Whether video games have any value is a question every gamer has had to grapple with from time to time, likely because their parents like to dismiss games as mindless entertainment. These adults do so with such ease and certainty that it might even seem wrong to disbelieve them, but video games have evolved to be capable of far more than mere entertainment. Whatever “art” is, video games can be that. It’s an all-encompassing medium. And in the act of playing, we are no longer passive observers—as we do when we watch a film or admire a painting—but as active participants within the work.
If you think of art in terms of its capacity to tell a story, video games can do so like nothing else. “Dark Souls,” for instance, tells its story through astonishingly minimal details: cryptic dialogue, architecture and landscape of the game world, character design and in-game descriptions of items. The lore and story are an open puzzle that requires the player’s interaction with the game to piece everything together, itself an ongoing effort. Speaking of interaction, video games have the unique advantage of offering a multiplicity of choice and agency in the stories they tell. This is especially true for a role-playing game like “Dragon Age: Origins.” In a game like this, there are so many choices to make: who your in-game character will become, where they will go, who to kill and who to love. These choices directly influence the outcome of the game state. Sure, books and TV shows have the “choose-your-adventure” subgenre, but its range of choices is severely limited in comparison. In video games, your choices can matter.
If you think of art in terms of its aesthetic value, video games are spearheading the development of visual art and music. “Journey” is one classic example of both. Its most memorable part is easily the one where you slide down sand dunes amidst pillars built by a long lost civilization. The way the sun shines on the sand as you slide through it is a stunning, mesmerizing experience, which is made even more amazing by the emotional and delicate soundtrack. As opposed to graphical fidelity, some games deliberately constrain themselves to certain paletes and styles to great effect. “Limbo,” for example, employs only black and white to create silhouettes that generate a creepy and enigmatic atmosphere. Games like “Faith” and “Blasphemous” take advantage of the low-poly, pixelated style that we normally associate with innocence and cuteness to create ingeniously disturbing and gory imagery. In terms of music, “Chrono Trigger” features one of the best video soundtracks ever made, resembling orchestra epics. Equally brilliant was the music of “Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” which was composed from old instruments like a renaissance fiddle and even a hurdy-gurdy, perfectly setting the tone for the game’s high fantasy and gritty medieval world.
If you think of art in terms of its intellectual and cultural worth, video games have plenty of that. Games like “Dark Souls,” “Spec Ops: The Line,” “Bioshock,” and “Papers, Please” comment on themes such as mental illness, religion, war, and politics, all of which are central to the human experience. And with the player playing a role in the narrative, there is often a much higher level of emotional connection to the games and their messages. Just look at the enormous collection of video essays on Youtube of people analyzing and critiquing on their favorite games, in the same way that scholars do with literature and philosophy.
Games can also be excellent learning tools as well as platforms to express creativity. “Minecraft,” an extremely popular game where you can build basically anything, has been adopted by some teachers as a platform for virtual tours, demonstrations and fostering students’ creativity. Sometimes, games are even able to provide answers to difficult scientific questions. “FoldIt” is a game that challenges players to predict the structure of different proteins, and it turned out that the predictions from players were significantly more accurate from those of a supercomputer capable of 100 trillion calculations per second. The players don’t just learn, they become scientific contributors.
Of course, not every game can or wants to be art because they are first and foremost supposed to be entertaining and sometimes that’s all we want. But to deny their value as art is simply naive. It is obvious that the medium contains unparalleled possibility when it comes to artistic expression. It is the ultimate conclusion, not just as the amalgam of seemingly all the forms we consider art but as a unique art that invites players to be a part of it.