Well readers, 2016 is upon us. Did you celebrate the new year bustin’ its way onto the scene? Over the New Year’s weekend a bunch of family got together for a long weekend. It was fun. We welcomed the new year with lots of movies, card games, video games, the annual Twilight Zone Marathon, and a little drinking. It was during some of this drinking that the subject of art and what it truly was came up. My aunt brought up some award winning movie, my cousin brought some old, important album, and a little later into the conversation, I brought up the Sega game, Rez. Then the discussion ground to a halt. I explained that Rez was a game, you shoot things and that it plays with the senses, combining visuals, sound, and sensation in a way I thought was artistic. And then, the question I was dreading dropped like a brick.
“Ok, yeah, but are video games really art?”
The Smithsonian thinks so. Enough for them to feature a major exhibit on games in 2012
I tried my best to explain my opinion that yes, video games are art and why I thought this. I think I did a good job and managed to convince the lot, but it was more complicated than I thought. Art is such a big open ended topic and building walls around it so it’s contained in a box has never really worked out well historically, but newer mediums and forms of art are still always met with hesitation or skepticism. I have a great passion and understanding of video games, but it really isn’t shared or understood by everyone I know. Thoughts of how games are art, what games are high art, low art, most easily recognized as art, rolled around in my head. The subject has been dwelling on my mind for a while and I thought why not examine if further for my return article for Retroware?
The whole concept is a lot to cover so I decided to split this into a small article series called Play Good Art, expressing an idea modified from one expressed in a graduation speech from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. (but more on all that a little later.)
Let’s get started with the big question: are video games art?
How do you explain that Earthbound is art to someone who hasn’t played a game since Pacman?
That’s a tough question as art is very much subjective, but once again yes, I strongly believe that video games are or at least can be art. To me they are creative, expressive, and a uniquely strong and diverse medium for amusement. I would go further to say that more and more people think video games are art as video games evolve as a medium. They’ve been featured as such in the Smithsonian, They’ve been afforded legal protection as creative works from the Unites States Supreme Court, and gaming in general is more mainstream now than ever. Still, that doesn’t stop the debate about it on all sides. Gamers, non-gamers, traditional artists, random people you meet on the street, the opinion varies everywhere and as the discussion grows two more important questions arise:
How are video games art? (In more traditional and unique ways)
Does it even matter?
Shenmue and Yoshi’s Island are two very different games that I consider art for several reasons and it’s important to me.
Video Games check off a good number of the “traditional art” boxes than some people might first think. Pretty easily, in fact. First, video games are indeed a form of expression. From Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. to Child of Light or The Witcher 3, they all express something. It could be an emotion, a feeling of fantasy, a stylish method of storytelling, or make a statement on racism or the consequences of an ever evolving world. Whether the creator’s intent matters is a debate that covers all of art itself, but you can’t deny that games leave an imprint on players. Another checkpoint that obvious comes about is in the form of aesthetics. Games are primarily a visual medium so they often strive to make a strong impression.
Either with a mosaic like pattern with sprites a la Princess Crown on the Saturn, soft, cartoonish feelings with Jet Set Radio or Wind Waker, or crisp, real Polygons like the new Metal Gear Solid. On top of this, a good game is the result of talent and careful craftsmanship. Also, video games are a pretty unique medium, not only for enertainment but in regards to some of the other “art points” Isn’t a production process that works with ingenuity and creative thinking artistic in of itself? There’s a lot more to this, too much to squish in with everything else that needs to be said, so it will have to wait for another time. (Next time to be precise.)
Is it easier to call something more visually and conceptually complex like Child of Light art than a simple yet sharp game like Pacman? why?
The other big question that I find often arises from the discussion on whether video games are art, is if it even matters? I hear a lot of stuff like this with this end of the topic:
“Would calling Sonic 3 Art make it more special?”
Who cares if a game is art? It doesn’t change how I play it.”
“Does it matter if Final Fantasy 6 is art? It’s still going to be the same it always was. The battle system, the graphics, the story, it does what it does and it’s not going to change if it’s art or not. It’s going to change anything, it’ll just be what it’s meant to be.”
To which I reply, “um, duh.” Of course the game isn’t going to magically transform into a hyper-version of itself for you or fix any flaws because it’s art now. What matters is the player end of things. how you interprete this media. Does a game make you laugh or smile like an idiot? Does something like Resident Evil or Silent Hill give you jumpy thoughts in the night after you play? then that conveyance is invoking something from you that’s powerful, something personal.
Going back to Final Fantasy 6 for a minute, that’s a game I would say is artistic on various levels. Sound design, music, visuals, gameplay, these are all different things that excel on their own but build on each other to great heights. Lot’s of people would consider an epic score or a classic painting art, something to be pursued, treasured, protected. This is why it’s important. Art is precious. What is art and how much so varies in the eyes of the beholder, but it matters, it means something. Video games follow all of this, that’s a big part of why this matters.
Final Fantasy 6 is a great example of a game being artistic on all levels to the core. From Terra’s theme to Kefka.
So, why am I calling this series Play Good Art? Well, it’s because I (obviously, if you have been paying attention,) think games are art. In his graduation speech for University of the Arts Philadelphia, Neil Gaiman talks about how Artists, (artists, musicians, writers, etc.) have the ability, a power to make art and how it is invaluable to so many people in the world and that when things go wrong and life get’s tough, people should “make good art” out of circumstances. make it when things are good or bad, but make something that is true to you, in a way, thats what you have the strongest, yourself. Now, relating to what is written above certainly applies to game creators, but, in a way that that is unique to video games as a medium, it can apply to you too.
Games are unique because it is very uncommon to have the same exact scenario happen every time by yourself, let alone between friendly players. Sometimes you squish the first goomba. Sometimes you die. Some people never go down the first pipe in Mario while their best friend always does. Someone might play Ocarina of Time and find the ending with Zelda emotional, and others might feel a wistful melancholy for Saria and the forest. You might hate turn based J-RPGs like Dragons quest, but maybe your best friend had a breathtaking experience playing through it, and as he recounts what he loved and experienced, you felt something or imagined it too. That’s what I think of when I say “play good art” it doesn’t mean find the artsy-fartsiest title out there and dig in, in means use your unique paths through games, whether its the same exact thing, or different genres, Whether it’s Super Mario Bros or Bubsy the Bobcat, if that’s really your thing. I think everyone should play, and I hope you enjoy me doing my part as I explore games and art a little further.