In 2010, film critic Roger Egbert penned an article titled, Video games can never be art, where he argued that because video games have the objective of winning, they differ from art so fundamentally in their purpose that they should never be confused as such.
But is he correct? Is his method of measurement even valid as a critique? And what is art anyway?
So, that’s pretty loaded to begin with and a lot to unpack in order to get to anything resembling an answer. Let’s begin with the basic question: what is art?
A look in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary states art as “the various branches of creative activity concerned with the production of imaginative designs, sounds, ideas, etc. (e.g., painting, music, writing, etc.). A quick search online gives a definition of “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Essentially, art is a creative endeavour that is meant to provide an experience, evoke a reaction or reveal a truth about the self or society.
Within this broad definition, it is simple to look at the overall wealth of video games throughout their history and say it fits.
Let’s circle back to Egbert and his view that video games are meant to be won. This is true to many a game, but the idea of winning is still an experience.
In literature, we learn from a very young age that a story is constructed of an introduction, rising action, a climax, a denouement and a resolution. Through books (an art form mentioned by Egbert), readers are captivated and go through a series of emotions before reaching a catharsis.
The same is true of video games. They are stories that are meant to grip the gamer and keep them engaged until the end. The concept of winning is irrelevant; it is an experience regardless of whether a winner is needed or not.
But there is a stark difference between literature and movies when compared to video games. When catharsis is reached in a book or film, the audience feels elation for the character. When catharsis is reached in a video game, the gamer feels elation for themselves.
Video games are an art form where the participant (not the creator) expresses their experience with personal pronouns. After reading Lord of the Rings, we don’t say “I saved Middle Earth!” But in playing a video game of the same story, we do.
But what about art where the experience is more personal, abstract and less scripted. Viewing a painting or sculpture or listening to music still has a progression of experience. However, these mediums may be more open to interpretation.
That can be argued as a limiter to video games; their experiential path is often scripted within the confines of their story. But while a constraint, it is not an exclusion. Paintings and music are also limited in that we have to experience them from outside the art itself. Video games are immersive and are experienced from within.
Where critics such as Egbert go wrong is in the argument that art must be some highbrow, elitist venture. Even in his article, Egbert concedes that some video games may be art, but that they are low art.
So, what is low art? Is it what the French of the mid-1800s thought of Impressionism? To them, that was low art, an art form so destructive that it was believed at the time to be inherently and morally damaging to French culture.
But today, it is one of the more renowned schools, giving birth to the likes of Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
If it moves you, it can be art. If you are engaged, it can be art. If it reveals, it can be art. If it does none of these things to you, it can be art because it may be for someone else.
To restrict or place limits on the definition of art is unnecessary. If you enjoy it, keep at it.
And that goes too for enjoying the art of video games.
By Nathan Durec