Van Gogh to Pac-Man: An argument for video games as art

Disclaimer: Hey reader!  I wrote this paper for my English course this semester.  The requirements for the paper were that it had to include one paragraph of intro, one of importance of the topic, two of my arguments, two of the opposition’s side, one of finding common ground between the two, and one paragraph of refutation of the oppositions side.  I put in photos and videos for the website only, and found they help accentuate the writing.  If it reads very academic, that’s because it is.  Hope you guys enjoy!

Video games have been a worldwide phenomenon ever since their explosion into the market with the launch of the Atari 2600 and Pong in the 1970s.  During these past five decades, video games have proven their capacity to go beyond their primitive roots and have ascended to new heights of visual splendor, storytelling, and acting that we have previously only seen in the likes of film and books.  One major difference is that books and film are widely considered art by the mainstream populous.  Video Games have long been considered purely entertainment and not artistic because of their interactive nature, and that they plainly were not that great to look at.  Although the art establishment claims that video games are not art because they are games and simply do not compare to the works of traditional art, I argue that video games are art because of the experience that lets players live the art, which is already a combination of many common art forms like acting, music, and painting and experience empathy with the story.

video games supreme courtTo say that video games are now a massive industry is an understatement.  According to the Entertainment Software Association, consumers spent more than twenty-one billion dollars on video games during 2013 (ESA).  This amount is at least ten billion more than consumers spent at movie theaters in the US in the same time period and is still even higher if you add on the total industry revenue of the US’ music industry, which was seven billion dollars (Hughes; Friedlander).   Video games are now an American and worldwide staple, just like films, music, and television, which are all considered art.  Many have brought up the idea of considering video games art before, but it is quickly rebutted by many in the artistic establishment.  They don’t consider it art because video games are a game.  We don’t consider chess to be art, and likely neither will we find a game of Pong to be art.  By giving video games the protection of being classified as art, they then cannot be regulated for their violent content.  Lawsuits have been brought by private parties, and major players like state of California attempting to prohibit the sale of video games they deem violent.  Many in the art establishment do not want game’s classified as art because they consider them potentially harmful to people, and especially the youth.  For video games to be considered art, it would also validate their creators.  Like many authors and film-makers, game developers would love the title of artist as well.  Video games are a massive entertainment medium, with creators who strive for the same acceptance that many other entertainment creators receive, but many do not believe video games to be worthy being considered art due to their game nature, and instead wish to restrict their sale.

Art’s popular definition can be found in Merriam Webster’s dictionary, which is “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” (Merriam-Webster)  Modern video games display this with grandiose splendor not seen before.  The beautiful landscapes created in games rival that of films and paintings, the voice work often surpasses that of film animation, and the scores can create more compelling feeling for the player than the best scores by John Williams, or overtures by Beethoven himself.  Where a viewer may able to admire a painting, or listen to a song, video games gives players all of this artistic majesty at once, creating a cocktail of wonder that we have never before experienced.  2010’s Read Dead Redemption is a great example of this combination.  Players take the role of John Marston, a former law breaker who has now been corralled to working for the government in order to keep his family safe.  After dispatching the first member of your former gang, you must ride to Mexico in order to find the next.  It is a long, somber ride accompanied by the brilliant song “Far Away” by Jose Gonzalez.  As you ride over Mesa’s in Southern Texas, hearing “Cold wind blows into the skin, Can’t believe the state you’re in,” you feel the true desperation that Marston faces.  He is just a man who wants to return to his family, not ride across the Rio Grande into Mexico hunting after some ghost from his past.  Art’s popular definition is something created to express important ideas or feelings or is beautiful.  Video games express important ideas, like the desperation a man can feel, all while doing it in a beautiful way; like showing John Marston riding over the mesas and streams of a beautifully rendered and vibrant South Texas.  This combination of arts is what makes video games into a brand new form of art, one that can utilize the strengths of other well-known art forms, and use it to make the player truly live the art.

Eliciting emotions is one of the most powerful things that art can do.  Traditionally art elicits sympathy; showing something to the audience and making them feel for the character in the art.  Video games gain empathy from the audience by letting them experience exactly what the character is going through.  Games often spin a narrative, similar to films, where the player is put into someone else’s shoes, and experiences their world.  2013’s Gone Home is a first person interactive mystery game.  The player is placed in the shoes of Kaitlin, a young woman who arrives to her family home in Portland only to find the home empty.  The player realizes Kaitlin is so desperate to see her family, and cannot find them anywhere in the home, and quickly feels that desperation as they frantically search the home for clues about the family’s location.  Player can explore the house for as long as they like, searching each closet and cabinet for clues,  allowing them the choice to see how the story  unfolds, and experience the emotions that come with it.  Gone Home’s designer Steve Gaynor spoke in a lecture to New York Times writer Chris Sullentrop about the topic, saying ‘“Anything the player voluntarily engages with is going to make a much bigger impression than something they have no choice but to look at.”’ When watching a film, the audience is spoon-fed an experience, only seeing what the director wants you to see, where with games like Gone Home and Red Dead Redemption allow players to see the story they choose to see, and in doing so, they further identify with the art

SISKEL  EBERTCritics argue that games cannot be art because they are just that, games.  In his famous 2010 article “Video Games can never be art” late film critic Roger Ebert compared video games to other traditional games like chess, basketball and mahjong, “Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.”  Video games cannot be considered art because they are so often just a game.  While many may consider the moves in a game like chess or go beautiful or having some artistic value, that doesn’t validate those games as art, just like the artistic value of certain parts of a video game do not make up for the game aspect of it.  At the end of the day, video games are games.  The mainstream population does not consider football, basketball, or chess to be art, so neither should they consider video games to be art.

starry nightThe art establishment argues that more often than not, we can tell what is art and what is not  When looking at a painting done by Vincent Van Gogh, we know its art, where looking at the work of Nolan Bushnell, creator of Atari, is an entirely different story.  It seems strange to call games art, especially when we compare them to beautiful paintings or sculptures, like The Starry Night and David to popular video games like Pac-Man and Super Mario.  Video games are now even being exhibited in the hall of the Museum of Modern Art, being placed on the same footing as works of amazing painters and sculptors.  As Jonathan Jones writes in the Guardian “Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.”  Jones continues, saying “No one ‘owns’ the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.”  More often than not, games are not one person’s vision like a painting is.   The art establishment argues that video games also simply do not have the visual beauty that paintings have.  Look at the 8-bit graphics of Pac-man, and compare it to the watercolors of Edward Hopper.  Simply by looking at them, the establishment believes we can tell which is art and which is not.

Both sides of this debate bring up great points, but common ground can be found.  Everyone agrees that art is incredibly important to our cultural growth.  Art is what we leave behind for future generations, as can be noted by the Sphinx in Egypt, the Terracotta Army of China, and the multitudes of ancient pots found from civilization all over the world.  Famed poet John Ruskin wrote the following in his book, St. Mark’s rest. The history of Venice, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art.”  The civilizations of these past few centuries have left amazing art for future generations to behold, not the least of them being new art forms like films, stage plays, and television.  Those art forms are relatively young in their life cycle, and video games are even younger.  History will be the true test for video games to see if they are considered art.   But let us not simply rule out games as art because they are competition.

hamletRoger Ebert is absolutely correct, video games are games, but let’s not say that just because it is a game or competition that we don’t consider it art.  We consider dance to be art, but dance can also be a competition.  Just because we are rooting for something or someone to succeed does not mean that something cannot be art.  Contemporary Aesthetics’ Aaron Smuts describes the competitive nature of many films like Seabiscuit and Rudy, and even how we root for one character to succeed, to show that competition is often a form of many arts including stage plays and films. “Does Hamlet cease to be art because the audience is encouraged to side with Hamlet against his father’s killer?” (Smuts)  Should we consider Mario any less art than a Steven Sagal film because it has you collecting coins?  To fault video games as not having personal vision involved with them is unfair.  Video games are designed by teams, yes, just like plays are created by teams, films are created by teams, and modern music is created by bands.  On top of those team-created works of art, the art establishment is not even counting the many single designer games that have had major impact like 2008’s Braid and 2012’s Fez. Video games are young, and have a lot of room to grow, as had every other art form before it.  Video games also do not always need to be art to have the title and protection that art offers.  Look to television and movies as an example; we do not remove TV’s title as art because of Honey Boo Boo and Jersey Shore, nor should we fault other mediums like games because they doesn’t always have to be immensely artsy.  Just because regular people do not always want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, and may pick Dumb and Dumber instead, that doesn’t diminish the medium’s artistic potential.

Although critics may fault video games for their competitive nature, and that they simply do not compare visually to the works of traditional art, this essay demonstrated that video games are art because of the experience that lets you live the art, which is already a combination of many common art forms like acting, music, and painting and experience empathy with the story.  Video games have the potential to tell stories that can illicit greater emotion from those who play them than works of art from sculptors, painters, directors, or any other type of artist.  In the future, through the help of new technology, players may able to fully experience the life of someone who lived through traumatic periods like the Holocaust, or live out Macbeth’s encounter with the three witches.  The potential of the medium is apparent, and the truly artistic games that could rival great stage plays and films are already here.  We simply need to play them.

by, Bobby Marquardt

Works Cited

“Art.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.    <;.

Ebert, Roger. “Video Games Can Never Be Art | Roger Ebert’s Journal | Roger Ebert.” Roger       Ebert. Ebert Digital LLC, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Friedlander, Joshua P. “News and Notes on 2013 RIAA Music Industry Shipment and Revenue Statistics.” RIAA. Web. 5 Dec. 2014. <  FF96-E0CA-2766-72779A364D01.pdf>.

Fullbright. Gone Home. Fullbright, 2013. PC.

Hughes, Mark. “2013 Sets All-Time Box Office Record.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 3 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2014. < time-box-office-record/>.

“Industry Facts – The Entertainment Software Association.” The Entertainment Software Association. ESA Entertainment Software Association. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.      <;.

Jones, Jonathan. “Sorry MoMA, Video Games Are Not Art.” The Guardian. Guardian Media       Group, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.             <           video-games-art>.

Rockstar San Diego. Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar Games, 2010. Xbox 360

Ruskin, John. “Preface.” St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1887. Print.

Smuts, Aaron. “Are Video Games Art?” Are Video Games Art? Contemporary Aesthetics, 2        Nov. 2005. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.      <;.



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