Video Games as Art

by clysm  |  written in 2002

In 1958, a physicist in a nuclear research laboratory created a simple tennis game on an oscilloscope for bored visitors to the laboratory's open-houses. People waited hours in line to play it. When a single prototype of Atari's Pong was placed in a bar one day in 1972, a bartender allegedly called later that evening to have the game removed because it was broken. It turned out to have jammed because it was too full of quarters. And these examples don't begin to describe the growth of the video game industry since those times. In sales and in popularity, video games now rival, and some say even eclipse, the lucrative film industry.

But what are video games? Are they merely toys or games, or can they be art? In exploring the nature and potential of video games, it becomes clear that they not only can be art, but a form of art with potential to be more effective than any other medium in aesthetically conveying feelings and experiences.

Before I begin, I think it is useful to confront my own bias. Am I giving this medium more merit than it deserves because I hold an interest in it? People sometimes defend specific types or works of art or other causes more than the objects might deserve because they have some sort of affinity for them. I might adopt something as an honorary part of my personality, championing it in order to feel unique and independent and to have some sort of purpose.

Video games have always been a major part of my life, and I have had extensive experience with a great number of them. In considering their appeal to me, I can't see it as anything but aesthetic. Although video games are commonly used as a simple diversion, the art experience that high-quality video games deliver is the primary value I receive from them. Any form of art can be ignorantly used by the spectator and even the artist in a casual way that does not explore a fraction of its potential. There may not be anything wrong with such shallow transactions. If they fill a need for the artist and the spectator, then who am I to say that they are wrong? But if someone's only impression of a thing is superficial due to poor examples or prejudice, they may disregard all related items as unworthy of their consideration and miss out on something worthwhile.

My purpose is not to have the general public accept video games as art to achieve some sort of ideological victory. Public acceptance of something does not make the thing any more valuable. In many cases, it seems that widespread public approval accompanies things that are not especially noteworthy. Part of my purpose is to address misconceptions and overgeneralizations based on limited experience, and acknowledge certain existing video games as examples of excellent art that would stand up to most critical standards of distinguishing art from non-art. This is not the most important part of it for me, as I disagree with most such standards in the first place. The other part of my purpose is to explore the potential of the medium. Even if truly great artistic achievements in video games are presently limited, and although such achievements may, and should, appear under other labels (see answer 2), video games will continue to become an increasingly important form of art.

Three Opposing Views

People establish various standards to separate art from things disguised as or mistaken for art. Although I often consider discussions that aim to segregate art from non-art within a given medium a fruitless and even absurd display of elitist arrogance, I realize that such views are widespread, and that there may be relatively few who would consider video games inherently art as a medium. Here are three possible viewpoints of those who would reject my claim:

Opponent 1:
"Video games are nothing but children's toys to be (hopefully) grown out of and replaced with something more meaningful. Even those targeted at older demographics are at best merely amusement, and at worst a mind-numbing waste of time."

Opponent 2:
"From what I have seen of video games, they are simply what their name suggests, games presented on a video screen. A game may have some traditional forms of art involved in its design, but the game itself is incapable of expressing anything. If there is skill involved, it is craft, not art."

Opponent 3:
"Video games are inherently mass-produced items created to make money. Any perceived personal expression by their creators is counterfeit or consumed in economic considerations."

Answer to Opposition 1

To address this, I must first establish video games as art, and then counter the idea of their being merely amusement. The best way I can think of to establish video games as art is to find fundamental qualities of other media that exist in the same way in video games.

Video games don't just contain elements of music, they contain music itself. As in films, a soundtrack is often composed specifically for a game. * Also as in films, the soundtrack is sometimes taken from other pre-existing sources, from Bach and Beethoven to techno and punk rock. Insofar that music is an integral part of a film, it is a part of a video game, and for the same reasons.

One stigma attached to video game music is its use of analog synthesizers. In the past, this was a result of technological limitations. An electronic device could only produce electronic sounds. Each game system had its own internal synthesizer for game developers to work with. Sometimes a few short digital samples could be included, but storage capacity prevented extensive use of anything pre-recorded. Many recent video games have moved away from synthesized sounds, using instead more traditional styles and instruments. I myself much prefer games (and films) with original music to those with licensed or otherwise borrowed soundtracks. To go further with this point, I would have to address my personal affinity for analog synthesizers in general, even, and especially, the type used in old video games. But that's a topic for another discussion.

Video games contain music, but does the presence of music make them art?

* The soundtracks of many video games are sold separately on CDs, much like film soundtracks. Another trend is to have an orchestra perform an arrangement to be recorded.

Visual Art
Although many of the stereotypical images associated with video games are simple pixellated* forms, computer graphics today can create objects and scenes indistinguishable from reality. Many games use such photorealistic graphics to create impressive objects, characters, and scenes. And with the potential for an accurate depiction of reality comes, of course, the further potential for complete freedom in abstract art. Any two-dimensional effect that can be achieved using other means can be reproduced for use in a video game. Some titles use hand-drawn pictures, even exclusively. Others use painted backdrops. Still others use photography. Even sculpture has its counterpart--many video games contain three-dimensional characters in 3D worlds. Many video games contain an amalgam of all of these elements distilled into something entirely new.

This is basically a description of the potential of computer graphics in general. But does sharing this potential make video games art?

* The term pixel stands for "picture element." Computer graphics consist of a grid of squares of different colors. In earlier days of computer graphics, these squares were much more noticeable, making images appear "pixellated."

One of the closest relatives that video games have among the established art forms is film. Like films, video games are usually a collaborative effort. The staff developing a game might include musicians, graphic designers, animators, writers, and of course programmers. As some films are created by just a few people or even by a single person, so are some video games. Films comprise several different forms or art. Video games often comprise these very same elements. The same visual and aural techniques are used, and often in the same way. Many video games have actual film sequences within them at various points.

But does resembling film make video games art?

It may be surprising to some that many video games involve writers. With action and sports video games so popular, those with actual storylines can be overlooked by a casual observer. Sometimes an action game may present some sort of background story to give a setting for the action taking place, and a more involved strategy game may have the framework of a plot, with elements unfolded as a player progresses, but games also exist that are primarily story-based.

Games with storylines are sometimes generically called role-playing games (RPGs). This is based on paper-and-pencil games such as Dungeons and Dragons, where players create characters and interact within a storyline invented by writers or other players. Story-based video games can resemble traditional RPGs in many ways. It can be said that a video game RPG is a traditional RPG with more artistic elements added, most obviously sound and visuals. It may be important to consider whether the storyline for a paper-and-pencil RPG is art placed within the framework of a game. A video game can resemble and can even be based on a novel, a short story, or another type of literature.

But does the presence of literature in video games make them art?

Video games would seem to potentially contain everything that makes these other art forms art. But are they then just some sort of patchwork of legitimate forms of art? I contend that this argument can be leveled at film much more readily than it can be leveled at video games. And in answer to that, although films combine several distinct elements, the whole is greater than a sum of its parts. You can get something more from a film than you can get from listening to the music, reading the script, and looking at each of the actors and props. This may seem silly, but I think it makes a point about the nature of video games. They are not simply stealing from other media, but creating something new from the combined elements. And I said that the above contention can more readily be applied to film because video games contain an element that makes them yet more unique--interaction. To experience a form of art is to get out of it whatever makes it art. I can be engrossed in a book, a piece of music, a film, or a work of visual art. When these elements are all combined, and I am not only an outside observer but taking an actual role in the art work, this is another kind of experience altogether.

As for the part of the opponent's argument dealing with amusement, this is an issue that seems unavoidable when discussing video games. A video game can be used as a mere diversion, especially a video game designed for such a use. Any form of art can be used (or misused, depending on your viewpoint) in the same way. Toys are often simplified objects parallel to something in the world of adults. There are toy cars, toy guns, and toy houses. A video game may resemble a toy if its elements are simple and if it is aimed at an audience of children, and such video games exist, just as children's books exist. But video games can, and do, have deeper elements. They can contain the best that each of the forms of art that they contain has to offer. To call video games inherently "toys" is effectively to do so for every other art form. Interest in other types of art is seen by some as a thing to be "outgrown" and replaced with more "mature" interests. Parents sometimes buy video games for their children and are shocked to discover explicit content in a "toy." It is sad if the introduction of such elements into video games must be the vehicle for someone's acceptance of them as worthy of mature audiences. The very label mature on such video games, as on films and other media, might be more accurate if changed to immature. The idea of "growing out of" or "growing up" within a form of art often implies an increased interest in more explicit material, or in unrelated things involving preoccupation with money and social status. I see such indoctrination as harmful.

Finally, the detractor may employ on the waste of time argument because he knows of someone who has played video games in excess--that is, at the expense of things the detractor considers more meaningful. This can be a legitimate concern if the player really is spending too much time with video games, or it can be simply an attempt to force one's priorities on another. In either case, any form of art can be substituted for video games. The detractor may be one who would consider any appreciation of a form of art beyond casual consideration wasteful, or at least forms of art that are foreign to him. To an extreme, he might think that art itself is fundamentally trivial, and useful only for amusement.

Answer to Opposition 2

Terminology is a large obstacle in the way of acceptance of video games as art, and if art, meaningful art. The term video game itself seems to call up examples of electronic replicas of sports or tabletop board games. The functionality and simplicity implied by this connotation does of course apply directly to many video games. With the word game comes the verb play. These terms cheapen video games that are more than just games--the medium has far outgrown its label. Rather, it has grown to encompass much more than its label's connotations. Even if every video game has some type of game at its core, this core is combined inseparably with many other elements. Board games and sports lack many of the artistic elements of video games, just as other art forms lack the level of interactivity in video games.

This mislabeling may eventually be overcome as video games appear under other names. The primary vehicle for serious consideration of video games might be virtual reality. This technology has potential to become an enormous phenomenon. People who would not take video games seriously might find exciting the experience of putting themselves into an imagined situation to interact with illusory elements--in other words, playing a video game.

As for video games failing to express anything, this view was well summarized in May 2002 by a US district judge, who in the context of violence in video games and its relation to first amendment rights ruled that "[there is] no conveyance of ideas, expression, or anything else that could possibly amount to speech. The court finds that video games have more in common with board games and sports than they do with motion pictures." 2 This attitude exhibits a conclusion based on either a few poor examples or a failure to comprehend legitimate examples. When plot-oriented video games are considered, this argument stands against fiction as much as it is does against video games. This is precisely the type of ignorance I would like to eradicate, both to help games that are true works of art be acknowledged for what they are, and to show more great artists that video games are a legitimate place to use their talents.

Answer to Opposition 3

Like the previous opposition, this can be a valid point if certain examples are considered and others are ignored. The video game industry is large, and many companies may very well hold sales as first priority. This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that the creators of the games within the companies have the same views. I cannot answer those who say that commercial success or marketing of art by parties other than the artist changes the art work itself--that it becomes less valuable than it was the moment before such efforts began, but I can say that many video games exist that extremely creative and talented people have put their hearts into--or faked it beyond my ability to detect the counterfeit.

While some extremely creative video games may never reach the market due to financial considerations, many do emerge that are truly masterpieces. With some exceptions, people generally do not develop video games in order to become wealthy. Like artists in many other fields, they discover something that they love and make a great effort to survive while doing it. Many video games are formulaic, just as are examples in any other form of art. In fact, my attempts to defend video games as a form or art always return to questions that can be raised in the context of any other form of art. Popular examples taken by many to represent the entire medium are popular due to their shallowness and accessibility, and are by no means a valid sample by which to judge all others. The most prominent and popular music, literature, visual art, and films in a culture are not necessarily the best these media have to offer--sometimes quite the opposite.


Video games are divided into many genres--basically enough categories to represent each type of experience they are capable of conveying. In exploring any type of art, examples can be found that are "good" and "bad" relative to various standards. Video games are open to the same degree of criticism and study as any other form of art. There is currently not much of a history to work with relative to other art forms, but the medium changes constantly, and its evolution is concentrated when compared to other art forms. But then, this is not merely another form of art. Since they are capable of encompassing most other types of art, and because they have the potential to convert the spectator into an essential part of the expression, video games are a unique hybrid. Along with their artistic elements, they contain other parts that have never been considered as art because they have never before existed. This art form may very well become much more significant than I can predict.