Are video games art?

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Samuel Passmore considers the artistic value of video games…


June 2011 saw return of the annual E3 expo, the world’s largest digital entertainment convention. New games were shown and geeks rejoiced.

One of the biggest splashes was made by Bioshock: Infinite, the greatly anticipated third entry to the BioShock series of games. It’s a kind of ‘spiritual sequel’ to the BAFTA winning Bioshock, which was lauded by critics and gamers alike for its originality and design. Many said that BioShock marked a new era for games, one that could finally see games accepted as more than just money-making exercises and hobbies for socially-challenged adolescents.

But could games really aspire to be anything more than brain-dead entertainment? Is Modern Warfare 2, the biggest selling entertainment product of all time, really the interactive equivalent of Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line? Perhaps not, but to accurately assess the video games industry as a community for the arts, we need to explore just what is meant by the term ‘art’, and how other forms of entertainment, specifically film, achieved such lofty labels.

So, what is art? The perception of art has changed as years, decades, centuries have gone by. The idea of ‘art‘ was arguably non-existent until 16th century Italy – the Renaissance – when the notion of ‘art’ was coined to describe the paintings, sculptures and architecture of those famous Renaissance figures. Not really anything to do with video games right? Bear with me. Possibly the most important idea to come from this period was the concept of the artist.

In the 18th century, composers were accepted in to this category of ingenious innovators, their music deemed worthy of inclusion into the newly conceived ‘Fine Arts’. Fast forward to the mid-20th century and art went through another sea-change. The post-modernist movement found its feet, leaving the art world in state of transparency, whilst, importantly, leaving the door open to a new breed of self-referential concepts enveloping film, music and literature.

Critics in France, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut included, pioneered the auteur theory – the film director as an author of work, of pieces of art. As the 20th century continued and we entered the next millennia, film, along with music and literature, is regarded by many (but not all) as worthy of the term ‘art‘ and the creators – the filmmakers, the musicians, the authors – are the artists. Even comic books and graphic novels, which many would call low-brow literature, are getting more and more recognition as serious and important pieces of art. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, for example, is frequently included in Time Magazine’s top 100 novels list.

So, does this mean that the world is ready to embrace video games into the domain of art? It seems logical after all, that one of largest industries of popular entertainment is ready for higher regard, just like film and music in the past.

Let’s look at some of the games that have reached beyond the intellectual range we may expect.

Ico, released in 2001, is a game with a quiet and unassuming atmosphere. On the surface, it could be considered a fairly conventional third-person adventure game. Soon after picking up the controller, however, it’s clear that this is far from the average Mario clone. It’s a game built around the ideas of companionship and compassion. The player’s avatar, Ico, must escort the princess, Yorda, through a haunted castle. Sounds pretty straight forward? Almost tediously old fashioned?

The twist is the fact that nothing can harm Ico himself. The game only ends if Yorda gets hurt. This may sound insignificant, but it completely changes the mindset of the typical gamer. No longer is the player fighting solo, selfishly following their own path. Ico must protect Yorda, putting himself on the line for her own well-being and guiding her through difficult environments. Ico taught us it was okay for a game to be about more than brainless lone-wolf killing missions.

The game’s successor, Shadow of the Colossus, was infinitely larger in scale. The basic premise involves a warrior (and his horse) tracking and defeating a dozen giant ‘Colossi‘. Shadow of the Colossus had all of the quiet compassion of Ico, but with an added element: the player had to use his brain to defeat these giants. It wasn’t a case of the usual ‘brawn vs brawn’, it was an example of the power of courage and wit. Aesthetically, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus share a similar artistic approach to video game graphics. They shun the usual (unachievable) strive for realism that games often adopt, instead opting for beautifully, almost hand-drawn worlds that capture the imagination.

Metal Gear Solid is an altogether different animal. The game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, took over a decade to tell an epic saga full of political theory and intricate character relationships. The scale of the story means it could not be told in movie form, and the cost to make a TV series would have been gigantic. This was a story that was always meant to be told through the medium of gaming.

The first game in the series was released on the original Playstation in 1998, while the final chapter came to Playstation 3 last year. A child in 1998 is an adult in 2010, meaning that this a story that has run in parallel to many gamers lives growing up. While it’s difficult to defend Metal Gear Solid as a piece of art, it’s even more difficult to imagine any other piece of modern entertainment having such a lasting effect on those who invest in it. Kojima is the auteur of an immense piece of popular entertainment; is he less of an artist than Godard or Scorsese?

Lastly we return to BioShock, released in 2007. The game was the commercial and critical success of the year, and possibly the decade. It swept up hordes of ‘Game of the Year‘ awards, even bagging a BAFTA. Few would argue with the decorations the game acquired, but why was it so well received?

BioShock opens with your transatlantic flight crashing into the sea. The sole survivor of the crash, you swim through the debris to a light shining in the night. A lighthouse revealing a doorway to the underwater city of Rapture. Rapture was created by scientist and entrepreneur Andrew Ryan as a haven for science to thrive without the shackles of government, laws and ‘petty morality’. It was a subaquatic art-deco, Ayn Rand-inspired metropolis for all the greatest minds on Earth to work with absolute freedom. Obviously, without the bindings of morality and ethics, Rapture soon fell apart. So you arrive with the city in ruins, haunted by the ghosts of those who lived there and those who still do.

It is an extremely compelling backdrop, but what makes BioShock stand alone in videogames is not its beautifully designed architecture or intriguing characters. It’s the way it twists the very conventions of games themselves. It makes the player look at their own actions and be horrified, almost ashamed.

It asks questions where other games wouldn’t. Typically, videogames have you follow a set of missions, and kill those the game tells you to. It is not usually in the gamers nature to question. BioShock reverses this. It asks: why are you doing what the game tells you to? Why are you killing these people? It may sound a little profound for a videogame to question its own purpose, but this is what separates it from the competition. This is what makes the Guardian described it’s sequel as:

a powerful answer to anyone who still thinks all computer games are mindless, childish or dull.

So, does that mean BioShock is a work of art? Perhaps not, but inevitably games are going to grow up. Like films, games might need time to win over the skeptics. Early cinema was viewed by those at the time with technological intrigue, but little more. This has obvious parallels with videogames, and few would argue today against the artistry of Godard or Kubrick. It may be exciting times ahead for the world of gaming.

Samuel Passmore is a freelance journalist with interests including film, music, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @samuelpassmore