Why are video games not included in the discussion of our most valued culture and entertainment? In-depth discussion of films, novels and plays feature prominently on a wide variety of platforms, whilst gaming is seemingly still viewed as the crude pastime of teenagers cooped up in their parents’ basements. This is simply not the case. We can no longer ignore the significance of video gaming.

From an 8-bit world, gaming has expanded and evolved into new and interesting places. Yes, when gaming was in its infancy it was all about the fun and high scores, but it’s not 1980 anymore. Games are now capable of detailed explorations of conceptual themes, and creating a uniquely immersive narrative experience in which its audience is directly involved in helping a story unfold. For example, This War of Mine (2014) allows its player to experience the horrors of wars through the eyes of a refugee: trying to carve some form of meaning and existence for your group in a war torn city. In Papers Please (2013), one has to negotiate the daily grind and politics of an immigration officer in a cruel dictatorship, attempting to strike a balance between feeding your family and helping your fellow man.  And the stripped-back puzzle platformer Portal (2007) manages to craft an engaging and wonderful story from a totally silent protagonist who awakens in a labyrinth testing facility, seemingly accompanied by one very rude AI machine that forces the player to complete tasks whilst insulting them. I’m not sure if I could sell that as a film. The narratives that gaming can create are so much more than visual spectacle or adrenaline. Gaming lets us experience worlds that we could never encounter otherwise, and it does this in ways so direct and personal compared to other forms of media. It is precisely the interactivity of games that allow them to open narrative doors that simply could never be accessed before. It’s definitely time to dispose of the tired of stereotype of simply collecting coins and shooting the bad guys.

Consider 2007’s Bioshock. It is both a violent struggle through a dystopian manifestation based on the theories of Ayn Rand, and a striking meta-commentary about free will in gaming. In order to experience the game properly, you must become the subject of the work itself and experience it as intended. Video games are intrinsically interactive: woven as they are into the form of a narrative experience that unfolds itself over dozens of hours. I feel like I could bore you with a countless list of examples, but it simply would not convey the message. The immersive nature of well-constructed games means that to understand them fully, you really have to play them (maybe this explains to some extent why discussion of video games has traditionally been relegated to fan message boards). Games have reached a maturity in which they can reflexively comment upon themselves and the capabilities of their own medium, and games can do things totally unique to their genre precisely because their personal and intimate connection to the viewer.

In fact, one of the things that I believe makes the gaming experience special is the power of choice. Unlike other media, the script is literally in your hands. Admittedly, if the controller falls on the floor and the noble hero then spends a solid few minutes running head-first at a wall, it may dent the immersion somewhat, but games really do create new worlds and constantly developing sub-plots that extend beyond the creator and into the player. The entire experience of the game varies upon the decisions of the player. You control the narrative and your choices will affect how everything unfolds. Games such as the Sci-Fi masterpiece Mass Effect (2007) revolve entirely around choice. Who stays behind to protect the group and sacrifice themselves? Will you sacrifice your friends for the greater good? Games create a thousand stories beyond their own narratives. One example (possibly a slightly silly one, but bear with me) is when I used to play the old historical strategy game Rome: Total War (2004) as a child. I would see the massed armies and try to follow just a few soldiers in the crowd. I would forge my own epic battle and tales for them in my mind, celebrating their victories and mourning their pixelated losses. Video games allow us as players, more than almost anything else, to become the artists ourselves.

I suppose I have already stepped into the minefield that is discussing what is and is not “art”. The subject on whether video games fall into this category has begun to vex critics such as Jonathon Jones[1] and even has game designers such as Hideo Kojima calling them “services to people” instead of artworks.[2] One more vicious swipe comes from Roger Ebert, who brutally claims “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic”.[3] There have been many arguments made against the format as a whole, usually revolving around the idea that games are commercial products, not artistic works, or that they are just digital playgrounds, not designed for reflection and thought.

Whilst trying to tackle the idea of what is and isn’t art is a mammoth task that has occupied many of history’s greatest philosophers, those who go out of their way to “put games in their place” remind me of the same people who were adamant that film in its early days was only visual spectacle with no substance. I believe the same thing will happen in relation video games. Technology will improve, popularity will grow, and more young and creative minds will express themselves through gaming; the critics will be left behind in the history books. Gaming as a form of media is growing ever more mature as it learns of all of its boundaries, capabilities, and influence,[4] and I have no doubt greater and more marvellous things will be achieved. Moreover, we are seeing more games developed and created from independent groups or inspired solo designers such as Jonathon Blow/Number None, thatgamecompany and Telltale games. I think it’s clear from the above, and to anyone who has indulged in more serious games, that they can explore the human condition and philosophise with all the rigour of other platforms; all that remains is for them to be popularly recognised as being able to do so.

There will always be the more brainless blockbuster-esque shoot-em-up games, but the same is true of cinema. There is a whole world of vibrant, meaningful and wonderful video games: you just have to know where to look. It’s time to appreciate these games as art. Doing this will lead to a greater appreciation of the capabilities that game creators have demonstrated thus far, and encourage more creative minds to interact with the medium and take it in new directions. It’s time to embrace the game.

[1] Jonathan Jones, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art”, The Guardian 30th November 2012.   

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/nov/30/moma-video-games-art

[2] Elle Gibson, “Games aren’t art, says Kojima”, Eurogamer 24th January 2006. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/news240106kojimaart

[3] Roger Ebert, “Why did the chicken cross the genders?”. Rogerebert.com 27th November 2005. http://www.rogerebert.com/answer-man/why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-genders

[4] Some statistics and information on the growth and reach of video games:

http://www.bigfishgames.com/blog/2017-video-game-trends-and-statistics-whos-playing-what-and-why/

http://www.geekwire.com/2014/rise-esports-people-watch-video-game-competitions-real-sporting-events/ http://essentialfacts.theesa.com/Essential-Facts-2016.pdf