Are video games art? This is a question that’s been buzzing around the industry for years. Many influential people, both inside and outside of the industry, have weighed in on the matter. To date there still isn’t a consensus, but the “video games are an art form” side seems to be losing. I’m here to put across my argument that video games are art by directly challenging a key issue in the debate.
What I want to talk about is a very specific criticism of the ‘Video games as art’ argument – that of authorial control. Authorial control is a term used to describe the way in which the author of a piece of art, film, or literature has direct control over a users experience of their work. When you watch a film, read a book, or view a painting you’re always experiencing it as its author intended. The argument is that art requires this authorial control and that, by its very nature, video games can’t truly possess this.
I understand the point, video games are an interactive experience whereby the end user ultimately decides upon the course and interpretation of the experience. I understand, but respectfully disagree. What I want to draw attention to is a subsection of art where this authorial control is purposely given up for the sake of the art. I’m talking about interactive installation pieces.
An interactive installation piece is an art form designed specifically with interaction in mind. These large-scale installations are featured in prominent galleries worldwide and are still considered to be art. Lets consider a recent example that featured in the main gallery of Tate Modern, one of the finest art galleries in the world. Late last year there was an installation piece by Ai Weiwei entitled ‘Sunflower Seeds’. The piece consisted of 100 million hand painted porcelain seeds that the public would walk through, interact with and shape. In the end the piece was never fully realised due to health & safety concerns but for this purpose that worked out better.
I was fortunate enough to see this exhibit myself, had I – and the rest of the public – been allowed to interact with it as intended it would have been a fantastic exhibition. What it turned out to be was a floor covered in Sunflower Seeds, clearly they had different effects.
If we consider video games to be a form of interactive art, along side that of interactive installation pieces, then they definitely fit the criteria. They’re, excuse the metaphor, a floor of Sunflower Seeds waiting for interaction. A video game by itself is not art, but a video game that we play, see, feel and interact with is art. Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ piece was still considered to be a work of art worthy of the Tate Modern despite the fact it never reached its full potential, yet a video game that is lovingly played by millions isn’t.
I will accept that there is some room for rebuttal on this point. Ai Weiwei’s piece would, at some point, have been closed to the public. Once completed it would have been a fixed piece of work that looked the same to everyone. Video games, however, are uniquely interpreted by every individual player; What one person experiences isn’t necessarily true of the next. My counter to this would be that even a painting is subject to interpretation, two people may see the same painting but understand it’s meaning entirely differently. In addition to this, by making this comparison I’m not drawing the conclusion that being displayed in a gallery is a perquisite to being considered art, simply that things such as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ are displayed because they are art.
Another feature of the ‘Authorial Control’ argument is that when you experience the work of a true Auteur you always know it’s their work. This is how you know a film was directed by Quentin Tarantino, how you know it’s a Salvador Dali painting. The criticism for gaming here is that the development team of a video game is so large that it loses the possibility of possessing that sense of identity. Once again the criticism is flawed, it may have some valid footing but it has too many issues to be considered valid.
If the video game had no Auteurs then there’d be no names, nobody who’s associated with bodies of work – that simply isn’t the case. There are individuals within this industry whose name carries with them weight, respect, and the knowledge that they’ll bring their own unique fingerprint to a game. Can you tell a Goichi Suda game from a Cliff Bleszinski game? Yes, of course you can. Is it possible to tell whether it was Martin O’Donell or Nobuo Uematsu who worked on a game’s soundtrack? Absolutely. The same rule of thumb applies to Auteur films, a film may be considered an Auteur piece despite the influential input of many individuals. The directors, who in this case are the Auteurs, vision for the film can be discerned by the outcome the work and is thus considered to be Auteur art.
Even moving past the work of individuals it’s possible to consider this from an entirely different angle.
There’s a reason some studios fail and others succeed and it’s down to the quality that each produces. Every development team leaves a unique impression on a game that the end user will feel, you can identify a games developer by the subtle, nuanced, touches that they leave. Bungie, for example, are a studio so passionate and unique that it’d be difficult not to know it was a Bungie game. The same can be applied to Platinum games, Bioware, Ubisoft Montreal, Bethesda, Irrational, Rockstar – I could go on for pages. Rather than look at the issue of authorial control and dismiss video games as they have no single Auteur, consider instead that each development studio is an Auteur entity itself. Consider the saying, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts‘. A studio is more than a collaboration of individuals, far more.
Now let’s re-consider the ‘Authorial Control’ argument taking into account what’s been said. An interactive art installation deliberately removes full authorial control for the sake of the art, whilst this may displease some true art Auteurs it’s just how things are. Video games are also an interactive experience that deliberately give up partial authorial control to the end user so they may experience the game in their own unique way. If ‘Sunflower Seeds’ can make it to Tate Modern then there’s no real reason that video games should be met with such harsh reception over the ‘Art’ debate.
In reality, considering the diversity of ‘true art’ forms, the brash condescension which certain individuals treat video games as an art form is childish. They can cite arguments for why video games aren’t art but each point has a valid counter-point. Instead try to look through the criticisms, look at the underlying perceptions behind them. What’s really wrong is that people still consider video games to be a childish thing. This is an outdated mindset, a remnant of the early 90′s video game boom.
There are a myriad of other issues surrounding this debate, I’m not attempting to answer each one in this piece. My intent here was to show the fallacy of the ‘Authorial Control’ argument and how it can be manipulated to aid the ‘Video Games as art’ cause. There’s still a long way to go before the real cynics will concede to the point, but I firmly believe that will happen eventually.
Video games have the power to tell moving stories in a way never before possible. They can show you things that your imagination had never considered. Video games can make you truly feel for the characters you’re interacting with. A video game can live with you for the rest of your life, something that truly hits home, something you’ll never forget. Video games are absolutely an art form.