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Are videogames art?

Chances are you’ve started to see that question pop up around the internet, with varying degrees of seriousness applied to tackling its conclusion. It’s a rather contentious topic that many major figures from within our industry have weighed in on over the last few years, and it’s one that strives to find an objective conclusion through a swathe of subjectivity.
As with all great debates that involve mediums we frequently indulge in (See our Violence in Videogames series for example), pulling at the threads of the discussion can bring about a greater appreciation for video games overall. The topic had been bubbling away ever more ferociously with each major landmark title delivering the next benchmark in narrative storytelling, graphical immersion, or just through general subject matter. Yet it was when TIME magazine critic Roger Ebert cast his gaze over our precious pastime and labeled the likes of Flower and Braid ‘pathetic’ that the entire conversation reached boiling point, and views started spilling over from all sides. Whilst Ebert retracted his views in response to the public nature in which he first declared them, he still maintained he did not believe games could qualify as art, and the battle he made public has been raging ever since.

UK newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathon Jones wrote an incendiary piece relating to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s depiction of 14 specific games as an art exhibition, where he took the snobby, ‘Oh, look at them with their toys,’ approach. Cementing his ignorance were the use of terms relating to how he was, ‘too old and too intelligent’ to be even considering a video game as art, and speaking in absolutes when stating that, “A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination”.

Journey on PS3 is exquisitely beautiful aesthetically, but does that make it a more worthy candidate for the artistic label?

Journey on PS3 is exquisitely beautiful aesthetically, but does that make it a more worthy candidate for the artistic label?

Clearly, Jones hadn’t stepped into Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’, a modern art piece consisting of a set of speakers encircling a room, each producing individual instrument sections of a full orchestra. The listener can stand in various parts of the room to take in particular parts or stand dead-center and listen from ‘inside’ the composition to the full composition. Does said placement of the individual impact the artistry present in the work? Or is the work there to be explored, conforming to certain rule-sets applicable to the medium of music, yet taking nothing away from its overall execution in this unique way? You decide.

Hundreds of people within Jones’ comment section disagreed with him on the basis that he himself stated works of art should be measured through their levels of subjectivity. It is very apparent that pretty much every generation except the most current still thinks of video games in terms of archaic, pixellated graphics akin to Pac-Man, Tetris or Donkey Kong.
The constant scapegoating of video games as society’s undoing doesn’t help matters either for newcomers. Couple that with the exponential growth within the mechanics of games themselves, the playing of which is regarded very much as an ‘underground’ folly somewhat akin to the (also awesome) comic book world, and it becomes immediately apparent why this somewhat overlooked medium has within it a screaming sense of self-worth that tends to go unheard or misrepresented.
Whilst it is more common that whenever the latest quirky indie game comes out, the artistic label is slapped on due to the game’s less rigid mechanics and overall abstract nature, in 2013 we’ve seen the likes of Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us cross over into mainstream appeal, providing very involving, thought-provoking, big-budget stories that have real weight, consequence, and above all, a unique identity within the gaming realm.

It is true that many games strive to emulate films through their cutscenes, set-piece battles, and archetypal character portrayals, but it is the playing of the game that elevates the likes of Bioshock and Last of Us to new heights.
Could the relationships between Joel and Ellie or Booker and Elizabeth have been done as effectively on the silver screen? Or would the final events of The Last of Us be so harrowing had ‘that scene’ played out with no direct input?
With a passive audience forced only to witness their relationships develop or events play out instead of fostering these feelings through direct control, the immersion garnered from actively partaking in catching something Elizabeth throws to help out during a battle or actively saving Ellie from the clutches of one of the Infected cannot be replicated.

If art at its most basic, broadest form is expression of any degree through intent, then you could apply the above rules to any game from Journey to Call of DutyDon’t Starve to Gears of War. However, a common criticism levied at this debate is that the players ‘author’ the content they partake in through controlling the elements on screen, thereby taking away from the original source behind this form of art.

Does Gears qualify as art in the same way as something as abstract as Flower or Braid?

Does Gears qualify as art in the same way as something as abstract as Flower or Braid?

The counter would surely be that said malleable elements are still programmed into the game in the first place. Such was the stance argued by game developer Clint Hocking back in 2007 in response to Ebert’s initial blog post, where he stated something applicable to Cardiff’s Motet; “Interacting with a work does not shape the work: it only reveals it”. With increasingly immersive technology providing tighter and more-engaging experiences within game worlds that walk the line of linearity, this point is only thoroughly strengthened over time as we explore the likes of Columbia or the apocalyptic streets of the U.S. in Bioshock and The Last of Us respectively.

At no point can you circumvent Uncharted star Nathan Drake’s abilities to instead make him fly or instantly produce a grappling hook when you may require it. Instead, you are forced to experience the game in the way the designers intended, with every animation and art asset carefully designed to be interacted with in a certain way.
Uncharted is one of a handful of games that can be scrutinized through one of Hocking’s terms: ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ (the analysis of player-controlled character action during gameplay that contests the depiction of said character built up throughout the other aspects of the game). Whilst this is one of the biggest caches of ammo that those who play the authorship card can pick up, it still remains that game worlds have an initially defined authorship through their developers, and even with the greatest disregard for the mechanics of the game, a player must abide by these limitations to even interact with the game at all.

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We are at a point within the evolution of videogames where developers have acquired a sense of ‘auteurship’, where we can say, ‘This feels like a Naughty Dog game’, or, ‘This has Rockstar’s trademark all over it’, and this is a position only available in the last few years. Anyone who has stumbled across the cinematic Metal Gear Solid series knows of creator Hideo Kojima, and with Bioshock making the transition from cult-favourite to blockbuster franchise, narrative mastermind Ken Levine has been picked up to pen the script for the new Logan’s Run remake.
Games now run the gamut from the minimalistic to the grandiose, and whether a ‘game’ can be defined as bleeps, bloops, and reward screens, or just making it through the night in Don’t Starve because you just want to survive, these experiences are most definitely some of the most engaging, rewarding, and ultimately unique forms of media you can engage with.

Any thoughts? Madly in agreement? Staunchly opposed? Let us know in the comments!