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Why (Some) Video Games Are Contemporary Art


The video games of today are not the same as the video games of yesteryear. Until the mid-1990s, video games used to be simple ways to pass time or settle arguments. Admittedly they had some artistic features like graphics and their own soundtracks, but they were marketed toward middle class white boys with money to blow, which pretty effectively barred them from any artistic advancement.


The logic of these naysayers was that if recreational sports couldn’t be considered art, then how could digital versions of these games be any different? One of the most vocal opponents to perceiving video games as art was the acclaimed film critic Robert Ebert, who remarked that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” He presumably never played Skyrim.


An Argument for Video Games


When you carefully consider what makes up the most popular video games, it becomes clear that they must be some post-modern art form. Even if you don’t think that any game currently released can compare to Beowulf or Canterbury Tales, you still have to acknowledge that video games are changing and, sooner or later, a masterpiece is going to come along.


Look how much video games have changed since their birth. While they still retain much of what originally made them great, there’s no denying that a new release today will be vastly different from a title created 30 years ago.


Sure, not every video game is worthy of being called art (lookin’ at you, Grand Theft Auto), but that doesn’t mean that all video games are lacking the qualifications. If we were going to collectively judge an entire medium as being good enough to be art, I can think of a few trashy novels that would immediately remove literature from the running.


Where Is the Line?


Without getting too technical (and infuriating any art aficionados reading this), what can we collectively agree makes something art? Google, AKA our future overlord, defines art as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form…producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” By this definition, you could fit almost any video game into the category of “art,” but is that being too generous?


Frankly, not every video game is a masterpiece. Not even game developers or designers can seem to agree on what makes a video game “good” versus “a steaming pile.” All games are imagined and designed by a creative individual or team, but shouldn’t there be some type of quality control for what separates art from just another way to kill time?


One discernable difference may be found in the intent during creation. When a video game is being designed, creators may often ask themselves how they can best reach their audience or get the most sales possible. While this is perfectly logical for video games as a craft and a business, it’s worth noting that contemporary painters or sculptors don’t ask themselves these questions.


If this is to be the line in the sand, then it would suggest that there’s an inalienable difference between games meant to sell copies and games meant to convey an idea or a message. By this criterion of intention, you would be hard pressed to find a single AAA title released in the past decade that qualifies as art. That doesn’t mean that these titles can’t be perfectly fine games, but the realm of video game art is populated primarily with indie developers.


Art and Indie Studios


Indie creators are unlikely to plan their games around what will best sell copies; they’re indie, so it’s unlikely that they’ll make millions from a game anyway. While this may limit their resources, it leaves them open to pursue game design in a way which prioritizes emotional impact over a game’s revenue.


It may sound hard to believe that the honor of “art form” is reserved solely for indie developers, but look at the different messages that these designers are sending out. Mega Cat Studios, an indie creator, prominently features their gaming pledge to promote inclusiveness while telling new and innovative stories.


On the flipside, what does Ubisoft promote on their website? At the time of writing, it’s a holiday advertisement encouraging you to purchase their games. I’m fairly certain Andy Warhol never posted ads begging people to purchase his pieces as holiday presents. This disparity speaks volumes about the difference of intention and values between an indie studio and a big-name corporation.


The Final Verdict


It takes more than a beautiful landscape to make a video game qualify as art, just like it takes more than scribbling on a notepad to create a masterpiece. If a developer’s main concern is to make money and sell copies, that’s perfectly respectable, but it isn’t art. What makes art is the desire to impact the viewer, or player, and leave a lasting impression on them. For this reason, most video game art falls into the indie genre, which has remarkably little concern for how many copies are sold. It may sound unfair to generalize like this, but it’s difficult to imagine an indie designer who would release the same shooter a dozen times.


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