Benjamin Esham

Video games and art

My friend Tom posted a vlog today asking why video games are often not considered art, despite games’ frequent inclusion of visual and audio elements which would in any other context be labeled as “art” without a second thought. I’m not much of a gamer, but I can think of two reasons why people are reluctant to call video games art. One is that games are inherently interactive. This isn’t the case for most other art forms: paintings, photographs, books, and films are static, in the sense that people viewing them don’t modify the object in any way. There is usually only one way to read a book: beginning at the first page and progressing sequentially to the last page. (This concept is so obvious and ingrained that it’s almost hard to put into words!)

Movies are even more prescriptive in how they should be experienced: once started, a movie proceeds at a set pace for a set length of time, regardless of its audience’s reactions. You can’t pause a film, think it over, and come back to it later unless you’re watching at home, and even then the director probably wouldn’t approve. (Hitchcock was such an auteur that he wouldn’t allow theaters to admit people late to Psycho.) On a technical level, of course, video games are not modified by their players’ actions either, but what someone experiences as they play a game depends heavily on what they’ve done so far, and I wonder if this entanglement of the art with the viewer isn’t part of the reason that people put games into a separate category from more detached, immutable art forms.1

The second reason, closely related, deals with skill. (This line of thinking is heavily influenced by what John Siracusa has said on his podcast Hypercritical. In particular, listen to episode 65, “Look Right into the Eyes of Your Sweetie”, beginning at 36:48, and episode 66, “The Housewives of Siracusa County”, beginning at 48:34.) A typical person is perfectly able to read a book, or to sit in a theater and watch a movie. Video games, because they depend so heavily on their players’ actions, actually require their consumers to have some level of skill: manual dexterity, hand–eye coordination, and timing are needed to operate the controller, and problem-solving and logic are required to decide what to do next and how to do it.

Of course, appreciating books, paintings, and movies to their full potential also requires skills, although in this context they aren’t usually thought of as “skills”. An author’s careful placement and usage of words will be wasted on someone who doesn’t really understand the language. A filmmaker’s inclusion of cultural elements or allusions to other films will go unnoticed by someone unfamiliar with the source material. And in all cases, someone who has made a given kind of art and is familiar with the challenges will have a deeper appreciation for a well-made instance of that art form. But at some level, anyone can run their eyes over a page and have “read” a book, or sit in a theater and have “watched” a movie. Some video games are impossible for certain players because they don’t have the necessary skills. I think that this requirement, which is more pronounced for video games than it is for most other art forms, is part of the reason that games are often viewed as something separate from (and usually lesser than) art forms that can be appreciated more fully with a more common skill set.

  1. You might object that music and dance are counterexamples, especially in cases where the composer and performer are not the same person. Don’t these media require human participation too? Yes, but not in the same way as video games. When you play a video game, you’re the one making decisions and changing what happens next. When you watch a concert this is the performer’s job. The audience at a ballet affects the work no more than the audience at a movie. ↩︎