Video games and art: Why gaming is the future of media


By Andrew Boschert / Columnist

As is the custom around this time of year, the annual cycle of new video games is hitting the market. Although they have become ubiquitous with the holiday season, video games still seem to be lacking mainstream acceptance.

As one of the most recent developments in entertainment, video games have drawn a great deal of scrutiny from media and concerned citizens everywhere. Just as older generations once saw television and lurid novels as signs of moral decay, this badge of honor has been passed down to video games.

Why? Because there exists a fundamental lack of understanding of video games as a medium. The range of themes and genres that video games explore is no more narrow or wide than the content of films, television and novels. So why are video games on a different plane, one that is separate from other accepted artistic mediums?

Perhaps it’s because the media has painted them as mindlessly violent forms of entertainment.

As video game advocate Penn Jillette pointed out on The Wendy Williams Show two years ago, calling video games overtly violent would be to overlook the violence in other mediums, and “to try and blame the violence in Shakespeare and the violence in art for the violence in the real world is something that has been tried for years and is always wrong.”

Jillette’s argument hinges on the assertion that video games are forms of art, like novels, paintings or movies. The reluctance of mainstream media to judge video games on the same playing field as other artistic media indicates a reluctance to label art for what it truly is — an expression of human creativity and skill.

Our definition of art is, of course, very broad — new forms of music and media will always push the boundaries of what we consider art. While I would not necessarily argue that generic shooter games are art, there is also television I consider art and television I don’t consider art — all forms of media have their questionable examples. 

Yet one cannot simply judge media on its face.

Take the video game franchise of BioShock, for instance. To the untrained eye, the series would look like another violent shooting game. However, through its storyline, BioShock consistently explores themes such as racism, sexism, religion and morality. The first game even satirically eschews the philosophies of Ayn Rand — the antagonist in the game is a strict follower of laissez-faire economics — right around the time of her return to political discourse.

Beyond this, video games have matured in visual merit as well. There is a staggering attention to detail that goes into each and every game — created by teams of artists, graphic designers and programmers. 

Take, for example, the game “Dark Souls II.” One screenshot can portray less than 1 percent of all the character models, landscapes and textures found in the game. Each shot is carefully designed and painstakingly coded by passionate industry professionals to change realistically in accordance with your character’s actions.

So, is this process of hyper-attention to detail any different than that of Walt Disney during his production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”? In the same way, Disney spent hundreds of hours layering and transforming still pieces of art — being able to transform lines of code into beautiful scenery is an impressive feat, regardless if it’s for movies or video games.

Perhaps the biggest struggle between videogames and mainstream media is in its primary feature: interaction. For some reason, the ability to interact directly with media has convinced us that “Up” is different than “Super Mario Bros.”  

I’ve yet to comprehend how the addition of interactivity diminishes artistic merit. Surely, being able to alter the course of a story based on your decisions — like in the “Mass Effect” series — goes beyond what seems like a “choose your own adventure” gimmick. Requiring direct action to continue a storyline adds a level of emotional investment unlike any form of media. 

In the cult-favorite game “Portal” — my favorite example of such investment — you are a “test-subject,” required to complete a series of puzzles for a demented AI program. In one level, you are given a cube with a heart on it to help solve puzzles. Named “The Companion Cube,” players use it to help complete the level. There are allusions to the cube being personified. The player is told, “The weighted Companion Cube cannot speak. If the weighted Companion cube does speak, we urge you to disregard its advice.”

At the end of the level, game designers force the player to burn the cube before continuing. After hours of isolation in the game, this inanimate object feels like a friend. I found it physically difficult to destroy.

In the same way “Castaway” moved us with the volleyball, Wilson, floating away to sea, “Portal” has taken us a step further: We must involve ourselves, instead of watching passively.

Film critic Roger Ebert once disputed the claim that video games could be considered art.

“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers,” Ebert said. “That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

Ebert represents the old guard here. The passing of time will expose his critiques — not unlike it did for Neville Chamberlain and Czechoslovakia. 

Ebert missed the fact that videogames are still very young. Literature and film have had years to develop artistically and were similarly rejected in their infancy.

Far from Ebert’s point of video games being inherently flawed, I believe that they will go on to become a celebrated form of art in the years to come. Complexity of plot and interaction will only heighten as time passes. 

Resistance is still strong, but with 60 percent of Americans playing video games regularly, the fight might not last too much longer. 

Write to Andrew at [email protected]