Have you ever considered video games to be genuine works of art? It may seem strange to watch your child or nephew holding a controller, laughing and getting frustrated while playing video games, and think that what they’re experiencing is an authentic form of art. Or perhaps not. Maybe you’re like me, someone who has witnessed the technological changes in entertainment over the decades and has no doubt that video games are a manifestation of art. So, what’s the truth? Are video games art or not? Beyond the countless philosophical debates you can find online, here’s the absolute truth.
SPOILER: Video games are art today.
At the end of the last century, video games took their first steps towards what we now know as artificial intelligence: machines capable of playing chess or tic-tac-toe. Over the years, they evolved from being a flashy form of entertainment showcased at technology conventions to becoming a booming industry—the most important and profitable of our times—present in everything: smartphones, consoles, smart TVs, toilets, and cars. In this medium, there is a collaborative effort between artists and developers with the goal of entertaining, and among them, many have a desire to convey ideas or thoughts. Are we prepared to understand their art? Let’s break it down.
First glance: The easy way to recognize art
Video games are a multimedia product. While graphics and sound are the easiest to recognize, there is much more to them. Fortunately, our minds are already accustomed and trained to recognize artistic expressions within video games, as standalone pieces that can be considered artworks. There are countless remarkable works, but I invite you to listen to the music in any video game. In many cases, you’ll find truly inspiring background music. There are professional musicians behind these compositions, and some even receive recognition at award ceremonies and festivals. It’s becoming increasingly common to hear about symphony orchestras traveling the world, performing concerts featuring music from iconic video games. Just search for the works of Distant Worlds or Video Games Live on YouTube to get a glimpse of how video game music has gained ground in other realms and fills theaters with hundreds of artists. There are also countless videos analyzing specific themes, seeking a deeper meaning and complexity beyond what appears on the surface.
On the visual side, there is an enormous amount of work from graphic artists, some more noteworthy than others. However, this aspect is often more game-focused. There are artistic designs that astound our imagination, but they don’t commonly transcend beyond the game itself. There may be intention and passion behind them, but the average viewer still sees the video game rather than the graphic art itself.
Nevertheless, there’s a slight caveat here. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to label video games as art solely based on the individual components. A video game is the culmination of many things. And as a whole, it should be evaluated, right?
A second look: Resemblance to other experiences
It’s in this aspect that we encounter games that bring us closer to experiences we have lived or are familiar with. We often come across what are wrongly referred to as “movie-like games.” These games adopt a cinematic format with well-developed characters, elaborate scripts, and even the participation of renowned artists from other media. It’s quite common for developers to focus on presenting an idea or theme in order to tell a story with interactive elements. This can closely resemble what we experience with cinema but, when handled well, it allows for a greater sense of empathy because the player becomes an active participant in the narrative. Loss, emotions, decisions—when these situations are skillfully crafted by the creators, they offer truly immersive experiences with a different nuance compared to film or television. Here, the artistic experience is more pragmatic, and the developer’s objective is often more direct: portraying a father-son relationship, depicting the struggles of overcoming depression, exploring allegories of social issues, and presenting other intriguing concepts. There is a long list of titles that approach artistry from this perspective, usually with large-scale productions aimed at a mass audience because companies know that the majority of users are more receptive to these types of experiences.
On the other hand, there are games that explore artistic dimensions through other avenues, such as music, where players interact with the environment to shape the music, or cases where everything is presented in the form of a poem. No one denies the artistry in these cases; it becomes clear to our senses within minutes of interacting with them. There is intention behind these experiences, but they are reminiscent of other forms of art with a twist, often playing with the audience’s interactivity. Within the realm of video games, there are even deeper and more profound experiences.
The gaming nirvana: Playing them
How can we recognize the art in a book if we don’t read it? Or appreciate a good movie if we don’t watch it? Therefore, we must ask ourselves how it is possible to appreciate the art in a video game if we haven’t played it, or even completed it. Many of the virtues of video games cannot be explained; they require us to play them. For example, Journey, a game that has won countless awards and deeply touched the souls of its players. It has no dialogue, no story arc or character development. It’s difficult to explain why, and it deserves a separate discussion, but the journey itself is a unique and moving experience. Tetris Effect, a typical puzzle game from the ’80s, becomes something transformative through the combination of colors, music, and immersion provided by virtual reality technologies—it transports and connects us with ourselves. Kid A Mnesia Exhibition is an experience on the latest generation of consoles that explores artistic abstractions born from the minds of the renowned band Radiohead. It deviates from typical gaming objectives, such as high scores or goals, and can only be realized within this particular medium. Even more conventional games like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 7 have left a lasting mark on their players, establishing themselves as masterpieces that would be perceived differently by those outside the gaming world.
It may surprise you to learn that there are already museums with sections dedicated to video games, institutions that recognize them as an artistic expression, and even organizations dedicated to their preservation due to their cultural significance. However, none of this can convince you that there is art within this medium if you still had doubts. There’s no other way around it— to understand their art, you have to play them, experience them. In the vast universe of video games, you’ll come across many things. Not everything can carry an artistic essence, just as books encompass cookbooks, technical manuals, novels, and poems. Video games are a medium, and within them, cultural imprints of varying intensity flourish.
Unfortunately, it’s not a medium accessible to everyone today. Creating a video game requires significant investment and resources, which is perhaps why their creators often refrain from labeling themselves as artists. However, in their works, we can find much more than meets the eye. Appreciating them isn’t easy; it demands our time and attention if we want to uncover what they have to offer. But there’s no doubt that there is a new art form within them, a world of experiences that can even change our perception of how we view and interact with our physical world. If you’re skeptical and believe that they are merely entertainment, perhaps only for children, I invite you to experience them, to open yourself up to new horizons. I invite you to transform your perspective and discover an entirely new universe to explore.
Writen by Pantenegro Marcos.
Translated by Chatgpt. Corrections by Muta Magazine.