By Jon Sandoval (Duke ‘22)
Are video games art? This been a question that I have had for so long, but I have failed to find a definitive answer for. I searched the internet for a textbook definition of art, rather than my own interpretation of it. For the sake of argument, art will be defined as: “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects” (Merriam-Webster). Using this as the foundation of the argument allows the conversation a bit more nuanced, so I will divide my argument into sections. First, I will discuss the case of developing video games from the perspective of a developer. Afterward, I will discuss the creative opportunities video games provide gamers. Finally, I will discuss what this means and the future of artistic expression through video games.
Video games have grown a significant amount since their first conception in the 20th century. The first video game is believed to be developed by a physicist named William Higinbotham in October 1958. We’ve gone from the first game, which was basically an early version of pong, to vast open-world games. Technological advancements like the miniaturization of computers, three-dimensional graphics, and high-resolution displays have led to what we now know as video games.
Some of the most intense and emotional narratives I have consumed have been in the form of video games
With these capabilities, especially now in the 21st century, modern video games require multiple forms of artistic expression and decision-making throughout the development process. This could be in the form of narratives, the design of the environment, and acting performances. Some of the most intense and emotional narratives I have consumed have been in the form of video games. Three games I will die on this hill for are God of War and The Last of Us (Part I and II). Not only do the cutscenes provide emotional moments that continue to invest players in the story, but the difficulty of gameplay throughout makes those narrative payoffs all the more enjoyable. Even in the gameplay, characters’ fears play a part; one character in The Last of Us Part II has a fear of heights which, in the game, is expressed as a cool dolly zoom effect when the player looks down at points of high altitude. While these games and others like it give players the option of modifying the difficulty, I find that increasing the difficulty makes the experience more immersive.
However, not all games need a straightforward narrative like the previously mentioned examples. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a much more flexible experience. This flexibility allows for each player to make the story whatever they want it to be. Since it starts as a blank slate for the main character, the player can make the story into whatever they want it to be. Solving puzzles with what seems like an exploit, or advancing to the final boss at the beginning of the game seems wrong and a break from the norm, but it is fully the intent of the game. Anyone can use the tools at their disposal to find solutions to the problems the game creates, which is what makes the game such a work of art. Other than its art direction, with beautiful music and scenic environments, the creative freedom it gives players is art itself. It enables them to make their own unique narrative.
I used multiple games that have changed the landscape of games, and all of them have also happened to win Game of the Year awards. I could use up all this space to describe what I love about them, but this is about how video games are art. The examples listed were only to strengthen my argument and put into perspective why my beliefs are what they are. These games are arguably pieces of art in multiple facets, made possible by years of development and collaboration from character models, scriptwriters, voice actors, and many more. Some games even use mocap (motion capture) suits, similar to those used in movies! If the different parts of a video game can be argued to be art themselves, the combination of these individual parts should not change that. What makes video games a unique art form is that, while the developers are the ones who compose the initial art form, it also includes the gamer as part of the art, especially with games that enable their users to create art themselves.
Games like Dreams and Super Mario Maker enable players to make video games themselves. While the latter is limited to the format of 2D Super Mario games, Dreams gives players tools such as creating characters, making music, and adding voice acting. This lowers the barrier of entry to developing games for those who may not have programming experience or the knowledge needed for utilizing gaming engines. The creative limitations provided by sandbox games such as Dreams or Minecraft enables players to be experimental with their environment. In a way, this is similar to confining artists to specific art styles, like a painter using a limited set of brushes on a new piece.
Imagine sculpting a 10 ft statue with haptic feedback to feel the chiseling of stone, or even doing it with AR
With the addition of new technologies, the definition and creation of video games are going to change drastically. Dreams in VR? Imagine sculpting a 10 ft statue with haptic feedback to feel the chiseling of stone, or even doing it with AR! The possibilities are endless, and the recent developments in video games are lending themselves to sticking around for a long time. For anyone who made it this far, if you haven’t already, play a game! Especially if you haven’t in a long time, I can guarantee that if you look hard enough, you can find a game that will change your perspective on video games forever.