Can games be art?

In the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling that video games are indeed an art form, Jon Hozier-Byrne looks at the nature of an emerging new medium

In January 1954, Francois Truffaut’s article, ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ appeared in the CAHIERS DU CINEMA, which posited, amongst other things, that there was an essential dichotomy in contemporary cinema between the film-as-art, and conventional commercial cinema. The work of auteurs, such as Renoir, Bresson and Cocteau, was in Truffaut’s opinion marked as having an artistic, authorial intention beyond the domain of traditional film.

Even after six decades of the existence of film, and hundreds of works of (what we now acknowledge to be) unquestionable artistic merit, the debate about whether film represented a true art form remained unsettled. Now, a mere forty years after the very first coin-operated video game system was sold, the medium has commercially surpassed every other pre-existing entertainment form. The release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 represented the biggest launch day release of not only any videogame, but of any release in the history of the entertainment industry – $401.6 million in a single day. Video games have financially surpassed both the music and film industries, and now represent the most pre-eminent, if not the most prominent, form of entertainment.

Much in the same manner as film before it, video games are slowly becoming accepted as a legitimate art form, and in the last few months alone, the medium has made astounding progress. L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s detective-thriller that famously attempts to bridge this uncanny valley, was the first video game to be shown at the Tribeca film festival.

Jack Nelson’s flash game Scrape Scraperteeth was commissioned for inclusion in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s continuing series on interactive art forms, and represents a surrealist deconstruction of both the traditional video game aesthetic and, more importantly, the very mechanics of interactivity.

Video games do surpass any other artistic medium in that solitary regard: the necessity of interactivity. While the work of the aforementioned cinematic auteurs appeals to active audience participation, video games alone deny the viewer the option of passive engagement. Video games literally replicate the modernist deconstruction of the art; without the presence of the viewer, the art form cannot function.

The role of the participant in video games presents new opportunities to play with and challenge the nature of artistic interaction. Perhaps most notably, the Metal Gear Solid series actively challenges the viewer to consider the artificial nature of the experience the game offers. At various points throughout the series, in-game characters repeatedly tell the player that what they were experiencing is false, that their saved files had been corrupted and destroyed, or to turn off the computer and go outside. Much in the same manner as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the series directly challenges the viewer to consider the artistic, even ethical implications in their participation. By re-appropriating the formal tropes of the medium and presenting the in-game narrative of cognoscente of the limitations of that form, the game challenges the viewer to consider the nature and the value of the not just the game, but the mode itself.

The increasing accessibility of the medium has encouraged a new sub-genre within video games, one that has become increasingly important to the movement as a whole. Indie games, unburdened as they are by huge budgets and therefore, enabled to take greater risks, are further widening common conceptions of what constitutes a ‘game’. The likes of Flower, in which the player enters the dream of potted plant, and controls the wind as it blows a single petal around a field, or Limbo, in which the player takes on the role of a boy’s silhouette, navigating a nightmarish monochrome landscape, represent the infancy of the art form, and the potential it possesses.

In 2006, Roger Ebert famously criticized the concept of games-as-art, due to fact they can be ‘won’, rather than simply experienced, in direct contrast to any other pre-existing art form. The year previous, he commented that games do not have the capacity to examine the human condition with the depth and complexity of literature or film, and that the interactivity necessary in games provides a malleability to the plot which denies any attempt at artistic authorship, citing a hypothetical video game version of Romeo and Juliet with the possibility of a happy ending. However, contemporary releases, such as Heavy Rain, Fallout 3 or even Deus Ex: Human Revolution (reviewed this issue), explore, with remarkable poignancy, fatherhood and bereavement, brutish human nature and disability respectively. The controversial upcoming release Catherine explores emasculation and stunted sexuality through the optics of a surrealist puzzler.

The medium has advanced in a manner equaling, even surpassing ‘high-art’ media in its capacity to portray artistic examinations of the human condition. Now, as the US Supreme Court has ruled that video games are protected under the First Amendment, and as such, are artistic equals to literature and film, the debate seems to have been settled for us; video games represent not only an art form, but perhaps the fastest growing and most culturally pervasive artistic mode of modern times.