Or something like that.
The point: video games aren’t art, or more aptly, they don’t have to be. Not because they lack artistic merit – but because video games don’t really need that moniker.
The connotations of art, then: prestigious, intellectual, worthwhile, invaluable, and something absolutely worthy of preservation, protection and reverence. ‘Art’ is seemingly a word that secures the medium’s esteem with just a single syllable, with people beyond its walls knowing it has value, well, just because, really.
With these associations, it’s not difficult to see anybody would want their favourite pastime or hobby to carry these valued connotations, “Yeah, beer pong is totally art, man. Watch this move – I call it ‘Mona Lisa’s tequila’.”
But with the term ‘art’ comes a selection of negative connotations, too, regardless of the actual truth: elitism, expense, impenetrability, and exclusivity.
For me, though, the core reason the ‘art’ moniker deals such a disservice to our beloved medium is because it suggests one-way expression – it expresses a point of view, an emotion, an experience or a belief. They create, we consume.
So, while ‘art’ might describe so many aspects of game development – of which could be described as a phenomenal intersection of numerous disciplines – it fails to acknowledge a critical differentiating factor: interactivity.
Video games could largely be described as an invitation for players to express themselves in the creators’ creation. Developers provide the tools with which we express ourselves in a way no other medium allows.
That might present itself in the selection of a dialogue option or choice of weapon, character creation and divergent endings. And with that in mind, it could be said that video games simply don’t need the ‘art’ label, a moniker that aims to piggyback on the positive connotations of something really quite different.
In other words, video games have come of age. They’ve grown up. They know who they are and what they want to be. Children copy those around them – friends, peers, parents, even fictional characters – because they haven’t experienced enough to know what they want to be.
And when I say ‘grown up’, I don’t explicitly mean tackling adult themes or the walkly-talky issue-resolution simulations indulged by some modern-day titles. They can be great – but a hacky-slashly-sweary beat ’em up is just as mature. The developers had a vision and went to town on executing it. Even if some onlookers might be quick to accuse it of being ‘teenage’ or ‘adolescent’, the ability to stand strong in the face of those allegations, to me, is maturity – they know what they want to be, regardless of the judgement of others.
Now, video games have already established their own set of connotations, such as interactivity, community, and connectivity. They have negative ones, too, of course, such as addiction, exploitation and isolation.
But it’s an identity all its own.
The flattering case could be made that video games have become such a powerful medium that their introduction to the ‘art’ pantheon would be enough to re-define the term entirely – that video games would mould the term anew.
But it’s difficult to escape the fact I have to download drivers, patches and additional content, not to mention that I need a specific set of hardware, “And here we have Hellblade, a 21st century piece that requires a GTX 980 and 8 gigabytes of random access memory.”
The desire for the title of ‘art’ almost smacks of insecurity, a remnant from the days when video games weren’t quite the mainstream entity they are today.
But if we were happy to embrace the moniker of ‘art – and all the negative connotations that carries – would we have a legitimate claim?
Perhaps it’s not a question of whether or not ‘games are art’ – but whether or not ‘game is art’. A case made on a game-by-game basis, not a case made for an entire medium.
This argument is in part defined by the industry’s adoption of questionable business practices, too. It’s difficult to argue the artistic merit of something designed to encourage spending on what effectively amounts to ‘random, not-real stuff’.
And this isn’t to undermine the phenomenal artistic merit many games carry – all whilst crafting experiences that takes into account player choice and unpredictability. It combines myriad art forms with agency and a mind-boggling volume of technical considerations and limitations.
And yet it feels as though the way we talk about games hasn’t quite caught up to their emerging identity. It perhaps points to failure of video games criticism’s ability to convey what it means to play video games without continually referring to other mediums. Metroid Prime has been described as the ‘Citizen Kane of video games’, highlighting that both represent their respective mediums in their near-perfect form.
It also doesn’t help that the medium often aspires to be cinematic and is oft praised for being so. Praised for being something other than a video game.
Mechanics aren’t easy to convey, either. Shiny graphics, swelling musical themes and celebrity cameos are instantly conveyable in any given trailer – putting mechanics and interactivity in the back seat despite being the single defining attribute of the medium.
It’s that defining attribute – interactivity – that means video games not only aren’t really ‘art’, but don’t benefit from that namesake. As video games continue to grow into their own identity, chasing the artistic dragon feels redundant as the industry will be rendering its own dragon, with the ability to control and manipulate said dragon to your heart’s content.
It might make you pay separately for the ability to fly that dragon, though.