Beyond the Bubble: Video Games as Artistic Expression

by Andrea Nease | 10/20/14 1:26pm

If someone asked you what art is, what would you say? Art is harder to define than you thought it would be, isn’t it? A friend posed this question to me the other day, and my response was a jumbled list of names.

“Van Gogh, Picasso, da Vinci,” I said. “Monet, Michelangelo, et cetera ... I think?”

In my elementary school art class I was introduced to a number of world artists and from that introduction on, I, like many others, came to believe that art was the skillful application of paint on a canvas.

After providing my own definition of art I was asked what prevents something from being art. I did not have an answer, and that got me thinking: can anything be art? From poetry to cartoons, architecture to pottery, art could potentially encompass all that is creative. But how often do we give attention to unconventional “art,” like the geometric display of Tetris game?

Eventually, my friend asked, “If everything can technically be classified as art, then would the world of digital invention, and more specifically video games, classify as art?”

No, I said, as if there was no possible way a video game could be art. “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” (2007)? “Halo: Combat Evolved” (2001)? “Dark Souls” (2011)? Art? I don’t think so — or rather, I didn’t at first.

The Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli, was criticized in 2012 after announcing the museum’s acquisition of 14 video games, including “Pac-Man” (1980) and “Tetris” (1984). Antonelli intended to display the games as examples of “interaction design,” but various critics bashed MoMA’s decision.

“Sorry MoMA, video games are not art,” read the headline of a Jonathan Jones piece in The Guardian.

According to Antonelli, regardless of their label, video games are design, and design is everywhere. But is design art? Her conclusion was not concrete enough for me. I decided to look at the design process for answers.

In my research, I kept seeing words such as sketch, design, artists, medium. A video game is born from a story, just like a movie. Then a team of writers, artists and designers expand the storyline. The developing storyboard calls for character sketches, which are tweaked to perfection before being scanned and built into digital exoskeletons that prep the character for animation capacity.

So a video game is built off a narrative, like a novel — an art form. A video game is designed and sketched on paper, like Michelangelo sketched drafts before beginning work on the Sistine Chapel — undoubtedly an art form. Furthermore, a video game employs these graphics and narrative through skilled coding and digital design mastery.

Not only is the creation of a video game full of artful technique and creative skill, but also, just as art serves as a method of expression for a painter, a poet or a screenwriter, a video game provides an expressive outlet for a digital designer.

The documentary “Indie Game: The Movie” (2012), explored “Braid” (2008) developer Jonathan Blow’s experimentation and developmental process as he attempted to put his “deepest flaws and vulnerabilities,” as he says in the film, into the game’s very design. Throughout history, artists consistently fought to put themselves into their work.

Video games, like other art forms, seek to express certain philosophies. Forbes contributor Jordan Shapiro writes of video games, “the actions a game demands implicitly make some sort of moral argument.”

“Braid” employs hand-brushed visual technique and unexpected narrative twists that fight typical gaming clichés. Its rhetoric pushes for the value of the game’s journey over its final destination. Using digital animation medium, Blow threads together a love story with an ending that is considerably more artistic than some novels I’ve read.

Romantic rhetoric is not rare within the art world. Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907) serves as an expression of the pressures of love, and just as the narrative of “Braid” allows for various interpretations, “The Kiss” gives viewers the same interpretative freedom. Art is an individual’s expression of how they see something. “Braid” is Blow’s expression of the ambiguity of love just as “The Kiss” is Klimt’s expression of lovers’ unity.

There is an advocate for and artist of the gaming genre in our community at Dartmouth. Digital humanities professor Mary Flanagan is dedicated to the research and development of digital art, which ranges from “game-based systems to computer viruses, embodied interfaces to interactive texts,” according to Flanagan’s bio.

The art of the video game is not the delusion of a teenager “wasting” hours playing “The Elder Scrolls V; Skyrim” (2011) in his or her basement. It is an academic discussion that should be taken as a serious debate — one that could call for the reevaluation of our generation’s definition of art.