Can Video Games Be Art? (Part II: Philosophy)

| January 7, 2016 | 2 Comments

Previously on “Can Video games Be Art?” I discussed how games can be “art” in terms of emotion. Be sure to give that a read too!

Art is a tricky thing to define, but not a difficult thing to recognize. There’s still a persistent mentality in the world that video games cannot fall under the umbrella of “art”, but that mentality, persistent as it may be, is unlikely to hold for long. Nowadays, the medium is being taken more seriously and studied in greater detail. More and more case studies of complex gaming worlds have been popping up, and people are starting to pay attention. In 2006, Chuck Klosterman first said that though there are video game reviewers who critique gameplay for the benefit of consumers, “there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself.”

But this model is gradually changing. A quick sweep online will reveal that today, fans themselves have begun engaging in scholarship on video games. They have begun looking for meaning and debating interpretations of what certain games have to say. This is due to the rising complexity of video game narratives and story worlds, which have allowed players to become more active in the mythos of video games than ever before. Today, gamers can explore a game’s world both in-game, or outside of it, through debates over its philosophies on the internet. If the emotion brought about by these video game worlds is not sufficient to convince naysayers that games can be art, then perhaps the philosophies they present can be.

Is “art” something that challenges the norm and tackles philosophical thinking? Metal Gear Solid provides commentary on the video game industry itself in a self-aware manner. Its second entry directly calls out the player on how virtual simulations can glorify violence, and even on how the idea of consuming sequels is problematic. It reminds us that sequels rarely do anything new, instead opting to retread old ground, and it makes the player aware by very much treading new ground. The ending is perhaps a historical moment in gaming history–the game both questions the industry, and celebrates it.

Then there’s the BioShock franchise. It, too, calls the player out on their nature. In its third entry, BioShock Infinite, it goes a step farther by building an even larger and more intricate story world that collectively validates every player’s individual experience in a way few other stories can. It reminds us that every little choice we make counts. Every little choice makes us — and our lives — different.

Or is “art” a challenge? Is it something that’s different for everyone? Such has been the nature of gaming from the start, in a way no other medium can replicate. If television brings serial complexity to the table, and music brings various melodies for every occasion, and the novel brings story and emotion in its purest, most unsaturated form, then gaming’s gift is that of the individual experience. The player is an artist, same as the developer. The player plots how they will work together with a friend to defeat the Covenant; how they will work together with a stranger to cross the desert and get to the light. The player is the diplomat, posed with the question of bringing peace between the Salarians and the Krogans or letting them boil; of attacking Bertrand or exposing him for his crimes; of grass, fire, or water. Even beyond the gaming screen, the player is an artist who creates meaning, by finding a game’s message and bringing their own interpretation of it to the table based on their unique experiences.

The developer is the artist, same as the player. The developer plots where the secret Clayface cameo will be for only the most perceptive Batman fans to discover, how many acts it will take before Kratos can confront his tormentor at last. The developer maps out every nook and cranny of Liberty City and what it hides, every grain of sand that Nathan Drake must trudge through in his journey across the Rub ‘al Khali desert. The developer animates the character and gives them life, and brings in voice actors like Nolan North, Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, and Jennifer Hale to breathe heart into them.

Gaming is teamwork, regardless of whether you’re actually on the same side or competing. It’s a back-and-forth medium that you’re in control of, and that’s in no small part thanks to the passionate work of developers like CD Projekt RED, Square-Enix, and Bioware. There’s something artistic about engaging the consumer and making them an active participant in the experience. I don’t think that detracts from hidden meanings; if anything, it makes them harder to see. Video games are a complex art, and if anyone still has a hard time seeing it, well, don’t worry. Graphics are getting better and the lines are getting less blurry.


featured photo: Metal Gear Solid 4 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.

Comments (2)

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  1. Mike Chan Mike Chan says:

    Awesome work dude! Have you played Journey on PS3/PS4 yet? It’s deifinitely one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

    • Aaraf Afzal Aaraf Afzal says:

      Thanks! And yeah, I LOVE Journey! I was actually originally going to include a screenshot from there, but couldn’t find a proper source. Such a magical experience though.

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