There has been much controversy in the past, regarding the acceptance of Video Games as an Art form. Critics like Roger Ebert have said that they believe video games will never be art, at least not in the near future. But that begs the question, what do people call art?
Sure, we can check the definition of the term ‘art’ and use that as a filter for what is art and what isn’t, but isn’t that a bit ironic? As I understand it, Art is something emotional and personal, something the perceiver understands in their own way, and the creator of which is key in creating the experience. Art is something I define myself, and to say I need someone to tell me what’s art and what isn’t is silly. But, what’s the point of this discussion then? It has to do with the media’s current outlook on the gaming industry.
While movies and literature are viewed as sophisticated works of art, video games have long been viewed as a mere pastime by the general public. Only in 2011 did the US Supreme Court truly accept the concept, by ruling video games as protected speech under the First Amendment, and allowing grants for ‘interactive games’ as art forms. In my community, video games are still seen by many adults as a childish ‘waste of time’. Parents even tend to disregard age ratings, thinking all video games are targeted towards 12-year-olds. Which is certainly not true, since, in a study conducted by the ESA in 2015, only around 27% of gamers were found to be below 18. In fact, the average age of a player was about 35, and 41% of all players were female. People judge the medium without actually experiencing it.
A major factor in this outlook is the fact that video games haven’t been around long enough. As a medium in its infancy, its future is highly open to critique and debate. But I believe that part of the blame also lies with the big AAA game industries. As businesses, their main goal is to sell the game and make money; not to express their views through it. As a result, this has led to big budget First Person Shooters like Call of Duty saturating the market, and the rise of many business practices like DLC, Season Passes and Preorders. You see this in movies too, with big budget Action Films all over the Hollywood scene. They’re not necessarily bad, but that is a topic for another discussion.
Now, let me tell you why I believe video games are an art form. Just like a good book or movie, a video game has many parts that come together to form the whole.
First and foremost, there’s the visual artwork. The visual art sets the stage for the game, and plays a core part in its quality and reception. A good artist can convey a wide range of emotions through his or her art, be it joy or sorrow, anger or fear. Creating the right mood for the situation is extremely important. And since this an artist’s work, the art is unique to that game. You will not (should not) find Mario’s best pals, the Goomba, in, say, any of the Pokemon titles. The art is the game’s character.
Then there’s the story. Almost every video game has a story element. From some of the earliest games like Space Invaders and Pacman, to current gen smash hits like Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher trilogy, stories are imperative in immersing the player in the worlds the games create. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a premise, as in Asteroids where you’re given a spaceship and told to defend yourself against obstacles and enemies. Many AAA games today feature detailed stories that take months to create and finalize. Now, there are even what many refer to as ‘walking simulators’, which play out as interactive movies with intricate story lines, where your decisions affect how the story unfolds. The story is the backdrop for the game.
The soundtrack plays a pivotal role in immersing the player in the game world
Another extremely important, albeit many a time ignored, aspect of games is the sound design. Whether it be the slow creaking of a nearby door, or the rumbling of a distant thunderstorm approaching, the soundtrack plays a pivotal role in immersing the player in the game world. And the music in games are some of the best pieces I’ve ever heard. They also help in setting the mood for the situation. For example, music during combat is often fast-paced and tense, whereas during exploration, it’s quiet, slow and soothing. All these sound effects combine to create the game’s atmosphere.
And, of course, the game mechanics. No matter how brilliant the rest of the components are, if the gameplay isn’t there, then the game falls to pieces. I am not saying that developers shouldn’t experiment with existing mechanics. I’m saying they should. Only then will we get truly innovative experiences, like the humorous puzzle game Portal, perspective shifting platformer Fez, and the very first stealth game, Metal Gear Solid. Even in the case of ‘walking simulators’, the decision making process makes for an entertaining experience for many. The idea of a gameplay mechanic can be the beginning of the game itself. The mechanics are the foundations of the game.
It’s when all these come together, that the game truly comes alive. The experiences you have during your playthrough of a game are what define it. A struggle against a difficult boss, a not-so-going-to-plan infiltration of an enemy base, or even a fun glitch that you’ve found, all add to that experience. Losing a soldier in XCom 2 made me depressed, but made victory all the more sweeter. Defeating a hard-to-beat wyvern(that’d been nagging me for weeks) in Monster Hunter made me feel triumphant. Every emotion, every tense moment, every feeling of calm, all create the experience that is the game.
The game designer is the artist, and you are the canvas.
Roger Ebert’s article: http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/video-games-can-never-be-art
US Supreme court ruling: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Entertainment_Merchants_Ass’n