The debate on where to classify Video Games has existed for at least the last 20 years. The 1990s saw video games largest evolution moving from mostly simple objective based games to narrative propelled romps in our collective imagination. In the 2000s, games continued primarily on this tract refining their narratives and compositions to the point where we now have video games like Portal and Bioshock. While they were artistically growing, video games also started to become a huge business. According to NBC news, Grand Theft Auto V made 1 billion dollars in just three days. So what exactly are video games now? Are they works of art that should be celebrated, respected and studied? Or are they simply expensive toys created to make their distributors rich and their customers happy?
Since video games have added voice actors, writers and composers many people now compare them directly to movies. The comparison is not unfounded as both industries require a large amount of creative people to work together in order to publish whatever work they’ve chosen to produce. So why is it that movies are deemed art but video games have yet to be fully embraced as such? The late great film critic Roger Ebert had this to say on the subject, “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome”. Some people, “might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them”. According to Mr. Ebert video games cannot be art because they have objectives. That seems to mean that by extension any film or documentary with any sort of meaning behind it is not art. Furthermore Mr. Ebert seems to be a descendant of Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism movement which believed art should only exist for it’s own sake. This school of thought has a lot of problems though as art is almost always made more powerful with purpose. Although Mr. Ebert was certainly a smart man; he seems to have been unaware of how deeply video games can affect those who play them. Last summer’s big release The Last of Us is a prime example of a game you ‘experience’. The creators knew what story they wanted to tell the entire time. The player has little to no input on the outcome, except that they have to make it through the game to view the ending. So it seems that Ebert’s comments do not hold water and video games are certainly still in the running to be called art.
That said one huge controversy does seem to point to video games being a business and not art at all. Those of you who played the Mass Effect franchise are certainly familiar with the outcry that occurred over the games ending. Accusations of false advertising were thrown at Bioware and people even sent the studio disparaging cupcakes representing the game’s disappointing ending. If you keep up with video games you couldn’t escape the madness after Mass Effect 3’s immediate release. The creators initially defended the ending as their artistic vision but they soon collapsed under the weight of fan demands and altered the ending to better accommodate people’s expectations. Unfortunately in doing so Bioware erased their own artistic integrity and showed that even artistic games like Mass Effect were subject to the whims of consumers. Even the worst movie ending is never changed to sell more tickets but it seems that is not the case with video games. So they are a business right? Hold your horses! The argument is not over yet.
In order for video games to be considered an art form they really need well established critics who will judge titles impartially. Unfortunately the video game industry has yet to establish this. The closest thing video games have to a recognized awards body is the Spike Video Game Awards (or VGX as they are now called), which almost every gamer will tell you are a complete joke. They almost always name the year’s most popular game as Game of the Year. The show also suffers from a serious lack of ceremony as it comes closer to Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards then the Oscars…heck it’s not even as good as the Golden Globes and that’s saying something! The internet is full of people who believe they are experts on the video game industry, like me, but most of these people really have no credentials. In order for video games to be considered an art form they need qualified and unbiased critics! These should be current or former members of the video game industry. These critics can then come together and vote for the best games in varied categories . Until then video games will not be considered an art form on the whole.
So it seems that video games are a business right now. They have not achieved serious recognition as an art form outside of a vocal minority. Furthermore, video games can be affected by their consumer’s demands and the industry lacks an objective group to critique them on a yearly basis. That said if you take a video game as it’s parts and not the sum of it’s parts, you can certainly find a huge amount of art. Every animation is a work of art, every musical score, every background and every voice acting track. Just look at the various art books that come with video game Collectors Editions these days. It is certainly a strange situation but in my personal opinion I believe that there is really no way you can consider movies art and not consider video games art as well. Really video games have more of a right to be considered art, as they actually contain literal art work within them. Perhaps this is why there have been a few art shows involving the actual art in video games. Hopefully, in a few years, the industry will obtain more advocates and be considered in higher artistic regard. I will just have to work on making the vocal minority even more vocal until that time.