The Art Assignment


The Case for Video Games

Video Games are fun, but are they art? Heck yes. We explore the history and present of video games and what sets them apart as a means of artistic expression.

AIRED: March 05, 2020 | 0:12:45

WOMAN: I am not a gamer.

If anything, I tend to be overwhelmed by

and fearful of the addictive immersiveness of video games.

But the first time I saw this game Monument Valley,

I was completely and utterly mesmerized

by its spare beauty, its M.C. Escher-like sequence

of pathways and structures

and ladders that this quiet little person

deftly navigates and unlocks.

I was not just entertained, I was moved.

It was poetic, challenging, metaphorically resonant.

How was my experience of this game

in any way lesser than my encounters

with other forms of art?

And what else out there was I missing?

This is The Case for Video Games.

Video games have a rich history, beginning

before you think they did with proto computer games

like Tennis for Two in 1958.

But they really kicked off in the early 1970s

with the explosion of arcade games and the dawn

of home consoles with minimalist wonders like Pong

and an impressive variety of plastic boxes

with faux wood details.

And there have been a huge range

of kinds of video games since

of varying quality and popularity.

Video games are not a passing fad.

They're a multi-billion dollar industry.

I mean, seriously, as big if not bigger than the film industry.

And it sees growth every year,

evolving as the world and technology evolve

and as developers and corporations and gamers

respond to those changes.

It's hard to talk about video games as being one thing,

because they perform varying functions

and address differing needs.

I mean, some games are primarily about pattern recognition

and spatial reasoning, like positioning Mario above a pipe,

or dodging bullets, or fitting blocks into an allotted space.

Other games are educational, either vaguely

or strategically, imparting history or math or engineering.

Sometimes you can choose whether or not

you want the game to be educational.

But video games can teach and test

your coordination and rhythm,

alone and of course with friends.

Competition is at the core of many games,

but so is collaboration, allowing you to work together

with others toward a goal, whether your teammates

are in the same room or on a different continent.

Now it may be obvious, but worth noting

that video games are almost always about strategy

and problem solving.

You can learn the rules of sports

and play them with less risk of injury.

You can simulate potentially real-world situations

and also not-real-world situations.

Video games allow you to build worlds, evolve worlds,

and explore the amazingly intricate worlds

that others have created.

Who doesn't want to turn into a cat and jump through a tree

or discover a new planet--

a planet that admittedly no one else

will ever see in this vast and lonely universe?

The quality of CGI in games has improved significantly

over the years, offering up immersive cinematic worlds

and almost but not quite naturalistic reproductions

of human beings.

We're still in the uncanny valley, folks,

and we likely will be for some time.

Developers have brought in actors

you know and love to voice characters

in a number of games.

MALE: I'm a ghost, actually.

WOMAN: And some games feature footage of real life actors,

like Her Story in which you explore

a video database of fictional interviews of a woman

to try to uncover the truth of what happened.

Video games are really good at telling stories,

letting a narrative unravel over time.

Like a good novel or movie, they're paced,

alternating periods of fast-paced action

with slower moments allowing for exposition

and character development.

Movies are actually a really good point of comparison here,

as they're also a more populist accessible art form.

Some are considered high art or film.

And others are, well, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses II.

And like our taste for movies, sometimes we want

something fun and easy, and other times

we feel like something super challenging and intense.

Likewise for the kind of art you see in a gallery or museum,

one day you might want to gaze at a captivating landscape

whose equivalent in gaming might be something like Firewatch.

Another day, you want to stand before Picasso's Guernica

and feel the pain and misery of the Spanish Civil War,

an experience closer to something

like playing This War of Mine about a group of civilians

trying to survive in a besieged city.

Now there's been plenty of work assigned

to the realm of visual or fine art

that has involved video game technology,

like Corey Archangel's 2002 work, Super Mario Clouds,

for which he modified the code

of the original 1985 Super Mario Brothers,

erasing all sound and all visual elements

except the sky and the clouds that scroll across it.

Video games have also been collected by art museums,

like Jenova Chen and Nick Clark's Flow

and Jason Rohrer's Passage, a five-minute game where

a character moves through the stages of life

and dies only once at the end,

both of which were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

But for what it's worth, they also have The Sims.

There are a number of creators making games

who work between disciplines,

not confining themselves to one field or another.

Actually, opera might be a more fitting point

of comparison for video games--

in particular, the idea of the total work of art,

orgesamtkunstwerk ,

propounded by German composer Richard Wagner.

Rather than all the arts existing separately

in their own silos, Wagner wanted his own works

to synthesize music, drama, dance, costumes,

set design, and everything else into one harmonious whole.

Similarly, video games are consolidations

of the creative output of many.

Writers, designers, programmers, composers, concept artists,

modelers, directors, sound engineers,

and many other roles all brought together into one package.

The creation of video games is largely

a collective enterprise, but there are plenty

of individual artists and auteurs

who are credited as the visionaries behind given games,

like Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of classics

like Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda,

and Hideo Kojima, the lead behind the Metal Gear series.

But while the most popular games are truly team efforts,

there are still lone wolves out there,

like Eric Barone, the single developer

behind Stardew Valley, one of the top selling titles

of 2016 on Steam,

who created the game by working on his own ten hours a day,

seven days a week for four years.

Like any artist, a game developer

begins with a relative blank slate.

They have a particular set of skills and technologies

at their disposal, and a knowledge either thin or deep

of what's been done before.

Whether working alone or with gobs of money

and a team of folks behind them, developers

build complex, many-layered microcosms for others

to investigate and decipher and explore.

And that's really what sets video games apart.

They need you to complete them.

All art is interactive to some degree.

If a painting hangs in a forest and no one sees it,

is it really artwork?

Sculpture and installation require you

to walk around them, to take them in in full.

More and more works of art assume and necessitate

viewer involvement, but very few as inherently

as any video game.

They not only respond to you but adapt

and offer diverse experiences

depending on the choices you make.

This extreme interactivity makes it so that you,

at least to some extent, become the co-author.

You are the artist too.

You can try to understand what the developer

might be trying to say or accomplish.

And you can also bend the experience to embody or project

how you see the world.

There are genres of video games, just as with

other forms of art.

You've got your first-person shooters and role-playing games

and platformers.

But also like other forms of art,

the expectations and rules for every kind of game

have been stretched and broken and intentionally subverted.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows for open-ended game play,

enabling you to navigate the world

in an unstructured and non-linear way.

Some titles completely discard the idea

that a game needs a clearly-defined objective.

Like, what am I supposed to be doing on this island, exactly?

Or maybe the developers completely

throw away the idea of a cut scene,

pioneered way back in Pac-Man,

and make the entire game

feel like a single, unbroken tracking shot.

Or maybe the game's objective is to take care

of this fish man thing?

Not every new idea is a winner, people.

But video games require much more than coordination.

Whether solo enterprises or social undertakings,

they challenge players to think critically about

not only the world of the game

but also the real world around them.

The game The Last of Us, in which

a smuggler has the job of escorting a teenage girl

across a post-apocalyptic, zombified United States

sparked discussions about what it means to be a father

and the dynamics of father- daughter relationships.

Games like Life is Strange tackle

difficult problems head-on, like online harassment

and depression.

Life is Strange 2 follows teenager brothers

of Mexican descent who are dealing

with the traumatic death of a parent

and citizenship and racism and religious extremism.

One first-person exploration game, Gone Home,

follows a young woman as she returns to her Oregon home

in 1995, finds it empty, and pieces together

that her family fell apart after her parents found out

about her younger sister's lesbian relationship.

Video games can provide a platform

for many underrepresented voices and stories.

Like Never Alone, which was developed in collaboration

between game makers and Alaska native storytellers

and is based on a traditional Inupiat tale.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

ruled in 2011 that video games

deserve First Amendment protection,

just like books, plays, and movies,

writing, "video games communicate ideas, even

"social messages, through many familiar literary devices

"such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music,

"and through features distinctive to the medium,

such as the player's interaction with the virtual word."

Of course, you don't have to look far

to find a game that will offend you, no matter who you are.

But that's true with any art form.

There are big issues with gaming.

But I'd argue they're not baked into the medium.

As Seth Schiesel argued in 2018, "It's not the content,

it's the culture."

The online gaming culture, that is,

where bigotry, bullying, sexism, and all sorts of toxic behavior

have run amok and ruin the enjoyment for many.

It can be hard, if not impossible,

to separate these issues from the games themselves.

However, they certainly aren't exclusive

to the gaming community.

Video games have always been a reflection of their times,

and these are indeed the challenges of now.

Whether you play them or not, gaming culture

extends far beyond screens and headsets,

and is no longer confined to virtual space.

But it never was, really.

Arcades were physical places

where human bodies shared proximity.

LAN parties in the early aughts were actually real parties.

Playing Wii together, and Guitar Hero,

and Dance Dance Revolution

aren't merely virtual experiences,

and neither is getting into a car accident

trying to catch Pokemon.

Video gaming, like much of modern life,

blends online and offline experience.

And it's firmly part of culture and cultural memory,

whether you consider it high art or low.

In his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You,

Steven Johnson reminds us that there is nothing

trivial about game play.

When negotiating various worlds, young and old alike

practice patience, delay gratification,

and negotiate complex social relationships.

Gaming, according to Johnson, is "about finding order

"and meaning in the world, and making decisions

that help create that order."

The more I learn about video games,

the more my respect grows for those

who routinely fling themselves into the unknown of a new game,

armed with knowledge of past games, sure,

but up for the challenge of finding order and meaning

in a new world, ready to confront unforeseeable futures,

failure, death.

It reminds me of the bravery required

to walk into an art gallery, where you're unsure

of what you'll find or what will be required of you,

but are nonetheless open to whatever

the artists have in store.

When it comes to video games, there is still so much left

to be done, so much territory to conjure and explore,

so many more perspectives to offer on the part of developers

as well as players.

It's an outstandingly elastic medium,

receptive and also susceptible to all the best and worst

we humans have to offer it.

Video games shape our understanding of humanity

just as they are shaped by it.

Oh, and they're also really fun.


Special thanks to our director, editor, and lifelong gamer,

Brandon Brungard, for his help advising on this episode

and bringing it to life.


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