Video games are a form of art

March 30, 2011


I believe the time is finally on the horizon when video games, one of my favorite pasttimes, will be able to join the pantheon of celebrated cultural works and earn recognition as a medium for art.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about the role video games play in our society and our frustration over how they are not yet really considered forms of art. From the cutting-edge graphics engines responsible for the immaculate set pieces and backgrounds of “Gears of War 2” or the cutscenes of the last few “Final Fantasies,” to the rich and complex universes of “Mass Effect” or “Fallout 3,” video games continue to be overlooked despite their advancements in storytelling.

I think a large factor is the level of control video games grant audiences. Paintings, books and movies all, while possessing the potential to be thoughtful and probing, are completely spectator ventures. Video games, on the other hand, are by their very nature malleable even by the slightest of degrees by players, allow audiences to control the action and content of the work. Another part of the problem is the change of accessibility in approaching games; for example, early games like Pong and Pac-Man were designed to draw people in for a few minutes of a new entertainment form. Once games were established as profitable ventures, developers gradually began to dive deeper, producing legendary works like Nintendo’s magnum-opus “The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time” or Valve’s surprise hit “Portal.” However, recent years have seen a massive influx of products aimed at casual gamers, helping revert games back to the status of toys with no message to make.

We even still use the word “play” to describe our interaction with them, a word that evokes a sense of childishness, and it is hard to think of a more suitable word to describe the level of connection many gamers make with these fictional worlds and characters. The closest I can get is “engage” and I’m still not sure if that’s quite right.

For further points, my friend referred me to an article from last May on Cracked.com titled “5 Reasons It’s Still Not Cool to Admit You’re a Gamer,” a couple of the most noteworthy being the persistent anti-social stereotype of gamers and the amounts of gratuitous nudity, gore and violence developers place in their work, bestowing the game’s “mature” rating with a sense of irony.

The article’s third reason, concerning story, resonated the strongest with me; after all, I’m studying to make my living as a writer, as someone who uses words to grab people’s attention and convey a point. When a game’s story fails to draw me in or sustain its own logic, it falls in my view of its stature, as would anything else. One of the finest examples of storytelling I have seen perhaps this whole past decade is Rockstar’s “Red Dead Redemption.” With its diverse cast of unique characters, detailed and dynamic environments and unconventional narrative of a former outlaw trying to maintain a moral path, I think this is one of the strongest examples that can be offered when arguing for the worth of games as art.

In fact, the development of a morality system, such as in “Bioshock,” “Red Dead Redemption” or “Fallout 3,” is one of the best contributions that has been made to video game storytelling because it allows, as in life, for the depiction of the various and sometimes extreme consequences that can result from one’s actions. After all, the struggle to determine good from evil has captivated mankind throughout time, from Quentin Tarantino’s Academy-Award nominee “Pulp Fiction” to the dialogues of Plato’s Academy.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not calling for every future game to focus on the dissection of philosophical ideals. That would quickly create dilution of individuality and would also simply be boring. After all, mindless entertainment could be fun in its own right; I would just like to more respect for this medium. Art is the expression of an idea, be it in words on a page, graffiti on a passing train car or a close-up shot on a protagonist’s face as he realizes the weight of a drastic action. The best ideas are those that transcend time and should not be discriminated against because of the platform from which they are delivered.

Robert Wilson is a junior journalism major from Boyce who serves as entertainment for The Tech Talk. E-mail comments to rww015@latech.edu.