Videogames as art
If there’s one debate surrounding our industry that just refuses to die (although let’s be honest, there are several) it’s the question over whether or not videogames can be considered “art”. The subject has been debated by film critics, art historians and even established authors in both the traditional art and videogame fields but there has been no firm conclusion on whether videogames should sit alongside sculptures, paintings, novels and movies as established art-forms.
The debate has reared its head again in recent weeks as the Smithsonian, one of America’s leading art museums, unveiled a new exhibition entitled The Art of Video Games. Detailing the evolution of the form through game footage and interviews with key industry figures, The Art of Video Games is one of the first genuine attempts by the industry to establish the form as genuine art.
The exhibition encompasses nearly 250 games in total from classic Atari titles like Space Invaders and Pac-Man to modern-day marvels like Flower and LittleBigPlanet 2. By analysing the use of rapidly-advancing technology and differing methods of storytelling, The Art of Video Games will attempt to argue against the perception that videogames can never be art.
The Oxford Dictionary 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”. Almost immediately games like Flower and Heavy Rain will spring to mind; titles that utilise various creative techniques to evoke a wide range of emotions within the gamer.
Flower in particular is arguably the best example of a video game being released as a work of art. The player controls the wind in order to float a single flower petal through the air, collecting other petals as they do so. The focus is not on gameplay mechanics or complicated controls so much as appreciating and affecting the lush, tranquil surroundings that make up the world in Flower. By collecting petals and approaching groups of flowers, the player can bring new life to barren areas of the world or unlock vast new areas to explore.
Flower brings a unique and innovative approach to gaming; an approach which many reviewers have suggested makes Jenova Chen’s creation not just a game, but a powerful and enlightening experience. Accompanied by a truly mesmerising soundtrack that alters according to how the player is progressing, Flower’s original approach to gaming ensures it accomplishes its task of evoking and arousing various emotions within the player. Could it not, therefore, be suggested that Flower is the perfect example of “the expression and application of human creative skill and imagination being appreciated primarily for its beauty and emotional power”?
Flower is one of the many titles being shown at The Art of Video Games and rightly so. If art is “the expression and application of human creative skill” then the videogame footage on offer at the Smithsonian throughout the summer will go a long way to helping establish the medium as a genuine art-form.
There are of course counter-arguments. In his infamous blog post respected film critic Roger Ebert defied that videogames could never be art. “One obvious difference”, wrote Ebert, “between art and games is that you can win a game. You cannot win a story, a novel, a play, a dance, a film, you can only experience them.” Mr. Ebert makes a salient point; can you truly experience art if you yourself are having an effect on its natural progression and conclusion? Can you genuinely call a videogame art when you have to immerse yourself in and interact with it in order to achieve a pre-determined goal?
This is where I disagree with Mr. Ebert’s opinion and his interpretation of art. For example, take Rocksteady’s BAFTA-winning game Batman: Arkham City and Christopher Nolan’s movie The Dark Knight. By Mr. Ebert’s logic, The Dark Knight can be viewed as art whereas Arkham City cannot, but is there genuinely any less artistic merit to either? Is seeing Batman glide through the metropolis of Hong Kong in The Dark Knight any more artistic than controlling Batman as he glides through the imposing landscape of Arkham City? Should the impressive combat scenes in The Dark Knight be considered a genuine form of art and the incredible combat mechanics in Arkham City not, purely because they are controlled and not merely viewed? Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger won awards for their respective portrayals of the Joker but according to Ebert’s logic, Hamill’s superb performance as everyone’s favourite green-haired homicidal villain would contain less artistic merit than Ledger’s equally frightening characterisation.
The sad truth is that some people will never consider videogames a genuine form of art. Whilst videogames still carry a thoroughly undeserved reputation of encouraging violence and creating a generation of socially-inept children, there are many who will dismiss the credentials of the industry off-hand. For every overly and needlessly violent game like MadWorld there will be another beautifully-crafted experience like LittleBigPlanet. But if a movie (and I use the term loosely) like Saw can be considered a form of art, then why can’t a truly mesmerising game like Flower?
Perhaps the answer lies in that everyone has their own definitions of art. When looking for inspiration, some will spend some time admiring a Picasso painting and others will watch Citizen Kane. When I want to appreciate something for its emotional power and let it inspire me, I sit down in front of the TV and take a trip round Arkham City or revisit the adventures of Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston.
There is no other art-form in the world that can compare.