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Video Games as Art: Is the Label Necessary?

October 3, 2014 Written by Gerard Cueto

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The word “art” is like “love” in a sense that we can all have our own unique definitions and experiences surrounding it. The subjectivity of these words is what makes them relatable and distinctly human. Similarly, the experience of playing video games is subjective as well

The video game as art debate has been going on for a while now. Sound arguments have been made on both sides of the discussion; and one of the terms which have been used to strengthen the video games are art train of thought is the term “art game.”

Throwing my hat into the ring, I do believe that video games are an art form. The medium is an intricate combination of well-established art forms like literature, cinema, acting, and graphic art. Even the technical aspects of video games like programming involve some sort of artistic creativity, particularly in the design of algorithms and functions. Being an interactive medium, video games also excel at eliciting an emotional response from the player, and more importantly, can make players change or examine the way they think about themselves and the world.

With all of these in mind, is the use of the term “art game” even necessary? What is an art game for that matter? If art games are video games which either elicit an emotional response from the player through interaction, or offer a meaningful, unique, and though-provoking message or story to the player, aren’t all video games works of art? Even the United States Supreme Court has ruled that video games are an art form, stating,”like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).”

Additionally, the use of the art game term implies that not all video games are art, which contradicts the core characteristics of all video games and the ruling of the US Supreme Court as well. Sure, it’s easy to see the artistic differences between games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto from games such as Journey and Gone Home, but since inherent in these titles are the fundamental traits of video games, as different as they are, all of them are indeed works of art.

And the differences in subject matter, presentation, and interaction are where the subjectivity of video games as an art form come in. Seth Schiesel of the New York Times states,“…the most important video games were not merely matters of technology or neuromuscular coordination, but of finding new ways to explore and think about both human relationships and the wider world around us. Not all games allow this. Not even most of them. Most video games — like the vast majority of any medium — are insipid junk. But of course one person’s insipid junk — whether books, movies, TV shows or games — is another’s masterpiece.”

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So, what is a better term for the type of video games which are usually called art games? Games that break new boundaries in terms of gameplay (Passage), storytelling (That Dragon, Cancer), and interacting with the game world and/or other players (Journey). As these games are usually experiments in one way or another (stories rarely told in gaming, never-before-seen gameplay mechanics), I believe “experimental games” would be a good description. Experiments lead to groundbreaking discoveries after all. 

Do you think the term “art game” is still necessary? What games are your favorite works of art? Let everyone know via the comments section.