Are video games art?
I've long been an advocate for this discussion. I've been a video gamer for the majority of my life, both personally and professionally.
When I was younger, a running joke with my classmates during middle and high school is that when a new game came out, I would occasionally miss classes around that time of release. While I can neither confirm or deny that claim, I will note that as a pattern of "remarkable coincidence".
It was several years later, still in those younger days, that friends and I held a handful of heated debates about the importance of regarding the artistic presentation and quality of my industry's craft to our adult peers. One such counter argument was that video games were not art, as "you can't hang them on the wall". That dismissive rationale has always stayed with me, and I never could accept that as a final answer.
Video games have come a long way from the "sub-culture" experience, from being housed in darkened arcades and messy teenage rooms into the mainstream aspect of culture. Even those with limited gaming experience know exactly what the terms "Atari" and "Mario" mean. But is it "art"?
Art has a broad definition. To me, it is a medium that evokes a response. Whether emotional, producing thought or imagination within the recipient, or viewed simply for the sake of beauty. No one questions paintings, sculpture, film, music, or literature, but video gaming has long struggled against that stigma of not being art. No one questions the "validity" of Michelangelo's David, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, or Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite as art because they are not mounted to a gallery wall.
Even film critic Roger Ebert stated back in 2010 that from a "principle" sense, "video games can never be art". But art is also a subjective medium. No person is going to like every composed song, each painting in a museum, or all the books they've read. It's impossible. After much feedback and criticism, Ebert did write a follow-up commentary that he lacked the familiarity with experience of the gaming medium to be able to declare his stance as a final statement.
I've played thousands of games over the last few decades. Some for fun, and admittedly some for a paycheck. There are games that are beautiful to behold, such as Braid, or Myst, or Bioshock's underwater Art Deco inspired world of Rapture. There are some that challenge new ideas, with subjects ranging from social commentary to understanding health issues and the human mind. Others have invoked genuine emotional responses. The somber tone of Aeris' death in 1997's Final Fantasy VII resonated amongst those who played it as a tragic moment in the hero's journey. Unlike books or film, video games give their participants a chance to change the story's narrative.
Video games even allow its users to create their own art. Nintendo has been an advocate of this for the console gaming crowd, ranging from Mario Paint to the Art Academy series, to some talented and competent illustrations created by users in the soon to be defunct Miiverse.
And yes, there are some games that are so unpleasant to experience they seem to advocate putting the joystick down and going outside. Not every game is worth the plastic it's printed on.
Video games are a culmination of several mediums of art: Story, visuals, music, and physical mechanics. They provide a sense of depth and distance. They push new territories of 3D and virtual reality. Games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild bring life and dimension to a fully realized world. Online gaming builds actual community based relationships. There are fully orchestrated concerts celebrating the music of video games. The iconography of games such as Defender and Centipede are recognizable and marketable across multiple generations.
The medium has found some successes over the years. In 2012, The Smithsonian American Art Museum presented "The Art of Video Games", highlighting 80+ games displayed ranging from Pac-Man to Portal. Additionally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has curated a permanent collection of 23 video games including Minecraft and Tetris for display and interaction. In a sign of progress in how far the medium has come, the screens displaying these games are indeed hanging on a wall.
There's still much work to be done when it comes to accepting games as art, as many critics still view their inclusion as controversial. In comparison to other mediums, electronic gaming is still in its infancy. But there is still time to learn from and understand their value.
The best advice I can offer in forming a broader opinion is to experience the medium yourself, or at least really watch someone during a gaming session to see all the elements that come together. My Dad once thought there was no future in video gaming, and yet, as he sat down with me in my bedroom over the years, asking questions and watching princesses get rescued, he realized and accepted that there truly was something more to be found in those pixels and polygons: Together, we created new experiences and memories, albeit digital ones.
With that last observation, I ask you one simple question:
Are video games art?