Video games as art

By Raster Young

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(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Do you consider literature to be a form of art? I assume most people would. After being forced to read dusty old books such as “A Tale of Two Cities,” I have the same sort of associations with “good” literature as I do with “good” art: meticulously crafted, emotionally taxing and transformative, but certainly not everyday or commonplace. Art is put on a pedestal, and it can sometimes be hard to engage or interact with, especially if you have never sought out art yourself—instead having been forced on exceedingly long museum tours as exposure to art. However, most of us have also read other books—novels, romance, sci-fi, fantasy and nonfiction. I don’t think many people would consider “The Boxcar Children” a work of art, but the existence of such a book in no way diminishes the excellence of other works.

Now, I am almost positive that you have played video games. Whether you consider yourself a gamer, or just play Candy Crush on your phone, video games have a special place in American culture. Many people play games as a fun distraction, never considering the unique power of the medium as a form of art. Some people might scoff at this idea (Mario Kart is no van Gogh). However, just as a racy romance novel does not diminish the brilliance of Shakespeare, so too should we not compare games that exist only for fun with games that have a higher purpose.

Video games can be just as compelling, emotionally charged and transformative as any art form, and they bring some unique quirks along with them. Games such as “The Last of Us” construct a beautiful world with a story and characters users are invested in. You want to see them survive, struggle and make it out alive. Games such as the “Bioshock” franchise create worlds as well thought out as any great science fiction book, while also managing to touch on issues ranging from workers’ rights, economic theory, what it means to be human, religious extremism and the role of race in the founding of America. “Journey” is visually stunning and has a subtle and emotional beauty on par with art I’ve seen in local galleries.

Some people argue that video games are designed to be fun, and therefore cannot be considered art. Yes, games are fun, but that’s not all they are. Some video games are narrative-driven and are fun in the same way reading a book is fun—you come for the story because that’s what keeps it interesting. Other games are not so much fun as they are compelling—you want to keep playing to see what happens next and you are emotionally invested in it.

Should the existence of fun ruin a work of art? A Jackson Pollock painting is fun and energetic, but is still considered art. Many sculptors create fun and interesting public art—and guess what? It’s still art! Art can be enjoyable and moving, it can be whimsical and transformative and it can be entertaining and emotional. At the end of the day, saying that video games cannot be art because they are fun is simply pretending to have some sort of moral high ground, as if admitting you enjoy video games marks you as “uncultured.” Remember that impressionism was first scoffed at and decried by the art experts. This is an art form in its infancy, so criticism is almost required.

Video games have the potential to be a completely new form of art with their own advantages. Combining music, audio cues and visuals to create a finished work allows artists to experiment with how these interact. Additionally, most games are made by a team of people, allowing for multiple voices to synthesize their ideas into a finished project. On their own, these factors could coalesce into a beautiful new art form.

And we haven’t even touched upon video games’ most unique feature—interactivity. Interactive art is only just starting to be experimented with, but it is already very promising. In video games, interactivity defines it as a medium. For example, being forced to choose between two characters to save in a game is much more emotionally charged than reading about a character making the same choice in a book. Seeing and exploring a world yourself is different than reading about it in a book; it puts you in the characters’ shoes in a way that no other medium can. It also lets the artist make comments about free will and agency in a way that is far more impactful.

Video games are a form of art just beginning to develop. I predict that we will see more people shift from using this medium as simply a fun game and move to view it as creative expression.

Raster Young is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]