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Can Video Games Be Art? This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


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The advent of the 20th century brought with it technological wonders including the airplane, cinema, and the radio. Among these feats was one of the most influential inventions ever – the personal computer. Through the introduction of e-mail and instant messaging, the computer revolutionized our lives by allowing people to interact quickly regardless of location. Computers have also made constant human inspection and regulation of mundane tasks obsolete through automated management and control. But one overlooked impact of the computer is the changes it has brought to the world of art.

Computers have opened up new avenues of creative expression. Video games are one progeny of the pursuit of new heights of artistic expression through technology. Although the idea of games as art has its critics, not only can games be art, but a form of art with the capability to be more successful than any other in aesthetically conveying feelings and experiences.

To successfully argue that something is art, one must first define art. The five classical forms – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry – make up the nucleus of what is generally considered fine art. Other art forms, such as literature and film, have gained acceptance because they contained key elements of the classical forms. Yet the common ingredients of these five art forms are a mystery to many. Though there is no unified consensus on an exact definition, it is implicitly agreed that all art contains certain elements.

Art generally conveys ideas and feelings through a medium. This is evident in all five classical forms. Painting, music, and poetry are expressions of an artist's thoughts and emotions. Sculpture and architecture also create a visual representation of a feeling, idea, or experience. I believe art is best defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” There are several reasons why video games meet this definition.

Video games are inherently an amalgamation of other acknowledged art forms. They combine aspects of visual arts, music, and narrative literature. Video games incorporate intense and realistic graphics to paint a vivid simulation of reality that players can lose themselves in. Take, for example, one of the best graphic games of 2009. “Resident Evil 5” contains intricate landscapes and painstakingly crafted details: dust twists in the air and the sun gleams off buildings. Visually the game is so breathtakingly constructed that a player can almost step into the clothing of the main character. The correlation between a game developer's attention to visual details and an artist's careful rendering of each brushstroke or a filmmaker's meticulous consideration for every scene is evident.

To enhance the visual experience, game developers often hire a musician to compose the soundtrack. As video game critic Glenn McDonald notes, “sound and music … in video game design … goes to work on you subconsciously – heightening tension, manipulating the mood, and drawing you into the gameworld faintly but inexorably.” Games incorporate the established art form of music to elicit emotional reactions from players.

Moreover, video game music has artistic applications and influences outside of the gaming world. Nobuo Uematsu, the acclaimed Japanese composer of the “Final Fantasy” series, has written scores for games that have been performed in concerts around the world. Music is central to the gaming experience.

The final integral part of a game is the narrative. Although some successful games lack a cohesive story, like “Tetris,” video games that incorporate narratives far outnumber those that don't. The reason is obvious: human life is intrinsically tied to both storytelling and playing.

Writer and game designer Greg Costikyan explains, “Storytelling is fundamental to what it is to be human. Since hominids evolved the ability to speak, we've been telling each other stories … Play is equally fundamental to what it is to be human … Play is how we learn; stories are how we integrate what we've learned.” As such, game producers have a vested interest in turning even the most mundane games into something far more complex through use of a story line.

It is clear that careful consideration of the graphics, music, and story line of video games to capture the essence of an emotion, feeling, or experience is common to both games and traditional forms of art.

One objection to the idea of video games as an art form is that the gaming industry has commercial motivations, tainting its artistic purity. After all, game developers create games to be mass marketed in hopes of making money. Yet most art forms share this attribute. Early 20th century cinema was criticized for this same reason. Yet decades later, it's obvious that this was not an obstacle for general acceptance of film as a way to convey the emotions of true art. Furthermore, many painters, writers, and musicians look to their work as a source of income. Beethoven and Mozart composed commissioned music for aristocratic patrons.

A lack of pursuit of financial gain is not a characteristic that defines art. In fact, the opposite is true: financial success can indicate artistic quality. The very reason paintings can cost millions of dollars, musical works like Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro” become universally acclaimed, and – indeed – games like “Shadow of the Colossus” become instant hits is because they are masterpieces of art.

Another challenge to the artistic value of video games lies in the argument that games are interactive and thus cannot be compared to literature or film (where the beholder is a nonparticipatory observer). According to some, the ability for a player to modify the outcome of a game takes away from its artistic quality. Film critic Roger Ebert asserts the view that control is being wrested from the artist, analogous to a reader rewriting Shakespeare as he or she flips the pages. Games, in his opinion, rely too heavily on audience participation to create the experience and thus fail the rigorous litmus test of his definition of art.

However, a crucial part of what makes art truly art is the audience. All forms of art elicit audience participation to create common understanding and shared feelings and experiences. Readers do not simply let the words wash over them. The best films often demand audience participation, frequently leaving questions unanswered and vague endings. Art extends beyond the theater or museum as the audience discusses interpretations. Art is art through its ability to move us and stir our imagination. Art that doesn't leave its audience with questions or unresolved issues is hardly art at all.

Now to respond to Ebert's opinion that games give the gamer too much control and therefore are not art. While games make the player feel free to do whatever he or she wishes, this is not truly the case. As Ludwig Kietzmann, a video game enthusiast, writes, “every one of [the player's] actions is determined by a complex set of unseen rules, technical boundaries, and art assets that entwine to form a game.” It is as if the code is played like a symphony by the computer, with the gamer as the enthusiastic conductor. The notes are clearly written, yet it is still up to the conductor to determine how a composition plays out.

It is this interaction between the player and game that gives video games so much potential as an art form. When the player participates in the creation of the experience, the emotions a game engenders are more organic, emerging from the synergy between game and player. The ability for participants to ally themselves with the art form to create aesthetic experiences is unique to video games, and as such, the interactivity of video games is a clear indication of their artistic potential.

Even if video games are not fine art per se, they can be the driving influence behind the creation of other forms of art. Games have inspired a new age of cinema dubbed machinima. Machinima is the real-time use of 3-D video games to create computer-generated images for animated films. Several major film festivals have acknowledged this new subculture of cinema and accept machinima videos. In addition, a number of movies have been inspired by video games, including “Silent Hill” and “Tomb Raider.” The ArtCade, an exhibit of video games and the art works they've inspired, was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This advancement of art by video games shows that games can be more than just entertainment.

The definition of art is constantly evolving. Art is about searching for new ways to – in game designer Tim Schafer's words – “creatively [express] thoughts or emotions that are hard … to communicate.” Although the public still largely doesn't recognize video games as an art form, this idea is slowly gaining momentum. Popping up in museums and movie theaters alike, video games are gradually shedding their reputation as recreational devices solely designed to entertain. Games are art – mass-marketed, emerging, and largely unrecognized, but art nevertheless.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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This article has 16 comments. Post your own!

stan said...
Apr. 16, 2012 at 6:43 am:
Video games are very healthy to mental and also not healthy to physically
 
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SATAN4LIFE said...
Jun. 8, 2011 at 8:53 am:
Drawing is art. Animating is art. Film is art. Music is art. Why is it that when you put someone in control of these elements it stops being art?
 
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Success said...
Jan. 22, 2011 at 2:57 pm:
There is a variety of subjective reasons for diagreeing but this is a VERY well written article and it has extremely good evidence to argue with.  Thanks for this post, it was very interesting.  And continue writing, you are very intelligent and compelling
 
Carl S. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm :
Thanks a lot for your feedback! It's really appreciated :)
 
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Answerless said...
Mar. 20, 2010 at 10:12 pm:
Very excellently argued! And I agree with you completely. It certainly is true that there are some games that are nothing more than time wasters, but there are also ones that are absolutely art. And the fact that they are interactive brings whole new possibilities to the field of art. There's something to be said for being right there beside the characters as they go through their journey; It makes the emotions and lessons learned all the more real...
 
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tennis03 said...
Feb. 27, 2010 at 6:13 pm:
i disagree with you that video games are art. just cuz work goes into making a video game doesn't make it art. Everything ever made would be art then. dude don't try to make people feel better about being addicted to video games by telling them it is art
 
Skeezics replied...
Mar. 1, 2010 at 11:13 pm :
I would have to disagree with you tennis03. It is not just the fact that it is work that goes into it, it is the fact that all of the characters are designed, drawn, and made into something beautiful, which by definition, is art.
 
spookster replied...
Mar. 10, 2010 at 12:44 pm :
I agree with you
 
Skeezics replied...
Mar. 10, 2010 at 1:16 pm :
thank you very much spookster.
 
Rachel G. replied...
Apr. 20, 2010 at 8:28 pm :
Also, video game addiction was never mentioned in the article, though tennis03 thought it would serve their point to bring it up. Video game "addiction" is often a form of escapism, where someone would rather play games than deal with the difficulties of their everyday lives. This is often, arguably, what drives people to read or write or see a movie, but since movies and books aren't "new media" like video games, they're substantially less criticized for their escapism potential.
 
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FolkLore said...
Feb. 6, 2010 at 6:59 pm:
Well said. And great quotes to back up your point. I agree with what you said, and I love companies like Tale of Tales and Frictional Games because they strive to make video games more artistic. Their games don't involve shooting someone in the head or stealing cars. They explore the human psyche and in some cases the meaning of life in a thought provoking and meaningful way. It's sad that those companies are the same ones that are under-appreciated and, for the most part, ignored. But... (more »)
 
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Fayrouz This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm:
good job on winning b/c you definitely deserve it! No nonsense, you backed up your point very well and it's clear what you're trying to say. keep up the good work and keep writing b/c that's the only way to get better :)
 
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breiteliza This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm:
Great job! My close friend loves video games and I always make fun of him because of it, but I've never thought of it in the ways you've explained.
 
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Pennpaper said...
Oct. 3, 2009 at 4:24 pm:
I like the support that you give to your side of the argument, but what about the other side? If you added some opinions from the ones against your side and also counter it (or counter-arguments) then this would be the best article I've ever read, all hands down! Keep this in mind, man.
 
Carl S. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 3, 2009 at 11:39 pm :
actually, i did :)
 
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kingofthepen said...
Oct. 2, 2009 at 3:33 pm:
Dude, you're right! I like how you threw some facts into your argument.
 
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