Videogames Are Art. Case Closed.

“I will never look at videogames the same way again. In fact, I now understand that they are as much an art form as anything else in the museum.”

Currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an exhibition called The Art of Videogames. This is an important exhibition in many ways. First, it means the medium of videogames is now taken seriously enough to go on display in one of the world’s most prominent museums. Second, the exhibit literally addresses the topic of videogames as art. Not just the concept art, the music, but the interactivity itself.

Chris Melissinos

When we spoke to Guest Curator Chris Melissinos to learn more about the Art of Videogames Exhibition, the conversation often strayed into why videogames are art. It was fascinating stuff, so we thought it deserved its own feature. Here’s Chris Melissinos eloquently explaining why videogames are art.

Electric Playground: Videogames as art is a very controversial subject. There are some very prominent people like Roger Ebert who at least question whether videogames are art. What would you say to someone like that? The quick argument that says, “This is why videogames are art…”

Chris Melissinos: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Ebert and his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinematography and the history of movies, so it would be hard to contest anything he said with regard to movies. But here’s the one-two punch: Art is a subjective term. What may be art to one person may be nothing more than a jumbled mess to another.

I think that art has to be a personal definition. I have a definition of art that has served me very well. I believe that [if] you are able to observe the work of an artist and understand their intent while also finding personal connection or resonance with that message, then art has been achieved. By every measure, videogames hold up to that definition.

EP: The Art of Videogames exhibition discusses how there are three voices in a videogame. Could you explain that?

CM: The first voice is that of the author, or the artist. They have the story they want to create; they have the message they want to deliver, a tale that they want to tell. Whether it’s an independent person or it’s an entire team, they marshal those tools through videogames to deliver that message.

The second voice is that of the game itself. It is literally the mechanical language of the game. How you are to interact with it, how you are to interact with the characters within it. Those are all communicated to the player.

Chris Melissinos co-authored a book on the exhibition.

The third voice is the players themselves. It’s through the playing of the game that art emerges. You and I could sit down and watch a movie together. And you’d say, “Do you remember that scene where Luke Skywalker was in the trench on the Death Star?” And I could say, “Yes, I remember the scene.” We are watching the linear progression of a plot line driven directly by the author.

In videogames, we may play through a game and say, “Do remember this one part of the game?” And I can say, “Yes I do,” however you and I may have arrived at that part of the game in entirely different ways. It could be that you decided to do the sidequests, I decided to do the mainline quests. You used different types of characters than the character that I chose. The player adds to the experience from which art emerges.

EP: Do the standards we use to judge say, paintings and music, can those be applied to videogames and to critique them?

CM: Not only do I believe that we can apply the same standards, I think it is important to. But, we have a problem when we do so.

Videogames are an amalgam of traditional art. Within videogames we find illustration, composition, painting, orchestration, narrative… we find all the things that individually we hold up as art and they’re easily identifiable, right? But in videogames we combine all of those things the output of that amalgam is greater than the sum of its parts.

We can try to go ahead and apply the same kind of critical eye and discussion we have for each one of those individual pieces, but on a whole it requires a different set of thinking. It isn’t any one art discipline; it’s many art disciplines that creates this new art form. We haven’t come up with a definition of how to engage or accept that from a critical perspective. This exhibition is one step in that direction.

EP: Do we need our own language to describe interactivity, the same way that painting and music have their own vocabulary to describe why they’re effective?

CM: That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question! I think right now we are trying to use—or force—descriptors that we have into this medium. Will a new one emerge? More than likely. Has there been a really serious effort yet to describe what those components are? No. Other than the obvious.

For example, one of the pieces in the exhibition is the Evolution of Mechanics. What we do is take a mechanic like jumping and show how it evolved over time. How that mechanic has remained true to those particular games over time. What has changed is the technology that allows more story to be present in which this jumping mechanic can occur.

We do have this vocabulary around the mechanical components of games, but not the interactive ones. At least not one that we’ve collectively agreed upon as videogame creators, designers and players. But remember, we’re still 40 years young. Give ourselves time.

EP: If I wanted a song that made the listeners feel sad, a composer could do it because it’s been done for centuries and we know what notes to hit to pull that emotion out of you. If I wanted to make a videogame to pull that out of you, that territory is far less mapped out.

Heavy Rain, a game Chris can't play.

CM: Ah, that’s a slightly different question, but here’s an answer that may align with it. We know how to create music and words that elicit emotions. We do the same thing in videogames. Look at a game like Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain is really about the boundaries of parental love. It’s about how far you would go to save someone you love. That’s the actual tagline of the game.

Here is a game that because the way the narrative is written, the way the camera is angled, the situations it places the player in, it affects them in a very emotional way. It is a game that I could not play through.

I had a very difficult time playing through the first half of the game because as a parent, you are faced with these things that you’d hope you’d never have to experience within your own life. So just like any good story, any good writer, any good music, videogames can draw on the same techniques to draw emotions out of the player.

I’ll give you a second one. Look at a game like Shadow of the Colossus. Have you played?

EP: I have. It’s one of my favourites.

The more Chris Melissinos played Shadow of the Colossus, the worse he felt. That's art.

CM: Okay, great. My experience with playing Shadow of the Colossus is that the further I got into the game and forwarded the desire of Wander, the protagonist, the worse I felt as a player in doing so. The Colossi that I had to bring down had done nothing to me. They were just living out their existence and it’s through this very selfish act that you are forced to bring them down, remove their soul for the protagonist who you are also a ward for.

And so the more I played Shadow of the Colossus the worse I felt. Videogames can do that in a way that is extremely intimate. More so than any movie, any book, any piece of music can. Therein lies the beauty of videogames and the extraordinary opportunity that they have to teach us about ourselves. To place us in environments that allow us to test our own moral code, our own perspective and perception of the world. Movies, books, television can’t do that as effectively and intimately.

EP: Will Wright once said that, “games are perhaps the only medium which allows us to experience guilt over the actions of fictional characters.”

CM: Yes! They’re fictional people but you have an emotional attachment to them because the actions in some way, shape or form are an exaggeration of your actions. If though you’re not really going out with a sword and taking down this huge colossi, you are the root cause of it. There is something very basic, instinctive and emotional about that activity. This doesn’t come forward in the viewing of media that is static.

EP: Once money gets involved in art, things get a little murky to say the least. When you put together the Art of Videogames, did you feel a little awkward in naming current products now on the marketing as pieces of art? Was there any kind of pressure there or did it put any doubts in your mind?

Mass Effect is one of the games at the exhibition.

CM: Not a single one. A lot of people say, “Where are the art games?” versus games as art. There’s a fine line you have to walk. When you create something that is designed to be an art game, it can cease to be either, in my opinion. It is no longer held up for its gameplay and the art is entirely subjective.

I have no problem with the fact that most of the games in the exhibition are currently successful or properties that are by and large known by wide segments of the population. It’s entirely the point. It doesn’t move forward the discussion about videogames as art if the most esoteric bits that come into a museum to meet the general population is misunderstood. Then I have to not only explain why the videogame is art, I have to explain what it is they’re actually seeing. That’s asking a lot of the people that are coming to visit. You pick things that are by and large understood by society and then you put forth the things they may not have considered before and why they should be held up as art.

I will also say this about the commercialization of art: if there had been no Saturday Evening Post, there would have been no Norman Rockwell. Just because a piece of art makes its way to popularity through a commercial avenue does not in any way negate the validity as the work as art.

EP: Any artistic trends in current game design that you’re in favour of?

CM: It’s interesting right now, and I think a lot of it is happening in the indie scene. Videogame development and art was really limited by the technology of its day. If you go back and look at a game like Combat, it’s a very rudimentary game, very, very simple. Because it was simple, the game designers had to go ahead and create elaborate box art to better illustrate the battlefield. Or games like Swordquest, which included comic books so you could better understand the story. Cloth maps in games like Ultima, because the technology was not sufficient enough to fully describe the breath and depth of the world that designer wanted to create.

Comic book tie-ins on display at the Exhibition.

Today we no longer have that limitation. We have videogames that have complete spoken dialogue, they can push the boundaries of realism; they can fully articulate within the gameplay framework the world we want to describe.

Because technology is not longer a limitation on artistic intent, we’re starting to see developers and artists limit themselves. They create artificial boundaries through which new art emerges. Look at Sword & Sworcery on the iPad, which used this highly-stylized heavily pixel art that is just stunning. Looking at games like Fez. Look at games like Limbo, where everything is done in this monochromatic form. Because we have access to so many tools to create so many different types of games, we’re starting to see the emergence of more abstract games and games that don’t necessarily push the boundaries of realism, but push the boundaries of artistic intent. I think we are at the precipice of this whole new renaissance of videogame development and design that’s going to be absolutely staggering and stunning.

I mean, look at Minecraft! Beautiful, elaborate works that have been created out of these chunky blocks. How wonderful is that? It’s about using technology to its greatest extent to create new forms of art styles.

EP: Any trends that you think are not good or a step backwards?

CM: It’s not necessarily problematic, we just need to figure out how to best handle it: the sheer number of videogames people have access to. And making sure they’re not overlooking important pieces of work.

I think one of the interesting parallels that we see is that sometimes the disposable nature of things like mobile-based games is very much akin to the crash of videogames in the early 80s where there was so much content in the market that people could not discern what was good and what was bad. I think the difference is now that through platforms of social media and the immediacy of communication, we can very quickly discern what is good and what is bad and that is communicated very readily and very handily. It prevents collapse in the face of this mountain of content.

How could it be bad, more games to play, right? It’s people experimenting, trying to figure out what it all means. Where it’s going to go.

EP: With that in mind, are there games you in particular think have been overlooked?

CM: Oh boy. There’s one that there’s a lot of people always trot out: Beyond Good and Evil. An incredible game with a wonderful story about ecology. A wonderfully strong female protagonist. Unfortunately it never saw success, but it had critical acclaim.

Chris Melissinos says of Journey, “I finished the last five minutes of that game with my jaw open.”

Chris Melissinos said that reaction to the Art of Videogames Exhibition has been overwhelming. His Facebook page has received many comments. He brought up this one, which we found particularly touching:

“This place makes me feel at home. I feel like finally someone understands the true art and it makes me feel like I matter in the world.”

The Art of Videogames Exhibition will be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until September. After that, it goes on a 10 US city tour. For information, click here.

-Interview by Jason MacIsaac