Why video games are art, by William Wang

When one considers the breadth of new media art that has been popularized in the last several decades, a major trend emerges: they’re about big messages. Famous pieces we’ve examined this term, from Domestic Tension to The French Democracy, all have a serious thematic purpose. Rarely are works intended for fun or entertainment considered legitimate “art,” as though fun and artistic merit are mutually exclusive. Consider Roger Ebert’s assertion that “video games can never be art.” These arguments devolve largely into discussions of semantics, essentially claiming that entertainment is not artistic. But this seems to contradict the most basic idea of art: that which is aesthetically pleasing to behold.

After all, when we first learn about and experiment with art we do not strive to achieve certain thematic effects. A child’s first forays into illustration or painting are only explorations of aesthetics. Though no one would seriously consider a stick-figure house high-quality art, it is nevertheless considered art. If that is the case, why would video games be considered non-art to most beholders? (It is important to point out here that by this essentializing the definition of art in this fashion makes the distinction between “art” and “not art” somewhat subjective.) After all, a variety of artistic elements converge in a video game, in the same way audio and visual elements combine in film, which almost anyone considers art today. Consider one of the most acclaimed games of recent years: Starcraft 2. The game is visually stunning, orchestrating the interaction of hundreds of detailed models and animations, with accompanying music and sound. One could argue that while each constituent element constitutes a work of art, the entire composition does not—that it does not create a “whole greater than the sum of its parts” in the fashion a film might. But aren’t video games just interactive films, in a way, to the point where recent games like Call of Duty or Metal Gear Solid 4 have actually been criticized by the video game community for being too film-like?

A battle in Starcraft 2, combining numerous artistic elements in an interactive medium.

In fact, it seems as though the only major distinction between film and games as mediums is the interactivity. And if anything, this interactivity should give a game more artistic merit. In the context of a film, the audience is guided in a specific direction by the director. The supreme court agrees that interactivity does not preclude video games from artistic distinction. If anything, by allowing the audience to take part in the progression of plot, the artist (game studio) simply wields a greater range of options for expressing thematic elements. For example, video games can explore themes of cooperation, risk analysis, or geographies of power (just to name a few) in more visceral ways than other mediums. A film or novel can show us people grappling with issues of cooperation, for example. And this idea is emphasized in fiction writing, to show, not tell. Then isn’t interactivity just taking it another step further, by making the audience experience rather than witness?