March 28, 2004

Are Video Games Art?

by Nick Morgan

This article investigates the question: Are video games art?

As the article points out, it's certainty true that video games often feature impressive feats of graphic design, and they usually adapt the story-telling form into an interactive medium (even if the stories are less than literary). But these observations are incomplete, and they place video games beside pop fiction and japanese animation, in the lesser light of comparison.

The best way to critique video games as cultural artifacts is to begin with their basic purpose: interactively engaging players. It's not very interesting to point out the visual beauty of graphics or the game-plot's similarities to narrative literature, but it is interesting to ask how those features are used to engage players. One might, for instance, note how many successful video games devote most their energy to creating ambience, suspending disbelief. Or how the host of online multiplayer games draws on the experience of actual social interaction--competition, alliance formation--to keep players coming back.

Making a fun game is really, really hard. Try picking up a deck of cards and coming up with something original and fun to do with it. Game design often deserves to be compared, in merit, to film and literature, but not merely because it does things that are similar to those other forms. Game design (especially video game design) is the art of engaging behavior and doling out just enough satisfaction to keep players hungry.

March 28, 2004 02:43 PM | TrackBack

Sure, video games can be art. Like comic books (and/or graphic novels), though, I fear they'll always bear the albatross of "kidstuff," since: 1) a good portion of their appeal is to young people, and 2) compared to books and music, video games are still a fairly new medium for expression. For those reasons, it's going to be a long while before many people will accept the proposition of games as art.

Posted by: Kevin at March 28, 2004 10:32 PM

Others, like me, are still waiting for more widespread recognition of the crucial field of video game music composing. Who would not like to streetfight to the Double Dragon theme? Or pick mushrooms to the SMB theme? (--I would guess that half the readers of this comment could hum it now. Those are the ones who knew right away what 'SMB' meant.) Some of the earliest games had (to me) the most memorable music: Zelda, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, RC Pro-Am. This is an area I think deserves serious cultural criticism, perhaps even its own column in the New York Times.

Posted by: Alan Robinson at March 29, 2004 12:13 AM

Zelda definitely had the tunes. That game, considering the technology available then, was genius. Expect it to be "anthologized" when the field of video-game-criticism explodes.

Another example of great video game music is from the Play Station game(s) "Wipeout," with electronica by Orbital. It did wonders for the game's atmosphere, and was good enough to listen to separately.

I recognize, Alan, that your comment may have been 100% tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps you, like me, want to guard some of that video game geekiness with quasi-sarcasm. ;)

Posted by: Nick Morgan at March 29, 2004 12:32 AM

I loved the music of Castlevania. It was so classic. I was surely Art, and great Art.

Posted by: Iysam @1 at March 29, 2004 09:29 AM

There is (or at least was) an entire subculture devoted to video game music (although, as with any similar subculture, they weren't nearly as focused on the Big Names as the rest of us). I've been disconnected to long to know where to find it now, but spend some time googling #trax or the like and you'll find hints of it.

Posted by: Craig at March 29, 2004 10:57 AM

Alan... any idea who did the SMB theme? I've actually been wondering who wrote the SMB2 theme for years...

Posted by: paul at March 29, 2004 12:00 PM


Mercifully, I did not know this offhand, but according to this WaPo article about video-game music, the Mario Brothers theme was written by legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo (read more about him here, for instance), who also wrote, among others, the Zelda theme.

Craig is right; there is, apparently, a big video-game-music subculture. According to the WaPo article I linked, the Japanese especially go to hear symphonies play videogame themes. Two points for the Japanese, I say.

Posted by: Alan Robinson at March 29, 2004 08:33 PM
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