April 29, 2010

Video Games as Art

Like pretty much everyone under the age of 40, I found myself disagreeing with Roger Ebert's rather misguided polemic against the idea that video games can be art. Clearly there are a wealth of games out there now that not only include artistic accoutrements but also, like Braid or Passage, tweak the conventions of video games for artistic ends.

I think it's worth focusing on that latter aspect: To the extent that we can talk about video games as art, as opposed to mere entertainment, it's because art games typically do something that is common in modern art in particular, which is to comment on the norms that have accumulated around video games over the past 20-30 years. Braid, for example, calls into question the assumptions embedded in save-the-princess adventure games going back to Mario and Zelda. Similarly, games like Shadow of the Colossus take a common video game goal -- kill the bad guys -- and subvert it: The protagonist is told by this disembodied voice to slay these beautiful, majestic creatures, and of course we, as the player, comply -- only to find out, too late, the true harm we have caused.

It may be helpful to think of video games as being more akin to the plastic arts, like painting, sculpture, or mixed media, than to narrative art forms like film or literature. Expecting video games to have the same sort of narrative density that a book or a movie have may be setting the bar too high, making it easy to dismiss video games as an art form. I like to think of a game like Passage as being like one of those interactive art installations you might find at MoMA or the Hirshhorn: It provides a singular moment of epiphany, rather than the presentation of a whole world. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I think the comparison to modern art is apt: Compared to, say, the Lascaux cave paintings or works from the Renaissance, modern art frequently is accused of not living up to traditional standards. ("My kid could paint that!" "My kid could play that and rack up a high score!") But, of course, modern art is supposed to challenge our assumptions about art and about the world, and it seems to me that those video games that aspire to that belong in the same category.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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