If you’re a fan of video games, chances are the name Roger Ebert represents more than movie culture. In 2010, Ebert wrote a blog post stating that video games “can never be art,” a continuation of statements he made years before.
Since voicing his opinion, discussions followed—most of which were intelligent retorts and evidence claiming why he was wrong—regarding the topic of video games as art. Eventually, Ebert conceded and applauded those who disagreed, stating, “I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.”
So are video games truly art? Since these games house an array of fascinating visuals, music, and storytelling, most gamers and developers say “yes.” Meanwhile, others consider them nothing more than mind-numbing entertainment with no greater purpose. The reality, however, is that the question itself is very broad: both answers are correct since not all video games are art.
The primary definition of art begins with, “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” The continuing definition states how most art forms typically exist to be intentionally moving. Key word, though, “typically.” Video games aren’t your typical medium, and the fact that any game could move someone emotionally—especially through the use of captivating visuals—proves that video games qualify as art. And if we look back through the years, it’s quite evident that games represent art both visually and in other ways.
The beginning bits
Ralph Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first interactive television game, entered stores in 1972. Though technically a “video game system,” the Odyssey was mostly a glorified electronic toy. There were interchangeable chips with different data arrangements, but the actual televised graphics consisted of the same series of white dots. The unit also came with colored TV overlays to make up for the lack of visuals. For instance, Odyssey Tennis required that consumers paste a graphic designed as a tennis court on their television. Scores were also kept manually, using nothing more than a regular scorebook to help players keep track of the winner.
Visually, the Odyssey presented very little. Baer’s creation was far from art, as most of the console’s creation involved programming the behavior of on-screen dots, and there wasn’t much emotion or intentional design involved. However, it’s still representative of a pre-evolved art form, given that Baer worked with what he had in order to recreate certain games for the television. After all, the same can be said about a toddler who, for the first time, finds a purple crayon and decides to recreate a sunset. Does the purple squiggle look anything like our sun? Of course not, but this is still the beginning of a very important artistic process. The child can’t accurately recreate images right now, but eventually he might craft masterpieces featured in galleries; the same can be said about video games as a whole, only the pen and paper are code and computers.
Like a child discovering talent through experimentation, video games developed throughout the 70s and 80s. Pixels and bits started resembling real objects, and sound chips were improved to output more detailed effects to complement these visual presentations. These games were simply entertainment, but certain patterns eventually formed that changed the medium forever.
Evolving into art
As time passed, developers acquired more resources; video games involved less imagination and more representative visuals. Compelling characters and captivating storylines appeared, making video games less about momentary entertainment and more about lasting experiences.
One pioneer of storytelling in video games was Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, who worked on games like Super Mario Bros. and the arcade hit Donkey Kong. Though these games seemed rather simplistic on the outside, they were quite innovative for their time. Miyamoto never made a game without offering a story on the side. Some stories, like the Legend of Zelda, were visually inspired by Miyamoto’s childhood experiences.
Before Miyamoto, video games rarely highlighted stories outside of the instruction manual. Sure, all games had backstories, but actual events were never portrayed through the player’s progression. In the arcade hit Donkey Kong, you rescue Pauline at the end of certain levels. In Super Mario Bros. and Zelda, you eventually reach the princess, therefore fulfilling your quest. Most video games before this simply involved “make the number higher until you get bored or die.”
As storytelling evolved in games, other design concepts followed. Games like Final Fantasy needed stunning worlds, lovable characters with conflict, and scary creatures inflicting said conflict. Spiritual sequels in the Super Mario and Zelda series became more detailed and complex. More than ever before, players had reasons to jump in and save the world, while also being moved by different animated sprites, sounds, and story sequences designed to capture the hearts of millions.
Creating worlds and moving audiences
More years passed, and two-dimensional graphics were replaced with entire three-dimensional realms in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But as we approached the modern age of gaming, two-dimensional graphics returned in the form of portable and independently developed games. Often described as “Metroidvania” titles, many of these games honor the general aesthetic and exploration mechanics of popular franchises like Metroid and Castlevania. For many players, these games offer trips back to childhood, where beautiful colors—often representing certain moods or settings in virtual worlds—presented themselves on the screen.
It took much time and debate, but many current video games are works of art in themselves. In Bioshock, you wander around a beautiful but structurally degraded underwater city while discovering what led to the community’s downfall. In the Mass Effect series, you assume the role of Commander Shepard as you traverse the known galaxy and push against the assumed Reaper threat. Games like Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls V let players roam an entire countryside, day or night, and encounter everything from breathtaking medieval cityscapes to gargantuan dragons. Even independent developers like the studio Playdead (the creators of Limbo) craft adventures with purposes beyond those of conventional gaming. With its shadowed backgrounds and breathtaking environmental shading, Limbo is a visually unique experience that continues to move new players.
As a whole, video games are just now breaking through as a recognized vehicle for visual art. In-game graphics and character models utilize the very elements of art within their creation, and assure players experience more of an emotional takeaway than ever before. Since it’s still such a young medium, critics will continue devaluing the purpose of video games beyond entertainment. Regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that video games convey visual art, and in many cases, are art.
by Sean Bassinger
(This story also appears in Sarah Page’s Midnight Muse Magazine, the newest edition of which comes out simultaneously with this issue of the Corvallis Advocate.)