What Defines Us: Video Games as Art
By Lisa Heaney
The most beautiful part of the creative process is the continuing legacy that it stimulates through the viewer/listener, who resonates the thoughts and themes projected in the work and undergoes their own revelation of what they have just experienced. A creative piece will transform its shape and shed its skin several times during its existence, often (but not always) with inspiration, reaction, idea, creation, destruction, recreation, completion, and ultimately, interpretation and rejuvenation by its audience. It is this magnificent ritual which keeps the creative world in revolution; it is also one of the reasons why video gamers cherish and uphold their favorite pastime in front of the old Atari as art, and partly why the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) exists today.
Art is a truly peculiar monster. It liberates, enraptures, reflects, and challenges. It is perhaps one of the most freely expressive reactions which is natural to the human soul, even when it is conceived under deliberate restraint. Yet it is inexplicably bound to this idea of social hierarchy and for this reason, art is currently under fire to change its shape and shake things up a little.
Ticking the Boxes
Travel to any part of the world, and you can find any number of factors which people believe qualify something as art. In most cases, these could in one way or another apply to a video game. Does it captivate? Easily. Does it challenge certain structures and exhibit a greater, meaningful purpose that contributes to the common good? That one is tricky, but – take a look at cyberpunk underground masterpiece, Beneath a Steel Sky. Its bleak, cynical, but tastefully lighthearted narrative set in a critical dystopian future plays on several themes that we see in social and speculative science fiction, forcing us to confront issues which we face in modern times. And it’s got the mark of graphic-novel guru Dave Gibbons written all over it. Is it created for a purpose which is intended for appreciation in and of itself? Yes. Does it inspire similar emotions which were felt during the creative process? Possibly – after all, gaming can be art itself – just look at Starcraft. And a criteria which many hold much weight over – does it entail a certain amount of conscientiousness, skill, talent, and discipline to execute? That one cannot be denied.
Most classic games will tick these boxes, yet there is a vast amount of art which might not. It basically comes down to the debate which enraged the purists when composers let the 20th century kick-off with outrageously unconventional works which hauled traditional form and let it rear up on itself. Art is always rebelling against itself and that debate is crucial for its very existence. The fact that not all art is required to be masterpiece material can be the very thing which makes it art in the first place – to counter Indiana Jones, it doesn’t always belong in a museum, although MADE is beginning to change that for the stuff of Pacman.
Why It Matters
But whether you revere your coveted Monkey Island collection as art or not, what is more interesting to explore is why people care so much. Are the oligarchies of art trying to protect their house? Or are gamers trying to achieve a greater validation within the mainstream of something they are really passionate about?
When Roger Ebert made his comments about games falling short of achieving the same kind of caliber reached by the great masters, visionary developer Brian Moriarty responded that games themselves have never tried to proclaim themselves as art.
At the same time, denying games this cultural status has its benefits. Video games in and of themselves have a commercially-driven purpose towards entertainment and education. That now, indie games are drawing closer to achieving what may be called art has created the birth of yet another genre in gaming, adding to its evolving and eclectic repertory. Just as contemporary society needs its Sunday comics just as much as it needs its Rodin (or so we can hope – it could be argued society does not need either) video games need variety, so that your craving for epic, philosophical fulfillment can be quenched one day and your desire to simply admire sleek design be satisfied the next. This is why indie gaming has a special place, and even more interestingly, why classic gaming is so prized.
The Aesthetic Appeal of Old School
Take a look at a good portion of indie games and their developers seem to be having this massive affair with pixels (hello Minecraft!). They could use graphics-rendering software which is far more distinguished but they opt for old-school. Is it because they admire the simplicity of the style, or are hoping to usher in foregone age? Is this because classic games have already found their place on the exhibition circuit in museums and conventions? Is the fact that classic games are now a piece of history – history that was never expected to take off with such momentum when the first programmers began putting pieces together – that it carries these connotations of art? Or is it because plot, setting, and character development took center-stage before the day of dazzling polygons overshadowed a good dialogue?
It’s What We Were and Who We Are
Out of all of this, there are two crucial points that need to be observed. One is the museum aspect, because it is a “look at where it all began, what we did with what we had, how it changed things, and why we are here today” statement. The other point, which is an eternal-battle in the art community, is accessibility. Classic gaming may not be for everyone but unlike art, anyone can grasp it. Anyone can play it and even enjoy it, not just appreciate it or admire it. And there is nothing intimidating about Galaga (err…well…ok, the higher levels can get a bit frantic) like there is about trying to decipher the gorgeously riotous Guernica by Picasso. Classic games are a great starting point for this, because they generate reverence for art – not simply through the way they pay it tribute, like in the deeply engaging Civilization II, but because they are a way in which we can access expression and our interpretation is played out directly through interaction, the ideal relationship for art.
Interestingly, classic games have caught a little bit of vintage fever by becoming one of the most demanded commodities for buying, trading, and selling on the market, just like art, although thanks to rigid tactics implemented by xbox, the second-hand game market will seriously diminish on new consoles. PC and Mac gaming is thankfully enjoying the freedom of open-source emulating software like scummvm and dosbox – as well as programming enhancements in steam – which allow for classic games to be played on modern computers. That incredibly talented programmers are devoting tons of time towards keeping these games alive, and resurrecting the artistic process through their own craftsmanship has got to mean something. It is the age of accessibility, where buying, selling, and trading online means that all platforms are a go for customizing games. In a versatile market where artists can get cash for selling an ipad 1, 2, 3, 4 or mini or buy a macbook or even old commodore to play with code and script, the old game market in turn grows beneficially.
Part of the Cultural Story
When Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyer’s about the problems facing the world of today and how people would often find themselves stray, he talked about the importance of mythology and how it plays a part in creating archetypes, leveling moral ground, conveying a level of ethos. Art fulfills that same function, and classic games in particular generate their own kind of mythology which has come to be both reflection and representation of society. Whether they are truly art or not is irrelevant, although the question itself is critical. What matters most is that classic games occupy a very special place in the course of history and today say something very poignant about who we are.