Whenever a new medium comes along, artists and critics are quick to voice their disdain. It happened when affordable printing processes allowed the production of “pulp” fiction, but many of those titles now have a cult following. It happened with movies and it happened again with TV. Today, we accept without question that there are some movies that are just mindless fun and others that are important works of art, providing cultural commentary and making us think about the way we see the world. What about videogames?
How Media Matures
It takes a long time for a new medium to become accepted as an art form. When the first moving pictures were produced they couldn’t come close to rivalling real theatre. The images were grainy and black and white. There was no sound and production values were low. Movies were a novelty and the quality of the story wasn’t as important as the experience of seeing something moving on a screen.
Over the course of several decades technology improved and the writing and acting improved with it, leading to the production of movies that could stand up to examination on their own as a form of art. By then, we had a new medium to snub: TV. Television was a novelty because it was like having a movie theatre in your own home, but made-for-TV movies were generally low quality and episodic TV shows lacked both the production values and the writing standards of Hollywood movies. Recently, shows such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have challenged that notion.
Videogames are going through a similar evolution. Early arcade games such as Pac-Man and Pong were primitive games which relied on their mechanics to make them fun. There was no acting, no dialogue and no real story to speak of. You were given an objective and you had fun trying to achieve it. When personal computers became available developers started to give their videogames back stories, but these were simply short stories printed on the cassette tape inlay. The story might have explained that you are Sergeant McKinley, your Platoon was killed by aliens and you have sworn to hunt aliens for the rest of your life for revenge, but that’s as far as it would go. Once you loaded up the videogame the objective would be simple: shoot aliens and try not to get shot yourself.
Videogames Are More than Just Stories
In the last few years videogames have come a long way. Computers are far more powerful and this means that videogames can have better graphics, more audio and a wider range of input methods. This has led to a split in the way that developers approach their craft.
Some developers have pushed for photo-realistic graphics, true physics and voice acting. These developers are trying to recreate the movie experience, placing players in the middle of what is, essentially, a highly immersive interactive story. Other developers have taken a more abstract approach, opting out of the technology arms race and focusing on finding new and innovative game play and story elements. Both of these approaches have created immersive, interesting and emotive experiences. Videogames such as The Walking Dead, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Machinarium all tell interesting stories and evoke strong responses from their players.
To decide whether videogames are art, we have to first decide what ‘art’ is. If art is defined as a creative work that required skill and imagination to produce, then yes, videogames are art. If a work must make people think, evoke an emotional response and challenge the viewer in order to qualify, then a lot of modern videogames do deserve to be called art in the same way as motion-picture productions.
Buying videogames is just as valid a choice for spending your disposable income as picking up some boxoffice theatre tickets. Many AAA videogame titles offer forty hours of entertainment, or more in the case of online videogames. This makes videogames great value for money. If videogames entertain people and make them happy, perhaps that alone means that they are art.