I am not a gamer. If anything, I tend to be
overwhelmed by and fearful of the addictive immersiveness of video games. But the first
time I saw this game Monument Valley, I was completely and utterly mesmerized. By its
spare beauty, its M.C. Escher-like sequence of pathways and structures and ladders that
this quiet little person deftly navigates and unlocks. I was not just entertained, I was moved. It
was poetic, challenging, metaphorically resonant. How was my experience of this game in any
way lesser than my encounters with other forms of art? And what else out there was I missing? This is the case for video games. Video games have a rich history, beginning
before you think they did with proto-computer games like Tennis for Two in 1958. But they
really kicked off in the early 1970s with the explosion of arcade games, and the dawn
of home consoles, with minimalist wonders like Pong and an impressive variety of plastic
boxes with faux-wood details. And there have been a huge range of kinds
of video games since, of varying quality and popularity. Video games are not a passing
fad. They are a multi-billion dollar industry–I mean seriously, as big if not bigger than
the film industry–and it sees growth every year, evolving as the world and technology
evolve, and as developers and corporations and gamers respond to those changes. It’s hard to talk about video games as being
one thing because they perform varying functions and address differing needs. I mean, some
games are primarily about pattern recognition and spatial reasoning, like positioning Mario
above a pipe, or dodging bullets, or fitting blocks into an allotted space. Other games are educational, either vaguely
or strategically, imparting history, or math, or engineering. Sometimes you can choose whether
or not you want the game to be educational. But video games can teach and test your coordination
and rhythm, alone and of course with friends. Competition is at the core of many games,
but so is collaboration, allowing you to work together with others toward a goal, whether
your teammates are in the same room or on a different continent. Now it may obvious but worth noting that video
games are almost always about strategy and problem-solving. You can learn the rules of
sports, and play them with less risk of injury. You can simulate potentially real world situations,
and also not- real world situations. Video games allow you to build worlds, evolve
worlds, and explore the amazingly intricate worlds that others have created. Who doesn’t
want to turn into a cat and jump through a tree or discover a new planet… a planet
that admittedly no one else will ever see in this vast and lonely universe. The quality of CGI in games has improved significantly
over the years, offering up immersive, cinematic worlds, and almost-but-not-quite naturalistic
reproductions of human beings. We’re still in the uncanny valley, folks, and we likely
will be for some time. Developers have brought in actors you know and love to voice characters
in a number of games. Peter Dinklage: I’m a ghost actually. And some games feature footage of real live
actors, like Her Story, in which you explore a video database of fictional interviews of
a woman to try to uncover the truth of what happened. Video games are really good at telling stories,
letting a narrative unravel over time. Like a good novel or movie, they’re paced, alternating
periods of fast-paced action with slower moments allowing for exposition and character development. Movies are actually a really good point of
comparison here, as they’re also a more populist, accessible art form. Some are considered “high art” or “film” and others that are, well, SUPERBABIES: BABY
GENIUSES 2. And like our taste for movies, sometimes we
want something fun and easy, and other times we feel like something super challenging and
intense. Likewise for the kind of art you see in a gallery or museum. One day you might want to gaze at a captivating
landscape, whose equivalent in gaming might be something like Firewatch. Another day you
want to stand before Picasso’s Guernica and feel the pain and misery of the Spanish
Civil War, an experience closer to something like playing This War of Mine, about a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city. Now there’s been plenty of work assigned
to the realm of “visual” or “fine art” that has involved video game technology. Like
Cory Arcangel’s 2002 work Super Mario Clouds, for which he modified the code of the original
1985 Super Mario Brothers, erasing all sound and all visual elements except the sky and
the clouds that scroll across it. Video games have also been collected by art
museums, like Jenova Chen and Nick Clark’s flOw, and Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a five
minute game where a character moves through the stages of life and dies only once, at
the end. Both of which were acquired by The Museum
of Modern Art. (But for what it’s worth, they also have The Sims.) There are a number
of creators making games who work between disciplines, not confining themselves to one
field or another. Actually opera might be a more fitting point
of comparison for video games, in particular the idea of the total work of art, or gesamtkunstwerk,
propounded by German composer Richard Wagner. Rather than all the arts existing separately
in their own silos, Wagner wanted his own works to synthesize music, drama, dance, costume,
set design, and everything else into one harmonious whole. Similarly, video games are consolidations
of the creative output of many– writers, designers, programmers, composers, concept
artists, modelers, directors, sound engineers, and many other roles– all brought together
into one package. The creation of video games is largely a collective enterprise, but
there are plenty of individual artists and auteurs who are
credited as the visionaries behind given games. Like Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of classics
like Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, and Hideo Kojima, the lead behind the Metal
Gear series. But while most popular games are truly team efforts, there are still lone
wolves out there, like Eric Barone, the single developer behind Stardew Valley, one of the
top selling titles of 2016 on Steam, who created the game by working on his own ten hours a
day, seven days a week, for four years. Like any artist, a game developer begins with
a relative blank slate. They have a particular set of skills and technologies at their disposal,
and a knowledge, either thin or deep, of what’s been done before. Whether working alone or
with gobs of money and a team of folks behind them, developers build complex, many-layered
macrocosms for others to investigate and decipher and explore. And that’s what really sets video games
apart: they need you to complete them. All art is interactive to some degree. If a painting hangs in a forest and no one sees it, is it really artwork? Sculpture and installation
require you to walk around them, to take them in in full. More and more works of art assume and necessitate
viewer involvement, but very few as inherently as any video game. They not only respond to
you, but adapt and offer diverse experiences depending on the choices you make. This extreme
interactivity makes it so that you, at least to some extent, become the co-author. You
are the artist, too. You can try to understand what the developer might be trying to say
or accomplish, and you can also bend the experience to embody or project how you see the world. There are genres of video games, just as with
other forms of art. You’ve got your first person shooters and role-playing games and
platformers. But also like other forms of art, the expectations and rules for every
kind of game have been stretched and broken and intentionally subverted. Zelda: Breath
of the Wild allows for open-ended gameplay, enabling you to navigate the world in an unstructured
and nonlinear way. Some titles completely discard the idea that
a game needs a clearly defined objective, like… What am I supposed to be doing on
this island exactly? Or maybe the developers completely throw away the idea of a cutscene,
pioneered way back in PacMan, and make the entire game feel like a single unbroken tracking
shot. Or maybe… the game’s objective is to take care of a fish-man-thing? Not every
new idea is a winner people. But video games require much more than coordination.
Whether solo enterprises or social undertakings, they challenge players to think critically
about not only the world of the game but also the real world around them. The game The Last of Us, in which a smuggler has the job of escorting a teenage girl across
a post-apocalyptic, zombie-fied United States, sparked discussions about what it means to
be a father and the dynamics of father-daughter relationships. Games like Life is Strange tackle difficult
problems head-on, like online harassment and depression. Life is Strange 2 follows teenager
brothers of Mexican descent who are dealing with the traumatic death of a parent and citizenship
and racism and religious extremism. One first person exploration game, Gone Home,
follows a young woman as she returns to her Oregon home in 1995, finds it empty, and pieces
together that her family fell apart after her parents found out about her younger sister’s
lesbian relationship. Video games can provide a platform for many
underrepresented voices and stories, like Never Alone, which was developed in collaboration
between game makers and Alaska Native storytellers, and is based on a traditional Iñupiaq tale. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
ruled in 2011 that video games deserve First Amendment protection, just like books, plays,
and movies, writing: “video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through
many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features
distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).” Of course, you don’t have to look far to
find a game that will offend you, no matter who you are. But that’s true with any art
form. There are big issues with gaming, but I’d
argue they’re not baked into the medium. As Seth Schiesel argued in 2018 “It’s
not the content; it’s the culture.” The online gaming culture, that is, where bigotry,
bullying, sexism, and all sorts of toxic behavior have run amok and ruined the enjoyment for
many. It can be hard if not impossible to separate
these issues from the games themselves, however they certainly aren’t exclusive to the gaming
community. Video games have always been a reflection of their times, and these are indeed
the challenges of now. Whether you play them or not, gaming culture
extends far beyond screens and headsets, and is no longer confined to virtual space. But
it never was, really. Arcades were physical places where human bodies
shared proximity. LAN parties in the early aughts were actually real parties. Playing Wii together and Guitar Hero and Dance
Dance Revolution aren’t merely virtual experiences, and neither is getting into a car accident
trying to catch Pokemon. Video gaming, like much of modern life, blends
online and offline experience. And it’s firmly part of culture and cultural memory,
whether you consider it high art or low. In his 2005 book “Everything Bad Is Good
for You,” Steven Johnson reminds us that there is nothing trivial about game play. When negotiating various worlds, young and
old alike practice patience, delay gratification, and negotiate complex social relationships. Gaming, according to Johnson, is “about finding
order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order.” The more I learn about video games, the more
my respect grows for those who routinely fling themselves into the unknown of a new game. Armed with knowledge of past games, sure,
but up for the challenge of finding order and meaning in a new world. Ready to confront
unforeseeable futures, failure, death. It reminds me of the bravery required to walk
into an art gallery, where you’re unsure of what you’ll find or what will be required
of you, but are nonetheless open to whatever the artists have in store. When it comes to video games, there is still
so much left to be done, so much territory to conjure and explore, so many more perspectives
to offer, on the part of developers as well as players. It’s an outstandingly elastic medium, receptive
and also susceptible to all the best and worst we humans have to offer it. Video games shape
our understanding of humanity just as they are shaped by it. Oh and… they’re also
really… fun. Special thanks to our director, editor, and
lifelong gamer Brandon Brungard for his help advising on this episode and bringing it to life. Also, before you go, did you know that this
channel is called the Art Assignment because, along with exploring ideas about art and art
history, we also give out assignments? Not the kind where you have to buy paint or
stress out about your inability to draw, but the kind that ask you to use your phone, or
bits of materials you have lying around, to make your life more fulfilling. My book, You Are an Artist, gathers together
some of the assignments presented on this show plus a bunch of really good new ones.
It’ll be out on April 14, and is available for preorder right now. Thanks to all of our patrons for supporting
The Art Assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts Tyler Calvert-Thompson, Divideby Zero Collection, David Golden, and Ernest Wolfe.