Have Video Games Reached a Level of Artistic Expression?

An Analytical Essay

Two doors, yet so many outcomes

Imagine this: You are in a first-person perspective, your virtual office is empty and devoid of any human life, almost as if everyone had vanished into thin air. The narrator tells you that everyone has gone missing and you should go to your boss's office, to check if there was a meeting you missed. Along the way there’s little for you to interact with, as traces of human life still linger, monitors are turned on and papers are ruffled on the floor, all the while the narrator instructs you where to go in this seemingly first level of the game. But then you reach a set of two open doors, so the narrator tells you to ignore one door and go to the one on the left. You are at a fork in the road and the game has already done an exceptional job at engaging you in its setting, to push you to continue to unravel the mystery and leaving you with a choice. Should you follow the narrator and go to the door on the left? Or disobey and take your chances on the right? 

Just like you slay dragons to save the kingdom, or run around green fields collecting golden rings, video games have become a unique medium to tell stories. The way it pulls together the elements necessary to put you in scenarios with a choice is indicative of its stance as a form of art, as you have the freedom of expression to approach the narrative on how you see fit. Sadly, we live in a world where all new forms of entertainment are attacked and blamed for the problems in human nature. It was the case for movies, comics, and of course video games back when they were all introduced, back when they weren’t understood. As such, we rarely get to discuss them outside of mindless entertainment. But despite the general criticism they endure, video games offer a unique, artistic, opportunity to tell stories and experiment with ideas that influence how we play and challenge our minds on how we think.

Movie critic Roger Ebert once stated that “Video games can never be art.” His argument was that “art should be defined as the imitation of nature” and thus since games are generally perceived to have rules to follow with goals, they cannot be artistic. However, I believe that they are more than mere obstacles and goals to achieve, as their unique interactivity and design allow for new artistic ideas to be explored. Over the years, the medium has naturally evolved to a degree where more is expected from them. As such certain games abandon the normal conventions of goals or points and instead are designed to study or even ridicule such concepts. 

Screenshot from the Stanley Parable, where the narrator mocks and questions the players choices.

The Stanley Parable is a great example of this; the award-winning game is an interesting deconstruction of video game tropes by giving the player complete control of their own choices. In the example given earlier, you can choose to follow the narrator's advice to progress the story or deviate from the intended path to your own will. In a review by website VG247 author Brenna Hillier described the liberty of the game saying that “Where a game like BioShock: Infinite goes out of its way to make sure that the “psychopath” player cannot deviate from the developer’s intentions, The Stanley Parable joyfully embraces the fact that its players come to games to play, to push the boundaries of what is possible.” Depending on the choices you make, the narrator will either sardonically mock you, support you, sympathize with you, or in some cases maliciously conspire against your own sake. All the while commenting or ridiculing the narrative conventions you're seemingly breaking for not following the rules. 

In an interview with Rev3Games gaming channel, the creators of the game Davey Wreden and William Pugh explained "You were like under the narrator's vice grip, but actually, by letting go, by having the narrator fight, and like not fight, but like push back against your decisions there was suddenly player expression here. Suddenly people are having their own experiences.” What is interesting is that the game, using the narrative device of interaction and freedom, also manages to make an interesting statement about the human condition. With the concept of playing as a cubicle office worker, the game uses its setting as a metaphor for our existence. As the narrator guides us in a set path for the story, we become empowered to break free and follow our own path, to become the rulers of our own story and find our place in our world. Furthermore, the narrator adds to this with his insightful commentary, questioning our behavior while expressing interesting ideas.

“I wonder what he found? If what he wanted was to be leading man of his own story, well perhaps he’s gotten it. I wonder if he’s happy with his choice, and the heavy cost that comes with it.”- Narrator

Interestingly, there is no goal in the game, as every one of its multiple endings simply sends you to the beginning with no reward. Perhaps it does it as a philosophical way of saying that in the end, all of our choices can be meaningless. It is not exactly certain what the game’s message can be, as its open-ended ideas can be interpreted in many ways. But one thing is for certain, and that is that the Stanley Parable does succeed in imitating nature, not necessarily in a literal fashion, but as a thought provoking analysis of self-existence and our larger role in life.

But despite the artistic merits that games can produce, there is still the problem that they are not validated as some form of art. Of all the things they are generally perceived as, such as tools for inspiring, violence is the first that comes to mind. The reality, however, is that games are not indicative of the violence and actions that certain individuals have committed crimes. To briefly explore this dilemma we have to see the case of recent US shootings, such as the one at Colorado Columbine High School in 1999 or the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting where the video games that these troubled individuals interacted with were suspected to have played a part. When it comes to incidents such as gunmen attacks, games are usually brought into the conversation. But be that as it may, according to Nick Gillespie's article, "Are Video Games Art?" he noted that there's been a notable cultural shift between the two incidents. While the Columbine shooting in the past were blamed for the gunmen playing first-person shooter games such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, the later whootings in Sandy Hook a decade later were less vindictive on games.

The titular FPS Doom game on the Mega Drive 32X

It was indeed reported that gunman Adam Lanza had played similar first-person shooters games as well as long hours of Dance Dance Revolution, though, the impact of the games were simply dismissed. As Gillespie's put it: "Gun laws and Lanza's mental problems were front and center in the policy discussion about his actions, not the media he consumed.” The reasoning for this significant shift has to do with the fact the long-reported accusations of games influencing violence have never been scientifically proven. A study by the American Psychological Association determined that there was a relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior. However, academic experts criticized the study expressing that the research was deeply flawed. In an interview with the BBC news station DR Mark Coulson, an associate professor of psychology at Middlesex University said “I fully acknowledge that exposure to repeated violence may have short-term effects—you would be a fool to deny that—but the long-term consequences of crime and actual violent behaviour, there is just no evidence linking violent video games with that."

Furthermore, a study by the Oxford Internet Institute suggested that “frustration at being unable to play a game was more likely to bring out aggressive behavior than the content of the game itself.” But when it comes to these scenarios, games are usually generalized for their vast negative content, while ignoring the positive aspects of what they can represent. In the case of games like GTA V whose been accused of favoring violence towards women, those games are meant to be mirrors of our reality, where we can freely create exaggerated results. Keith Stuart a reviewer from The Guardian described it as “dazzling but monstrous parody of modern life” a fictional world that “drags you in. It begs you to explore." The purpose of the game is not necessarily to kill, it is one of its many mechanics. But if one chooses to, you can save lives, help the law or earn money by taxi driving instead of stealing. It is a matter of choice of what you decide to do in the virtual world, a world without boundaries where you can have freedom. It goes back to that idea that Keith referred, to, explore.

Even outside of the realm of big titles from major developers, smaller independent games are meant to promote ideas of peace and the consequences of loss. In the case of 2016's indie title Undertale, the simple role playing game put you in the shoes of a lost child who fell into a world of monsters. However, unlike your traditional role playing game where the monsters are mindless enemies for you to kill, the game encourages you to befriend all of them. If you decide to kill them, the monsters will not become hostile, but instead become afraid of you, and as you make your way through the towns and dungeons the more desolated and depressing the world becomes. It is this interesting message that makes the choices more meaningful in the game.

A screenshot from Undertale as the player negotiates with the enemy instead of fighting.

Thanks to its popularity, the message did not go unnoticed by the public. According to game theorist and writer Matthew Patrick in his popular online show Game Theory, "It's a game that taught millions of people the meaning of the word pacifism." Explaining that global search trends on Google changed significantly with the words "pacifism" and "pacifist" spiking in results. "For the first time in over a decade, millions of people are talking about peaceful resolutions to conflict, because of a video game."

When it comes to narratives, games have also been a new medium to tell stories, in ways that have influenced the player to artistic emotional and psychological degrees. To understand this, we must look at another perspective of what defines art. We have seen how The Stanley Parable was a metaphysical study of stories while imitating a certain truth in life, but others feel that art can also define by not so much abstract ideas, but stronger emotions. Rock producer Paul O’Neill once explained this perspective: “The purpose of art is to create an emotional response in the person that is exposed to that art.” He then went to explain there are many different types of good and bad art, from a song that can bring emotions or memories that you have felt before, to the forgettable tune on an elevator ride. Thus, just like a song or a painting, video games have also been able to incite a mixture of emotions upon the player.

In the article, “Effects of pre-game stories on feelings of presence and evaluation of computer games,” an experiment was conducted where participants watched a five-minute story detailing the life of the main protagonist they were playing as to study their response to the game. The study found that the participants reacted positively in their evaluations. They claimed that "this study empirically shows that stories can matter even in an interactive medium, computer games.” The participants felt that it induced a strong feeling of presence while playing. With a strong context, video games can influence the player to push through and continue to play due to the emotional and psychological attachment. In fact, the gaming industry is aware of this, as the study discussed that there is a multitude of successful gaming titles based on popular properties such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to name a few for this very reason. It is a commercial strategy to attract the players looking to delve into the world and lives of their fictional heroes. 

Star Wars Battlefront, a game that uses a property with recent or popular characters to attract gamers and fans.

It is noted that some of the games that are considered by many as high art reach this status for the emotional response they can achieve. Games like the aforementioned Undertale uses its story and characters to get an emotional feedback from the player. The more attached you become to the lore, the more you want to save and spare the enemies rather than kill them. With strong emotions, games can also communicate strong themes. In the case of a game like Mother 3, the game's story has been highly regarded for its themes of feudalism, capitalism, and technology, as well as the sympathetic characters surrounding them. This is further proof that video game narratives are almost at the same level of another important medium of art, cinema. This is an interesting parallel that has been examined for years. “The computer looks more each day like the movie camera of the 1890s: a truly revolutionary invention humankind is just on the verge of putting to use as a spellbinding storyteller,” wrote Janet H. Murray in her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck. It is curious how her words still ring very true today.

Finally, we are reaching an era where video game narratives have reached a level of depth and complexity that invites us to enjoy but also be a part of the story. A medium that is based on our choices. If the stories weren't as interesting or emotionally invested enough, then the choices and the encouragement of play would be meaningless. Chris Suellentrop’s article on the New York details some of the interactive games he’s played. With it, he determined that “interactive storytelling is not a wasted pursuit.” It easy to see how much narratives have increasingly become an important aspect of these games. One of the upcoming releases of this year, God of War was presented focusing on the tale of a broken and worn out man bonding with his young and inexperienced son in a world of beasts and Gods, with only a handful of minutes dedicated to the combat mechanics which even then was presented in a cinematic fashion. Another titular series such as the Metal Gear Solid games were directed by Game Designer Hideo Kojima, who as a film student used his storytelling prowess to make games with philosophical themes of politics and war. So, with the growing focus on cinematic storytelling in games, directors are using them to develop their visions in bigger and often time abstract scales. With this, it is evident to observe how even in its writing games can be seen on a level of fine art.

God of War protagonist Kratos attempts to bond with his son after a recent hunt.

Games can be appreciated as art in either the interactivity or choice they give us to explore and the deep and insightful storylines they can develop. Both aspects come hand in hand with another as a form of interactive storytelling. They validate the idea of art as a willful expression from the player, and they generate an emotional response that we can relate to. We’ve come far to see them more than the tools of violence they were presumed, but instead as tools for meaningful examinations of the human condition. While there’s no denying that games as art is a divisive opinion that has many like Roger Ebert argued against their validation, I believe that, with time, games will soon evolve to a point that they will make us understand them more than they have now. Because just like how novels were mocked in the early 18th century, and films were once considered far from high art, they can evolve to become a medium worthy of such recognition. Technology is advancing and new ideas for expression are being created. As Chris Suellentrop put it perfectly in his article, “We've been dreaming about this future for decades. Guess what? It's here.” 

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Have Video Games Reached a Level of Artistic Expression?