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The Case For Video Games As Art

Date/Time Permalink: 06/19/09 12:56:33 pm
Category: Geek Culture

A story today brought to the forefront an issue that's been on my mind. This is an argument that censorship stifles the art of video games. But behind this issue lies another point: video games just don't get accepted as an art form in our culture. At least not with the legitimacy that other media forms get.

Where is the Mona Lisa of video games? Where is gaming's Beethoven's 9th? When will a video game be praised on the same level as movies like Fellini's 8½ or, if that's too artsy-tartsy for you, even Star Wars?

Quest for the Rest

Here's an example I'd like to show. Maybe it's no Mona Lisa, but it's pretty good. It's Polyphonic Spree's Quest for the Rest. It's an adventure game of a few scenes with little puzzles to solve, not too difficult, the point being more to showcase songs by the band Polyphonic Spree. This has been one of my favorite web games for years now. I've had it bookmarked forever, and come back to play through it every year or so just because it's beautiful.

How do we argue that this is true art? Let's deconstruct it.

Take the music by itself. It certainly qualifies as art. People come to see Polyphonic Spree, critics review their music. The music is art by any measure.

Now take the graphics by itself. If each level were a series of still paintings, would they not be fit for a museum exhibit? I would say yes. I would even venture to say, in my anything-but-humble opinion, that still frames from this game look better than a lot of the art I see on the walls in galleries.

Now consider the animation. If Steamboat Willie and Fantasia is art, then this is art, too. The animations that play in answer to certain sequences evoke all kinds of rasas; there are funny ones, beautiful ones, whimsical ones, exciting ones.

So, all of the components of it are art. Therefore, taken together it is art. And not just because of its components; the final argument that video games are art is that this game brings a new kind of experience through its interactivity.

The music not only goes beautifully with the art, but with the actions as well. The different songs in each level go well with the progress through the game - making you feel a growing sense of wonder at what you'll discover next. The little clues that happen when you click things add to the experience. The figures shrug when you click them, if there's nothing they can do. Not everything is part of the game's goal; the lizard in the bottom right corner of the first screen is just a red herring, but it adds to the level, too, by scurrying away.

After all, video games are kind of held back. They are under the same kind of stigma as comics and cartoons - they are taken as "just for kids". Where did this ludicrous idea come from?

And when did it become a shameful thing for adults to enjoy something that's "just for kids" anyway? If you have your own children and have never had the pleasure of attending your daughter's make-believe tea party with stuffed animals as guests, or engaged in a water-pistol war with your son and the both of you running around the house on a hot summer day and surprising each other with ambushes, you're missing out, and so are your kids.

I know grown professionals who watch Teletubbies, senior citizens who eat Captain Crunch, and avid gamers with gray hair. Let's quit pretending that anything is "just for kids", already!

And this game isn't even something that would be bothered by censorship. Every moment of Quest for the Rest is fit for the youngest tot. But, to the point of the original question, what are we missing out on, by not letting video games have the same serious respect for artistic expression as other media?

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