Video games as an art form
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The concept of video games as a form of art is a controversial topic within the entertainment industry. Though video games have been afforded legal protection as creative works by the Supreme Court of the United States, the philosophical proposition that video games are works of art remains in question, even when considering the contribution of expressive elements such as graphics, storytelling and music. Even art games, games purposely designed to be a work of creative expression, have been challenged as works of art by some critics.
The earliest institutional consideration of the video game as an art form came in the late 1980s when art museums began retrospective displays of then outdated first and second generation games. In exhibitions such as the Museum of the Moving Image's 1989 "Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade", video games were showcased as preformed works whose quality as art came from the intent of the curator to display them as art. Further explorations of this theme were set up in the late 1990s and early 2000s with exhibitions like the Walker Art Center's "Beyond Interface" (1998), the online "Cracking the Maze - Game Plug-Ins as Hacker Art" (1999), the UCI Beall Centre's "Shift-Ctrl" (2000), and a number of shows in 2001.
Despite the museum and art worlds' tentative overtures, however, questions about whether video games could be regarded as expressive media at this point were typically answered in the negative. American courts had first begun examining the question of whether video games were entitled to constitutional guarantees of free speech as under the first amendment, as early as March 1982 in the case of America's Best Family Showplace Corp. v. City of New York, Dept. of Bldgs.. In a brace of similarly decided lawsuits in 1982 and 1983, precedent began to be established for finding that video games were no more expressive than pinball, chess, board- or card-games, or organized sports. This began to change in 2000 as some courts began to make rulings in distinction and carving out narrow exceptions for some elements of video games. By April 2002, however, controversy over the topic was still a legal reality as Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Sr., upon reviewing gameplay from "'The Resident of Evil Creek' [sic], 'Mortal Combat' [sic], 'DOOM,' and 'Fear Effect'" ruled in Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County that "just like Bingo, the Court fails to see how video games express ideas, impressions, feelings, or information unrelated to the game itself."
The concept of the video game as a Duchamp-style readymade or as "found art" resonated with early developers of the art game. In her 2003 Digital Arts and Culture paper, "Arcade Classics Span Art? Current Trends in the Art Game Genre", professor Tiffany Holmes noted that a significant emerging trend within the digital art community was the development of playable video game pieces referencing or paying homage to earlier classic works like Breakout, Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Burgertime. In modifying the code of simplistic early games or by creating art mods for more complex games like Quake, the art game genre emerged from the intersection of commercial games and contemporary digital art
At the 2010 Art History of Games conference in Atlanta, Georgia, professor Celia Pearce further noted that alongside Duchamp's art productions, the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, and most immediately the New Games Movement had paved the way for more modern "art games". Works such as Lantz' Pac Manhattan, according to Pearce, have become something like performance art pieces. Most recently, a strong overlap has developed between art games and indie games. This meeting of the art game movement and the indie game movement is important according to Professor Pearce, insofar as it brings art games to more eyes and allows for greater potential to explore in indie games.
In March 2006, the French Minister of Culture first characterized video games as cultural goods and as "a form of artistic expression," granting the industry a tax subsidy and inducting two French game designers (Michel Ancel, Frédérick Raynal) and one Japanese game designer (Shigeru Miyamoto) into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In May 2011, the United States National Endowment for the Arts, in accepting grants for art projects for 2012, expanded the allowable projects to include "interactive games", furthering the recognition of video games as an art form. Similarly, the United States Supreme Court ruled that video games were protected speech like other forms of art in the June 2011 decision for Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.
The lines between video games and art become blurred when exhibitions fit the labels of both game and interactive art. The Smithsonian American Art Museum held an exhibit in 2012, entitled "The Art of Video Games", which was designed to demonstrate the artistic nature of video games, including the impact of older works and the subsequent influence of video games on creative culture. The Smithsonian later added Flower and Halo 2600, games from this collection, as permanent exhibits within the museum. Similarly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has aimed to collect forty historically important video games in their original format to use as exhibits to showcase video games as an art form. The annual "Into the Pixel" art exhibit held at the time of the Electronic Entertainment Expo highlights video game art selected by a panel of both video game and art industry professionals.
The characterization of games as works of art has been controversial. While critics have never denied that games may contain artistic elements in their traditional forms such as graphic art, music, and story, several notable figures have advanced the position that games are not artworks, and may never be capable of being called art. Further fueling the debate are the difficulties involved in defining the word "art" (as for instance in analyzing static versus interactive art) and the word "game" (for example, regarding the centrality of plot and the classification of nongames).
In a 2010 interview with Nora Young for Spark, Jim Munroe identified part of the problem with the identification of games as art as the fact that video games represent a very new medium and that some critics find novelty alarming. Munroe suggested that video games often face a double standard in that if they conform to traditional notions of the game as a toy for children then they are flippantly dismissed as trivial and non-artistic but if they push the envelope by introducing serious adult themes into games then they face negative criticism and controversy for failing to conform to the very standards of non-artistic triviality demanded by these traditional notions. He further identified the mischaracterization of the kind of art that video games represent as one of the problems facing the field and explained that unlike the adaptation of literature into film which consists of the one-way non-interactive presentation of a linear plot, the development of video games is more closely comparable to the design of architecture where the game designer creates a virtual (often 3D) space or world and lets players loose in it to experience it on their own terms.
Roger Ebert on video games as art
The question of whether video games may be fairly considered art rose to wide public attention in the mid-2000s when film critic Roger Ebert participated in a series of controversial debates and published colloquies. In 2005, following an online discussion concerning whether or not knowledge of the game Doom was essential to a proper appreciation of the film Doom (which Ebert had awarded one star) as a commentary on the game, Ebert described video games as a non-artistic medium incomparable to the more established art forms:
To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
In 2006, Ebert took part in a panel discussion at the Conference on World Affairs entitled "An Epic Debate: Are Video Games an Art Form?" in which he stated that video games don't explore the meaning of being human as other art forms do. A year later, in response to comments from Clive Barker on the panel discussion, Ebert further noted that video games present a malleability that would otherwise ruin other forms of art. As an example, Ebert posed the idea of a version of Romeo & Juliet that would allow for an optional happy ending. Such an option, according to Ebert, would weaken the artistic expression of the original work. In April 2010, Ebert published an essay, dissecting a presentation made by Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany at the 2009 Technology Entertainment Design Conference, where he again claimed that games can never be art, due to their rules and goal-based interactivity.
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a [sic] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
Ebert's essay was strongly criticized by the gaming community, including Santiago herself, who believes that video games as artistic media are only at their infancy, similar to prehistoric cave paintings of the past. Ebert later amended his comments in 2010, conceding that games may indeed be art in a non-traditional sense, that he had enjoyed playing Cosmology of Kyoto, and addressing some replies to his original arguments.
Although Ebert did not engage with the issue again and his view remains mired in controversy, the notion that video games are ineligible to be considered fine art due to their commercial appeal and structure as choice-driven narratives has proved persuasive for many including video game luminary Brian Moriarty who in March 2011 gave a lecture on the topic entitled An Apology For Roger Ebert. In this lecture Moriarty emphasized that video games are merely an extension of traditional rule-based games and that there has been no call to declare games like Chess and Go to be art. He went on to argue that art in the sense that Romantics like Ebert, Schopenhauer, and he were concerned with (i.e. fine art or sublime art) is exceptionally rare and that Ebert was being consistent by declaring video games to be without artistic merit inasmuch as Ebert had previously claimed that "Hardly any movies are art." Moriarty decried the modern expansion of the definition of "art" to include low art, comparing video games to kitsch and describing aesthetic appreciation of video games as camp. After addressing the corrupting influence of commercial forces in indie games and the difficulty of setting out to create art given the "slippery" tools that game designers must work with, Moriarty concluded that ultimately it was the fact that player choices were presented in games that structurally invalidated the application of the term "art" to video games as the audience's interaction with the work wrests control from the author and thereby negates the expression of art. This lecture was in turn criticized sharply by noted video game artist, Zach Gage.
Other notable critics
In a 2006 interview with US Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, game designer Hideo Kojima agreed with Ebert's assessment that video games are not art. Kojima acknowledged that games may contain artwork, but he stressed the intrinsically popular nature of video games in contrast to the niche interests served by art. Since the highest ideal of all video games is to achieve 100% player satisfaction whereas art is targeted to at least one person, Kojima argued that video game creation is more of a service than an artistic endeavor.
At the 2010 Art History of Games conference, Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey (founding members of indie studio Tale of Tales), argued in no uncertain terms that games "are not art" and that they are by and large "a waste of time." Central to Tale of Tales' distinction between games and art is the purposive nature of games as opposed to art: Whereas humans possess a biological need that is only satisfied by play, argues Samyn, and as play has manifested itself in the form of games, games represent nothing more than a physiological necessity. Art, on the other hand, is not created out of a physical need but rather it represents a search for higher purposes. Thus the fact that a game acts to fulfill the physical needs of the player is sufficient, according to Samyn, to disqualify it as art.
Gamers were surprised by this controversial stance due to the frequency of prior third-party characterizations of Tale of Tales' productions as "art games," however Tale of Tales clarified that the games they were making simply expanded the conception of games. The characterization of their games as "art games," noted Samyn, was merely a byproduct of the imaginative stagnation and lack of progressivism in the video game industry. While Tale of Tales acknowledged that old media featuring one-way communication was not enough, and that two-way communication via computers offers the way forward for art, the studio argued that such communication today is being held hostage by the video game industry. To enable and foment this futuristic two-way art, suggests Tale of Tales, the concept of "the game" must be eviscerated by games that do not fit within the current paradigm and then "life must be breathed into the carcass" through the creation of artworks Samyn and Harvey refer to as "not games."
In 2011, Samyn further refined his argument that games are not art by emphasizing the fact that games are systematic and rule-based. Samyn identified an industry emphasis on gameplay mechanics as directly responsible for the marginalization of artistic narrative in games and he described modern video games as little more than digital sport. Pointing to systemic problems, Samyn criticized the current model whereby the putative artist must work through a large and highly efficient development team who may not share the artist's vision. However, Samyn does not reject the idea that games, as a medium, can be used to create art. To create art using the medium of the video game Samyn suggests that the artistic message must precede the means of its expression in the guidance of gameplay mechanics, the development of "funness" or economic considerations must cease to guide the work's creation, and the development process must embrace a model wherein a single artist-author's vision gains central primacy.
List of artistic video games
This is a partial list of video games considered to be works of art by art critics and video game reviewers.
- Tempest (1981) – an arcade tube shooter with vector graphics by Atari Inc. PBS Idea Channel described it as a strongly aesthetic experience, comparing it to paintings.
- The Myst series, beginning in 1991 with Myst – a graphic adventure based on pre-rendered scenarios and a strongly atmospheric, immersive setting. The level of detail allowed by the use of CD-ROM as the storage media was a technical achievement at the time, praised for the way the limitations of the format were overcome and used as part of the game story.
- Cosmology of Kyoto (1995) – an open world graphic adventure exploring Japanese myths in ancient Kyoto. Together with Myst, it was reviewed by film critic Roger Ebert in a column on whether video games can be art.
- EarthBound (1995, SNES) - Created by essayist Shigesato Itoi, this role-playing video game ignores many of the conventions of JRPGs at the time and focuses on creating an emotional response out of the player rather than revolutionizing gameplay. Instead of being inspired by video games, much of the game's humor, story, characters, and set pieces are inspired by writers like Kurt Vonnegut and musical groups like The Beatles. To this day, the game has one of the largest cult followings of any video game.
- Final Fantasy VII (1997, PlayStation) – considered by many to be one of the best role-playing video games, its story includes the death of a major character, aimed to give the player an emotional stake in the game.
- Grim Fandango (1998, LucasArts, Microsoft Windows) – An adventure game which combines elements of film noir with aspects of Aztec mythology.
- Planescape: Torment (1999, Black Isle Studios, Microsoft Windows) – A cult-classic role-playing game that was praised for its detailed writing, defined characters, unique setting and the use of death to progress the story.
- Vib Ribbon (1999, NanaOn-Sha, PlayStation) - a rhythm game known for its' unique vector graphics artstyle. Vib Ribbon was collected as part of a video game exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
- Galatea (2000, Microsoft Windows) – Rock, Paper, Shotgun analyzes it as an art game saying that it "transcends that", and calls it "literature" and "not an art game [but] a game about art".
- Deus Ex (2000, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Cloud (OnLive), Playstation 2, Playstation 3 (PSN)) - Ion Storm's cyberpunk-themed video game has been considered a work of art due to it's interactive storyline.
- Max Payne (2001, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2) – a highly acclaimed third-person shooter developed by Remedy Entertainment. The game was praised for its use of neo-noir storytelling devices. 
- Ico (2001, PlayStation 2) – a title created by Team Ico that has often been cited as an example of art in games due to its immersive gameplay, evoking narrative and unique style.
- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001, PlayStation 2) – a stealth game by Hideo Kojima that has been cited as a primary example of artistic expression in video games.
- MusicVR (2002-2004, Microsoft Windows) – a series of two video games, Tres Lunas (2002) and Maestro (2004), under the creative design of English musician Mike Oldfield. Each one set out to be a real-time virtual reality experience combining imagery and music, as a non-violent and essentially a non-goal driven game.
- Half-Life 2 (2004, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) – a highly acclaimed first-person shooter developed by Valve Corporation. The game was praised for its artwork, storyline and storytelling, characterization, facial animation, and use of physics.
- Yume Nikki (2005, Microsoft Windows) – An independently-developed freeware game that has the player explore the dreams of a hikkikomori little girl known only as "Madotsuki" as she encounters numerous surreal characters and events while collecting "Effects", most of which do little more than alter her appearance. Yume Nikki has an extremely large fan-base and numerous fan-made tribute games and unofficial sequels have been made.
- The Endless Forest (2005, Microsoft Windows) – Originally commissioned for an art exhibition, The Endless Forest is an MMO in the broader sense of the word. As a stag, the player roams around the forest and interact with other players; though not by words, but by sounds and body language. Another unique feature is that all players are recognizable by their unique symbol and customized appearance, but are otherwise anonymous.
- Ōkami (2006, PlayStation 2, Wii) – An adventure game based on numerous Japanese myths, the game's graphics were designed to appear similar to sumi-e watercolor paintings, and incorporated art-based brushstrokes by the player to execute special moves.
- Shadow of the Colossus (2006, PlayStation 2) – a title created by Team Ico that is a spiritual successor and prequel to Ico. The game is regarded as an important work of art due to its minimalist landscape designs, strong aesthetic, immersive gameplay, powerful narrative and emotional journey. Shadow of the Colossus has been referenced numerous times in debates regarding art and video games.
- BioShock (2007, Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, Mac OS, Cloud (OnLive), Playstation 3) – a title created by Irrational Games then known as 2k Boston, that is a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. The game is regarded as an important work of art due to its immersive atmosphere, compelling storytelling[according to whom?] and the narrative deconstruction of linear gameplay.
- Portal (2007, PC, Xbox 360, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 3) – a puzzle game developed by Valve Corporation, involving the use of portals to transport the player through space. The game was praised for its innovative mechanics, narrative and storytelling, and writing, especially praising the character of GLaDOS. This game recently became featured as part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibit "Applied Design".
- Braid (2008, PC, Xbox 360, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 3) – a puzzle-platform game developed by Number None, Inc., which uses time manipulation as its core mechanic. The game is notable for its painterly art style, layered philosophical narrative, and unique approach to game design.
- Flower (2009, PlayStation 3) – Developed by thatgamecompany, the player "controls" a gust of wind through motion controls, guiding it to various flowers around a landscape to gather petals. The gameplay was designed to provoke an emotional response from the player, and was chosen as one of the games shown at The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
- Deadly Premonition (2010, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows) – A survival horror that has been described "the strangest video game of the year" and a primary example of "games as art", praised for its "emotional range, from traditional survival horror scares to farcical comedy".
- Heavy Rain (2010, PlayStation 3) – An interactive movie where the player enters quick time events during various sequences, including intense, rapid-paced scenes. The results of the player's choices or actions can cause one of the four main characters to die while the story continues on, causing the player to become invested in the game's story.
- Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, OnLive) – A survival horror game praised for its horror elements, particularly its atmosphere and sound, with many critics regarding it as one of their most scary experiences.
- Child of Eden (2011, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) – Similar to Rez, a game made to pass the feeling of synesthesia and expressing subjectively the evolution, the human feelings and evolution of society.
- The Cat and the Coup (2011, Microsoft Windows) – A documentary video game about the life of Mohammad Mosaddegh, former Prime Minister of Iran.
- Dwarf Fortress (2012, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux) – A roguelike, city-building game where the player creates an expansive world each play-through, allowing them to envision the history and culture for their civilization each time around.
- Dear Esther (2012, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux) – a first person video game centered around its graphical environment and story. The narrative is provided through monologues as the player journeys through the environment.
- Journey (2012, PlayStation 3); Developed by thatgamecompany, this game has been described as an emotional experience, due to its immersive setting, distinctive visual style, and de-emphasized gameplay.
- Spec Ops: The Line (2012, Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3, Xbox 360) – A third person shooter created by Yager that deconstructs the "shooter genre". Inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops: The Line dwells heavily on themes of moral ambiguity, as the player finds themselves struggling to justify their actions in the plot.
- The Walking Dead (2012, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Playstation Vita, iOS, Android) - Set in the world of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed comic book series, The Walking Dead has been widely praised for its well-crafted story, meaningful player decisions, and believable characters. It is often considered one of the greatest examples of storytelling in video games.
- BioShock Infinite (2013, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) – Set in 1912 during the flourishing of American Exceptionalism, the game's setting of Columbia challenges concepts of nationalism, religion and racism prevalent during that period, as to provide a "funhouse mirror of American ideological history", according to Ben Popper of The Verge.
- The Last of Us (2013, PlayStation 3) – A game set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, the Naughty Dog-developed title has been stated to be "a masterful marriage of storytelling and game design" and considered the "most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of [the seventh] console generation".
- Papers, Please (2013, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux) – a border control simulation game where a political uprising plot develops in the background of mechanical, grinding gameplay that mimics the mechanical, repetitive work of an immigration officer in a fictional country, presenting the player with ethical and moral choices between job and family.
- Proteus (2013, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita) – A procedurally generated game that allows players to explore an expanse of musical environment, where every creature and plant has its own unique musical signature to accompany it, resulting in changes according to where players explore.
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013, PS3, PC, Xbox 360) – A story driven game praised for its story, gameplay and experience which it provides. This game has no intelligible dialogue yet provides players with a powerful story and experience.
- Gone Home (2013, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux) – Gone Home is praised for its narration, gameplay and atmosphere. The story involves a girl who returns to her new home after a long time abroad.
- Kentucky Route Zero (2013-2014, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux) – an indie episodic point and click adventure game with the focus of the game being storytelling and a "beautiful" atmosphere. The game features a twisting, self-referential narrative, as well as deep characterization through evocative dialogue. Kentucky Route Zero was named Game of the Year in 2013 by Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
- Elegy for a Dead World (2014, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux) – a side-scrolling exploration game where the player writes a diary visible to other players. The player explores three worlds inspired by romantic poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats. While exploring, the player is prompted to make notes on their observations; notes are publicly visible via Steam Workshop. The collective note taking mechanic, representing not only an artistic game experience but also the ability of sandbox-style games to support further collaborative artistic creation by their players, earned it an honorable mention for the Nuovo Award in the 2014 Independent Games Festival.
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