Videogames as art

I still basically agree with this 4-minute video essay I produced way back in 2008:


When the motion picture was invented, critics considered it an amusing toy. They didn’t see its potential to be an art form like painting or music. But only a few decades later, film was in some ways the ultimate art — capable of passion, lyricism, symbolism, subtlety, and beauty. Film could combine the elements of all other arts — music, literature, poetry, dance, staging, fashion, and even architecture — into it single, awesome work. Of course, film will always be used for silly amusements, but it can also express the highest of art. Film has come of age.

In the 1960s, computer programmers invented another amusing toy: the videogame. Nobody thought it could be a serious art form, and who could blame them? Super Mario Brothers didn’t have much in common with Citizen Kane. And, nobody was even trying to make artistic games. Companies just wanted to make fun play things that would sell lots of copies.

But recently, games have started to look a lot more like the movies, and people wondered: “Could this become a serious art form, like film?” In fact, some games basically were films with tiny better gameplay snuck in.

Of course, there is one major difference between films and games. Film critic Roger Ebert thinks games can never be an art form because

Videogames by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires at authorial control.

But wait a minute. Aren’t there already serious art forms that allow for flexibility, improvisation, and player choices? Bach and Mozart and other composers famously left room for improvisation in their classical compositions. And of course jazz music is an art form based almost entirely on improvisation within a set of scales or modes or ideas. Avant-garde composers Christian Wolff and John Zorn write “game pieces” in which there are no prearranged notes at all. Performers play according to an unfolding set of rules exactly as in baseball or Mario. So gameplay can be art.

Maybe the real reason some people don’t think games are an art form is that they don’t know any artistic video games. Even the games with impressive graphic design and good music have pretty hokey stories and unoriginal drive-jump-shoot gameplay. And for the most part they’re right: there aren’t many artistic games. Games are only just becoming an art form. It took film a while to become art, too.

But maybe the skeptics haven’t played the right games, either. Have they played Shadow of the Colossus, a minimalist epic of beauty and philosophy? Have they played Façade, a one-act play in which the player tries to keep a couple together by listening to their dialogue, reading their facial expressions, and responding in natural language? Have they seen The Night Journey, by respected video artist Bill Viola, which intends to symbolize a mystic’s path towards enlightenment?

It’s an exciting time for video games. They will continue to deliver simple fun and blockbuster entertainment, but there is also an avant-garde movement of serious artists who are about to launch the medium to new heights of expression, and I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with.

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