There is a stigmata associated with saying I like video games, as if it’s wrong for me to announce my passion. But on the other hand, I’m met with praise and admiration if I say I like art. They’re both one and the same, so what gives?
The first thing someone thinks about when they think video games is usually the classic Super Mario Bros., or more contemporary stereotypes such as vulgar twelve-year-olds playing violent first person shooters a la Call of Duty. However, there’s so much more than the two extremes of the spectrum.
Games are art. I am an aspiring artist, and video games have been, still are, and always will be, the very reason I can even make that claim. The point of the matter is that I might as well tell you water is wet, or that Toby Maguire’s role in the original Spiderman trilogy destroyed the films, because it’s just common sense, and it baffles me that this isn’t widely accepted yet.
What contributes to this argument is that games exist in layers, and each layer all its own is some form of art. The art and design for the game, the music, the storytelling, the directing, and the overall composition accomplish this.
April 20th, 2006. Okami, a video game for the Playstation 2, drops onto western shelves. It doesn’t take an artistically trained eye to see at surface level how this game is art.
Okami was crafted to present Japanese mythology in the most faithful way possible: creating the art style and graphics to resemble Japanese sumi-e painting. But it goes beyond that, as the music in the game is created entirely with traditional Japanese instruments and important scenes are vividly created with real paintings in order to bring the culture to life.
The same year, for the same console, another game dropped. Cue Shadow of the Colossus, another artistic video game. The reason? The feelings it evokes. Shadow of the Colossus does not take on a painting style like Okami, but the atmosphere and the story have taken the gaming industry by storm. This game tells the story of a man simply trying to bring his beloved back to life, even if it means slaying 16 living, breathing mountains. Its story offers moral ambiguity to the player, as each milestone in its plot makes you question if you really are the good guy or not, and it makes you feel a sense of awe as you face off against giants and emerge victorious.
And shouldn’t that be enough? Many would argue that games are not art because the “difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome,” as film critic Roger Ebert writes in an essay. But it is up to you as a player to take away what you want from the experience, regardless of direction.
When you watch a movie, or read a book, your objective is to get from point A to point B, but in games, the sole difference is that you as an individual must invest yourself into the medium and participate beyond simply looking on. You are free to reach your conclusion how you wish.
And isn’t that just the next step in art as a whole?
2010 yielded the Nintendo Wii title Xenoblade Chronicles, and the level of participation it demands from its fanbase is truly amazing. As I played through the game, the world around me was alive and didn’t require me to trigger it. To cite a particular example, an otherwise foggy, swampy area made it difficult for me to navigate through, and normally I would just want to get out of there as quick as possible to progress the story.
But after being told by a minor character that the swamp became “thrilling” at night time, I found it in myself as a player to explore until night fell. And boy was I rewarded. The trees lit up and emitted blue lights, a red mist emanated from the now clear swamp water, and the music changed to a soft, gorgeous new track. It was my decision to explore the world in this game, and my reward wasn’t just some numerical value in the form of some new weapon or item. It was a hidden sight that incited me to explore this world, and regardless of its virtual nature, it proved to me that my interaction with the game’s universe was of my own volition, and my participation would shape my interest in it.
There was something to be found that struck a chord in not just me, but many, and it yielded an invitation to explore not just the game world, but our world as well. It made us players feel something, just like any other art.
Isn’t that all that matters? Whether you’re looking at a painting, listening to a song, reading a book, or pressing a button, if it causes us to feel something beyond mindless addiction, then that alone should explain how games are art. And we should unanimously recognize that already.