There is a a difference between something being artistic/artful and it being a legitimate art object. As a poet (see, I take particular issue with the wholesale conflation of art and non-art in the Post-Modern world. Serious intentionalist examinations of art will contend that an art object have to conform to the standards of or endeavour a new art regard (genre), that the individual making the thing must aim at it being art and not by accident. This means that not everything that looks pretty or pleasing can or should be considered art, either in whole or in part.

    Take-away point: intention matters.

    2) Not all video games should be considered art. Some games, however good their graphics may be in respect to reaching their aim (e.g. retro games being made currently, like Rogue Legacy), are far more about their gameplay than they are about making a particular artistic statement. MOBA games like League of Legends and Smite are solid examples. On the other hand there are games like Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Silent Hill 2, Botainacula, et al. where it appears very clear that there was not just the considered attempt to make a great game but also to make an artistic statement with said games. This artistic statement makes the player both think and feel, considering what the game seems to be saying through the gameplay. All of this said, the video game that is art must still be a video game, even if a bad one, and as such it must not lose playability to the expense of making an artistic point -that would be the equivalent of a Flannery O’Connor story.

    Take-away point: art makes a point (or points) and, as such, video games considered to be art should appear to be making an artistic statement but without sacrificing too much playability.

    3) Functional art, viz. art objects that serve a purpose as more than just an art object (e.g. a meerschaum pipe), is different in kind from other forms of art and proceeds a bit differently. The primary purpose of functional art is to serve a given end and the secondary purpose of functional art is to be an art object. This puts it in an altogether different, if still similar, category to paintings, poetry and music. Video games must be, broadly construed, entertaining to their target audience first and foremost, per 2, but they must also be intended to be something more than just mere entertainment, per 1, which puts video games in a very real grey area that becomes much more murky the further back in the history of video games we venture. Some examples will be very clear cut, such as System Shock 2, and other examples will be less so, like DOOM, while still others will likely remain a perpetual open question, such as any Madden football game.

    Take-away point: functional art is different, yet similar enough, to other forms of art and its standards dovetail into the standards of those other forms. This results in a grey area where careful examination is needed.

    Simply put, video games can legitimately be seen as art insofar as they meet the criteria of functional art. They must serve their primary purpose, which is, broadly construed, entertainment, and they must then serve their secondary purpose of, again, broadly construed, making an artistic statement. A video game that plays well and engages the player both emotionally and intellectually in some real way would be an example of a probable art object. To be clear, a game such as Crash Team Racing can be an example of an art object as reflecting on even simple joys is a solid artistic statement if it is sufficiently clear that such was the intent of the design team.

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