It’s time to dig up the debate and ask if video games can be art.
As an lifelong collector of video games, one debate I often find myself in the middle of is “are video games art?”
It’s a topic that used to ignite conversation anywhere it was brought up. The debate reached a fever pitch around 2010, when the late film critic Roger Ebert put his foot down on the subject with an essay titled “video games can never be art.” It’s a debate so heated that the comment section for the post alone exceeds 5000 posts (to be fair, Ebert eventually conceded that he couldn’t definitively make this claim). At this point, so many journalists and game designers have put in their own two cents on the subject that it’s really hard not to find an opinion you agree with. Even the supreme court got involved when it deemed video games to be art in 2011, though to be fair, it wasn’t like the judges in the highest court wanted to rule on the matter just to stick it to people arguing on the internet.
But alas, time moves on, and people get bored of repeating the same talking points over and over. Though the debate has lost a lot of steam over the past four years, its cultural significance is still relevant. Why exactly do we care if video games are art? How has the industry shaped itself in response to this question? And heck, how has pop culture as we know it changed as a result of this debate?
Since hindsight is 20/20, I feel it’s time to get back into the trenches and talk about video games as art one last time. Because the truth of the matter is, it’s a topic that influences all of us, even if you don’t play video games.
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, I do think video games are art. However, I don’t think my reasons to justify this view are the interesting part of this debate.
Oftentimes, the question of “are video games art?” devolves into very pedantic topics of discussion. First, what even is art? I don’t want to sound like some hipster analyst in asking that, but I’ve honestly seen entire debates get stuck on this one question without hardly ever talking about video games. People often point to dictionary definitions of the word “art,” but even that differs depending on your source and isn’t very reliable. To me, it seems that when people are asking “are video games art,” they’re more interested in whether video games are comparable to other forms of media we can consider art. In other words, could Super Mario Bros. ever be studied alongside the works of Shakespeare in a college literature course.
This actually leads to a second common stopping point in most discussions. Because modern society can consider movies like Citizen Kane as art, critics will then try to apply the same standards that make movies artistic to video games. The problem with this, of course, is that it neglects the interactive part of video games that actually make them video games. Yes, it’s possible to experience popular games via Let’s Play videos on Youtube, but videos can’t convey the experience of playing a game. This immediately puts gamers and non-gamers on different wave lengths discussing the same topic, and trying to reconcile these two points of view through words is often an exercise in futility.
One of the best subtle uses of interactivity in video games can be found in the ridiculously popular death scene in Final Fantasy VII. Yes, it’s a 20 year old game and this is one of the most well known spoilers in gaming history, but I’m still loathe to outright say it myself. What many seem to forget is that the dated CG cut-scene depicting the death isn’t really what made an impact on everyone back in 1997. Rather, the emotional connection to the character was in part because the game let you make her personal to you.
At numerous points, the game lets you flirt with and romance this particular character, but you don’t have to. You can take her into battle and make her a staple of your combat squad, but you don’t have to. Heck, there’s even points where you try to stop the very character you’re playing as from hurting or betraying her, but again, you don’t really have to. All these moments deliberately force the player to develop an emotional connection to this character, so when her untimely end finally comes, you, personally, might actually feel betrayed by the game itself. Even though the game’s story moves on from this death, there’s always this eerie blank space in your party roster where she once was. Something got taken away from you, the player, and that’s an experience that’s near impossible to recreate without that element of interactivity.
Now, I’m not necessarily saying Final Fantasy VII is a work of art. In fact, in the “are video games art” debate, it can get easy to fixate on specific examples while ignoring the artistic merits of video games as a whole. In truth, there’s so much more I want to say about what interactivity can bring to an experience, but I don’t think it really matters. Because try as I might to navigate the waters of verifying that video games are indeed art, all of my motivation falls back on the same point.
Like any enthusiast or collector, I just want to share the things I love with everyone.
Growing up in a small town that was about an hour away from the nearest shopping mall, I always felt weird being passionate about video games. Maybe not so much as a kid, but as I got older, it started to become part of my identity. It was rare for me to even find kids who liked video games by the time I was 13, and I completely gave up hope finding other kids who liked the Japanese role playing games like Skies of Arcadia that I liked. I even liked Pokémon after I got “too old” for it, but only my closest friends were allowed to know that.
Now, “nerd culture” is pop culture. Not only can I find other people who like Japanese role playing games, but I can play them online with thousands of other people! And last year, the biggest craze of the summer was Pokémon GO, a game millions of people proudly played in public. In public! If you told me these things I felt ashamed to like 15 years ago would one day become popular, I would have lost my mind. After years of being told video games rot your brain and makes kids violent, we finally reached the point where we could feel cool talking about the things we liked. I can talk about how many hours I spent exploring The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask to strangers who are actually into my rambling.
It should only seem natural, then, that after all this progress, it might cause gamers to get defensive to hear “this thing you like can never be art.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much if video games can be assigned a label we sometimes give to books and movies. We just want people to understand that it’s possible to have amazing and emotional experiences playing video games, and we’d love to be able to share these stories with them.
But really, this feeling isn’t exclusive to people who like video games. On Gemr, we have fostered so many communities of people who love what they collect and are passionate about, and some of you may be able to relate to stories such as mine. As pop culture begins to accept and adapt the things we love – like superheroes and science-fiction – we just want everyone to experience the best of what our hobby has to offer. And as soon as we’re able to accept that, it becomes easier for all of us to accept the brilliance of our hobbies as well as the stupidity. For me, I love me some artistic video games, but I also revel in stupid, hyperbolic games that I’d openly poke fun at. Being able to openly love these things is liberating, and no matter what it is you like or collect, you should be free to express that love too.
So are video games art? I’d say they can be, but it’s okay if you disagree. Just bare with me if I can go on for hours about my favorite games of all time, because I just want to make sure you don’t miss out on some unforgettable adventures.