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Are Video Games Works of Art?

When one thinks of art, what images are conjured up?

Paintings on the wall of a gallery, maybe? Perhaps something more offbeat such as Tracy Emin’s bed? Or, perhaps a contemporary statement rather than a single piece, such as Banksy’s Spraycation? With art being such a subjective field, it is possible to appreciate something different from other critics and experts. However, few currently argue that the latest video game releases should be classed as art.

Some feel that video games are a form of contemporary art, and it is a debate that will likely grow over time. Perhaps back in the eighties, when games really were basic, such as Pac Man, there was little argument for them being an art form. In 2021, as a sprawling imagined metropolis rolls out on your television and stories become so engaging and involved you’re moved to tears, there’s certainly a new argument to be had.

Graphically, video games are improving all the time, and if drawing and illustration are classed as an art form, then surely games are, too. Even the most basic games on mobile devices are, to some extent, a work of art because they have to create an illusion of you being somewhere, experiencing something that is beyond your reach. That may be through popular branding or simply by creating a world for you to become engrossed. Take Hideo Kojima’s superbly crafted Death Stranding, a game so unique in its concept that Kotaku described it as “grim and difficult to explore”, so much so that “the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic and government-enforced quarantines made the whole thing end up feeling eerily prescient”. That was a positive review, by the way, a reflection on the designer’s ability to create a world that eventually, we could all relate to. It was beautiful to look at, and a post-apocalyptic America imagined in the game took thousands of hours to draw, shade, and create. Is that not art?

Even at a more basic level, games on mobile devices with high-quality graphics are surely an artistic statement. If you’re playing something like Candy Crush on your mobile device, with bright colours and well-drawn imagery, why is that not art? Also, take the range of online games on Gala Bingo as an example – titles such as Atlantis Cash Collect and Lobstermania Slingo might not intend to be art, but they are graphically impressive. Why would something like that, creating a world for you to become immersed in, not be art, whilst the cover of a Terry Pratchett book is? Both have been illustrated, crafted and created, albeit on different mediums. Why is one art and the other not? If anything, the art form that makes the world, such as Atlantis or the Candy Crush experience, are more artistic than the drawing on a book cover, where the real art lies in words.

Many see film as art too, and if that’s so, then surely some video games fall within the same remit. The Last of Us Part II told the story of a girl named Ellie attempting to survive in an imagined future, but it did so with real emotion. The game acted as a vehicle for the story, with actors playing the parts of the characters. Why would that not be considered art, but something like a Tim Burton epic be so highly rated by the art world? Why indeed.

In 2015, Chris Mellissinos, curator of The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian wrote in Time Magazine: “Video games are also the only form of media that allows for personalizing the artistic experience while still retaining the authority of the artist. In video games, we find three distinct voices: the creator, the game, and the player. Those who play a game are following the story of the author and are bound by the constructs of the rules—but based on the choices they make, the experience can be completely personal. If you can observe the work of another and find in it personal connection, then art has been achieved.”

In that respect, art is certainly achieved in games like the Last of Us and as far back as Ico on the PlayStation 2, but can it be found within online slots, mobile puzzle games and titles with rather less depth? The lines between game and art are becoming blurrier as technology allows for better graphics, stories, and interaction. Maybe some in the art world are beginning to rethink their attitudes towards the video game industry.