Ah, where to begin… while I was in Washington, D.C. last month, I happened to see a special exhibit they had at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art called “The Art of Video Games” (The exhibit is running through September 30th, for all who might be interested). For the most part, the exhibit resembled more of a brief history of gaming and a celebration of how far games have come in the last three decades. But the exhibit was well done, and brought up potential answers to this very popular question.
Before we can argue over whether games are art, we must first define art. That may be too big of a can of worms for today, but let’s narrow it down at least. Art is, in most forms, about expression. It is a means of conveyance, of communication. It can convey a feeling, a thought, tell a story, or simply inspire.
Art is meant to change others, or the artist herself.
Many assume that art is a subject (or performance) that is received by an audience, and that interaction between creator and viewer is what makes it art. Or rather, art is a judgment or conclusion by the audience on a product of the artist. But what about a lost symphony by Mozart that is discovered in a week–is it not art until the public is exposed to it? Or was it art when Mozart put it to paper?
Although this is a unilateral understanding of art, most of us are quick to deny the legitimacy of a toilet on display in an art gallery.
I know it sounds like I am ranting, but I have just reached the main point for both arguments: art is not defined by one person’s subjective taste. If one doesn’t like to eat pizza, that is his or her right–but to argue that pizza isn’t food is an unfair judgment. Yet we see this attitude all the time.
A century ago, many people said Monet’s paintings were not art. They claimed Debussy was not a composer but a rambler, and found his music to be without purpose. Yet in the present, college students everywhere have Monet’s works hanging in their dorms (Buffy reference, anyone?) and Debussy is considered one of most groundbreaking composers of all time.
The entire history of art is riddled with critics reviling artists whose works are outside their comfort zone. Over time these artists are transformed from heretics into innovators, pushing the boundaries of expression. Yet in no instance were the works of any artist altered to appeal more to the public (that I know of). So what changed?
We changed our perception. We opened our minds and strove to understand what the artist was trying to convey.
And at the end of it all, any lack of understanding or appreciation for a work of art will never negate its status as art. Just because your grandmother thinks the music you listen to is noise, it doesn’t make it noise.
So the next question is, why are video games constantly debated for their status as art, while books, film, dance, and music are all shoe-ins? Is it something about games themselves, or is it because of their relative lack of exposure and acceptance?
Video games are the most recent development in media, not including the internet and iPhone apps (many of which are games). They have grown a great deal since their beginnings in the arcades. Yet in other ways, games have reached a point of stagnation. The main problem with games is their elitist status in the hands of the few–if one doesn’t own a home game console or souped-up PC, he or she will most likely miss all of the major game releases in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, games are enjoyed by millions of people, and that number is growing rapidly with motion technology and mobile gaming on phones and tablets. But with all this growth, there is still a large number of people, especially in the older generations, who have an extremely limited view of games.
To a mother, a video game is something that makes her son late for dinner every night. To her, video games are not art–they are a sure way to a wasted weekend without going outside. And there are legitimate arguments here, but it is not the only perspective.
Film has been around for a hundred years, give or take a few, and is a more recent technological development. But film has a firm place in our culture, and can be extremely artistic, or extremely pointless (read: Manos: Hands of Fate).
If film can be art, then why not video games? Do they not have the same potential for artistic style, engaging stories, emotional impact, unforgettable characters, great writing with a social subtext, or pure entertainment value? As any seasoned gamer will tell you, games have this potential, and so much more.
Games can contain the same level of depth and cinematic quality that exists in film (Heavy Rain, Metal Gear: Solid) but with an added level of interactivity. You aren’t just watching James Bond kicking tail–you are controlling James Bond, and every bad guy you take down is an achievement–something you can personally feel responsible for, as opposed to viewing the action as a bystander. Because of this interaction, players can easily form a much greater bond (no pun intended) with the character they are physically controlling than any character in a film.
Role-playing games have realized this potential to great effect, with people around the world being able to create a character with their own unique back story, motivation, persona, appearance, and go through the game with their created avatar. By the end of a game, a character can mean so much to you, it keeps you playing after you’ve completed every task available in the game.
Games have a vast potential; although most do not deliver on every criteria I mentioned, the ones that do will change your life. To put it in perspective: I’ve watched at least 10 times more movies in my life than games I’ve played, and I believe that I have been more affected by games. I don’t mean that I cried more at games than films, nor that I’ve put more hours into them, but that when I think of meaningful characters or stories I have experienced in my life, the first ones in my head are from games.
As I have said before, video game companies have yet to realize the power they hold–and reach out to all audiences, young and old, male and female. This is precisely the reason I started this blog–to raise awareness, to raise appreciation, to encourage someone to take up a controller (or iPhone) and open their eyes to a world that already exists for everyone.
We need more games in this world like Portal. Portal is a universal game that is not a kids game. Can a child play it? Sure. It does not show preference for a guy or girl player, save for its identity as a video game. It is a puzzle game with good writing, good music, great puzzles that require thinking outside the box, a great atmosphere, and an original idea. It is educational and fun. (That will be the next behemoth to tackle: Education in Games–stay tuned!)
Games are play. They are an instinct. Humans play all the time, in any number of forms. Talking in a pirate voice, throwing a baseball, arranging your DVD collection, playing chess, driving with nowhere to go–it’s all play. Games are just that–an activity, a mental exercise, a stress reliever–entertainment. Catharsis. Recharging. We all need these things, and take them however and whenever we can, even subconsciously. Even dreams can be considered play–your brain actively creating scenarios while your body recovers from a day.
Games aren’t for everyone, but maybe someday they will be. Films aren’t for everyone; books aren’t for everyone. Music isn’t for everyone–yet I’d hate to be the one to live without it.
Are games art? Of course. They incorporate almost every form of art within them, and create a world that allows you to interact with it. Because they create a world, bound by its own rules, they are immersive experiences. And while they can be profound and beautiful and mean something, they can easily make one late for dinner.