It's time to leave the debate as to whether video games are art or not behind. Instead, there is a need to consider how video games function as works of art, to ask whether game developers have properly grasped the nature of interactivity and to consider whether we as an audience really understand what it is about video games that makes them so compelling.
I invited three individuals to explore these issues with me -- Jonathan Blow, creator of the critically acclaimed Braid and upcoming exploration-puzzle game The Witness; Erlend Grefsrud, developer at Strongman Games and ex-game journalist; and Dr. Grant Tavinor, a philosophy academic at Lincoln University who has written a book and a number of articles on the subject of video games.
It would be all too easy to use other mediums like film and literature -- mediums already widely accepted as being "legitimately" artistic -- as a starting point, a frame of reference by which to judge video games and their potential for communicating with their audience. But as Dr. Tavinor is keen to point out, making such comparisons can be very misleading.
"I think that games have often been treated as film in criticism; often to their disadvantage. Roger Ebert [was] probably guilty of this in many of his remarks about games. If we treat games merely as a kind of film, with the same artistic standards as film, then they often do come off poorly," Dr. Tavinor explains. "As good as Red Dead Redemption is, the acting and writing is quite derivative and firmly B grade".
But it's not only in criticism that video games have been treated as a kind of film; the impact that Hollywood has had on game design is plain to see to anybody who cares to pick up a controller in their spare time. Indeed, video games are often praised for being "cinematic," but I do tend to wonder to what extent this is really a good thing. Will video games not always come off unfavourably in comparison to other mediums if they simply strive to ape what it is makes those mediums appealing? Grefsrud seems to share my concerns.
"Game designers are too preoccupied with proving that games can successfully emulate cinematic or literary techniques," Grefsrud argues. "Critics and audiences appear to measure quality as a factor of the developers' efforts in this meaningless exercise."
As Blow seeks to pinpoint how video games are best used as a form of artistic expression, he finds recourse to a similar position. "Too many game designers think in terms of crafting a linear experience and then forcing the player to have that experience. It's not random coincidence, though -- there are market forces that push triple-A games in this direction."
"I am not a big believer in games as vehicle for story," Blow continues. "A lot of games try that and most of them do very badly at it (though a few are excellent, like Dear Esther). Games are about simulations of worlds according to rules of behavior (even if your world is something very abstract, like a chessboard) and this makes all games like miniature toy versions of the universe we live in," Blow explains. "Unlike other forms of art, games are biased toward ideas that actually have to work. If you want to build a system that embodies some idea, well, you have to build the working system! So I would say that games are biased toward a certain kind of truth in a way that most forms are not."
As Blow suggests, games are all about systems -- they have mechanics, or rules, which define how the player can interact with the virtual world around them. Of course, there is always some degree of interaction between any given work of art its audience, but with video games, that relationship is fundamental in a way it is not for other mediums. The aforementioned tendency to judge video games against the standards of film and literature suggests that we still don't quite understand how that relationship between player and system works. For Dr. Tavinor, doing so is key.
"Do we really know what a video games masterpiece looks like?" Dr. Tavinor asks. "Perhaps we need to develop a distinctive theory of games to really understand their achievements. I suspect that understanding how their interactivity contributes to the art is crucial here."