That was Tim Schafer’s reaction when I recently asked him the question, “Are video games an art form?”
No doubt, it’s a topic that has been bandied about many times before. But with games like Okami, Katamari Damacy, Electroplankton—not to mention more mainstream releases like Metal Gear Solid—being hailed by critics (if not always consumers) these days, it’s hard not to bring it up once again.
Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions (www.doublefine.com), the San Francisco-based development studio responsible for 2005’s award-winning Psychonauts (an artistic game in its own right), seems to agree, despite his initial reservations.
“I think it’s a worthwhile question to consider, just because it’s about the future of games,” he says.
Sighs likewise abounded when other influential developers were confronted with the same question; though, like Schafer, all eventually admitted its continued importance, especially when considering the industry’s relentless growth.
For instance, Ian Bogost, Ph.D., founding partner of Atlanta-based Persuasive Games says, “It’s an extremely simplistic question, but the spirit of it is worthwhile. In essence, we’re asking, ‘What are video games capable of as a medium?’ And that’s a very good question to ask.”
Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights (makers of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, among others), agrees. “It’s a very important question to ask, especially to game developers, as it helps give metrics to where the mindset of the industry is.
“Even asking such a question is an indication that our industry is maturing and games are becoming a dominant form of entertainment,” he adds. “The most popular forms of entertainment—TV, music, poetry, books—went through the same perception evolution.”
Peter Molyneux, no stranger to avant garde games (it’s certainly an apt description of some of his creations, like Populous and Black & White), acknowledges the importance of pondering the artistic status of the gaming industry’s products.
“I’ve no doubt games tick all sorts of arts ‘boxes’ and affect culture as fully as any other art forms,” he says—for him the question developers should be asked is, “What are the consequences of games being art?”
That, however, is a question to be tackled at another time and in another article. Instead, the question of the day is “are games an art form?”
Unsurprisingly, the answer among game developers is a resounding “yes.”
In Schafer’s opinion, “Art is about creatively expressing thoughts or emotions that are hard or impossible to communicate through literal, verbal means.
“Can you use games to do that? Of course you can,” he asserts.
Advergame designer Santiago Siri—he also maintains the aptly titled website GamesAreArt.com—holds even higher regard for gaming’s status as an art form.
“Games are not just art,” he says. “They are the most revolutionary form of art mankind has ever known about.”
The feeling is mutual for Dyack. “I feel video games are probably the most advanced form of art thus far in human history,” he suggests. “Not only do video games encompass many of the traditional forms of art (text, sound, video, imagery), but they also uniquely tie these art forms together with interactivity.
"This allows the art form of video games to create something unique, beyond all other forms of media. Simply expressed, you can put a movie in a video game but you cannot put a video game in a movie. Video games are the ultimate form of art as we know it.”
Not everyone is ready to place a copy of Super Mario Bros. alongside the Mona Lisa, of course.