Video Games Are Undeniably Art

Video games are art.

It’s boring, it’s been said, and it’s been argued against. But it’s true. Game developers are this generation’s unnamed Ansel Adams and Andy Warhols. The video games they work to create are their own unique worlds imagined and they bring to life these visions with precise direction and immense effort. By any definition, the entire process is an art form; writers weave a story out of nothing, artists turn barren worlds into illustrated societies, and coders bring it all to life in an interactive formation.

The entire process is undeniably art–almost magically so.

I’m saying things we already know as gamers, but for some reason never admit–at least not out loud or in a tone above a whisper. As much as video games have evolved in the past decade, we haven’t really as gamers. We’ve continued to imply video games are just a release and a hobby; that they’re something cheap and homely, meant to give us a bit of entertainment like a gossip magazine or a soap opera.

Honestly, gamers and their attitudes are why video games aren’t perceived as art–even if we’re why they exist in the first place.

When cornered by famous film critic Ebert back in July, video gamers lined up to argue for their favorite titles as an art form. Unfortunately, their arguments quickly became concessions and admissions of failure. We mostly concluded that games were just beginning to become art, offering up titles like Flower or Braid as proof of the genre’s eventual potential. Much like how if we gave a thousand monkeys typewriters they’d accidentally type a line from Shakespeare, we told Ebert that if we gave a thousand game developers time, they’d eventually create something that might be half of the Mona Lisa. We never even thought that they already may have.

Influential developer Kellee Santiago became a video game apologist when she argued that video games were art because they were like the primitive chicken scratch on a cave wall thousands of years ago. She told Ebert that [games] had a ways to go, but then again, they were just starting their journey–much like the cave drawings1.

And that’s so wrong, so very wrong. Santiago is a smarter woman than I, but her words made apologies where apologies shouldn’t have been made. In my art history courses and studies, I’ve seen the time period of drawings she compared current gaming to–they were inventories of food and people, hunting reenactments, and even battle plans. They weren’t interactive art forms, they weren’t the Source engine and its thousands of ingenious modifications or the way the rain looks in Grand Theft Auto IV. For some reason she implied that videos games aren’t already a high art when they already are. She implied that they were in infantile stages as art and that as gamers we should apologize to Ebert for not having something better to show him of our culture.

Thus our defense of our games accidentally discredited them as a whole. It’s part shame, part cultural stigma, and wholly a polite nature we’ve bought into. Much like how we’re told all gamers are nerds, losers, and virgins; much like how we downcast our eyes a little when we tell people we work in the video game industry; much like how we bite our lower lip when we mention we’re game journalists, we don’t stand up and fight the good fight for video games. We make apologies. We make excuses.

We don’t let them stand alone without us holding them up from the sidelines. Worse, we don’t see that we’re actually holding them back with our words instead.

We let video games be blamed for Columbine, we let video games be degraded by being called less than movies, and we let Ebert tell us that our gaming creations were somehow equivalent to antiquated scribbles on a wall at their very best–even when the artwork created for them is so far beyond that let alone the actual video game. Apologetically, we tell these dissenters that we’re sorry our video games aren’t quite there yet but we’re working on it. We’re working for an approval he will never give us, his last words on the subject on video games that he can agree “that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.” As if games are only art because we experience differently than society at large or we reach hard enough. Why would we drop video games onto this level, seeking approval from someone behind the times?

Confidence, most likely. For some reason, we’re not confident in the games of yesteryear. We’re not proud of this year’s releases, either–as art or otherwise. Instead, we let society dictate what a video game is and what it should be.

But we shouldn’t. As gamers, we should be proud, confident, and certain. Video games are beautiful and ugly and deep and shallow and they stand on their own if we let them–as art, as stories, and as individual worlds both close and far from our own. This year’s releases of 2010 are pieces of art and the year isn’t even over yet; we haven’t even seen Civilization V or Fallout: New Vegas.

In this year alone, Mass Effect 2 brought a galaxy to life that rivals Star Wars. StarCraft 2 created one of the most strategic multiplayer sequels of our time, a modern love song to the game of chess. Final Fantasy XIII, for all its flaws in the ludic and narrative sense, painted the prettiest pictures our generation has yet to see. And Red Dead Redemption captured a time in America when the prairies expanded endlessly, not unlike how entire art movements critiqued centuries past and their political landscape for a few immature laughs.

But to admit that ME2 is on the level of Star Wars and that a good SC2 match takes as much skill as chess to perfect, we would have to first admit that the timeless are not immortal. We would have to admit that cultural icons and their significance are always changing. We would have to admit that art is an imitation, that everything has been done before many times over–that movies imitate stories from Shakespeare’s time and that video games can do it just as well in their own, different way. Sadly, this is something that’s easier to do decades later as an afterthought rather than a contemporary declaration.

Admitting that Far Cry 2 was our generation’s look at Apocalypse Now from the 1970’s which was in turn that generation’s look at Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad from the 1900’s, would be admitting that our generation looks through the lens of a controller and a console. It would be admitting that our Kurtz is created by Clint Hocking instead of Conrad or Coppola.

I’m not afraid to admit that. I’m also not afraid to admit that I’m a video gamer, I work in the video game industry, and I write about video games for fun sometimes. I don’t mind calling video games art–a high form of art at that–or saying that Half-Life and its sequels are as important to our culture as the works of Dante even if you don’t particularly like them. I believe that John Carmack, creator of the id engine, is a modern day Renaissance man. And one day, I will work on a video game that I believe in and I will tell you that this is art and you will agree without question.

But for now, I’m just going to tell you on my blog that games are art and video game development is an art form. I’m only twenty-three, I can afford that luxury–just like how Ebert is nearing seventy and can afford to avoid playing video games.


1. The post in which a lot of the apologies happened. Many posts–while disagreeing with him–said gaming was reaching art or becoming art, rather than acknowledging they already are art.
2. Post was inspired by hearing lately about how video games are just starting to be an art. Initially didn’t want to post about it in a sea of posts, but after a month of retrospect, find myself with words still to say about the whole incident.