Are video games art? It’s a question that’s been posed many times, particularly over the last decade as the power and speed of graphics processors and gaming machines (exemplified by the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U) have reached the point where digital artists have virtually unlimited ability to give their imaginations free rein, allowing them to create and deliver visual landscapes of stunning beauty, richness, and depth. Many of these worlds are so engrossing that gamers regularly find themselves captivated, forgetting, for a moment, to play and pausing to admire the view—to, in essence, stop and smell the virtual roses.
Okay, fine. Video games are visually spellbinding. But, again, are they art? The late Roger Ebert, film critic and bearer of the almighty thumb, famously said “no” and paid the price for it, as outraged game aficionados called him to the mat for failing to recognize the virtues of their favorite medium. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts declared, in 2011, that video games are art, and for the first time in history opened up the possibility of federal funding to assist digital artists in the development of video games. Of course, neither of these points of view answers the question, but both clearly indicate the range of opinion on the subject.
I suspect that no matter who you ask, you’ll hear a variety of responses, and most won’t be a simple yes or no—and the debate will probably never be settled (at least not to anyone’s satisfaction). Nevertheless, museums around the country are throwing their hats in the ring through a traveling exhibit entitled, appropriately, The Art of Video Games. And though it doesn’t claim to be the final word on the subject, it aims to at least push the conversation forward. The exhibit kicked off in March of 2012, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (as good an institutional judge of art as any, I suspect) and is now on a ten-city tour—including a stop a stone’s throw from my hometown at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY.
Which is where I’m writing this, books in hand and ready to extoll the social, cultural, and, yes, artistic value of video games. It’s not that I feel any particular need to validate them to professional critics or anyone else who staunchly refuses to see any merit in the form (though I do have game developer friends, and I’d like to see their work taken seriously and truly appreciated). It’s just that I truly believe that they are art—and further, that when you really spend time with games and explore what goes into creating them, the issues developers are attacking, and the messages they’re trying to communicate, that conclusion becomes inescapable. Take Jonathan Blow’s Braid, for example, which deals with forgiveness and desire; Ryan Green’s That Dragon, Cancer, an attempt to cope with his own son’s terminal illness; or Flower, by Jenova Chen, which explores our relationship to nature. As you progress through each of these games—as well as a host of others for which there isn’t the time or space to do them justice here (Bioshock, Super Meat Boy, and Deus Ex, just to name three)—the story gradually falls into place, and you gain insight into the developer’s world view. Even the infamous and, I would argue, mostly misunderstood Grand Theft Auto series reveals some scathing social commentary for those who care to look just a bit below the surface. Some games, like Fez, are boundlessly joyful and beautifully presented, and some, like Myst, Riven, the Halo series, the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, Uncharted 2, and the unfortunately canceled Star Wars 1313 are simply gorgeous to behold, their worlds rendered in artistic splendor, filled with music befitting a symphony hall. By any definition you care to apply, these games—and many others—are, quite simply, art.
The biggest criticism of video games seems to be that their very nature—their interactivity and reliance on a player—invalidates their inclusion in the list of artistic media. This stems from a quaint and woefully mistaken concept of art as a unidirectional exchange: the artist presents us with a vision or an idea, and we passively receive and, at most, react to it—as if viewing it through a one-way mirror. But true art is a conversation. We take it in, react to it, and seek to understand the artist’s frame of reference and what s/he’s trying to tell us about a particular time or place. We examine our reaction—how do we feel? Why? How does our frame of reference affect our response, and what does that say about us? How does approaching a work of art from our reference point and our experiences change the original work? And ultimately, what is the artist trying to communicate about humanity at large, about our perception of and place in the world? Certainly, not all video games achieve this—but then neither do all works of more popularly accepted forms of art. However, when they do, their interactivity gives video games an immediacy and impact that can far exceed traditional artistic works.
Like painting, sculpture, writing, photography, and music, video games range from simple to complex, derivative to revolutionary, and profane to sublime. They can elicit feelings of hope and fear; longing and despair; grief, loss, joy, and love. They can heal our bodies and open our minds. And if we let them, they can teach us about the world, about each other, and about ourselves. In the final analysis, that is the mark of true art.
But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself. For those in the Westchester County region, the exhibit’s at the Hudson River Museum until May 18. For more information, check out the museum’s website. You can also find out the next stops for The Art of Video Games on the Smithsonian’s website here.
One of the biggest issues with Roger Ebert’s criticism of video games was that he’d never played them—and refused to do so, ever. Since that time, people with actual video game experience have weighed in on the question. You can read some of their answers here.
There’s also an in-depth look at the artistic aspirations of one particular game, Journey—developed by Jenova Chen’s studio Thatgamecompany (of Flower fame)—in The New Yorker.
Keith Stuart, games blogger for The Guardian, has an excellent piece on the issue here.
You can also find information here about a new journal, The Arcade Review, and its mission to, as the author says “push the dialog of video games and art.”
And finally, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has been acquiring video games as part of its Applied Design exhibit. You can find a list of some of the games here.