“Are video games art?” It’s not a phrase that’s often tossed around. When it is, it’s often in private conversations and hushed whispers. The medium’s biggest fans even fight against this, fearing that their shoot-em-ups will suddenly change into philosophical wanderings on the meaning of existence.
Video games are often criticized for being a lesser form of entertainment. How can we call them art? They’re only a few decades old. They lack the centuries of distinction and classics that painting, sculpture, literature, and theatre boast. Even movies have been around long enough for us to praise their artistic achievements.
So, are video games art? Here are five examples of how video games created meaningful, sometimes emotionally searing moments that spoke to our souls. Let’s avoid cutscenes because these can sometimes be understood as cinematic moments within games. To argue that video games can be art, we shouldn’t rely on those moments when other mediums of storytelling are used to break up video games. We should use the gameplay itself, the interactive moments that players are asked to inhabit and move through by their own agency. That’s what makes games different from every other medium of storytelling.
Major spoilers lie ahead for Mass Effect, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and The Walking Dead.
The number system most cultures use in our world is base-10. That means our numbers run 0-9 before they add a new column to represent higher numbers (the tens place, the hundreds place, etc.) In “Riven,” the sequel to breakout hit adventure game “Myst,” players were confronted with a base-25 number system. Single digit numbers ran up through 25, and the tens place only started once there were 26 of something. Confused? So were players tasked with learning the number system to solve puzzles in the game. With the technology at the time, players couldn’t interact in complex ways with other characters. You often saw the denizens of Riven duck away and hide when you came near. It made for a lonely journey through a fairly populated city.
It was details like happening across Riven’s school and learning basic counting that helped create an entirely alien-feeling culture. Players had to learn the number symbols and then the base-25 counting system, essentially tutoring themselves in another society’s grade-school math. This didn’t just feed into devious puzzles, it required the character to immerse themselves in one aspect of a totally unfamiliar culture.
The entire “Myst” series can sometimes feel archaeological, investigating abandoned ruins of cultures in hundreds of other dimensions, or Ages. Having to re-learn first grade math through another culture’s eyes hearkened to the anthropological science-fiction of Ursula K. le Guin. Players weren’t just told about another culture. They had to begin learning it and living it inside the world.
An iconic moment in sci-fi gaming, the first Mass Effect sees the commander you play have to make a lasting decision. Two members of the crew under her command are at opposite ends of a compound. They both need the help of you and your party. You can only save one. The decision is split-second.
There’s no time to weigh the thoughts of others. The game won’t allow you to leave the decision and come back to it later. You have to make it now. Two characters who you’ve gotten to know and talked with for hours, learning their history and their own struggles, are about to die. You can only save one. There is no cheat. There is no third option. The game won’t decide for you if you take too long. There is no way around it. There’s not even a right or wrong decision – the game won’t judge you for what you choose. You just have to decide and live with it.
Your decision has an impact throughout the rest of the entire Mass Effect trilogy, but you just have a single moment to make it. Later Mass Effect games would introduce even tougher choices for the player to decide. What seems like a third-person shooter lark through space becomes something much more profound. The franchise doesn’t get its due for the sociological rigors it puts player through. In wars between entire species, it’s almost impossible to make it through the entire trilogy without choosing to commit genocide at some point.
Spec Ops: The Line seemed like it would be yet one more mindless military shooter that posed anyone and anything un-American as an enemy who deserved getting shot. The game even starts with your elite military unit blazing through endless enemies. Yet soon, you find yourself employing barbaric measures against enemy soldiers.
At one point, you even shell enemies with white phosphorous – an incendiary chemical that burns through skin. Once its smoke is inhaled in this amount, it also burns a person’s respiratory tract from within. It is an incredibly painful death, and yet the use of white phosphorous is internationally legal in warfare. Spec Ops: The Line even includes a brief targeting mini-game – how fun!
Then it has you walk through the results. People burn around you. They beg you to kill them. Now shooting the endless enemies is an act of mercy due to your barbarity. If you want to play at war, Spec Ops: The Line says, then play war as it really is. When it turns out you’ve assessed the situation wrongly and annihilated a group of civilians seeking refuge, it simply becomes the cost of doing war. It’s clear midway through the game that you are not the good guys, and the game begins to hold it against you that you’re even playing it – one of the bravest and most startling choices in modern storytelling.
Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Are video games art,” the video game adaptation of The Walking Dead was Telltale Games’ breakthrough moment in crafting adventure games. The game was mostly about making choices – who do you save when zombies are attacking a family? Who do you trust enough to give the only gun? Do you fortify where you’re at or do you take a risk moving through dangerous territory to a safer location? As a convicted murderer protecting Clementine, a young survivor he’s come across, Lee isn’t the typical goody two-shoes protagonist. He becomes who you want him to be based on your decisions. Does he help others, or is he cold and ruthless? You get to decide as you play through the story.
Outside its phenomenal decision-making moments, The Walking Dead’s gameplay is fairly rudimentary. Yet in the end, as Lee slowly succumbs to a zombie bite, you’re no longer making Lee’s decisions. You’re using that rudimentary control system to direct Lee as to how to direct Clementine. That’s when you realize what the game’s really about. It’s not about who you craft Lee to be through your decisions. He was never going to make it anyway. It’s about who you craft Clementine to be through Lee’s decisions as her role model.
It’s a jaw dropping moment of realization, using a player’s agency in the game to create a moment only a video game can realize. The ending even gives you one final choice. Do you allow Lee to turn into a zombie, becoming the monster others have feared him to be? Or do you ask Clementine to shoot him before that can happen, and risk turning her into the monster others feared Lee might create of her?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is just like any other adventure game. As a private detective trying to find and help a young boy named Ethan Carter, the player walks through beautiful terrain while solving puzzles that make varying degrees of sense. The beautiful terrain is occasionally near-photorealistic. The game only takes a few hours to complete, but you can easily double that time by gawking.
As the puzzles get more ludicrous and span more and more genres, you can easily wonder how it’s all tied together. One puzzle involves chasing an alien and going to space, another sees you walking through portals in an old house, and yet another centers on avoiding a zombie to release an ancient beast. It almost seems like a child decided to to involve all his favorite stories in one game. Unfortunately, you discover that’s exactly the case.
The mystery that you uncover isn’t Ethan Carter’s location. Instead, you unveil that you’re just one more of the boy’s stories. Not only this, you’re trapped in the heartbreaking moment of the boy’s death, a moment that sees him looking to his stories one last time. The act of playing the game is the act of experiencing the boy’s last thoughts, his last escape in a moment of fear and panic. Suddenly, every moment you stood and gawked becomes a moment longer Ethan got to think of beauty. The longer you took solving a puzzle, the longer Ethan got to think of the story in which it took place. The character you play? His entire existence is an act of feeling beauty one last time in the face of tragedy.
Are video games art? As far as I’m concerned, they touch all the places in our emotional and spiritual selves that art does. Are video games art? In a word, absolutely.
Are video games art? What are the moments that prove this to you?