Are video games art?
The short answer is that it depends on the game.
The long answer is a little more complicated than that.
In the essay The Shortcomings Of Mass Media And The Culture Industry (Clements, 2020), I talk about how art involves a narrative and has a visceral feeling attached to it. Modern video games are not any different.
Video games can be split into two categories, technical art and consumer art. Technical art is how the game is made. Consumer art is whether it has any artistic value to the consumer. In this essay, I intend to show that there is a large overlap between the two. Video games have been around for at least 73 years (Ahoy, 2020). The further you go back to the earliest days of video games, the less it qualifies as consumer art, but because of the technical requirements to create it, and the story of how it was created, they qualify as technical art and this is how it remained for about 40 years due to the technical limitations. This started changing in the 1980s. Games with narratives started to appear. Often those narratives were printed in a booklet that went with the game and entailed a page or two hidden amongst the “how to play”. A game called the Bards Tale first appeared in 1985, in its pages nestled amongst the rest were some maps and some class descriptions, but no real narrative beyond explore these places and defeat this enemy at the end.
The first game I know of that went into any serious detail into the backstory of the game was the original diablo released in 1997. The PDF of the manual can be found here (Games, 2020). The lore of the game entailed approximately 50 pages of the manual. It talked about the character classes and gave some narrative on how that class came to be in the game Diablo even had in-game narrative through cut scenes and interactions with non-player characters (NPCs) that helped the narrative become more immersive. Players even had the chance to jump into other peoples games and take their ears as a trophy.
Prior to the release of Diablo, you had games like Commander Keen and Monster Bash, and while they had some small story to it, in the form of in-game text, it was more entertainment than consumer art. That is not to say there is never any art in games that are termed as “throwaway”, because there is. It’s just not forward-facing. A throwaway game is a game where you do not have to set aside a large amount of time to make any real progress. A great example of a throwaway game is bejewelled, or candy crush.
In contrast, a sitdown game is a game where you have to set aside a significant chunk of time to dedicate to playing it. Sitdown games involve things happening in rapid succession so you have to pay attention. You can’t sit on a train for 15 minutes playing Legends of War, then pause it when you get to work. It has to be played out until you either reach a save point or until you either win or lose. These games tend to have a narrative of some description. As such they have a value beyond how many rounds you win.
So can video games be art? It depends. While all games have some amount of technical art to them, not all games are consumer art, and as such are just entertainment.
Ahoy. (2020, Oct 23). The First Video Game. Retrieved from youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHQ4WCU1WQc&feature=emb_logo
Clements, A. (2020, Oct 23). The shortcomings of mass media and the culture industry. Retrieved from Medium: https://antony-clements.medium.com/the-shortcomings-of-mass-media-and-the-culture-industry-bd6bae3133fb
Games, O. (2020, Oct 23). Diablo. Retrieved from Old Games: https://www.oldgames.sk/en/game/diablo/download/7829/