The Continued Debate Over Video Games As Art - Aesthetics Week

By Mark Falanga

Photo courtesy of Mark Falanga.

At this point in society, if something is 40 years old, it’s considered outdated or obsolete. In 1973, cars didn’t have airbags, computers occupied an entire room, and you had only three choices of arcade games. They were Galaxy Game, Computer Space, and the classic Pong. The games were primitive and only came in two colors, black and white, on the screen. But since the machines were attracting a great deal of attention (not to mention lots of quarters), innovation was needed to improve the experience for gamers.

Upgraded graphics, improved sound, and longer gameplay were all used to enhance the medium. As their popularity grew, the budgets of the gaming companies got higher. So high in fact that games like 1994’s Wing Commander 3, which featured actors such as Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, and Tim Curry, used video footage interlaced with the gameplay to make it seem like interactive cinema. That game is not alone in attracting big names. 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City hired a Hollywood A-list cast featuring Ray Liotta, Tom Sizemore, Burt Reynolds and Dennis Hopper, just to name a few. So it would seem that since the form of entertainment is garnering so much attention from the artistic world, that it would be readily accepted as a new form of art. Well, not so fast.

In a post made on his website in 2010, the late film critic Roger Ebert commented that video games could “never be art.” His reasons were actually quite basic. He wrote, “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.” Despite this belief and the title of his post, he didn’t feel that the medium will never be art. It will just take several decades to evolve to the artistic level, and that no one from the present will be alive to see it.

Needless to say this didn’t sit well with the gaming community. In fact, over 4,500 responses, mostly disagreeing with his assessment, forced Ebert to write a contraction saying that he should have never written about it. He said that he would never write a review about a movie he’s never seen, so he shouldn’t write a review of video games in general since he hasn’t spent a great deal of time with them.

But gamers don’t need a legendary film critic to say whether or not the games they play are art. Consider the case of the 2010 Nintendo Wii game Metroid: Other M. In the game, the hero, a young woman by the name of Samus Aran, investigates a distress call on an alien world. The action, controls, and overall gameplay were highly praised. Even the elements of boss battles and finding hidden rooms and secrets were very well liked. But there was one aspect of the game that gamers did not like about this subject…the story. Many reviewers voiced their displeasure of the story as their first topic when they reviewed the game. Others said the dialogue set up the future’s worst soap opera. But it seems odd that a game is so criticized for its story, rather than gameplay. It almost sounds like a film review, rather than a game review, which is something that Roger Ebert has a great deal of expertise in.

To get better insight on this subject, BTR spoke with Angel Correa, the owner of The Game Gallery, a video game store in Easton, PA and his employee, Matthew Ellis.

When asked if video games were considered art, Ellis responds, “Well, there are a number of people out there who don’t consider films as pieces of art.” He would then go on to explain that among the zeitgeist, only theater, sculpture, and painting are considered true art forms. But as to whether or not video games can be included in this, Ellis believes so.

“The one thing that video games have over other pieces of art is the interactivity level,” says Ellis, “which is something I believe can go way beyond a movie or a book.”

So why haven’t video games been accepted already? Correa feels that the labeling placed on it since the 1980s is to blame.

“When Nintendo first came out it was labeled as a toy,” says Correa, “it was seen as childish if an adult was playing video games.” He is not alone in this belief. In fact, according to The Telegraph, the median age for a video game player is 37-years-old, not just teenagers. In fact, parents said they play a video game with their child at least once a week.

So it seems that video games are slowly entering mainstream, but are there any games that can truly be called works of art? “One game that enters this discussion every time is Shadow of the Collosus,” says Ellid. In fact, this game was mentioned by Roger Ebert when he printed his retraction letter as being the closest game to an unassailable masterpiece. Ellis obviously agrees and says that the story, music, and gameplay make this game a true work of art.

When asked this same question, Correa responds, “One game comes to mind for me and that’s Odin Sphere, It’s beautifully drawn…the game is literally like playing a watercolor painting every time.” He also mentioned the game Mirror’s Edge and how it combined elements of pop culture, like parkour, into a necessary piece of gameplay.

Yet for those still on the fence as to whether or not video games qualify as art, it’s worth keeping in mind that Ebert didn’t appear to consider himself the more convincing voice in the debate. He may have played the role of worthy antagonizer in helping a budding industry rise to a creative challenge, but realized inevitably that keeping an open mind meant that knowing that one day, there will be more than museum exhibitions to prove the medium is a true art form.

If you can’t open your mind to that, then it’s game over.