The late Roger Ebert once described video games as an non-artistic medium incomparable to other art forms, such as film and music. In 2006, he once stated that video games “don’t explore the meaning of human beings as other art forms do”. Of course, he would later retract everything he said about video games being non-artistic, if mainly because it made him look foolish. Still, however, there are those who make the case that video games cannot be art because of the client-based nature of the industry.
I believe that those who don’t think video games can be art are ignoring a fundamental truth about video games. Video games can be an art form because nowadays, making them invariably involves a level of creative expression. Of course, since the programming and gameplay side isn’t very artistic on its own, the key to games being art lies in how it can immerse you in a universe that isn’t yours. For this, you absolutely need plot, characters, music and visuals to be treated just as well as the actual gameplay.
One of the reasons why I love video games is because you can create stories and characters that, for some reason, you simply can’t tell in movies, TV shows, or in the art world (you can probably tell them in graphic novels, but I digress). For me, this is where the artistic expression lies, along with the story, and this happens in a lot of video games (even if many of those games happen to come from Japan). Yes, I’m aware that games aren’t supposed to be totally about story, but there are games that do this right. Child of Light is a very good example of an artistic game, complete with sublimely creative visuals and writing that befits the game’s overall style perfectly. Dragon’s Crown is another heavily artistic game, if mainly on the visual side of things (FYI: Dragon’s Crown happens to be one of my all time favourite games).
What I’m trying to say here is that video games offer an opportunity for creative expression that would virtually go to waste in almost any other medium. If we go around thinking that video games can only ever be a commercial product, then we limit our creative ambitions in every possible way, and when we limit those creative ambitions in the pursuit of making money, we end up risking a major setback for the idea of video games as an art form, dooming video games to a status that prevents them from being taken seriously as a form of human culture.
The idea that video games can’t be artistic because of the nature of the industry is something that is making me highly sceptical of the video games industry as a viable creative path, but I don’t want to have to give up just because of what I’m seeing as the doomed, pessimistic ravings of the closed-minded. I might be somewhat biased on this subject, but in the end, I believe that a larger emphasis on creative expression is just what the video games industry needs. After all, we’re living an age where many games just copy each other to leech off the success of more successful titles, and where some of the hottest-selling franchises of the time make a cash cow sequel every year, while doing almost nothing new.
To me, this is a sign that game developers don’t see any value in the potential for creative expression present in video games, and unless something changes, I worry that the games industry might degenerate to the point that creative expression isn’t valued at all. It’d be as though the games industry would go back to the 1970’s, when video games really were just high-end toys.