Round-table conversations on world-changing ideas: Are video games art?

Condensed and edited by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Early video games were pretty basic: consider Atari's 1984 arcade hit Paperboy, the objective of which was to land papers perfectly on subscribers' doorsteps and avoid crashing your bike.

These days, players of the Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect series can spend hundreds of hours exploring virtual worlds of incredible detail and cinematic proportions. And many people do: more than half a billion people worldwide play computer and video games at least an hour a day. In the US, five million gamers play for more than 40 hours a week.

Video games are undeniably prolific, and many are visually stunning. But are they art? An entire genre of so-called "art games" cropped up in the early 2000s, exploring the genre's aesthetic potential. One such game is the award-winning Flower (2009), wherein the player controls the wind, blowing a flower petal through the air. The passing petal bestows vibrant color upon previously dead fields and can even activate stationary windmills.

Some critics have called video games the dominant art form of our time. But others—even those who loudly declare their devotion to games and sink hundreds of hours into playing them—argue that games still fail at successfully telling a compelling and interesting story. On November 12, Mike Siff's computer science class—winkingly titled "Digital Zeitgeist"—decided to enter the fray, asking the question, When does a video game become art?

Class Discussion: Are Video Games Art?

Tom Bissell, “Promises, Promises: On Arkane Studios' Dishonored,” Grantland.com (2012); “Relationship Blues: On Mass Effect 3,” Grantland.com (2012); “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter: Spec Ops: The Line and why we play violent shooter games,” Grantland.com, (2012); “Tom Bissell on Why Video Games Matter,” onthemedia.org (2010)

Kirsten Craig '15: There's such a definitive line between video games that we view as an art form and then those that people play. You have this whole new era of mobile games, and I don't think of those as an art form at all. …

Nia Itoh '14: It's hard to have an argument about what is art. I think there's art in everything. … Even a mobile game that doesn't have a wide scope, there's art in the fact that it's a puzzle or whatever you're doing in the game, there's something artful to it regardless. …

Wujing Wang '16: For me, art is presentation of an idea. I once read a book written by Paul Graham [called Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age]. He is a big hacker and also learned painting at RISD. He feels like programming is also art, and for him it's the same as painting because you have an idea of what you want to do: you write some code, you add some code, you debug—and for painting, you have a sketch, you add more lines, you erase, and you add more lines, and you edit it. With games … you can choose the different design, story lines, different graphic designs, and also different music. For me, I think games are art.

Omar Noel '13: In that sense, any game with a story can be seen as a work of art.

Wujing Wang: But it doesn't have to be a story. Even just graphics.

Omar Noel: But those graphics come along with a story.

Ian Reddick '13: For one of my other classes this week, I had to define art and entertainment. I decided that art is an abstraction on the world— you've heard the phrase “art imitates life”—and then entertainment is meant to be a diversion. Entertainment can take on a lot of the same forms as art—like movies, for instance—but it doesn't have any obligation to be good as art. … At least in the earliest days of making video games, I don't think video games were intended as art. I think they were intended as entertainment, and today there's more of a blurry line between the two of them. …

Kkirsten Craig: I think a better question would be what is the purpose of video games rather than are they art versus a game. …

KJ Rothweiler '13: I'm interested in what other games are really critically acclaimed in terms of being not necessarily high art but thoughtful, and really thoughtful with regards to the medium itself, like self-reflexive—I'm a video game, I know certain people will play me because there's a gun—but just kind of the boundaries between what is entertainment, what is art gaming, and what other games exist that are interesting for reasons other than it's just a lot of fun to play.

Mike Siff: Bissell's job, broadly speaking, is as a writer. If you're a writer, what's the best compliment you could get about your fiction if you write a novel? … What's the L word you're hoping it will be categorized as?

KJ Rothweiler: Literary?

Mike Siff: Yeah, “That's literature.” … If you went away for a summer and read War and Peace, people might think you're a slow or fast reader, but they aren't going to question your time spent. If you spent your whole summer playing Mass Effect 3, people are going to raise an eyebrow. I think Bissell is looking for, What does a game need to have to raise the bar so that it can be categorized as literary?

Nadine Pearson '16: In one sense, [people will raise an eyebrow because] you are looking at a screen. There are TV shows that are critically acclaimed; if you told someone you spent all summer watching Breaking Bad, some people would say, “Oh, that's a great show, I like that.” Other people would say, “You spent all summer watching television?”

[Laughter and groans]

Mike Siff: And I would argue with them. Breaking Bad is worth watching. But that's a great point. We're at a stage where we're having that debate. There's the old-school view that television is bad for you. And we—well, you, the Digital Zeitgeisters—know that's not necessarily true.

Ian Reddick: I think Bissell was saying there are these games you play and they're not poorly written but there's something about them where the seriousness comes across as melodrama. … It's trying to be something, but it isn't doing it right. …

Mike Siff: In many other cultural pastimes that we've been able to place the term “art” on, there's a certain type of emotion you might associate with the best of [such art]. That might be true about music, a movie, and it's certainly true about a book, where it just really gets to you. What Bissell is trying to get at is, what does it take to make a video game where you play it and you feel that way— the final episode of a TV show or a good movie like It's a Wonderful Life that makes you weep. I mean, Angry Birds is probably not going to reach that level.