There’s no doubt that video games have evolved past the early days of Pong and even Space Invaders. Now, games are as complex and immersive as any TV show or movie, and the acting’s sometimes better, too. However, does that make video games art?
Roger Ebert didn’t think so, famously writing that games could never be art. Part of his argument is that unlike movies, you had a hand in the outcome of a game. You could “win” at a game, and not at the movies. However, he wrote that more than a decade ago, and games have certainly evolved since then.
There is also the question, assuming they are art, of whether they constitute postmodern art. There are many indicators that they might, including the use of multimedia and the blurring of reality and fiction. Here are some of the elements of postmodernism as we try to answer the question.
Hyperreality is the blurring between reality and fiction. It’s when something could be real, but it’s so blended with the “not real” that the viewer can’t really tell the difference. You could argue that video games are getting more and more “hyperreal” all the time.
It started as 2 dimensional gaming, and has evolved to 3D and even virtual reality. The games have also gone from primarily text based to having actors and realistic sound effects to give everything a more “real” quality. Sure, some games are cartoonish and not meant to mimic reality, but that doesn’t mean that other games can’t be considered postmodern.
A good example of this in action is first-person shooter games. You are given the character’s view, which puts you in the situation right away. You then have a weapon that mimics one that you might use in real-life. If you have an accessory that provides a recoil effect, that will only enhance the simulation.
Beyond this, many shooter games are based on real events. You have World War 2 games, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and more. The events that happen in the game could conceivably have happened in real life. Sometimes real-life events are simulated, but have a different outcome. For example, the allied forces can lose.
Intermedia and Multimedia
All video games, from PC games to consoles to streamers, are a form of multimedia. This term refers to the combining of media to create a piece of art.
Video games are a perfect example of that concept in action. They combine visual arts with their backgrounds, character designs, and everything else that you see on the screen. They have voice-actors and professional musicians, and the sound effects add to the immersiveness. The concept of immersion is a key part of multi-media art, and it will only get more pronounced as we move towards more advanced forms of virtual reality in gaming.
One of the great things about video games is that each new game draws on older games and makes them better. It seems like there are no original ideas or stories anymore, but there are homages. Take PacMan, which has a bird’s eye view, as if you were sitting at a table and watching the action. That was how we were used to consuming board games. That led to the map concept in adventure and RPG games.
There is a whole video game genre involving zombies and the apocalypse. They could be seen as similar, since most of them involve a character or groups of characters going on a mission or quest. However, it’s the way those characters are developed and interact with each other that makes each one unique.
Maybe we wouldn’t have Joel and Ellie from The Last Of Us without first having Lee and Clementine from The Walking Dead, or any number of derivative characters. That’s what allows video games to evolve and grow more complex. They add layers to what has come before to make something completely different.
Are They Even Art
Of course, to be postmodern art you have to be art but that shouldn’t even be a question. Ebert says in his opinion that not a single game can measure up to the greatest authors and artists throughout history. However, if we hold everything to that standard to be considered art, then almost nothing would qualify. Death To Smoochy exists, but films are still considered art.
Also, his claim that nobody can “win” art might be true, although that’s a criteria that he made up himself. The fact is, that while players make choices that can influence the outcome of a game, those outcomes are already predetermined. The scripts have been recorded and the scenes have been created, so players aren’t really changing the art itself.