Why Video Games Are Works of Art



I've stood at the top of a grass-blown knoll overlooking the sea, a view that stretched to cover a land of sprawling islands traversed only by my sailboat and me. I have played a musical instrument that controls the wind. I've been a sword-wielding teenage adventurer, a ghostbuster, and a short Italian plumber in search of his kidnapped love.

Roger Ebert would say that none of these experiences were real or meaningful because they happened through video games. In a recent post, simply entitled "Video games can never be art" published on his Chicago Sun-Times blog, the famed movie critic shoots down one of my favorite art forms as unable to fulfill his definition of 'art'. The critic reacts specifically to a TED talk given by independent game developer Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany, a video game production firm known as a forerunner in a movement that takes for granted that video games are art. The trick, according to Santiago, is to make them great art. I agree.

But let's hear Ebert make his argument for himself. The critic first dismisses videogames as art on the grounds that they are foremost games, and games, having rules and objectives, can be "won". Traditional art forms, "a story, a novel, a play," he writes, "are things you cannot win; you can only experience them." He measures video games against the Platonic definition of art as an imitation of nature and reality. Ebert writes, "[art] grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision." He concedes that he thinks art is "usually the creation of one artist," and does not believe video games, the products of large teams are capable of having a singular artistic "vision" behind them.

But video games are nothing if not experiential. They are visuals and music and poetry all wrapped up into a single package. A video game isn't just a game—it is a controlled passage through an overwhelming aesthetic experience. This is also the basis for my own definition of art as any sensory aesthetic experience that provokes an emotional response in its audience, be it wonder, anger, love, frustration or joy.

Yoshi's Island fills me with the same awe as a full-bloom Matisse canvas. Super Mario 64 is as much of a world to me as that created in The Godfather, with as much directorial vision as Coppola. And I can even explore it at my own free will! Video games are art because they inspire us and make us feel and give us experiences unreachable within the realm of the real. It doesn't matter if it's the fantasy of Pokémon and taking pride in caring for something as it grows or Ta-Nehisi Coates' escapist immersion in World of Warcraft as a place with politics and race and social conflicts all its own. These emotions and experiences are gifts given to us by video games just as any other art form.

Ebert denies video games the status of art on a de-facto basis, having never played one himself; no video game yet has deserved his "attention long enough to play it." This is the biggest red flag in a series of holes in his argument. After all, aren't movies also produced by a team, led perhaps by a director? Video games likewise have their auteurs, directors whose overwhelming vision is the soul of their games. Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Super Mario, Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong series of video games, is acclaimed as the greatest. Miyamoto's oeuvre, with its postmodern sense of play and worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds, is as defining a body of art as we can hope to have for the twenty-first century.

Sure, video games can be "won", but "winning" a video game isn't just earning the most points. Winning, in most single-player video games, involves completing the game's narrative arc, reaching the end of the plot in a way very similar to a movie's climax and denouement. Video games don't just stop at the narrative resolution, though. "Winning" often gains the player the ability to explore and wander at will through the game, an experience driven by aesthetics alone. Beat Super Mario World and you'll go back and play through levels simply because they're as beautiful as Kandinsky's Blaue Reiter paintings. Finish the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and head back to the mountains to look out over the world, to feel the virtual wind. Video games are, if anything, more experiential than films.

To conclude his post, Ebert writes, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, [and] novelists." Here's my shot: the sailing sequences in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker are worthy of comparison to Coleridge's Mariner. Pokémon is a coming of age story that doesn't pander or condescend to its young audience, a self-guided Catcher in the Rye. Miyamoto has said that he came up with the original Zelda game as a "miniature garden that [gamers] can put inside their drawer." Likewise, the endless castle of Super Mario 64 is certainly a "world in a grain of sand".

Video games allow us, as William Blake says, as children do, as Miyamoto does, to "hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour." The question is not if video games qualify as art, or if video games can stand up to the art of the past, rather, it is how to find a new language to speak of video games as art. In this Ebert fails entirely.