Video Games: Fun, But Are They Art?

The question has been asked many times: in TED talks, at galleries of Modern Art, in the design studios of gaming’s largest names.

Are video games Art?

Where is the distinction to be drawn in certainty on the spectrum between the vacuity of amusement and the prestige of portraiture and the stage?

I think, for many people, when asked the question generally, ‘What makes Art distinct from hobby or amusement?’ they will answer that it is arbitrated by ability. That the difference between Bernini and a child’s pottery class exploits is a distinction of degree, not of kind. The ‘better executed’ the artwork, the more validly it  can be said to represent its ‘Art’.

Video games as an art form, if any comparison were to be by want of taxonomy made, are closer to the theater, to Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw in motion than the byzantine still life of Bruegel. Applying then, the rubric of ability and execution as deterministic in the ‘value’ or felt orthodoxy, professed authenticity of Art, of its fidelity to definition as we find it in interactive media, we can answer the initial question of ‘Are Video Games Art’ only by comparing them to what is considered ‘canonic’ or ‘timeless’ in the history of the wooden slatted theater floor, of the motion picture and interactive story-telling.

What, after all, makes a drama on the stage great?

We often hear of man in modernity being unable to take things slowly. Being unable to tarry for even a short time, or cry for an extended period over even an ocean of spilt milk. The tachistoscopic, carni-ride sensationalism of a new bombastic culture, stripping emotion of its relevant feeling and subjecting the consumer of media to an ever more monstrous quiz show – psychoanalysts, sociologists, demagogues of advertising, the victim blaming and crys of individual culpability in popular reporting – conspiring to force upon Man a waking anxiety. A self-doubt which has him continually asking of himself, ‘What could I be? What ought I to be?’, asking rhetorical, loaded questions of his contemporaries instead of the systems of which they are all simultaneously a part and product of. This fixation on potentialities and introspective judgement has spawned a vogue in artistic criticism of praising works which allow one to understand the different fates offered him – to feel the poetry of these projections and fantastications without the emotional impedimenta and inertia of sorrow which comes with living them. An appetite for the ephemeral immersion offered by Iago and Othello. A film like Citizen Kane, which has been extolled to such a degree that it has ceased to exist as a film and has become a symbol or lazy metaphor for ‘something good’, has been so immortalized because it deals with fate. A warning wrapped up in a cinematic allegory against avarice and fame at the price of identity. Or King Lear, again, dealing with fate. Macbeth, with a morose inevitability hanging over its theme of fate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the forces of ennui, the supererogation of relationships and pyrrhic warfare of a marriage between equally obstinate, intelligent people. Even so far as the works of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s Fables, which have been imagined, subverted and re-incarnated on the stage lovingly for as long as the genre of story-telling in motion has existed, the perennial classics deal with fate and wish-fulfillment on the part of their authors. Even Bartok’s famous opera ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ and in a lesser way, Sophocles’ ‘The Women of Trachis’, deal with the fatalistic drive of curiosity and the ego.

These are the ‘classics’, because they can frame the human condition, the everyday injustices, anxieties and longueurs once removed from shopping malls and nicotine clouded fire escapes and the living rooms of suburbia in a way which is inventive and vigorous. Look at the click-bait, the majority of a facebook news feed and online publication, you will see stories of death, sex and scandal. Isn’t it probable that writers are grappling with their wasted potential, with their human failure to live up to those Romatic expectations and exploiting the masses who feel the same way. It can certainly be said of Flaubert, who, on his death bed, cried out in a pejorative-heavy diatribe, pregnant with the injustice of his fictional character Emma Bovary outliving him.

“The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet resolutely, “Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” And not only the king can be captured by theater, but all thinking, feeling peoples can be enraptured by a well-told story in motion. It’s why we love greek myths and codified religious fables trotted out for us in tropes on the television set. They still have an insidious presence and pressure on our daily speech, on the ‘Legion’ we hear in the grammar of journalists struggling for powerful metaphors, in the ‘Sisyfian’ of a political columnist and the ‘Olympian’ of a progressive dorm-room denizen which conveys a feeling of omniscient hygiene with a tincture of hypocritical condescension.

Where there isn’t meaning in creation, meaning is assigned later; the flower was shot a particular way, the head was tilted under a certain light to achieve X effect – a feature of analysis which betrays most decisively the desire for a greater depth, of metaphor and inference which can enhance and transcend banality, which can illuminate the grey lassitude of daily life in glorious technicolor. A film or a play which can inspire analysis and incite debate between analyses is one which is, by modern definition, ‘Art’. There is no end of school papers and honors theses written on Coriolanus, but how many are written on Transformers? A never-ending feed of posts about the mythology invoked by Marvel’s The Avengers, but very little in the way of passionate critique on the poignant themes in ‘Bad Grandpa’.

How then, do the video games of  today compare to Shakespeare, to Milton and Tolstoy? Are they sufficiently of the same feeling and motivation to be considered Art? Can they tell a story as well as the classical play or the films of Jean-Luc Goddard and can they tell them in a way which is fresh, unprecedented and immersive?

To that last and most important question, the answer is yes.

If we can take passionate attention and response to be a marker of Art, then there is perhaps no greater cultism than can be found in The Legend of Zelda, Bioshock or Silent Hill. The volume of triforce tattoos, of Big Daddy fan art, splicer cosplays and nightmares haunted by Pyramid Head and autonomously floating hospital bed frames betrays the importance of gaming narratives to modern popular culture. In telling a story, they are obviously efficient enough devices and fresh enough premises to communicate strong emotion and subsequently inspire wild fanaticism. While the unsatisfying denouement, the pervasive sensibility of nihilism and sexualised violence isn’t ideal or even loosely representative, Bioshock is a masterpiece of visual story-telling. The tragedy of Andrew Ryan and the desolation which is, in its most confronting form, like the silence which settles jarringly calm after a bombing. Over vistas of apocalypse, the failure of civilization and of Liberalism lingers like a human cobweb about the cadaverous Paradise Lost of Rapture. The Legend of Zelda, particularly the more subtle nuance and iconography of Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess are as political and ostentatious as the representation of racial minorities and feminine acquiescence to male radiance in The Merchant of Venice. Many people, myself included, have learnt formative moral lessons, and for some, even how to read, from the vaguely square captions of Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past. There is no question as to their effectiveness as a story-telling medium.

Of course there are various strata of artistic achievement; in video games as in film. Mike Leigh’s Naked is greater than The Room but lesser than McQueen’s Shame. But of the greats, there is no dispute as to efficacy and longevity. Milton made use of elemental constructs, inevitabilites in his characterization of Death, of Sin and Satan; and so his story endures. So too does The Legend of Zelda make use of Time, the source of all attendant guilt and expectant fear, Seasons – the object of our hatred, the subject of our joy and the reminder of mutability since time immemorial – it deals tenderly with mental illness, it tells elegantly of the bonds unbroken by the foreshadowing of terminus (Anju and Kafei), the most anaesthetic, fortifying ecstasy of familial love (the Father and daughter of the Music Box House) and the regrets of the philosophically bitter in the face of extinction (Igos Du Ikana), as well as Joyce or Miller, and certainly far more tactfully than John Green. They weigh up, as parables stripped of meaning and nuance, to the towering intellects of our literary and creative past. The humanity they touch on reaches us, in a skillfully prepared game, distilled from its extraneous plot material with 360 degree cinematography – incorporating the player’s every inch of peripheral vision and moment of reactionary emotion – into an experience which ranks in nail-biting next to Ju-On and in tissues used next to Pan’s Labyrinth.

Although plausible before definite, the suggestion that video games can harness and exploit the most powerful of messages in the most innovative of ways is nearly beyond question. As a story-telling device, it is interactive in a way which meets and exceeds its progenitors.

The answer, then, is yes, video games are Art, and we must be ready for the implications that an Art-Form title brings to the creation and reception of gaming worlds.