Are Video Games art?

Video Games have never been so popular. There are a plethora of platforms which make gaming almost impossible to avoid. Nearly 50million PlayStation 4 units have been sold since releasing 3 years ago, Xbox One has impressive sales figures of over 30million and Nintendo have announced their new console-come-handheld device; the Nintendo Switch. This is, of course, without mentioning mobile phones, Virtual Reality or the juggernaut that is PC gaming. While the video game medium evolves, one question continues to plague video game discourse: are video games art?

Perhaps the question was born from a need for video game culture to be validated in the mainstream. However, the line between the popular mainstream and geeky subcultures is eroding. The term ‘Gamer’ is a disappearing. There now exists a generation of people who grew up with video games. There is no such thing as a ‘Movie-goer’ or a ‘Tv-Watcher’, people simply enjoy these hobbies in everyday life and video games have reached that level. Much of the debate surrounding video games’ artistic value originates from people who are alien to the medium. Roger Ebert, the late film critic, denounced video games as an art form back in 2010 and the debate still rears its head in the media intermittently.

What is important, is that the medium of video games is a platform for artistic expression. Video Games no longer linger in the shadow of movies or television. They can fuse an array of arts like composing, acting, performance, storytelling and cinematography, whilst providing a level of interaction unique to gaming. The successful marriage of these components allow creators to realise their vision in myriad ways. Developers have never had the level of artistic freedom open to them which they have now.

Developers at Naughty Dog are some of the best at making the most of that artistic freedom. Their game, The Last of Us, follows lead characters Joel and Ellie’s trip across America in a post-apocalyptic America after a fungal virus has infected the majority of humanity. The game’s emotional narrative is one of the most resonant in gaming history. The game explores the human condition through emotive themes, with excellent acting and a haunting soundtrack. Unique to gaming, however, the gameplay allows the player to interact with the environment to experience more of the narrative if they choose too. One of the more intimate scenes initiated shows Ellie playing football with Sam in a brief moment of respite for two children in an otherwise unforgiving world. Ellie, a girl born into this desolate world where food is scarce, also remarks upon how skinny a model is in a player prompted conversation in front of a rotting advertisement. These moments prompt intellectual discussion and reflection upon both personal and societal values. Gaming’s best examples of art are those which prompt the kind of intellectual discussion which The Last of Us does.

However, it would be wrong to assert that all video games are art. For every thought provoking title like Inside or Journey, which feature no dialogue and are driven by gameplay, there is a My Name is Mayo. In My Name is Mayo the player must click to tap a mayo jar. That’s pretty much it. The beauty of video games being an artistic medium is that someone could construct an argument for the artistic value of My Name is Mayo. Better yet, you could argue that it does not matter if the game holds artistic value or not.

Ultimately, that is what it comes down to. Video games are an artistic medium, the potential exists for a video game to be defined as art. Defining art, though, is something of a fool’s errand and the debate of whether video games are art or not is a tired one. It might be better to ask why critics feel threatened by the idea of defining video games as an art form. Video games can be art, many games are art but those games that are not, does not make them any less valuable.