The question of games as art is one that has been ground pounded to death, and ostensibly has imprinted a resounding yes into the cracked earth of the toil. The recent court ruling in the medium’s favor and the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games has helped solidify this claim. An important question was left mostly unanswered by gamers and one Roger Ebert (an infamous detractor) posed: Why do we care so much about defining games as an art form? Yes, of course, games should enjoy the rights the first amendment provides other mediums. However, if we consider the benefits afforded through artistic categorization, one reason sticks out like the marker for your next objective: To justify an activity that is generally perceived as a waste of time. While other arts are often entertainment, they’re also imbued with implicit self-enlightenment. The consumption of great art is rarely seen as unproductive. The reason being that, in theory, through this consumption one should learn something about oneself and the world we live in. You rarely see a parent yell at their child, “Stop reading that book; it’s a waste of time!” Of course there are examples of shitty literature, film, etc., but even the worst examples within those mediums are more culturally significant than the majority of games. Hell, Twilight has more to say about human relationships than 98% of video games. How do games expect to be taken seriously when a story about a teenage girl falling in love with a vampire covered in glitter speaks more effectively about the human condition than almost any game in our canon?
Essentially, the issue with (some) games as art is not a definitional one but a qualitative one. In other words, it’s not whether games are art but whether they are good art. There is a cliché that art is a mirror reflected against humanity. That being said, ask yourself, what has Super Mario reflected about humanity? Not much. Although one could argue that the game reveals the patriarchal ideology of a society through its gender dynamics or that it teaches us about heroic notions of perseverance. The hitch in these assertions is that the player isn’t really left with those ideas after playing the game and we are well aware that those notions don’t co-align with or spew forth from the game’s rules. Even if one were to take these readings seriously, any further digging isn’t really possible as the game’s potential themes are quite one dimensional. Of course, many of you could list some RPG, or the like, that does otherwise. However, these themes are usually expressed through other mediums like film that usually contradict the gameplay. Furthermore, games with a story, no matter how profound, do not make games good art. Art doesn’t necessitate story. There’s plenty of incredible abstract art that isn’t a vehicle for narrative and doesn’t have to justify its artistic worth. Games need to embrace their identity and the unique strengths the medium provides: Summed up (all too easily) as interactivity.
Most games fail at the task of communicating to the player in a way that is solely unique to the medium: player interaction. Games are not even conveying their tutorials, let alone their message, through utilizing what defines video games as its own medium. This means less reliance on cinematics, text, or any “passive” conventions from other mediums to tell story, and more emphasis on player interaction as a storytelling mechanic. The Half Life series is the go-to example. Otherwise, one could remove the cut scenes or script from a game, turning a game’s story into a film or text, leaving the gameplay essentially meaningless and without context.
All recognized art forms are established because they offer their audience an experience that can only be had through that medium. Literature provided the reader with linguistic representations of thought and the novel. Film differentiated itself through utilizing montage, editing, and creating its own unique aesthetic devices: the dolly zoom shot, etc. Video games must do the same. Interactivity seems to be the messiah that will solidify games as art. This notion though well-meant is a bit perfunctory, assuming that no art before was interactive. Anyone who has ever seriously dealt with a Shakespearian sonnet or analyzed a Kubrick film would hardly call those pieces of art passive. They are not interactive in the sense that you control outcomes and inputs, but to be experienced properly require serious personal engagement. In actuality performativity is usually what’s being touted as game interactivity: The performance of a role in the narrative or the performance of actions embedded in the art work that’s necessary to experience the art. This type of specificity is important, as it opens up new avenues of thought and furthers notions of interactivity. Performativity is especially relevant to narrative focused games, which allow people to virtually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, a strength that should not be overlooked.
In terms of narrative games, if the story doesn’t work in conjunction with gameplay, the potential for the art of games is lost. The gameplay and narrative must be intimately intertwined. The goal is to reduce ludonarrative dissonance, a seemingly convoluted word that simply means that the gameplay, a game’s rules, contradict or don’t match up with a game’s narrative. The best way to avoid this is what both Jonathan Blow and game critic Yahtzee Croshaw have stated as a coupling of gameplay and narrative. Two less mainstream, but incredibly important examples are Anna Anthropy’s Dsy4ia and Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life (both which are free and entirely change ideas of what games can be). The gameplay of both games reflects what is happening thematically and narratively. In other words, form and content reinforce one another. The result is something more powerful than each element could do on its own. Dsy4ia for instance has you perform different parts of Anthropy’s experience of being transgender and undergoing hormone treatment. This is an incredibly unique experience. Moreover, to perform the struggles and triumphs of her transformation as translated into gameplay can be transformative for the player. Both these examples may not rid themselves completely of ludonarrative dissonance and still tell their stories through text. But they are a step in the right direction for narrative and gameplay to function as one and subsequently inject game rules with meaning.
I’ve focused on game narrative, as many do, because storytelling is a form that is so engrained that it’s easy for us to understand. However, games DO NOT need a story to be “artful” or profound. Games have the ability to produce a wide range of emotions and expressions through gameplay (look at Journey). Game designers have known this for years, but until this age has mostly been used to stroke the ego of gamers with controlled illusions of accomplishment because it sells. Undoubtedly, designers, especially in the indie space could offer players other possibilities. The recent emphasis on emergent gameplay is another interesting opportunity, creating gameplay systems that enable unique player narratives to arise. The point is that there are ways to make our games better, more “artful” in ways that embrace play and avoid turning to other forms for artistry.
It’s important to concede that interactivity is not enough; multiplayer, racing games, and RL sports are interactive games. Yet, these games wouldn’t be considered high artistic expressions. To achieve a higher level of artistry, gameplay must have some signification: Some feeling or meaning. In this way, games can present the player with an message that can be only communicated through the medium. This does not mean games should give up borrowing from other mediums, but that those appropriated techniques should be married with the gameplay, so that they work in tandem. I’m not saying that all games need to be profound. There’s room for all kinds of games. However, we should expect and design games that utilize the medium’s distinct strengths. This is the path that developers and gamers should head for, that is, if we are truly serious about substantiating our assertion that games are art. There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but the objective should be the same: Make the medium its own.