My first taste of this question came about three years ago on a trip to Washington DC, when an exhibit at the Smithsonian caught my eye. Hidden in a side room beyond the fine-tuned regality of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art was an oasis of dim lighting and subtle movement. TV monitors covered the walls, interspersed with an occasional low-key display case. Electronic chirps and the hum of conversation buzzed around the huddled couple of rooms. The whole place felt like an eighties arcade superimposed on the quiet dignity of a museum.
This was “The Art of Video Games,” the Smithsonian’s tepid journey into the mostly uncharted puddle of video games in the art world. I spent an eager couple of hours looking around: colorful screens with audio commentary gave examples of great games from 1980 to 2012. Among them I recognized SimCity, Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Bioshock, Portal, Limbo, and many others. In a second room, five notable games—Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower—sat waiting for visitors to play.
Although I was too blinded by excitement at the time of my visit to criticize the exhibition, I now realize that it was… unambitious. Some critics have noted -- and in looking back I agree with them -- that the exhibit was both broad and shallow. In his review of the exhibit in The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott wrote that the exhibit “does little to underscore what is aesthetically novel about the best games on display, opting instead for inclusiveness and a broad history of their evolution.” In The New York Times, Martha Schwendener said that “the exhibition focuses too much on mainstream commercial video games and stresses too much the evolution toward realism—a paradox, since art has generally and systematically rejected all claims to the ‘real’ in recent centuries.” To me, it felt like the curators’ explanation that went along with short videos of gameplay overwhelmed the games themselves. Rolled into one, “The Art of Video Games” was basically a history lesson.
In retrospect, though, something else about it caught my eye: “The Art of Video Games” asserted that the video games on display were art, but it did so very, very gently. When I looked further into the purpose of the exhibit, I found that the evolution of gaming technology was what they wanted to focus on. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but anyone who sees the title “The Art of Video Games” is probably going to at least wonder if video games are art. The exhibit dodged the question. More importantly, as Kennicott mentioned, it didn’t even ask it.
The famous film critic Roger Ebert took a strong stand on the question two years before “The Art of Video Games” opened. “Video Games can Never be Art,” Ebert argued. “One obvious difference between art and games,” he wrote, “is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Video games are, well, games, and that was a deal-breaker: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”
Now, you would think that a person who has invested his life in a fairly new medium that only recently and with some resistance gained status as art would be open to the idea of another budding form of expression reaching the same status. Nope. At least, not at first.
Ebert received a lot of flak from the gaming community as a result of his article, and eventually, he took back what he said (kind of), opting instead to take the position that games were not art at the time that he was writing—they were unevolved, still just “games.” I, for one, am glad that he brought the issue to light, even though I disagree with him. The big problem I see with Ebert’s criticism is that the word “art” is next to impossible to define. You could reach out to any number of respected figures throughout history and they’d give you any number of responses. I think Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace (so he’s smart), shows the diversity of opinions of what art is pretty well. “Art is not…the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not…a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and humanity.” Heavy.
Does any part of that quote seem to relate to video games? The most overt reference is that Tolstoy says, precisely, that art is “not a game.” However, he also says that art is a “means of union,” which contemporary multiplayer games (with their complex rules and interaction) are. Tolstoy died in 1910: years before electronic computers existed -- a “game,” as he refers to it, would be something along the lines of tag or checkers. No story. But today, video games have outpaced their name. A game can now be more than a game.
So here’s the real question: Are video games capable of doing what art is supposed to do? If they are, who cares what form they take?
As I mentioned before, there is no unified definition of art. However, it seems fair to say that the “artsy” type of art, the kind Ebert would take seriously, revolves around making the observer think. I mean, that’s why we put paintings in museums: to be seen and thought about. In English class, you think about literature. Ebert himself wouldn’t be so famous if he wasn’t so good at thinking about films.
Lots of games can do that, at least a little. Much like film in its early years, video games have gradually become more complex, more capable of conveying a message. They are far from where films are now, sure, but they’re on the same road.
Let’s go back to 1993. The action strategy game Cannon Fodder drew criticism from the British Daily Star for using the logo of a flower that closely resembled the remembrance poppy, along with the game’s release on Remembrance Day. The Star assumed Cannon Fodder was mindless entertainment. It was not. From the uncharacteristically upbeat theme, to the individually named soldiers, to the satirical “Home : Away” sports bracket representing the death toll on each side of the war, to the gravestones of each and every soldier who dies in battle, it is abundantly clear that Cannon Fodder has a strong anti-war message, conveyed through what most saw as a medium orbiting around the glorification of war. The poppy-like flower was, contrary to expectations, a genuine tribute to fallen soldiers. The message was pretty straightforward, but the game itself was…art.
There’s another component to the progress of video games toward art: the people making the games are more willing to create art.
As development tools have become more accessible, independent video game studios have sprung up alongside larger companies. Unlike their larger counterparts, independent developers are not (necessarily) constrained by the same creative limitations as designers working at big companies. Indeed, countless indie games have showed tremendous promise and creativity. Braid allows the player to turn back the clock whenever she makes a mistake. The Stanley Parable features a solitary office worker being directed by an in-game narrator (who you don’t necessarily have to listen to). That’s not to say that big companies haven’t hinted at increased complexity too: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is a gut-wrenching emotional experience from start to finish. Far Cry 3, released by Ubisoft, dips into parody territory with its exaggerated portrayal of common action game tropes.
With titles like these showing their faces, it’s only a matter of time until even Tolstoy would recognize the best games as art. Ebert said, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” I say: Yet.