Recently, my boss at work gave me a homework assignment. He wanted me to read Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design. It’s a great read for anyone looking to get into game design, and I highly recommend it.
But the reason I bring it up is to talk about the topic of art in games. Koster defines art as “entertainment where the communicative element is either novel or well-done.” I went a little further with the definition and included the fact that art must make you respond emotionally, in some sort of fashion. It doesn’t have to be a deeply emotional response always, but it does need you to respond thoughtfully from it. To even begin to communicate, you need something to say, something that you want the viewer to know and understand.
Paintings and poems are meticulously planned out with every brush or pen stroke to generate a response from the viewer. Their sole purpose of being is to convey an idea. If it doesn’t really mean anything or evoke some sort of response by the viewer, it isn’t art, essentially. There are other guidelines within the definition of art, but that’s the main point.
So, can video games evoke an emotional, philosophical response from the viewer? When looking at the majority of the games releases, no, they don’t. Most games are just trying to entertain you.
Video games merely give you a problem to overcome. You only think about how to achieve that goal with what the game has given you, in terms of its “rules”.
Basically, it’s in the interactivity of the medium that presents the problem. In the act of doing, it is very hard to make the player think more than what he can do. How do you make a player respond to something deeply when he’s in control and completing a goal, while at the same time entertaining him? Sadly, not many developers have figured it out.
But, there is one example that I can give that gets pretty damn close: Shadow of the Colossus. Wanderer’s goal is to destroy the Colossi. But if you’ve ever noticed, most Colossi don’t even fight the player. You then start to wonder why you even need to destroy them. In the act of doing, Wanderer gives no consideration to his actions. He has one goal set in his mind and will do whatever it takes to get it done.
This has a few interpretations, but the one that I came to is that man has a power within him to achieve anything, but everything will be lost when you use that power for greed and selfishness. Wanderer didn’t care what would happen when he destroyed the Colossi, and the evil deity even warned him of that. In the end, Wanderer lost himself to that greed.
There may be different interpretations, but that is up to the viewer. Most of the time, art doesn’t have one main interpretation (unless divulged by the artist). Simply put, SotC is a great example to use when you hear someone say video games are not art because it can be interpreted in many different ways.
Art does exist in the video game medium, but it takes a dedicated team with a strong vision to create it. And that’s why it’s so rare.