Should video games be considered art? The very question itself is sure to draw some eye-rolls and a few groans from folks imagining a room full of academics, looking down their noses, guffawing about their elite knowledge and cultural taste. But perhaps the question is worth another look, not out of some desperation to please cultural elites; rather because it opens us up to the power games possess, because it raises our awareness of the unique role they can play in our lives. Of course, the reason we play games is intensely personal; no one motivation is superior to others.
First, a more important question: are you enjoying yourself? If so, then whatever your answer to today’s discussion question may be, you’re playing games right. But for a brief moment, let’s consider how games might be considered not only art, but high art.
While the technical question of what constitutes art is best left for experts, perhaps we can all agree that at a basic level art should inspire, should challenge or move us to rethink ourselves, our relationships, or our world; and in so doing, to become better. Consuming or sharing in art should help us understand ourselves at a deeper level, even if that simply means connecting with emotions or feelings we sometimes avoid.
Traditionally, visual arts like film, painting, and photography have all been recognized as performing these roles in our lives; but what if video games do all of these and more? Nathan Deardorff, writing for Forbes, explains:
“There is no other medium where the audience or person experiencing it empathizes with it so heavily that they use personal pronouns when describing what they experienced. They are not merely reactionary. No one reads a book or watches a movie and claims that they themselves harpooned Moby Dick or defeated the soviet boxer in Rocky IV. But when a player talks, they might say something like, ‘I unlocked the chest and found the treasure,’ or ‘I beat the boss, but the princess was in another castle, so I had to keep going.’
Playing a video game takes us through the fourth wall; we no longer sit as observers, we join in the production itself. If courage is needed in facing a dark foe, we are its source. If deliberations are needed about who must be saved, we are the ones weighing moral outcomes and pulling the proverbial trigger. No photography, no film, no piece of literature puts those who consume such art so fully in control of the outcome.
Of course, there will always be games that exist simply to ease our stress, to make us laugh or let us rage against pixels and sound as we mash buttons. I for one will always keep a good First Person Shooter in my life for the days I need to let off steam. (And who’s to say that isn’t a kind of art as well?) But there are other games that hit on a deep level, and leave the player feeling a sense of joy, melancholy, nostalgia, or contemplation on the level of any great piece of art. Games like Coffee Talk, Child of Light, or Gris let us connect with our humanity at a deeper level and take us on a journey. Perhaps such games will one day be honored in museums alongside the great paintings and sculptures of the old masters.
Or perhaps, a game is just what you make it.
Tell us what you think. Should video games be considered art? What games do you feel most fit within that categorization? Share your ideas and reactions in comments below or join the conversation on our Discord.