Can Videogames Be Art? Of course! But They’re Far More Than That.
Video games have been, for quite a while now, a popular medium for expression. But the age-old question always arises: are they art? Hundreds of years after painting and sculpting survived this debate, and decades after film and TV weathered it, video games are the newest form of entertainment to barge through years of preconceived notions to convince the world that they belong in the same realms as the aforementioned media.
With a solid foothold in the world of popular culture, it’s not a question of if, but rather when video games will be accepted into the same echelon of cultural consideration as other forms of art. Gamers clearly don’t need to be convinced, but people who can’t see past the 10-year-old versions of Call of Duty and the rudimentary application of the art form in something like Space Invaders will likely need more convincing. But the consensus is clear from gamers: we think games are art.
What makes this conversation even more interesting is the breadth of space which video games occupy. Games span experiences far broader than what we typically associate with the production of television or film. Perhaps the most similar comparison can be made between producing a dramatic television show versus a sports broadcast, each of which requires a similar set of skills, but where the end result is quite different.
In quite a short period of time, games have matured. The medium and the understanding that the general public has about it has evolved an incredible amount. Releases of games like The Last of Us, God of War, and other mature games that emphasize story and character have demonstrated to attentive detractors that games can be something more narratively enriching than junk-food shooters.
But to say that those types of shooters have only the depth of what outsiders considered them to have 10 years ago is to do a disservice to their impact on popular culture. Even using the “junk-food” pejorative fails to capture a sector of gaming that has matured into a visceral experience with enrapturing gameplay. More importantly, they have birthed the flip side of the videogames-are-art coin: esports.
Now, there’s a vast array of competitive games that can be played at a competitive level. Tournaments can draw tens of thousands of in-person viewers, with tens of millions more watching via live stream. The largest esports event (a League of Legends competition in 2018) ticked in at 60 million viewers, two-thirds of the audience who watched the 2020 Superbowl.
In this way, videogames are unlike any other entertainment medium. Their breadth is unparalleled. In what we define as being under the same umbrella of entertainment we find drama, comedy, sports, puzzles, and pure interactive joy. Experiences ranging from Uncharted to No Man’s Sky, from NBA 2K to Death Stranding, Fortnite to Minecraft. At their most basic levels of interactivity, these games are totally different, but they all fall into the same category that is video gaming.
Games can be incredible interactive art pieces or competitive experiences in the form of shooters and other genres. Many games are able to do both: a game like Fortnite accomplishes both by being an extremely competitive online game with a cartoonish, genre-defining creative art style.
Where books can describe a topic in grand detail, giving only the exact information that the reader needs, videogames can offer a vast opportunity for exploring different kinds of interactivity. Movies follow a similar format to each other, which makes them recognizable as movies. It’s the deviation between the lines that can make a movie unique or bland, spectacular or boring. Similarly, music, by definition, is a purely auditory experience that can vary greatly, but always comes back to the same 7 notes which repeat to the boundaries of human hearing.
Games don’t have the same rules to follow. They consider not just the output that the consumer ingests, but also the input that the consumer puts into an experience. That duality opens up a broad range of opportunities in storytelling and interactivity that are otherwise unavailable. They also offer a broad range of capabilities that other genres of media can’t contend with. There is no distinct, typical time that must be put into a game. There is no expectation for the cadence of a scene, for the acting to be typical; or even for there to be any acting at all. Games can be literally anything that provides an output to some input. And in having that vast array of opportunities to explore, games have become an unstoppable medium.