According to the Oxford Dictionary the word ‘art’ is “the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.
So why do so many critics, most notably the infamous and recently deceased American film critic and screenwriter Roger Ebert and gaming’s very own David Jaffe, still assert that video games, the best of which rank among today’s most visually arresting and touching experiences, don’t fit these definitions? The logic goes something like this: When you read a poem, listen to a symphony or view a painting or a sculpture, you’re enjoying an experience that’s inspired by an artist’s vision and prompts limitless reflection in the viewer.
Sure, the swirls of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or the magnificence of Michelangelo’s statue of David can prompt awe and contemplation in onlookers. But should we think any less of sprawling virtual worlds that marry music, literature and graphics into a layered aesthetic experience filled with countless scenes, scenarios and choices open for individual interpretation?
From pioneering efforts such as Another World and Myst to cult classics like BioShock and Ico, games have long used eye-catching imagery and compelling narratives to evoke passion and sentiment in viewers. Other titles, including Flower and Braid, also provide perspective-changing experiences with ample opportunity for introspection.
Touched by the hands of dozens or even hundreds of talented individuals working in concert toward a larger creative vision, each video game is arguably its own self-contained symphony of programming and graphics. From the haunting, shadowed realms of Limbo to the swirling sands you wander in the multi-award winning Journey, these games further reflect the larger creative vision of the designers and directors who personally oversee these projects.
Nonetheless, some critics still maintain that controlling the wind’s passage as it blows through the hills or contemplating one’s own mortality while surveying the tattered remains of a fictional civilization are experiences cheapened by their hands-on nature. What these arguments appear to miss is that the journey can be just as transformative as the endpoint. Whether or not you beat seamy potboiler Heavy Rain matters less than the choices made in pursuit of its serial killer, as each decision can have serious or even fatal outcomes for the lifelike heroes you command.
Despite all this criticism video games have one big proponent of their own, director Guillermo del Toro, who gave an impassioned defense of the medium as a whole. According to del Toro “video games are the comic books of our time”, “It’s a medium that gains no respect among the intelligentsia. They say ‘oh, video games.’ And most people who complain about video games have never f***ing played them”. He continued by saying that video games “are an art form and anyone saying differently is a little out of touch because they are a narrative art form”.
He also listed a few of his favorite games, professing to be “an absolutely devoted fan” of Halo, while also citing the Halo-predecessor Marathon, and calling Ico and Shadow of the Colossus “masterpieces”.
Detractors can rightly argue that not every game technically fits the definition of art, or aspires to such lofty goals. Plenty of titles exist purely as profit-generating vehicles designed to cash in on TV shows, films and mindless pop culture artifacts. But by letting us assume a variety of different roles, experience the world through new eyes and soak up scenarios from a fuller range of perspectives, many of the best games provide room for personal growth and individual interpretation. Capable of great import and splendor, at their best, video games and marry the aesthetic grace of painting, music and sculpture with the depth and gravity of film, literature and stagecraft.
For all the joy and sorrow these titles can bring, it seems a crime to dismiss them because we’re free to experience and interpret them in our living rooms, not some musty gallery or stale confectionary cinema. In the meantime happy purchasing, downloading and gaming!