Well everyone, Thanksgiving has passed, Christmas is closing in, and New Years isn’t far behind. It truly is the time of year to get with family and friends to be close and converse with a drink or two. Or many. Do your own thing. It was in a chat from the “many” category that the topic of art popped up randomly at my table on Thanksgiving. Don’t know how it got there, but my cousin brought up some award winning movie, someone else brought up an old, favorite album, and a little later into the discussion I brought up the unique gem from Sega and Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Rez. I had just recently picked up the expanded updated remastered release, Rez Infinite, on PS4 and once again became smitten with the game. After bringing it up the discussion ground to a halt. I explained that Rez was a game, you shoot stuff, and that each part of the game ties into each other combining visuals, sound, and sensation in a way I thought was truly artistic and beautiful. Then the question I was dreading dropped down like a brick:
“Ok, yeah, it sounds cool, but are video games really art though?”
It isn’t always easy to explain this opinion. Partially because it isn’t easy to agree on the idea of art is let alone sculpt a sense of depth for it around a medium as new as video games. Art is such a big, open ended topic and building walls around it so it’s contained in a box has never really worked out well historically. New mediums and forms of art are still met with hesitation or skepticism, sometimes even focus retaliation. I have a great passion and understanding of video games and while I try often to share and explain this it isn’t really understood by everyone I know. Thoughts of how games are art, what’s high art, low art, whatever is in between, these definitions and discussions stay with me. That’s why I thought I should explore these ideas with a bit more structure though writing.
The concept is a lot to cover in one article, let alone by one nerd with too much free time, so I’ve decided to split this all into a small series of articles I’m calling Play Good Art. This little collection will express an idea I love coming out of a speech by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. (More on that later)
Let’s start with the big question: are video games art?
It’s a tough one. Art is subjective, but once again, I very strongly believe that video games are art. Video games are creative and expressive, and they are a unique, diverse, and powerful medium. They can bring layers of amusement that builds connections in players that older mediums like film and literature can’t quite match. This proves true over time, as gaming continues to evolve. More people have noticed this as years pass and they regard video games art in a truly unique way. They’ve been featured as such in the Smithsonian, games have been afforded legal protection as creative works in the United States, and the gaming industry is growing bigger than ever reaching new audiences every day. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people from challenging games as art. The whole idea is tackled from all sides from traditional artists, to academics, to random people down the street and even big time gamers themselves.
Opinions of games as art vary everywhere. It doesn’t help when individuals with a respected voice and big audience condemn gaming without any true understanding of video games whatsoever. Take for example revered film critic Roger Ebert. He was famous for staunch and stubborn views that video games not only weren’t and would never be art, but practically garbage compared film and literature. It can be hard to sway people who listen to him not knowing any better into my line of thinking even though I’m pretty sure I’m a way more credible source on the topic. People often shift their attention to the speaker on the highest pedestal when they’re a critic or a politician and it can be hard to counter that. The best thing gamers in my position can do is to move forward with clear discussions. But before we can jump ahead,two more questions to all of this often arise:
- How are video games art? (In traditional and unique ways)
- Does it even matter?
Video games check of a good number of the “traditional art” boxes more than some people think. Pretty easily, too. First, video games are genuinely a form of expression. From Pac-Man to Super Mario Bros. and Child of light to The Witcher 3, they all express something and induce a response in players. It could be an emotion, a feeling of fantasy, being drawing into stylish storytelling, or the game itself can make a comment on racism or political climates in a changing world. Whether the creator’s intent matters in this is a debate that covers the entire spectrum of art, but you can’t deny that games leave a special sort of imprint on players that isn’t quite comparable with other types of artistic media you can commonly reach out for these days.
Another box for gaming to check off on the art checklist has to do with aesthetics. Video games are primarily a visual medium so they usually try to make a strong impression in that department. With a mosaic pattern with sprite based characters a la Chrono Trigger or Princess Crown, soft cartoonish vibes like with Jet Set Radio or Wind Waker, or crisp, realistic polygons like with Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV, games almost always try to make a visual statement. On top of everything though, a good game is the result of talent and solid craftsmanship. Video games fit many surface “art requirements” but they have deeper ones too. Isn’t a production process that works with ingenuity and creative thinking artistic in of itself? There’s a lot more to this, too much to squash in with all I could say about games and art, (and if you haven’t already figured it out I have a lot I could say,) so you won’t find all of it here today.
A big question I’ve encountered before when trying to explain that video games are art to some people is if the distinction even matters or not. I hear stuff like this on that line of thinking:
“Would calling Sonic 3 art make it any good?”
“Who cares if it’s art? It doesn’t change how I play it.”
“Does it matter if something like Final Fantasy VI is art? It’s still going to be the same. Graphics, the story, it’s gonna do what it does, no label’s gonna change that.”
To which I usually reply “Um, duh.” (AS well as “You shut your mouth Sonic 3 is great,” But I don’t want to go there today.) Of course a game won’t magically change into a hyper-version of itself that will dazzle you or fix any quirks and flaws because it’s labeled artistic now. What really matters is the player end of the equation. Does a game make you laugh or smile like an idiot? Does playing something like Resident Evil or Silent Hill keep you jumpy overnight after you play? Then in that moment, the conveyance there is invoking something within you that’s powerful and personal? That’s art and it’s doing its job.
Going back to Final Fantasy VI, that’s a game I would say, is artistic on several levels. Its music and sound design, visuals, gameplay, and plot; these are all things that excel on their own but build together for a whole package that reaches greater heights. Lots of people would say a master score or classic painting would be considered artistic, something to be treasured and protected. This is why it’s this discussion in regards to video games is important. Art is precious. What is art and how much it is so varies from person to person, but it matters. It means something. Video games fall into all of this and in special ways I’ve barely even touched on yet. That’s why all of this matters, it’s why I’m writing this now.
So why exactly am I calling this “Play Good Art”? It’s (a) because games are art, and (b) art should be made and experienced! Art should be felt! In his graduation speech for the University of the Arts Philadelphia, Neil Gaiman talks about how all sorts of artists have a power to make art that is invaluable to so many people out there in the world. He says that people should “make good art out of life’s circumstances, from the good and potentially more so, the bad. In the end that’s what you have in those moments.” And as gamers we not only have the ability to experience art someone has put out for us, but also make it our own through the our diverse interactions. Think about it. Due to all the variables, games can be highly different in experience and input for all of us. Take Mario for example; sometimes you smoosh the first goomba. Your neighbor might ignore it. You might speed for through warps with speed and poise, your brother or sister might aim to hit every single thing. Play good art. Make good art. On some level with gaming it’s all the same.
So go out there and sometime today or sometime soon, play good art whether it’s Overwatch or Dragon Quest III. Experience, and make it special. It’s all art for you in the end.