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Are Videogames Art?

6 April, 2009 (13:41) | Literature Review | By: TimA

John Lancaster recently published an essay in “The London Review of Books” titled “Is it Art?”.  The essay considers the position of videogames in global culture and asks the question: should videogames, which have surpassed music and video sales in the United Kingdom, be considered a form of art?  This is a huge and difficult question, and in order to answer it, one would have to consider that other overwhelming question -“what is art?”  Finding an answer to that question is beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but in reading Lancaster’s essay, I have derived five things-to-think-about in regards to the status of the videogame as an art form.  In no particular order, they are:

  1. The level of creativity and agency the videogame grants to the player. Lancaster states that most videogames “offer a model of play which is oppressively close to work” and that gameplay in most games is “repetitive, quantified, and structured.”  Recently, however, games like LittleBigPlanet and Neverwinter Nights have bucked the trend as they allow users to create their own game content.  Other games such as the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls series have what Lancaster calls “sandbox potential” in that they allow players to ignore certain tasks and wander about the game world freely.  While one could make the argument that a videogame which only allows the player to go through a series of predetermined motions has little artistic potential, art is by nature a creative endeavor.  If a videogame allows the player to create their own content and/or narrative, that sounds pretty artistic to me.
  2. The visual aspects. This should require no explanation.  Human-made visual imagery has been considered art for centuries, and I would argue that the art direction and cinematography of videogames has reached a parity level with that of film and television.
  3. The artist vs. the corporation.   This is an inevitable struggle in all forms of media, however because the technology needed to create videogames is prohibitively expensive, it is difficult to find successful independent game design studios who do not have to dance to the tune of Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.  As in most corporate ventures,  the corporation considers only the bottom line.  Lancaster points to the “proliferation of sequels” as evidence that corporate interest takes precendence in the production of most games.  So, unless the price of gaming technology decreases (which isn’t likely, considering that newer technology is generated regularly) independent game designers may never be able to get a significant slice of the market.
  4. Better content writing!!! I think most gamers will know what I’m talking about.  While the quality of the visual aspects of videogames are on par with other forms of visual media, the writing is generally cliche and sophomoric.
  5. The degree of difficulty. Does degree of difficulty matter artistically?  I think it’s fair to say that most people would consider that both the creation and comprehension of any art form requires a certain level of skill.  Videogames certainly require skill.  Someone who has never played a videogame  would be hard-pressed to master Left for Dead or Fallout 3. However, as Lancaster states, “one of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy.” Here we have to think, again, of the role of the corporation and their desire to appeal to the bottom line in order to sell as many games as possible.  If a game is too difficult then players might get frustrated and not recommend the game.  Of course, the game can also be too easy and therefore a waste of time and money.  It has been stated in this blog previously that older games tend to have a higher degree of difficulty.  It is sad to think that the future of videogames might be an endless stream of “hollywood blockbuster” style games which are created to appeal to the widest possible audience and therefore require little skill to master.  Lancaster states, however, “if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desireable.”  Such is the state of modern life.

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