Art and Video Games

Posted on April 22, 2010


At first glance, the two subjects are as far apart as possible.  Who would consider the Mario Brothers and their franchise as art?  Or Grand Theft Auto?  Video games are made for kids, or adults who never really grew up.  Seriously.

At least, that’s the opinion of some critics.  They refuse to accept any new medium, no matter how sophisticated it’s become.  And so the debate rages: on the one hand, video games cannot be art because they lack the ability to qualify under classical understanding; on the other hand, games are just a different medium that has the potential to become something more aesthetic.  Personally, I think the problem is one of definition.

Art, as defined by
the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.

the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.

Given this definition, I submit that the following are examples of art:

  • Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes.
  • Hamlet, Shakespeare
  • The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  • Thousand and One Nights, Anton Chekov
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  • Gone with the Wind
  • King Kong (the original)
  • The Godfather
  • Yojimbo
  • Doctor Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
  • The Scream, Edvard Munch
  • Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci
  • The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh
  • The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti
  • Luncheon on the Grass, Edouard Manet

That’s five works of literature, five movies and five paintings.  I could include sculptures, architecture, furniture, television shows, plays, songs, poems, fighting techniques, etc.  Each of the listed items fits the definition I’ve provided.  More importantly, each of these items (and probably any other piece of art ever produced) did not come develop in a vacuum.

Consider this: paintings used to be cave drawings.  While cave drawings are a significant achievement in man’s history, I doubt that many academics or artists would consider them art in-and-of-themselves.  They served more of a functionary role than an aesthetic one.  Over time painting moved from cave walls to pottery to frescoes to statues to canvas — the exact order isn’t accurate, but the point is that the progression of a functional craft leads, inevitably, to that craft entering into the realm of the aesthetic.  When the artisan strives more to produce an emotional response than to meet a functional requirement, the artisan becomes the artist.  The product ceases to exist solely for utilitarian reasons and more for aesthetic ones.

I admit that my classification allows for some “art” that maybe shouldn’t be art.  Once novels became popular and were printed en masse, especially for the American public, it became apparent that some were artistic and some weren’t.  I don’t consider the Twilight series art, but I doubt that The Catcher in the Rye was accepted as art when it was published either.  Given this aspect I think the definition should be modified to include a clause of time: if a work persists in evoking an emotional response from its audience, or if the response strengthens over time, it should be considered art.

Naturally this leads me to conclude that video games have always been art, of a sort.  The purpose of a game is to entertain.  Thus it is intended to evoke an emotional response.  Some games can have a utilitarian aspect, such as Chess which teaches elements of strategy that can be applied to other areas in life.  Most don’t do much more than entertain, and so we might consider them lesser forms of art — after all, not all movies, novels or paintings warrent the sort of attention and study that the masterpieces do.  So if the question is whether or not games (and not just video games) can be “high art,” the answer is still “yes,” given enough time for the creators of such works to develop their skills.

If there is still any doubt as to legitimacy of these claims, consider a Google search about “video games as art.”  Or take a look at  games like Okami, Fatal Frame, Braid, And Yet It Moves, Portal or Facade.  Calling these games art is the least we can do.  We should be giving their creators grants or national recognition.

Posted in: Games, Philosophy