(I wrote this a couple months ago but wanted to capture it here for future use.)
I think the question of games as art is a very valid one but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it formulated in a way I can believe in.
Every medium has its own forms of excellence. Even film and theatre, which in some sense are very akin arts, are radically different in how they achieve their best artistic effects. If you then consider how we experience and assess photography, dance, sculpture, installations, etc., it’s clear that every medium has its distinct artistic signifiers and components.
The problem with the discussion of art in videogames is that it has been so reductionist in making comparisons to other mediums. There are people who see videogame art in the form of strong narratives, where sharp characters and good writing and voice performance elevates the experience. In other cases it’s the aesthetics that are perceived as artistic – literally the graphics, the art direction, the lighting and rendering.
I think when you look at art in videogames you have to look at what is fundamentally distinct. Praising the writing and characters in GTA4 is to admit it’s got nothing on the Sopranos. Loving the painterly expression of Braid or the dramatic stylings of Shadow of the Colossus is to invoke all of visual art, against which videogames cannot distinguish themselves.
So what is truly distinct about the medium? I would argue it is agency, the notion that the audience is a free-will agent in the experience. I’m not talking about free will in the sense of a sandbox game like GTA. I am referring very directly to the loop between the player’s input, the resulting action on screen, the player’s processing of that result, and the subsequent input the player makes in response. I think it is this agency loop that distinguishes videogames from all other media and it is here that we should look for artistic excellence.
This is a very odd thing to judge a medium by because we are trained by other popular media to judge art in terms of Shakespeare, Scorcese, and Rembrandt. The closest frame of reference I can think of for how videogame art might be achieved is to put yourself into the role of an athlete – say, a gymnast. A top gymnast explores degrees of agency most people never experience. Their relationship to their tools – the balance beam, the uneven bars – is very similar to a game’s agency loop. They perform endless repetition, gaining mastery by making the slightest changes to their physical inflections. (Actually, a golfer’s swing is another good parallel.) When you watch the Olympics and you see a basically identical routine performed by two different gymnasts, you comprehend the extent to which their sport is defined in tiny slices of input, result, and response. The problem, of course, is that while you can watch a top gymnast you can’t share a YouTube link to the experience of being a gymnast. And it’s that problem that is the biggest obstacle to the promulgation of games as art. It’s easy to show a clip or a screenshot and say look at that artwork, watch this scene. But then you have failed to show what is really important about videogames.
What videogames do that gymnastics and golf can’t is interject narrative and aesthetics into that agency loop and to set that loop into an imaginative environment within which reality is suspended and anything is possible. That is an awe-inspiring earthquake of an opportunity – nothing has been invented with such profound potential since the evolutionary invention of the imagination itself. We can now put ourselves, kinetically, inside our minds. That’s jaw-dropping.
And once you come to that realization, it’s clearer than ever that our industry is a shit factory.