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Are Videogames Art?

Chi Kong Lui's picture

The following article is an unabridged version published in John Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth Imagine magazine (vol. 10 #5).

Log onto any well frequented videogame-related message board on the Internet, and start a thread with the subject "are videogames art?" Within a matter of minutes, I guarantee you will be deluged with all kind of responses that range from manifesto-like essays to name-calling flames. Many people claim that videogames are just for fun, while others might say that games desensitize their players and encourage them to commit violent acts. Some debate that videogames are nothing but products filled with sexist imagery targeted exclusively at boys. Then there are those who might bring up the immense Hollywood-like undertaking that requires hundreds of writers, artists, and programmers to produce a best-selling videogame in today's market.

Are Videogames Art? - Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912 by Marcel Duchamp

The debate of whether or not games are an art form is a lively one, but it's not unique. The same debate has raged from the early to late 20th century with the Ready-made art objects of Marcel Duchamp to the controversial photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. The debate stems in part from the difficulty of defining art; people hold passionate opinions and subscribe to a wide range of theories. These opinions and theories are often challenged when a new medium or technique appears, and people reevaluate their personal and preexisting definitions of art.

I won't attempt in this article to define art for you. Instead, I'd like to discuss videogames in the context of this debate by juxtaposing contemporary videogames with some traditional masterpieces and illustrate how the evolution of videogames as a creative medium mirrors the growth and maturation of motion pictures. The answer to the question is left for you to decide.

Art vs. Videogames... Round 1... Fight!

Self-expression is probably the most universally accepted characteristic of the fine arts. When Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec vibrantly depicted the seedier underground nightlife of music halls, cabarets, brothels (or more specifically the infamous Moulin Rouge) in Montmartre, Paris in the 1890s, he was giving his audience a voyeuristic glimpse of places where he "hung out." In doing so, he was letting people know how he viewed his own social status and the types of people he associated with.

The public and videogame creators themselves (more commonly referred to as developers) haven't fully embraced the idea that people making videogames should be considered artists, but that hasn't stopped several well-known developers from expressing themselves through their videogames. Shigeru Miyamoto—the Walt Disney of videogames responsible for classics such as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.—has often said that his ideas for games are derived from his most memorable childhood experiences growing up around the rural countryside near Kyoto. Games like The Legend Of Zelda are a reflection of his youthful adventures hiking and exploring the rice fields, river banks, and hills without a map. Miyamoto wanted gamers to feel the same thrill and wonder that he had experienced when he discovered a pond in the fields or explored a dark cave. The childlike innocence of Miyamoto's games is worlds apart from Toulouse-Lautrec's sexual iconography, but both developer and painter are wonderfully effective and descriptive in communicating how their environments influenced their personalities and perception of the world.

Are Videogames Art? - Pablo Picasso's Guernica
Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

Art also has the potential and ability to change the way we look at the world. Pablo Picasso's mural Guernica was a commemoration of an atrocity that occurred during the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, Nazi Germany blanket- bombed the small civilian village of Guernica in Northern Spain for over three hours to simply test its new military air power. By depicting and dramatizing the tragic and grotesque deaths that befell the village, Picasso challenged viewers ideals by deromanticizing the so-called heroism of battle and made one of the most celebrated anti-war/anti-fascist statements in art history. Rather than glorify warfare, Guernica sensitized viewers to its criminal dangers and destruction to mankind.

Are Videogames Art? - Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty (top), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge (bottom)
Screenshot of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty/Konami (top), Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (bottom)
The ultra popular Metal Gear videogame series is not only remarkable for its intense stealth action gameplay, but also because it creator, Hideo Kojima, has used the games to raise issues relevant to our society. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty for the PlayStation 2, the storyline meditates on how the digital age could jeopardize our personal freedoms and the importance of fighting for our identity and history in a global community filled with those who wish to deprive us of it. In the climax of the game, set in New York City's financial district, Kojima redefines our understanding of the statue of Washington that stands on Wall Street. By associating the monument with the plight of his characters, he gives the statue a new historical context and turns it into an icon for overcoming the dangers of tomorrow. The messages in Sons Of Liberty, which predated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are ironically and frighteningly prophetic in the aftermath of the attacks and with the current conflict against Iraq. Picasso and Kojima used their respective creative mediums to voice their views on war and contemporary issues in hopes of changing people's outlook on the subject. The difference is that one used a canvas and the other used a PlayStation.

In addition to self-expression and changing the way we look at the world, art sometimes is pure visual form and beauty. Wassily Kandinsky's abstract artworks were vastly different from Toulouse-Lautrec's documentations of the Moulin Rouge and Guernica's symbolism in that his paintings were the non-objective realizations of his intuitive sense of sight, sound, and spirituality. Being a musician gave Kandinsky a unique perspective on the visual arts, which he strove to express with paintings that had the same psychological effects of music. There was no deeper meaning to the organic shapes, bold strokes, and splashes of vital colors that comprised his compositions; one simply feels the art.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his team of developers are unique from their peer groups in that they are boldly named United Game Artists (UGA) and their title, Rez, is the first videogame to be conceptually and functionally influenced by modern art, and the works of Kandinsky in particular. Although the packaging and instructional manual say the story is about a hacker, like the most revered paintings of Kandinsky, the subject of Rez is non-representational and non-objective. Players engage in a new age version of the sci-fi arcade classic Space Harrier by flying through a world stripped of any sense of reality. Pure vector based lines form landscapes; non-descript polygonal geometric shapes make up much of the targets; and explosions often result in psychedelic flashes of color. The near indescribable on-screen composition is unlike anything ever seen in videogames and must be personally witnessed to be truly appreciated. Rez also fulfills Kandinsky's vision of blending sound and sight by integrating techno dance music with the visuals and gameplay for a true interactive multimedia experience. The difference between Kandinsky and UGA is that the former rendered forms from nature while the latter drew their imagery from computer technology.

The Voice of the Gamer

Are Videogames Art? - Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez (top), Nintendo's Animal Crossing (bottom)
Screenshot of Rez/Sega (top), Screenshot of Animal Crossing/Nintendo (bottom)

What separates videogames from other mediums of expression is interactivity. Most traditional forms of art are viewed statically while games dynamically allow players to become a part of the expression. Popular pro-wrestling games like WWE Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth for the PlayStation 2 provide a Create-A-Wrestler option that allows players to invent a wrestler according to their own vision and place that creation into the thick of the action. In "God" games like Sim City series for the PC, players aren't restricted by a script or path to follow in order to "beat" the game. Instead, players are given tools and challenged to be urban designers in accordance with their own vision and individuality. In Animal Crossing for the GameCube, players are free to decorate their homes as they see fit and can even design their own patterns, clothes, and wallpaper from scratch.

In each of these games, the outcome, whether it's a spandex-clad masked grappler, metropolis-sized city, or a colorful T-shirt, says something about the individual who created it. How much it says about a person is limited by how much freedom is given by the developer, but the big question remains: does something created in a videogame qualify as art?

Before you answer that question, think about this for a moment. You could visit any local arts and crafts store and spend an afternoon creating a ceramic vase, but isn't the vase limited by the spinning wheel that allows you to mold the shape and the kiln that hardens the clay? You could also photograph a landscape and have the pictures developed inside of an hour at the drug store around the corner, but isn't the quality of the photographs dependent on the features of the camera and machine that develops and prints the film? Society has no problem labeling the vase or photograph 'art' in spite of the technology that enables a person to create it, but aren't the technological limitations imposed by videogames the same as those imposed by ceramics and photography? Ceramics and photography have long been accepted by the mainstream as fine arts while videogames are considered high-tech toys. So is it the medium or the creation that makes something art?

The Waiting Game

Are Videogames Art? - Shigeru Miyamoto's The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (top), Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid (bottom)
Screenshot of The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker/Nintendo (top), Screenshot of Metal Gear Solid/Konami (bottom)

Art history shows us that it takes time for the mainstream media and populace to accept and recognize an artist's accomplishments as culturally vital. Toulouse-Lautrec's affinity for depicting prostitutes was taboo during the 1890s. He was more renowned as a draftsman than a painter, and his large assortment of posters and lithographs were too commercial to be considered fine art in his day. When Picasso's Guernica was unveiled at the Spanish Pavilion during the Paris Exposition in 1937, it was panned by critics as the work of a madman and criticized by some as something even a child could create. Kandinsky's spiritualistic beliefs were controversial and clashed with the oppressive and conservative materialist values of the early 1900s—so much so that he organized his own exhibitions to ensure a venue for his paintings.

The Legend Of Zelda videogames are consistently fawned over by "hardcore" gamers and the press alike as an epic and wondrous adventure quest, but few recognize the game as an expression of Miyamoto's childhood and personality. Gamers also largely dismiss Kojima's visionary statements in the Metal Gear Solid games and choose to focus on its convoluted storyline and praise its cutting-edge action movie-like visual and audio presentation. Rez suffered probably the worst fate of the bunch. Unable to bridge the relationship between the game and modern art, fickle audiences were confused by the subjectless gameplay and stayed away in droves. Rez sold so poorly that its publisher, Sega, was forced to pulled the plug to cut financial losses, making the title nearly impossible to find on store shelves and highly marketable on eBay. If art history repeats itself, then it may take several generations before the public begins to see videogames as more than Christmas stocking stuffers for little Johnny and truly appreciate the groundbreaking efforts of developers like Miyamoto, Kojima, and Mizuguchi.

The Motion Picture Connection

It also takes time for the mainstream to accept a new medium as a legitimate form of artistic expression. The evolution of filmmaking closely parallels that of videogames. In their infancy, motion pictures were largely thought of as a novelty and past-time. In 1895, audiences would be literally frightened out of their chairs by the presentation of an incoming train projected onto a large screen. In the early 1890s, people would insert nickels into stand-alone Kinetoscope machines and peek into viewfinders to watch short clips of dancing, juggling, or clowning. Kinetoscopes were the precursors to coin-operated videogames like Pac Man and Space Invaders. Like videogames today, early motion pictures were also thought of as high-tech entertainment products to be sold to the masses.

It wasn't until filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and German Expressionists created films with epic and complex narratives like Birth Of A Nation and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari that audiences began to see films as a legitimate medium for storytelling. Later, avant garde auteur filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Federico Fellini continued to push the envelope of motion pictures and eventually made people recognize cinema as a viable medium for culture and artistic expression.

Are Videogames Art? - D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation
D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation Poster, 1915

Videogames currently seem to be at the Birth Of A Nation stage. Gamers and press are recognizing the technical merits and legitimacy of videogames in being able to convincing convey a story. Popular games like Final Fantasy X, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and The Getaway are good examples of that. Whether videogames will progress to the next 'cinema' art stage is largely dependent on two things. First, developers need to stand up as artists and continue to envision and create new possibilities of expression with videogames. Second, gamers need to see videogames as more than time-wasting stress-relieving outlets and appreciate the efforts of revolutionary developers like UGA and titles like Rez.

Until developers and gamers expect more of themselves and of videogames, the financers and publishers of videogames will continue to clone the latest proven bestseller rather than innovate new ways to challenge gamers intellectually and emotionally. The consequences will be an endless procession of homogenous titles, one barely distinguishable from the next. Unique and pioneering games like Rez will disappear; the diversity of content will continue to dwindle; and the dilemma of whether videogames are art will no longer be an issue because no one will be inspired to ask the question.

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Category Tags
Articles: Editorials   Best Work  
Topic(s): Games as Art  

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