Few types of media seem to have garnered such turbulent debate on their form as video games. Books and cinema have long stood in the spotlight of artistic appreciation, and television has produced masses of zeitgeist capturing work. But video games being viewed as an art form are often met with scepticism. While mainstream media tars the industry with accusations of promoting violence and damaging childhoods, critics dismiss games as frivolous time-wasters. Yet, despite the stigma that refuses to fade, beneath the surface we see an exciting, developing art form teething and beginning to stand alone. Video games bring new possibilities: both in how we evaluate art, and how we interact with it.
Irrational Games’ Bioshock was a fantastical adventure set in a Ayn Rand inspired uber-capitalist utopia, a kind of underwater episode gone wrong. Through examining the wreckage and cryptic audio logs, the game wove a tight story exploring philosophy, agency, and greed, while the mechanical gameplay itself created a gripping exploration of a rich world. Indie developer Lucas Pope released Papers, Please a game simulating the work of a border control officer in a bloc-esque authoritarian state. This doesn’t sound thrilling, but the pressure builds as you balance getting through enough work to feed your starving family, and tackling the moral quandaries of the individuals whose lives rest on a little green stamp on your virtual desk. Finally, the recently released That Dragon, Cancer by Ryan and Amy Green is a heart-breaking account of the loss of their five year old son, Joel. Players go through the game, finding the news like the Greens did, hearing their thoughts and grief, and having to make some of the same choices that the parents suffered with every day. Through the interaction and immersion video games provide, we experience their story in a way unique to games. All three of these games are completely different in tone, setting, and gameplay, and at the same time they explore powerful themes in order to do what any good piece of art does – give us an experience.
On the other hand, it’s not like the achievements of these games would be diminished if we didn’t class them as ‘art’. Our enjoyment of them doesn’t hinge on the verdict of the public, or even a critic, so should this even be a debate?
The problem is that this debate isn’t just about games, it’s about us questioning what is and isn’t art. It sets a dangerous precedent to cast aside a form of self-expression just because not everything produced passes an arbitrary test for ‘art-ness’. Yes, there are video games that are power fantasies, or mindless entertainment, but this is the case with all mediums, especially in their infancy. We should be embracing the stumbles of the industry finding its feet, pushing the edges of the conceptual spaces in a way that hasn’t been done in literature or film.
As they evolve, more and more video games will challenge our perceptions the way art has done for centuries. Video games are here to stay, and they’re only getting better.