It takes a long time for a new form of art to be accepted as a “true” form of art, whatever that means. Generally when people think of art they think of paintings, literature or sculptures, but art is so much more. For instance, let’s talk about a relatively recent development.
A new technology is introduced that changes the way we view and experience media. It becomes quickly popular due to its revolutionary approach. However, critics attack it for being “a novelty,” “a fad,” or “a toy” that cannot produce true art. I am talking about film.
Film is considered art now, but that wasn’t always the case. When film was first introduced, especially in nickel theaters around the turn of the century, it was viewed as something only kids watched or were distracted by. As the medium grew more popular, it was still held back by its past as something made simply for spectacle and nothing more. While films usually had stories, even in their early years, they were considered too condensed and limited to be compared to something like novels, and the acting was deemed too static and frozen to have the spontaneity of “true” theater acting.
Film was seen as something that had nothing new to offer, other than shallow imitations of other art forms. But a filmmaker and writer in the ‘20s named Germaine Dulac talked about the “essence” and “purity” of film. While a bit overzealous, she talked about how film, unlike any other art form, can visually construct the way the human mind interacts with the world through movement and light.
But I’m not here to talk about film. I’m here to talk about video games. And yes, I believe video games are art. Similar to film, when video games first came out, with Pong, and later with other arcade classics like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, it took the world by storm. But, to the mainstream, it was always considered a novelty and fad, just like film.
Video games almost always had stories as well — dating back to the aforementioned Space Invaders and Pac-Man — though, also like film, they were lambasted for their simplicity and perceived limitations.
Now, I compare video games to film for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the fact that, unlike paintings and music, video games and film are products of the 20th century and both very recent developments.
While all art is necessitated by the introducing new technologies (someone had to invent the paintbrush for instance), film and video games are abnormally bound by it. The problem is, with youth comes perceived lack of importance, which is why video games like Katamari Damacy, Ico and Oddworld, were seen as lacking prestige. These games are beautiful, distinctive and artistic in their designs and play mechanics, but they are scoffed at as either exceptions to the rule or dismissed entirely because they are “games.”
Video games seem to be beholden to other art forms, particularly — and ironically — film, but video games contain a unique, visceral experience. For the most part, video games have followed the narrative techniques of films. Similar to how film began by aping the narrative techniques of novels and plays before growing as an art form because of the non-linear freedom film editing allows, video games seem to have grown into nothing more than interactive movies. They have the same type of forward narrative (with some flashback cut-scenes) that tell a straightforward story, sometimes even stealing some cinéma verityé techniques from film, such as shaky camera and artifacts like lens fare and visible dust on the screen. This is most seen in games that are almost purely cinematic, like L.A. Noire.
However, video games are unique in the fact that they can tell stories through interactivity. Just as film can show us things in a way a novel or play can’t, so too can video games tell a story, or help us experience something, in a way no other form of art can. This can be experienced in games like Portal and The Elder Scrolls, which tell a story through interacting with the environment. In the case of open-ended games like the aforementioned The Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto, the player can change the direction of the story.
Unlike a film, a play or a novel (even those crappy “choose-your-own adventure” ones), video games create an experience that can be immersive and beautiful, like Shadows of the Colossus or the Final Fantasy games (which are worthy of acknowledgment for their aesthetic beauty alone). While a movie can show you new worlds visually, or a novel can make you feel a part of one, a video game can have you do both. You are a spectator and an occupant all at once. Games like the classic Missile Command, which is visceral in its symbolic representation of nuclear war rather than its literal representation, can arouse feelings of anxiety that aren’t replicable with a film or a novel due to the players’ interactivity and lack of complacency to the outcome.
This is not to say that games like L.A. Noire, which follows strict film techniques, are not good games, nor that they aren’t art. Even films take things from novels, plays, music, etc. to create a cohesive piece. The point is video games can stand alone as an art form. Much in the way film can show things visually to create cognitive responses and symbolic logic in the viewer, a video game can do the same with single pixels and the use of interactivity. Pong might be the purest form of videogame art, due to this fundamental simplicity.
There are also games that use narrative techniques of other art forms — such as film, music, and literature — to tell stories of hubris, sacrifice and redemption. Some of the most emotionally or thought-provoking stories in recent memory have involved video games, such as Aeris’ tragic death in Final Fantasy VII, the ethical and moral implications of The Rapture in BioShock, and the feelings of dread and existential angst in the Silent Hill franchise. We now have games that make us feel and think as much as any other work of art. And if thinking and feeling aren’t the sole reasons for art, what are?
So, next time you’re spending 15 hours playing classic and new Mario games, just tell your parents you’re simply appreciating some art.
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