Can Video Games Be Art? (Part I: Emotion)

| January 6, 2016 | 1 Comment

Art can be a lot of things: paintings, origami, photography, film directing, storytelling, poetry, culinary masterpieces, elaborate bank heists — they can all qualify as art depending on who you ask. For some reason, though, even in 2016, some people still have a hard time calling video games “art.” In spite of the fact that games nowadays have some deep stories behind them, as well as excellent characterizations and secrets hidden away in elaborate recesses, they continue to be considered lowest common denominator entertainment. I think that age is reaching its last leg; and if it hasn’t quite gotten there just yet, it will soon.

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Nope. Not art at all.
photo credit: Tomb Raider via photopin (license)

As far as the “lowest common denominator” argument goes, television was met with the same kind of reception once upon a time. Nowadays, shows such as The Wire and Breaking Bad have proved the naysayers wrong; TV has power and a serial narrative complexity that other mediums cannot replicate. So, too, did film go through the same evolution. What was once considered entertainment for the poor and uncultured has become high culture over the years — high enough culture for old people in monocles to be discussing over tea. (That’s how I personally envision the Oscars decision committee, anyway.) Rock music? Comic books? Both were thought to be pandering to ignorant mass audiences. In fact, if you go back far enough, the novel was seen as this too. Any form of fictional storytelling, really, is always met by an initial wave of adversity. But they persevere, and they prove themselves, and soon enough, the people behind them are recognized for what they are: artists bringing joy to our lives.

Video game developers, though, are not being labelled as such nor being celebrated as the masterful architects they are. The belief continues to persist that they aren’t offering high culture, that they aren’t offering art. How do we define “art,” though? Is it something that triggers a specific kind of emotion? Even if we put aside competitive drive and the frustration from repeated failure of a mission, video games can bring out feelings in us same as any other form of art.

Take Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, for example–many gamers collectively broke down crying within the game’s opening 20 minutes. It only gets worse. As players embark on the journey with the game’s principal heroes, Joel and Ellie, they find themselves bonding with these characters and directly experiencing their hardships. Joel and Ellie engage in in-game conversation depending on where the player takes them or how they approach a given situation. Gamers are challenged to think critically about these characters’ lives, and The Last of Us constantly reminds us of this. We embody Joel and share his love for daughter-figure, Ellie. We embody Ellie and share her growth from innocent, sheltered(-ish) girl to independent woman. And, as we embody them, we guide them and influence the game’s world. We are part of their fight, a part of their sacrifices.

Or is “art” something that allows us escape and reprieve from the shackles of reality?

Then we can look at Kingdom Hearts, in which we step into the (massive) shoes of protagonist Sora, and travel with him through the Disney worlds we so often wished we could be a part of as kids. Now we can. Through Sora, we befriend Donald Duck, and Goofy, and Simba, and Mulan; through Sora, we deliver comeuppance upon Maleficent, and Hades, and Oogie Boogie. We get to conquer the villains who scared us as kids. We can look at Okami, where we embody wolf goddess Amaterasu, and howl, powerful and free, across the land of Nippon, helping those in need and confronting their demons in a classic tale of good versus evil. (Also, have you seen the art and animation style in there?) We could look at Ratchet and Clank, or Mass Effect, or Halo: quirky, speculative sci-fi stories with not just worlds, but universes, built around them.

By the way, they're making a movie on "Ratchet and Clank" and you need to watch the trailer right now. photo credit: Ratchet y Clank Nexus via photopin (license)

By the way, they’re making a movie on “Ratchet and Clank” and you need to watch the trailer right now.
photo credit: Ratchet y Clank Nexus via photopin (license)

World-building is an important component of any storyworld, and is commonly discussed as an art form in and of itself. Ratchet and Clank boasts a wild and wacky world with gorgeous environments, imaginative technology, and humorously developed characters. Mass Effect has its own rich mythology that constantly feeds the story, which you as Commander Shepard slowly become a part of with your every decisions. The alien species that exist within it, their tics, and their cultures, together create a fascinating universe with wondrous lore. Halo boasts a well-crafted mythos in which even your alien enemies can feel real and believable. Even as you charge into battle against these foreign, fictional creatures, you understand their motivations and feel the significance of their threat.

Each of these games brings out different emotions in players, as varieties of art forms would be expected to do. Whether it’s through engagement and relateability, or through escapism, or simply through rich world-building, they pull us into stories which we care about and make us feel at one with their worlds.

Be sure to check Part II of this article, in which I discuss “art” as philosophy! 

featured photo: Okami via photopin (license)

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Category: Art and Literature, featured, Science and Technology, TV and Movies

Aaraf Afzal

About the Author ()

Aaraf Afzal is many things, but he's not particularly good at being any of them. He continues to work towards this goal, among others, studying Film & TV and Economics at Boston University. An avid subscriber to the belief that all forms of media have their own sense of artistic beauty, he is particularly invested in writing fiction and recently released his first novel "Re: Revolution" in Bangladesh. Alongside his pursuits at Culture Shock, he's currently at work writing an online series called "The Chosen Zeroes." Fandoms and inspirations include Neil Gaiman, Kingdom Hearts, Ratchet and Clank, Marvel Comics, and Culture Shock. Giggity.

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