439. Are Video Games Art?

Can video games be art?

This question has proved divisive and difficult. Some people have praised games for their visuals, music, writing, and interactive narratives; others have dismissed games as a childish diversion.

Are games art

My own opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that video games have the artistic potential of any other medium.

A few days ago, someone with whom I shared this opinion smirked, shook her head in contempt, and said “Nuh-uh,” before walking away as though she had just won an argument. I didn’t pursue the matter any further, though I did suppress a strong impulse to kick that person in the shin.

Such a jeering derision of video games—not of any specific game, but of video games as a medium—irritates me. If books, films, and songs can be valued as art forms, why not video games? They are just as capable of conveying ideas, challenging perceptions, and evoking emotions. What makes game design any less valid than other media as a form of artistic expression?

After all, many games blend acknowledged art forms—music, graphic design, storytelling, and sometimes acting—into a single medium. It seems irrational, small-minded, or even prejudiced to dismiss the entire medium as intrinsically inferior to other media, especially without giving any good reasons why.

Of course, some people have given good reasons. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the arguments against video games as an art form are well worth consideration.

Roger Ebert, for example, argued that the interactive nature of games interferes with their artistic value. Some degree of creative control is wrested from the game designers and thrust into the hands of players. To illustrate his point, Ebert posited a video game retelling of Romeo and Juliet that allowed for a happy alternate ending. Such an ending would weaken the story; the storyteller’s vision would be lost.

Romeo and Juliet

I’ve never played a Grand Theft Auto game, but its “Game over” message was too perfect not to use for Romeo and Juliet. I’m so, so sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

Another argument claims that the popular nature of video games disqualifies them for serious artistic consideration. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, stands by this argument. More than perhaps any other medium, games typically exist not to convey moral, emotional, or existential insights, but simply to be fun.

Yet another argument states that video games, with their rules and conditions, are no more artistic than sports, cards, or board games. Few people consider soccer matches or poker games works of art.

What about video games that exist not to be played in a traditional sense, but simply to immerse the player or tell a story? The argument goes that these aren’t really games, which brings us back to the contentious not-a-game debate. What is a video game, really?

In the end, the question of whether video games can be art hinges on an even bigger question: What is art, anyway? That’s a question with no easy answer, and without a categorical standard for art, there’s no way of knowing whether video games can meet such a standard.

Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter whether video games can be art. I believe they have value as a medium in any case. For example, I think the Portal games are works of art, but I know they’re tons of fun. My appreciation for those games doesn’t depend on whether anyone labels them art.

Adam and... GLaDOS

If any game is a work of art, it’s Portal 2. (I covered up the indecent bits.)

The question of whether video games can be art is interesting to discuss, but not worth a fight. I suppose the thing that irritates me is when people express unsupported opinions as fact, without acknowledging even the possibility of discussion—and that’s a problem that goes far beyond the video-games-as-art debate.

I believe video games have artistic potential. That said, whether video games actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they tend to favor fun over artistic expression, which is a valid choice.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the ways a subject of particular interest to me has been handled by video games. Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “439. Are Video Games Art?

  1. I wrote a long response, then deleted it. Twice. Me arguing about art is just about as useless as arguing about anything else. I should know, I wasted decades doing it. Now I subscribe to “whatever floats your boat.” You want it to be art? Cool beans. No? Also cool beans. No water off my back, either way. Life’s short enough as it is, I’m really tired of being irritated or offended by other people’s thoughts. I’m going to enjoy the sunshine and warm, clean air. I got nothin’ to prove. My opinion – supported or not – really doesn’t mean a hill of beans, because we are only human beings and will be dead long before we force everyone else to agree with us. I’ll ask God what is or isn’t art one day, except I won’t, because by then it will be so far down on the list of discussion topics I probably won’t even remember what the fuss was about. We sure do like making our fusses, don’t we? Fisticuffs, even!

    In conclusion, sunshine is terrific. I really like it. I’m going to go draw some hula girls soon, which may or may not be art, but I’m going to do it regardless.

    • Your firm refusal to share your thoughts on art and video games makes me curious to hear them. 😛 That said, I respect your decision not to get involved in an argument, especially since this particular debate isn’t really worth a fight.

      Have fun drawing those hula girls. Are you going to put those pictures on Twitter? You should put ’em on Twitter.

      • I don’t know if I even HAVE opinions on it anymore. Anytime someone brings up the old art debate I tend to shut down. It’s such a weird argument to have. What does it prove? What does it benefit? I just don’t know. I guess it feeds our pride and desire to be right about such things. Otherwise labeling something as “art” or not really doesn’t DO anything. One of those “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” sort of situations. It’s just a word we made up to describe something, and it’s a pretty crappy word considering how much angst is involved these days!

        I will try to put some of the hula girls on Twitter. That project starts in earnest on May 1st, after I get this Camp NaNo book draft done. I imagine most of the drawings will end up on Instagram and DeviantArt, since they’re a bit more suited to sharing drawings than Twitter, which cuts off the top and bottom of images. 🙂

        • I suppose a lot of the debate about art flows out of our desire to understand things. Art is one of those important but nebulous concepts like morality: everyone acknowledges its existence and significance, but everyone’s opinion is different.

          Wait, you have a DeviantArt account? How did I not know this? What’s the web address? I’ll watch you, and bestow a llama badge upon you.

  2. In my opinion, “art” is subjective to the viewer. Not all art is equally pleasant to everyone. My late grandmother, for example, compared rock music with scratching a chalk board (even though most people preferred the rock n’ roll genre)

    God has given everyone different personalities and desires. One might enjoy graphic design over sculpting, but that wouldn’t make sculpting any less of an art.

    • I think art is largely, but not quite entirely, subjective.

      There are things we can all agree are art, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. Who doesn’t acknowledge the significance of his artwork? However, there are also divisive works such as the so-called artwork titled “Fountain,” which was just a urinal turned on its side. I don’t consider “Fountain” art, but a lot of people do.

      It begs the question: If an overturned urinal can be art, why not a video game like Portal 2 or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker?

      In the end, since the nature or essence of art seems so subjective, I think it’s hardly worth fighting over it!

      • The issue is I could not-acknowledge the significance of Mr. da Vinci’s art, and I would be no less right or wrong than anyone else. Or, as in the urinal, everyone else in the world might say that’s art, but you don’t believe it to be. Does that make you wrong? No, because art isn’t objective, unless we give it parameters, which we don’t because we prefer art to be this free, loose thing, like poetry. And arguing poetry is basically a stone’s throw from insanity, lol. 😛

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