The War of Art – Video Games as an Art Form

Time for me to weigh in on a different kind of controversy, one that is neither social nor political, but has plagued the entertainment industry for too long. The altercation that has gone on between critics, gamers and even philosophers about whether or not video games can be considered ‘art’.ImageNow this is a subject that I consider close to my heart, as I’ve been playing video games since I was 4 years old. I’d like to try to approach this argument with as little bias as possible, but that’s obviously going to be quite difficult since I already have (always have and always will have) a solid stance here. I honestly believe that the belief that video games aren’t a form of art is such a ridiculously outdated mindset, you ought to be slapped silly with a wet fish for thinking it (#Alex’sDictatorship).

ImageFirst of all then, let’s ask ourselves one of the fundamental questions of this topic: what it is that video games are made up of?

Video games are a conglomeration of the finest forms of art.

Prose, because stories don’t just write themselves.

Music, because the developers, the artists, want you to feel a certain way.

Design and sculpting, because video games are a visual medium.

Concept artwork, because, funnily enough, developers need an artistic vision.

All of these are forms of art, which I suppose we ought to define at this point.

Art, noun:

the production, expression or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

Evidently, these four things (which are all forms of art) can be seen as representative of the buildings blocks of a video game. You’re writing a story for a visual medium, you need concepts to define a construct, you need sculpting to give your constructs form and you need music to give this form life, emotion and tone. It’s a complimentary ‘domino process’ where each form of art is like a means to bringing another to life, the way an artist needs paint to cover a canvas or a writer needs ink to fill a page.

Back in 2007, you may have heard about a little game that came out called Halo 3. This was Bungie’s epic conclusion to the Halo trilogy (which didn’t actually resolve anything, oddly enough) and offered players a whole new visual experience as it pushed the Xbox 360’s hardware to its limit at the time. To compliment this, Bungie took an innovative (dare I even say revolutionary) leap with Halo 3’s capabilities and added in a new mode called ‘Theatre’.

In the Theatre, you could rewatch, pause, speed up, rewind and freely explore a campaign mission or multiplayer match through the eyes of any player or a detached, omnipresent camera. What this was intended to do was to allow you to record and save your best and funniest moments, but what this led to was nothing short of amazing, as players found ways to create digital art using the mechanics of the game itself. This became so popular that it was included in pretty much all the released titles since.

Here’s just a few examples of what people accomplished (the first two are actually mine):




ImageIt’s not just the big-budget, Triple-A games that are capable of this kind of artistic merit either – over the last few years, indie developers like Thatgamecompany have been pushing the boundaries between games and art. Journey is a prime example of this.


And, need I even say it? Minecraft…

ImageEverything in the above image was hand-crafted by individual blocks. The rocks, the houses, the dock, the castle – everything. Entire worlds can be made in this game which could be complete reconstructions of actual things or more abstract in nature.

Art is an expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Video games are an expression AND application of human creative skill and imagination – video games are built on what is historically regarded as art.

Videogames are movies, stories, paintings, music and entertainment all in one. It’s the latter which people seem to use as a tool to disregard video games as art, but people go to watch films for entertainment, they read for entertainment, they listen to music for entertainment…

Music, classical music and electronic ambient music, to name two diverse examples of the art form, both do nothing to provide insight into the human condition – yet beautiful pieces of art have come out of those genres of music. The positive emotional responses that are derived from our consumption of various forms of media is ultimately the basic determining factor which causes us to claim something is ‘art’.

ImageWhen done right, video games are the epitome of art. They are a fine clay handed to you by developers to mould into whatever you want to make, their stories and visuals lend themselves to the same kinds of interpretation that any book or painting does. One of my favourite examples is from Mario 64 where you enter levels by jumping into paintings (something which Rayman Legends has also done). This was the first time I ever thought about video games as art at a young age, I viewed this as an actual visual representation of video games as art. You aren’t just spectating the artistic vision of somebody – you jump into it, you interact with it, you have influence within it.

Simply put: The game is the canvas, the gameplay is the palette, and the gamers are the painters.

What is art today? What isn’t art today? Art is a fool’s errand. These days, you can turn a chair upside down and have it stuck in a gallery under the name ‘modern art’ and people will flock towards it to tell you about how they’ve interpreted it to hold some deep message about the seriousness of domestic abuse while another orates loudly about how it represents the downfall of modern society.

In art, subtext is everything and video games provide no end of that. The subtext of, for instance, Bioshock Infinite is largely based around things like racism and slavery, the folly and the corruption of leading religious figures. There’s more to shooters than simply pulling a trigger on another player to frag a virtual avatar, believe you-me it really is quite a statement that we live in a world where millions and millions of people are shooting at each other from their couches in a time when nations like the US is engaged in two wars.


I’d like to close with this, dear reader: I draw you a 2D picture, it’s art. I then build a 3D model to wrap around the 2D picture, it’s still art. I proceed to write a number of skeletal programs and record motion-captured performances to enhance that painting, it’s still art. Finally, I add in some AI subroutines to animate the character, are you telling me that this is when it ceases to be art?

Is it when the viewer is contextually interacted with, when the picture mapped on a model and given a voice, that the fruits of my labour cease to be art?

Food for thought!

About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
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3 Responses to The War of Art – Video Games as an Art Form

  1. jackthesocietyslayer says:

    Very true here, you look at some of the stunning visuals in-game, the scenery that has taken some developer months upon months to perfect, and their is no way you cannot say that it is art.
    And I’ll have a doughnut, seems you’re offering.

  2. Pingback: I, Gamer. | haruspis

  3. Normally I don’t read article on blogs, but I would like
    to say that this write-up very pressured me to take a look at and do so!

    Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, quite nice post.

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