Gamer. For a lot of people, the very word conjures up images of a basement-dwelling creature who feeds on Doritos and Mountain Dew, fears sunlight almost as much as social interaction, and guards the bridges of YouTube comments with a fierce, troll-like rage. Given the years of controversy video games have faced around the world—being labeled as a catalyst for antisocial personality disorder or a gateway for sex and crime—this negative stereotyping is not surprising. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court only recognized video games as an art form in 2011, thus granting the medium First Amendment protection, stands as a testament to the ‘second class’ status of video games that permeates society today.
In his article “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” critic Robert Ebert attempted to sever any link between video games and art on the grounds that “you cannot win” art. According to Ebert, video games are often riddled with “rules, points, [and] objectives” and can never be art, because art demands that you experience it devoid of any metric of success. Ebert continued his assault on video games in his piece “Why Did The Chicken Cross the Genders,” claiming that video games will “never be worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and composers” due to the notion that they fail to make us more “cultured, civilized, and empathetic.” Yet, even within a goal-oriented framework, this is precisely what video games—like any other art form—convey.
No matter how you look at it, at the root of any definition of culture and civilization lies the notion that they lead to a greater understanding of a common human experience, a formation of one’s own identity based on self-reflection in the face of this human experience, and ultimately a sense of belonging to a larger human community as a result of these reflections. Video games offer many powerful ways of imparting these universal concepts and empathizing with the world around us—they only demand that we be receptive.
Peter Henry, president of the McGill E-Sports Students’ Association, has been a firm advocate for considering video games as art.
“Of course, there’s a creator behind a game, and I feel if there’s an intention—whether it’s books, art, movies, video games—as long as someone is actively working to create a particular experience, it’s art to me,” he explained.
The biggest barrier for people to take video games seriously, according to Henry, lies within the interactive nature of the medium.
“People who play video games a lot have a lot of experience with games, and control schemes in particular, so when you hand Call of Duty to someone who doesn’t even know how to hold the controller, how can you expect them to fully experience the game?”
He also cites time commitment issues as another factor that limits the accessibility of video games.
“As long as you have a two hour attention span you can see a whole movie, but if you’re not willing to work through a game, which could last anywhere up from 60 hours, you’re not going to get the intended experience,” Henry argued.
One of the most unique ways video games enable us to connect to this sense of culture and empathy is through the unparalleled agency the audience is given within the medium. While video games do often tell an unalterable narrative—much like a novel or film would—they allow us, the player, to decide the precise manner in which it unfolds. This ultimately can make us more attached to the narrative and grasp its underlying themes in a truly powerful way, as we have a greater emotional stake in the game.
Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain offers a prime example of this phenomenon. Heavy Rain places you in a situation where you must complete five trials at the hands of the Origami Killer in order to save a loved one. The fact that the players themselves participate in those trials—vicariously choosing how exactly to tackle them through the character of Ethan Carter—forces them to care, to some degree, about the narrative outcome they’ve been attempting to realize for hours on end. Regardless of the fact that there is a clear goal to the game, the player can ultimately experience something beyond the images on screen.
Another method through which video games are able to convey grander, emotional messages lies within their mechanics, which are the specific rules or systems that govern the video game. The player uses them as a means to engage with the fictional world. The mechanics in chess, for example, enable the players to move their pieces only in accordance with each piece’s respective move set, and require the king to be taken to win. When mechanics begin to convey aspects of the game’s narrative, however, they enable the player to feel the emotions that the developer is trying to convey, and can thus lead the player to new understandings about themselves or the world around them.
Jordon Magnuson’s Loneliness consists of simple black pixels moving across a white background, allowing the player to feel a permeating sense of alienation as a result of its mechanics. You play as a square that is constantly confronted by groups, or patterns of other squares, but can never interact with any of them as a result of their instantaneous fleeing from you. The player’s inability to successfully interact with anything in the game makes them feel useless, unwanted, and powerless. The game is meant to mirror what thousands of people across the world face everyday, and ultimately familiarizes the players with how they would grapple with such an issue.
Agency and mechanics, if wielded properly by the developers, are extremely powerful ways for us to explore not only ourselves, but also how we interact and understand the world around us through the medium of video games. For Henry, video games are especially important in providing positive social experiences that may not be as easily conveyed by other artistic forms.
Ultimately, video games are still in their infancy as an art form. We are at the beginnings of a medium that has the power to seriously impact people’s lives in meaningful ways if we only broaden our perspectives and allow it to do so.