Paul Callaghan on Are Video Games Art?

In this guest post, Paul Callaghan argues that the creative possibilities of games mean they should be taken more seriously as an artform.

One of the cornerstones of the ‘games can never be art’ argument is that games are defined as competitive pursuits built around rules and goals, and from that definition, nobody has ever produced art, so we should re-frame what we are discussing because the word ‘game’ doesn’t quite fit.

Except that every other form has evolved beyond its initial frame of reference and gone on to encapsulate a wide range of expressions and forms, and games are no exception. The word ‘game’, like ‘film’, or ‘novel’, or ‘comic’, is a synecdoche - where a single element of the thing is used to describe the whole. The traditional elements of games – rules, states, goals – exist in contemporary games, but don’t define them. But what, then, of authorial control? Games cannot be art because they aren’t guided experiences, because the audience takes some responsibility for guiding the experience. This stance ignores that it’s exactly a game’s unique ability to communicate personal experience, to explore the inner world as a reflection of the outer, that is an incredibly powerful tool.

A game like Mass Effect explores themes of control and power, and creates a work of enormous emotional and personal weight precisely because of the choices you are empowered to make. Spending 20 or 30 hours shaping your character and then being faced with the dilemma of wiping out or saving the last of an alien species is a choice that you make – not the characters, and certainly not the authors, but one that reflects you as an individual.

But is that enough to qualify games as art?

Not always. These essential elements of choice and narrative and space and agency need to come together in something deeper than the sum of their parts, with layers of meaning embedded in the subtext and themes of the work.

Bioshock distinguishes itself from Doom in this very specific way. Both are first person shooters, but Bioshock is about more than just exploring a hostile underwater city. It’s about family, about control, about the danger of unchecked power, and about a world built on a precarious philosophy. While it could be argued that these may not be particularly deep themes, they are there in the subtext of the player’s actions, the presented narrative, the game’s space, and it’s eventual resolution.

This goes for many of the other games put forward as art – Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Flower, Passage, or The Path). They all attempt to be about more than what is presented, and about more than the player’s actions.

Games have evolved – as film has evolved, as writing has evolved, as comics have evolved – to contain a wide range of creative possibilities. We should, as a broad creative culture, be inclusive rather than exclusive. We should look at the creative possibilities of choice and audience authorship rather than dismiss it as inferior to other forms. We should consider that games are made by adults, with aspirations to use the new tools at their disposal to craft unique emotional experiences for audiences.

In short, we should consider them as art.

Portrait of Paul Callaghan

Paul Callaghan is a freelance writer, game developer, and co-director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.

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