Are Video Games Art?

In the mid-2000s, Roger Ebert, a famous film critic, famously trashed video games as an art form on the basis that, unlike great works of art, one can win a game. Therefore, just like chess or Go, video games are to be considered entertainment and not art. He then gave as an example an ideal version of Romeo and Juliet in which the player can achieve a happy ending, arguing that such an option would weaken the artistic expression of the original work. Art should be concerned with creating an experience for the user, not just a gaming framework with clear objectives.

Unsurprisingly, Ebert's remarks have sparked a huge controversy in the gaming world. At the time, many people pointed out that similar snobbish arguments were used against now established art forms like films, television shows, and comics. All of these media were also hard to call artistic when they were in their infancy, but they slowly evolved into perfectly legitimate art forms with time. The same, I think, will be true of video games. I also think that Ebert's objection comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what video games are. It focuses on what video games have been historically without taking into account their true potential. A bit like a Parisian gentleman who, upon seeing the first screening of the Lumière's brothers moving train in 1895, decided that film could never become an art like painting or sculpture.

As Ebert noticed, the primary difference between video games and other media is their interactivity. In video games the user can affect the story or the world around them, usually by impersonating an avatar. Movies, TV shows or comic books are by definition passive art forms, in the sense that a prepackaged story formulated by the author is presented to the viewer who has no say in how the story will evolve, and therefore experiences it passively. Video games are so far the only medium who can aspire to be an active art form. One in which the viewer/player not only experiences the story in first person by means of an avatar, but can also take active part in shaping it.

The possibilities in this sense are literally endless. Video games are the first art form to combine audio, video, storytelling and interactivity, and are therefore at the moment, I believe, the richest medium to express human creativity. In fact, in a video game there are potentially two forms of creativity: the creativity of the developers in forming the framework for the player's actions, namely the world, the setting, the characters, the music, and so on. And a second, crucial, form of creativity which comes from the player itself, in how he decides to act and thus affect the story and the world around them. Going back to Ebert's example of Romeo and Juliet, imagine a video game that does not simply let you choose between two or three endings, but provides instead a realistic virtual environment in which every player's action has a tangible consequence. In this way, video games would quite literally provide the user a second (romanticized) life in an imaginary world.

Current technology is very far from achieving this utopian goal, but it is not clear that it will never be achieved either. VR headsets are now reality, and lifelike artificial intelligence might not be that far away. And even if it is, the point remains, since here we are talking about video games in their potentiality, rather than actuality. Video games are now by and large not that different from ancient pure entertainment games like chess, but considering their potential, they are still clearly in their infancy. In fact, their potential is so great that we might have to wait centuries before it is fully expressed.

There are a few video games today that are leading the way in artistic expression. I want to make the example of Ninja Theory's Senua's Sacrifice, not only because I think it's a great game, but because it does art in a way that it would be impossible to do in any other medium. In this game, the player controls Senua, a Pict warrior who travels to Helheim in a quest to save the soul of her dead lover. Senua suffers from psychosis: she often hallucinates and constantly hears voices in her head commenting her every action. While this might have worked in a movie, it becomes spellbinding in a video game (especially with a headset) since the player completely identifies and empathizes with Senua in a way that would simply be impossible by just passively watching the story unfold.

In the last scene of the game, Senua blindly charges Hela in battle to retake control over her life. But in the game we don't just witness Senua charging in, we do it ourselves. The player/Senua has to face a legion of Hela's warriors in a hopeless fight before inevitably being killed. In that moment, we feel for Senua in a way that I would argue is deeper than what would have resulted by just watching her on a television screen or at the cinema. We are there with her, we are her, in a sense. This is the hallmark of a great work of art: that it is almost irreproducible in any other medium. The conclusion that we draw from this is almost automatic. Video games are art. And this is only the beginning.