Video games are not works of art, and they should never become art

Craig Watkins, Opinion Editor

Something that never comes up in conversation is how much I like kaleidoscopes.

In particular, I like those $100 kaleidoscopes they sell in art galleries which seem to be set on a secret switch that immediately sends an employee your way to tell you everything there is to say about kaleidoscopes, prompting you to casually replace the object before they get the crazy idea that you are seriously about to spend $100 on a kaleidoscope.

Anyway, kaleidoscopes are astoundingly pretty and slightly tragic when you realize the beautiful images you are witnessing will never be exactly recreated by yourself or anyone else ever again.

The shifting optical device is not itself a piece of art, but this makes it no less deserving of being sold in an art gallery, and certainly no less pretty.

The first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Roger Ebert, was no stranger to controversial opinions (he gave The Phantom Menace a near-perfect score, after all). One of these was his statement that no video game ever made could be considered a work of art.

For years, Ebert received letters trying to convince him otherwise, and he elaborated on his views. He did eventually say that video games could someday, many generations from now become art.

As someone who has always loved video games, I agree with Ebert. In fact, I hope he is wrong about his prediction too.

Since art has an infinite number of definitions, I will use the one most associated with Ebert’s back-and-forth with TEDx speaker Kellee Santiago: “the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

Established art mediums fall into this definition quite easily. When two people view the Mona Lisa, they are looking at the exact same arrangement of brushstrokes that form the shape of a woman.

One viewer might feel happy, deciding that she is smiling, while the other might think she is creepy with her eyes that seem to follow the viewer. This is how the same deliberate arrangement of elements has a different effect on different people.

When two people watch The Wizard of Oz, they see the same images and hear the same sounds for the same amount of time. When they observe the Statue of Liberty, they may spend different amounts of time looking at each part of the colossal statue, but the same elements are arranged the same way for each and are always present.

Video games are distinctly different from other mediums because of the presence of the audience as a force among the elements.

Dishonored is a game where the player takes control of an assassin with magical powers.

The game is open-ended, allowing players to rush through guards and fight them off in combat or sneak behind them and silently kill each. The game can even be completed without killing a single person if the player is skilled enough.

What Dishonored is, then, is not the same arrangement of elements for all viewers. It is a malleable experience that no two people could possibly observe in the same way.

Often regarded as the greatest video game ever created, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time might not seem as open as Dishonored, but it very much is.

Though players use the same weapons to fight the same monsters to finish the game, how they go about doing it is totally different.

Over the years, fans have created challenges for the game, such as beating it without picking up any health upgrades.

All of the elements are in the same places as when playing the game any other way, but those elements now interact differently. A boss could defeat the player in less hits, for example.

Even so-called “art games” do not fit the chosen definition of art. Shelter is a game about leading a family of badgers through a treacherous forest.

The baby badgers can die by not being fed, drowning, or falling victim to a predator. Each badger has a distinct fur pattern and it is possible to finish the game with different numbers of baby badgers.

This makes the ending of the game consist of different elements. Two productions of Romeo and Juliet with different staging cannot be considered the same work of art, so neither can two playthroughs of Shelter with different badgers alive at the end.

Entire elements can even be hidden in games. Many games contain secret or optional levels that not every player will find. But one person sitting next to another at a production of Swan Lake will not see any dances or hear any songs that the other will not.

This also applies for mistakes. Whether or not they acknowledge it, everybody who watches Blade Runner (unless it is The Final Cut version) will see the shadow of the cameraman behind Deckard during the climax, but in the game Twilight Princess, only those who think to fight the Ganon’s Puppet boss with a bottle instead of a sword will be exposed to the oversight that that is possible.

So, I don’t think video games are art, but that does not mean I think any less of them as important mediums for conveying ideas or evoking emotions.

Not believing that The Last of Us is a work of art didn’t change how angry I felt during its final scene, and I’ve never gotten over how sad Final Fantasy X made me at the end.

The point is that evoking emotions does not automatically make something art. Similarly, not being art does not mean that something is any less worthy of evoking emotions.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a place that brought forth some of the most poignant sadness and anger inside of me. If someone told me The Green Mile touched them more than that place, I would assume they are a psychopath.

To say that a video game as a whole is not a work of art is not to deny the art that it contains. Contrast is a beautiful combination of jazz music, French architecture, and a story about a troubled family.

Each of these individual elements should be considered a work of art, and each of these works of art can come together to form a coherent, separate medium that appeals to the senses and emotions in a way different from art.

This amalgamation of pieces of art that the player can manipulate is a perfectly fine medium that should not be changed. In fact, I doubt many gamers actually want a game that qualifies as a work of art.

Life is Strange is one of the most moving games I have ever played. Throughout the game, the player makes decisions that affect the life of the protagonist and those around her in various ways. For example, specific characters could be more hostile or friendly towards one another based on these choices.

Though critically acclaimed, countless players expressed their hatred of the game’s ending. At the very climax of the story, the player is presented with the option to choose one of two different endings for the game.

While I found this fascinating, as it made the experience of the game more about how the player feels than how the player manipulated the world, many others felt it was nothing less than disrespectful that the ending did not reflect the several choices the player made throughout the game.

What so many players wanted at the end of the game was proof that they had rearranged the elements in place at the beginning of the game, proof that they disassembled what might have been considered art.

They wanted a reward, which is what Ebert always said held back games from becoming art in his lifetime. Art is its own reward.

A video game that qualifies as art is one where the player has no choice or control over any aspect, leaving every element completely untouched from how the artist placed it.

Devoid of any player interaction, the key to defining the medium, this game (if you could even call it that) is one I hope never to play. It is like a kaleidoscope that stays the same no matter how you turn it.