It amazes me that, in 2016, the general consensus about video games is that they are mostly a meaningless form of entertainment meant to amuse and pass time. Most people would look at you like you were crazy if you used the words “video game” and “art” in the same sentence. If you were to watch a movie or even crack open a book every night, nobody would bat an eye because those are pieces of entertainment with class. But if you consider those latter two forms of expression art, you should be including modern video games in the same conversation.
Much ink has been spilled trying to nail down the definition of what art is. The classical definition is very narrow in scope, basically limiting it to physical works like sculptures and paintings. But the modern definition of art has evolved to include basically any tangible expression of thoughts, sights, or sounds that resonate and connect with us on an emotional level. Music. Film. Dance. Most 21st century people would agree that these are forms of artistic expression. So why not video games?
The perception that video games are a second-class form of expression is a symptom of digital entertainment maturing faster than public perception. The fact that we still call them “video games” is indicative of that. In just three decades, we’ve gone from keeping up with our friends’ high scores in Space Invaders to having resonant, emotional experiences on par with film and literature. One hundred years ago, a similar thing happened with “moving pictures.” Theater-goers and writers looked down on film, which was still a medium trying to find its voice. But today, everybody watches movies, the best of which are some of the most powerful pieces of expression available.
Likewise, video games are just starting to find their voice, and the world should take notice. There has never been a form of expression like it before, as it is uniquely positioned to blend a variety of different art forms into one cohesive experience. Like film, it combines strong writing, visuals and sound into one package that is greater than the sum of its parts. But in game development, the artist has to go one step further and combine all of these things into a package that is controlled and directed by the user. That last part is a task so new and complex that it’s worthy of many, many more articles.
Even when you’re not looking at the total package, the best video games have amazing singular pieces of art within them. Over the last few years, game composers have recorded soundtracks with 60-piece orchestral arrangements that
would stir your soul. Artists have designed stunning visual worlds that would make Michelangelo’s jaw hit the floor. Writers have crafted sagas spanning dozens of hours with such complexity that few films or books could hope to match their narrative heft. If you’re not playing video games, you’re missing out on a unique way to experience some of the greatest music, storytelling, and visuals that have been created by human hands this century. What’s more, the medium itself ensures that you’re more intimately involved in what’s happening in front of you than ever before.
Of course, these kind of holistic, artistic experiences are not the norm in video games. Not every game is a work of art, but that’s no different than any form of media. For every Citizen Kane or Moby Dick, there are a thousand Giglis that fall into mediocrity or become known as the worst of the worst. Today, this ratio is even greater in video games, another symptom of its infancy.
While digital entertainment has some growing pains ahead, what makes it stand apart is the great potential that lies before it. If I had a crystal ball, I’m sure I’d be blown away by how people are experiencing digital entertainment thirty years from now, much like how the creators of Pong would be stunned by what their successors have accomplished. I don’t know what’s in store for the gaming world, but I do know that it is poised to be a canvas that can touch human hearts and minds in ways that are impossible to imagine today. And that, my friends, is what art is meant to do.