New Mediums - Are Video Games Art?

Art is defined as:

Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.
The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.

Video Games are Art. Observations:

  1. Video games combine graphical and visual elements with sound to create a holistic entertainment experience
  2. Video games contain stories that relate to the wide spectrum of human experience and appeal to the imagination
  3. Video games develop and utilize hand eye coordination that transcends into a new “language” of interactivity
  4. Video games exhibit emergent behavior

-The first two are basically understood.

  1. Most everyone who has played recent computer and console games understands that modern games incorporate CD quality audio with impressive real-time graphics, and sometimes even Hollywood-quality rendered cut scenes. Although scripting is somewhat lacking, critically acclaimed games often times have better plot lines and stories than many books and films. Grand Theft Auto Vice City used a number of celebrity actors for voice-overs, including Ray Liota as the leading character. More and more games are attracting Hollywood actors, Christopher Walken, Jet Lee and Snoop Dog all come to mind.

  2. Games also capture a vast spectrum of subject matters. From the space sagas of Star Wars and Starcraft, to the epic fantasy worlds of Middle Earth, Azeroth, Faerun and Norrath; games transport players to new lives and realms. Players also take on the roles of myriad characters, from devious thieves named Garreth, to secret agents James Bond and Solid Snake. Entire mythologies have been constructed for the silicon chip, including a fireball throwing Italian plumber Mario. Gaming has gone so far as to infiltrate popular culture – often I find myself half-jokingly refer to an action sequence in the newest blockbuster as “video game”-like.

  3. When playing a video game, players use their fingers and thumbs to control their character. Whether having the index, middle and ring finger on the WASD keys of the keyboard for a FPS, or a tight grip on a controller or mouse, the hand becomes accustomed to means of I/O with the game system. As the game player progresses in skill, these hand and finger movements become more and more instinctive. As the player becomes an expert as the game and movements and strategies become second instinct, the player somewhat becomes the character. This transformation of identity is very real in excellent games, because the interface, environment and visuals integrate so well.

Furthermore, just as novels use text to convey meaning and emotion, and films use visuals and sound, the interactivity in video games tells the story in itself. If a game is a platform jumper, suspense is wrapped up in a single press of a button. In a FPS, a flick of the wrist can change the outcome of a match. A split second can alter the entire story.

Almost all games employ a heroic aspect, and from this standpoint, video games replicate this artistic feeling like no other. I believe this level of character involvement and empathy is vital to most pieces of art. Any excellent novel has the reader empathizing and feeling for the main character(s). Any great film hits an emotional note. The vocals of a favorite song seem to be sung straight from the listener’s mouth.

  1. Emergent Behavior is a beautiful thing, and the reason is because it links mathematics and complexity to the randomness and spontaneity of the real world. Emergent behavior is any action or event that occurs that wasn’t specifically intended. There are reasons for them, but the causes were not programmed – they are implicit benefits of a complex system in motion. A very simple example of emergent behavior can be seen in the Artificial Life simulation. In this program, a grid is filled with blocks. The blocks act as “cells” and will multiply if they have a neighbor. If they have no neighbor, then they will die out. Each turn, every block performs its action based on these two rules.

The interesting thing is that given certain patters of blocks, amazing results will occur. Some patters will grow exponentially into brilliant patters and formations. Others will remain in a pseudo-stasis, oscillating between various configurations. Others simply disappear in a few turns.

The bottom line is, none of this behavior was explicitly programmed into the simulation – it was complex beyond the specifications. Yet it occurred.

Video games are the same way. Given a set environment with finite variables, emergent behavior occurs as well. In multiplayer games such as unreal tournament, player movements and strategies arise, even without consulting an online walkthrough or guide. Combined with fact 3, above, playing a fast paced game of Onslaught can become an interesting experience. The movement of the player is instinctive, and the strategies involved (based on a map) become memorized and therefore don’t require strict logical thinking. Most situations in a game have been encountered before; so all actions are simply reactionary.

A player becomes a complex circuit, interfacing with the mouse and keyboard as fast as the internet connection itself. Combined with music of choice, I become somewhat euphoric, allowing lower brain processes to handle the work of game play. Thinking slows to a minimum, perhaps only spending thought cycles to elicit a “WTF” if I’m bested or screw up. It’s like Buddhist meditation.

Emergent Behavior certainly happened in Everquest. The original designers of the game envisioned at max two groups tackling any content. As the game progressed however, players figured out that having a single, high hit point “tank” to take the blows of a boss, bolstered by a complete heal rotation. The designers of the game did not envision this strategy, yet the simple tools (spells and hit points) they enabled created the specifications for emergent behavior. Since then the game has never gone back to small numbers (unless forced).

There is a certain beauty in an emergent reality that no creator intended, yet bursts through and enhances the overall experience of a creative work. It hints at a larger, spiritual essence – a shining singularity of entertainment bliss – gaming goodness.

-Conclusion

Video Games are certainly a new medium, and haven’t reached any sort of maturity. Yet as listed in the facts above, they contain many of the characteristics of art, as well as others that haven’t been seen or classified yet. If art in the past has only engaged vision and hearing, perhaps art of the future will incorporate touch as well. The essence of art consists of a viewer surrendering his own senses in order to imbibe a new, different experience. Video games create a new paradigm of fantasy, one that engages and transforms, perhaps to a degree yet not experienced.

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