When I was two years old, my parents sat me down in front of their Super Nintendo, popped in a dusty “Super Mario World” cartridge (feeling nostalgic yet?), and asked me if I wanted to play a ‘silly game.’ To their astonishment, I was a natural – within a few weeks, I had crossed the Donut Plains, traversed Chocolate Island and was well on my way to defeating Bowser, whom I found to be an unimpressive villain even as a toddler. Thus began my love affair with the medium of video games.
For my friends and me, and, I speculate, for an entire generation of nerdy young men, video games were the backdrop upon which the drama of childhood played out. That’s not to say that we weren’t doing other things – our lives were also packed with school plays, sports and first kisses – but the important conversations, those late-night chats about hip-hop and the meaning of life, all happened in front of an Xbox.
We treated a round of “Halo” the way middle-aged men treat a round of golf.
Despite the important position that video games had in my life, they never were able to shake the vague sense of disrepute that has haunted them since their invention. My parents, who didn’t bat an eye at the countless hours I spent alone with novels, denounced games as a waste of time. Frankly, even I dismissed them as nothing more than a fun diversion.
But in recent years, a view has spread from somewhat expected circles into the haughty, respectable mainstream of the art world: Video games can be as expressive as any other artistic medium, and should not be precluded from the designation of ‘art.’
Not all are on board. Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, published an article on his website several years ago with the inflammatory title Video Games Can Never Be Art. In the article, which is framed as a response to a TED talk on the artistic status of video games, Ebert considers several games that have been put forward as particularly artistic. His dismissal of these games strikes one less as well-reasoned argument and more as fodder for a Comedy Central roast of video games. Of “Waco Resurrection” Ebert says: “[it] may indeed be a great game, but as potential art it still hasn’t reached the level of chicken scratches”; of “Braid,” Ebert opines: “the story…exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie”. These types of dismissals are only taken seriously because of Ebert’s reputation as an arbiter of Good Taste (capitalization intended). They do little to actually persuade.
To his credit, Ebert points out one major problem with video games as art: “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game.” A person cannot ‘win’ a novel, a film, or a sculpture the way one can win a game of “Call of Duty,” the argument goes – might not video games fit better into a category with chess and football than with literature and film?
To respond to this line of argument, I must first stress the distinction between medium and content. ‘Books’ are a medium through which many kinds of content are expressed, including novels, shopping catalogs and Sudoku. ‘Film’ is a medium through which Hollywood films, sports broadcasts and documentaries are expressed. Within each medium we might consider certain types of content to be art, while withholding the designation from others. For example, most people consider literature to be an art form, while sports broadcasts, shopping catalogs and Sudoku are rarely considered such.
In the realm of video games, there has historically been little distinction between medium and content – a “video game” is a type of content expressed through the medium of “video game.” I propose to make this distinction more explicit. Let “interactive media” refer to the medium as a whole. This accurately reflects the primary characteristic that distinguishes video games from everything else: they require the active participation of at least one person.
Within interactive media, we can now distinguish between several categories of content. Let’s start with the type that most superficially resembles games like chess and football: this includes sports simulations like “FIFA” and “Madden,” as well as simple arcade games like “Tetris” and “Pong.” It would be hard to argue that these games could be considered art without also lending that designation to real-life sports, and I make no attempt to do so here. However, the fact that a non-artistic type of content is expressed through a medium does not render that medium incapable of expressing art.
“Gone Home,” a recent indie-game release, is a perfect example of the artistry that can be achieved within interactive media. In the game, you play Kaitlin, a girl who has just come home from a vacation in Europe to find that her family is not at home. By searching through the empty house and reading notes and diaries, you slowly piece together a story about a failing marriage and a young woman who is struggling to understand her sexuality. There are no trolls to slay. No princesses to save. Just a quiet exploration of love, family and the end of childhood. The Roger Eberts of the world might even enjoy it, if only they gave themselves the chance.
My favorite works of art are those that change the way that I interact with the world: “Infinite Jest,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Catch-22.” To this pantheon I now proudly add “The Last of Us” and “Braid.” Let the haughty old-guard sneer at these ‘silly games’. My friends and I will continue to appreciate them for the aesthetic feats that they are.
Contact Joel Gottsegen at joeligy ‘at’ stanford.edu.