Painting With Pixels
Story by Keegan Clements-Housser
Photo by Jordan Brandt
Illustration by Isamu Jarman
Video games: they’ve been derided as a pointless waste of time by art critics, lambasted by public opinion as sources of degenerate behavior in children and teens, and declared ultimately irrelevant, if not dangerous, by politicians and policy makers the world over.
Mainstream media outlets have even granted video games the dubious honor of starring front and center in a variety of scandals. The Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas “Hot Coffee” controversy in 2005, where third-party modifications to the game revealed hidden code apparently used for an explicit sexual scene cut from the final release, is just one example of publicized news of gaming misconduct.
More serious allegations, such as the lawsuits filed against video game developers in the wake of the tragic Columbine and Thurston school shootings, have been central to video game history as well. Although unsuccessful, both in receiving damages and changing laws, the cases nevertheless demonstrated a public willingness to target games as causes of societal ills, much like the role rock music filled decades earlier.
Yet the newness of the medium and the challenges it has faced haven’t kept some organizations from taking note of video games. In fact, many museums have a keen interest in the continued development of games as an art form. Among them is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is planning to open an exhibition dedicated to video games in March 2012.
Entitled “The Art of Video Games,” the exhibition will take a look at the artistic progress made by video games since the first were released in the late 1940s. So far one theme has become strikingly clear to the exhibit’s organizers: video games have always been an art form.
“All video games include classic components of art—striking visuals, a powerful narrative, a strong point of view,” says Georgina Goodlander, Interpretive Programs Manager for the museum’s Luce Foundation Center for American Art and exhibition coordinator for the event. “What’s new is the role of the player.”
Interactivity has long been a stumbling block for critics attempting to assess the artistic merit of video games. How exactly do you critique art that, almost by definition, provides a different experience for each individual player?
Despite this question, exhibition organizers are adamant that video games are indeed artistic. And judging by the number of people who responded when Smithsonian organizers polled for the world’s top artistic games, the public agrees.
“When we decided to crowdsource the final list of 80 games that would be featured in the exhibition, more than 3.7 million votes were cast by people in 175 countries,” Goodlander says, referring to a poll that named older games such as Super Mario Brothers and Pac-Man as winners, in addition to more modern blockbuster titles such as Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3.
Even with the impressive results of the poll, however, Goodlander concedes that video games, like any new artistic medium, have their own questions to address.
“Video games face similar challenges to being accepted as have other new artistic media or movements throughout history,” she explains. “From abstract painting to photography to film, every new form that emerges challenges established definitions of art.”
For the people actually working on games, from the graphic designers to the 3-D modelers to the storyboard writers, there’s no question that their work is comparable to any other craft, especially when it comes to film. Although video games tend to have smaller special effects budgets and staff salaries than those in the movie business, the industries are highly similar. The end goal is to produce something engaging and innovative, something that supports a story’s theme, and something that fully immerses an audience in a new world. As many game developers point out, these characteristics alone should be enough to classify video games as art.
Fourteen-year veteran of the 3-D modeling business Lance Bass is one such artisan. A member of the Eugene-based game design group Dark Hare Studios, Bass says that a game can be a work of art even if it doesn’t provide an exceptionally strong experience in all areas. It can have value even if only one element is executed particularly well, be that in-game sound or graphics, storyline or characters.
“Within a game studio, there will be a premise,” Bass says. “It’ll be whether you want an art-driven game, something looking very pretty, something that’s very fun, or something that’s a little bit of both and functions well.”
Regardless, he says, the process of making a video game is just like any other artistic venture. The reason games aren’t yet universally treated as such is, Bass says, because of their relative infancy and the methods used.
“It’s a medium that [requires] everybody to abide by a certain amount of rules,” he explains. “Those rules are primarily driven by our current level of technology.” However, as Bass points out, these growing pains are fairly universal across the history of art.
For example, video games’ close cousin cinema went through a similar phase. When film first debuted in the late 1800s, many critics scoffed at the new medium, declaring it inferior to its most direct competition, traditional theater. After all, it lacked both color and sound.
In 1896, one critic, O. Winter of the London-based New Review, went so far as to declare film “life moving without purpose, without beauty, with no better impulse than a foolish curiosity … it proves the complete despair of modern realism.” Even when technological innovations such as sound and color were developed, they were greeted by critics as unnecessary amusements that distracted from the “true” art of cinematography.
Today, however, people flock to summer blockbusters while independent film festivals draw thousands from around the world. Over the years, film has matured into its present form and been received as an accepted medium of art.
Support from institutions such as the Smithsonian aside, will video games go the same way as far as the public is concerned? According to Jamin Warren, cofounder of gamer culture magazine Kill Screen and former Wall Street Journal reporter, they already have.
“The moment we started asking the question ‘Are games an art form?’ was about the same time the question stopped being relevant, at least on a macro level,” he says. “I think the better way to think of it is to ask what games qualify? Which ones are our ambassadors? Which ones do we feel will last the test of time?”
After all, Warren adds, all creative art forms produce works that certainly don’t qualify as art, or at least as good art. Yet the failures within the genres certainly don’t define the whole medium. In this respect, video games are no different.
For every objectively atrocious video game out there—from the industry-crashing E.T. or the deeply offensive Custer’s Revenge to more modern train wrecks of popular culture such as Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing—there have been at least a couple titles palatable enough to be considered art.
Then there are the true gems of game craft: titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII (both featured in the upcoming “The Art of Video Games” exhibition). Both also made the “top games of all time” lists of numerous industry critics, from IGN to GameSpot, and are considered masterpieces, with gaming gurus like IGN assistant editor Alex Navarro stating that Ocarina of Time was “the finest game I’ve ever played across any platform or genre.”
Games of this caliber did such an exceptional job of capturing players’ imaginations that they still enjoy devoted followings well over a decade after release. Titles like Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII shaped the very culture of gaming into what it is today; one need only look at the results of any major Internet search to get a glimpse of the massive following such games have (Final Fantasy VII alone has more than 20 million hits).
Yet many contemporary critics, such as the avowedly anti-video game film critic Roger Ebert, who infamously proclaimed that “video games can never be art,” seem exceedingly reluctant to accept even high caliber games. The reason, Warren says, is because of the preconceptions people carry with them.
“We bring a lot of baggage and expectations from other mediums to video games,” Warren says. “When people look at games, they often evaluate them in the same way as film, and then make bad value judgments … because games don’t work like that.”
So what, in the end, truly defines games as art worthy of attention from a body as august as the Smithsonian American Art Museum? There may be no clear answer, but Warren feels he might have the best one available: video games create an immersive experience that appeals to our emotions.
“That’s what any good art form should do,” he says. “It should make you feel angry, or sad, or frustrated—feel the entire gamut of human emotions. Insofar as games do that, I think they certainly qualify.”