First and foremost, I’m not the most avid gamer in the world. I downloaded The Sims 2 when I was 12 and I still fall into 12-hour binges on The Sims 4 today. My only experience with gaming for most of my life was the classic PlayStation 2, with which I exclusively played kids’ games like Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, Spyro: A Hero’s Tail, and Scooby-Doo: Night of One Hundred Frights (I’m aware I seem to have only played the throwaways that didn’t sell well).
But it wasn’t until I was about 16 that I discovered Steam and the world of PC gaming, albeit late to the party: Minecraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and Gary’s Mod. These changed the way I view gaming as all of these were more interactive, often played with friends, and required some level of cooperation to achieve an intended outcome. I tied six llamas to a pole in Minecraft outside the rustic cabin I built with my boyfriend, with a cellar for supplies, a waterfall for fishing, and a train line into the main space where our friends had their own projects going on (naturally it was called the Elizabeth Line). On all of these open-world games, my projects were mainly for the aesthetic.
This only started to make the cogs turn in my head. It was when, at 18, I suddenly remembered how Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil, with its the reggae-rap-Latin mashup of a soundtrack, a narrative of a journalist uncovering a government wartime conspiracy, and the gaining of currency out of the pursuit to preserve biodiversity through photography, made me feel. I remembered this game a decade after I first played it; it was incredibly ahead of its time, which is why I feel it didn’t sell all that well in 2003. I thought about this game in the way you might come back to a book, film, or piece of visual art that you didn’t fully comprehend when you were a child – only now understanding the beauty and the craft behind it.
I often see video games being condemned as a medium that isn’t real art, or doesn’t have the same meaning as other types of art. But with a bit of historical context, we’ve seen this all before. Modern art like that of Barnett Newman was dismissed and vandalised with antisemitic symbols while older artworks like those of Monet and Da Vinci are still revered. 18th-century tedious novels by Henry Fielding like Joseph Andrews were automatically more artistically valid than the smaller romantic novellas, predominantly written by women at the time, like Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina. They were supposedly frivolous, sensational, with no substance to them. Why?
Works that interrupt our cultural narrative on what qualifies as art (Michelangelo’s Adam compared to Super Mario Bros), our ideas of who should be participating in the art world (white Christian men compared to women, people of colour, non-Christians, or even a team of developers, coders, and writers) and our evaluation of what art should do (reinforce a certain set of morals compared to aesthetic enjoyment, eroticism, or providing the means for its own audience to create), are often met with backlash, be it dismissal as fodder or violence. But are these assertions and systematisation of art and its intrinsic value about art? Or are they about who gets a seat at the table of creation and criticism, and what they get to convey with their art?
Just like film, there are so many different components that go into making a video-game: graphics, controls, voice acting, music, cinematography, plot, freedom of the player and the extent to which different outcomes can be influenced. Even text-based games involve a remarkable level of nuance such as Alter Ego and remind us of the permanence of the decisions we make and the unexpected consequences of the seemingly innocuous choices made as toddlers.
It is often said by creators and art aficionados alike that the most important thing about art is what you (the audience) get out of it. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Video games are among those mediums that make us think, feel and interact with others in ways that differ between individuals. Our reactions don’t always require an explanation or even have explanations in the first place. My worship of Beyond Good and Evil is just as valid the person who despises it. Why? That’s just the way art is. We shouldn’t be scared of confronting new ways of creating and consuming art because they are more interactive, more casually consumed, or even treated more as a product than a work of art. The best thing we can do to save a lot of arguments and needless exclusion is welcome gaming as an artistic medium in its own right with open arms.