A few months ago I took it upon myself to learn more about video games after a couple decades of literary fiction snobbery. I don’t think I’m unique in having considered video games a lower art form. I was open to the notion that games can be art, but I mostly avoided gaming and felt that most games were beneath my intelligence.
Games aren’t alone in the cultural margins. For most of the twentieth century, comic books were considered a low art form. Seattle publisher Fantagraphics played an instrumental role in changing perceptions about comics as a medium, helping to usher in the term “graphic novel” in the process. The title of their upcoming omnibus history of the company perfectly expresses their hard-earned cultural relevance: We Told You So: Comics as Art.
Author Tom Bissell has argued for years that video games are art. I respect and admire Tom’s writing, so I’ve allowed myself to be swayed by his arguments. To me, it boils down to my emotional response to a game. And last night while playing Fallout 4, I had an experience that I can only compare to experiences I’ve had while reading novels, watching films, or encountering visual art.
In Fallout 4, you play an adventurer exploring a post-apocalyptic wasteland crawling with mutated animals, synth humanoids, raiders, bands of mercenaries, and hulking super mutants. A couple weeks ago I rescued one such super mutant, named Strong, from a prison cell in a tall office tower. He became my character’s companion, fighting off ghouls with a sledgehammer and interjecting little bon mots like “Dead not need things! We take!”
The game allows you to switch companions from time to time. I reached a point in the game where I had an opportunity to switch Strong out with a wisecracking gun-for-hire. As I contemplated exchanging Strong for this new companion, I started to feel incredibly sad. The game even allowed for some dialogue between Strong and my character, in which Strong expressed confusion about being sent away. I realized how much I appreciated his companionship and the thought of sending him to a settlement in the north started to make me upset. I decided to stick with him and sent the gun-for-hire away instead. Immediately I knew I’d made the right decision, and started to think of the times ahead for Strong and me. It was around this point that I reminded myself that I was playing a video game.
I’m coming to wonder if what differentiates art from craft is emotional resonance. If it can make you cry or exclaim in delight, it’s art. The high-low frames that we apply to art forms can be barriers preventing us from embracing certain aesthetic experiences as artistic. And the history of art is all about supposed lower works of art lasting and becoming canonical. We in the West have a harder time navigating these frames, much more than, say, the Japanese, who perceive aethstic experiences as “superflat.”
As more games bubble up in the world of VR, a medium with a bias for empathy, it’ll become increasingly natural to consider these experiences art. And someday, there will be a lot of game designers who can say we told you so.