Video games qualify as art by critics’ own criteria


Last month, the Smithsonian started up a new exhibit called “The Art of Video Games,” prompting another round of the long-running argument about whether video games can be considered an art form.

In 2010, film critic Roger Ebert pointed out in his blog that “one obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game.”

Movie director Steven Spielberg took a somewhat different approach when he said, “I will accept video games as a story-telling medium when someone can honestly say, ‘I cried at level 17.'”

Ebert’s opinion reminds me of two similar arguments. In one, people argue that golf is not a sport because it is not athletic, and in the other, people complain that art is either easy or pointless when someone can become famous from painting colored rectangles.

But this type of argument doesn’t consider the entire picture. The definition of sports isn’t restricted to pure athleticism; it also involves dedication, practice and theory. Also, ask any art major how much they enjoy Piet Mondrian’s “Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red” or other examples of neo-plasticism, and you won’t just hear about art because talking about neo-plasticism requires a history lesson.

To return to Ebert, from his point of view, games are not art because you can win games. So, art is art because the viewer can only lose? I don’t think that is the case. Art you can win can be called a game.

For instance, before jumping to video games, let’s examine a low-tech game like Monopoly. Parents like this game because players have to hand count and budget the start-up money. Players cannot buy every street they land on because they would soon go bankrupt from the effort.

The game is a tiny world of math, money, bugeting and profit, and since this is the traditional premise of the game, it angered some that the new version comes with a credit card. Adding in the possibility of credit card debt changes the whole feel of the game. My point in mentioning this is that the game taught responsibility; it had a moral.

Now, if games teach a moral, then how are they different from books, yet another form of art? The moral can be played out on a board game with pieces and rules, or it can be told in a story, where the hero acts or reacts in a certain situation or the author evokes examples from common experience.

If a board game is capable of communicating a moral, surely video games stories can do the same. The only difference between the mediums is that games give the protagonist a face, and, in video games as opposed to books, the player controls how the protagonist walks across the screen.

This brings me to Spielberg’s point. His point of view could be seen as giving the gaming industry a hoop to jump through. If video games can make a player cry, then they get into the exclusive art club – not to cry out in rage or frustration because the game is too difficult, just move the player to tears.

This may be a shock to some, but this has already happened. Since its release on Jan. 31, 1997, Final Fantasy VII had many gamers’ hearts breaking. As one blog poster for stated on the game’s Tear Jerker page, it was not the initial shock of the main character’s girlfriend dying, it was the sad score for the boss fight and how long the fight lasted that really hit hard.

Video games have continued what regular games started before them, a set of conditions to be completed to arrive at the moral the game centers upon. And since the technology has expanded from games like Pong to games with stories revolving around the gameplay mechanic, they have not only been able to become teaching tools, but emotionally powerful as well.

Patrick White is a junior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to