Are Video Games Art? One Tick for the “Yes” Column

(Via PC Gamer)

Before I get to the meat of this post, I want to clear some air regarding a popular film critic and his oft-referenced thoughts on the artistic merits of video games. I have previously slammed Mr. Ebert’s opinion on this site and elsewhere. I still thoroughly disagree with him, but now I just find it mostly sad that he seems to have the inability to achieve an emotionally cathartic response playing a video game. My husband falls asleep at the ballet, lots of people “don’t get” Shakespeare, and more than a few of my friends stared blankly at paintings and sculptures on school trips to the art museum.

But let the record show Roger Ebert as a film critic is favorite of mine. His reviews are generally unpretentious and refreshingly conversational, a style I try to emulate with my own media musings. And for the love of Pong, one man’s opinion shouldn’t have the power to undermine an entire, thriving culture. Besides, he wrote the now infamous piece two years ago and there are obviously countless people in all sorts of artistic industries with differing opinions. And some of those people curate one of the most famous modern art museums in the world.

(Via Complex Gaming)

It’s a brave new world, Unreality readers. A video game arcade will soon find a home in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. The museum made the official announcement on their blog a couple of weeks ago, and I think Complex Gaming summarizes it quite nicely:

In short: The battle being waged to certify video games as art just got very real, and this is a huge victory for those on the video games’ and their creators side of things. MoMA—or The Museum of Modern Art—is adding some video games to their collection. And they’re even putting the games in the museum.

This morning, MoMA announced that they’d acquired 14 video games, the first of 40 on their wish list for the future. The initial list of games are:

• Pac-Man (1980)
• Tetris (1984)
• Another World (1991) [Ed. aka ‘Out of This World’.]
• Myst (1993)
• SimCity 2000 (1994)
• vib-ribbon (1999)
• The Sims (2000)
• Katamari Damacy (2004)
• EVE Online (2003)
• Dwarf Fortress (2006)
• Portal (2007)
• flOw (2006)
• Passage (2008)
• Canabalt (2009)

Per MoMA, the games will be “install[ed] for your delight in the Museum’s Philip Johnson Galleries in March 2013.” Which means—yes—MoMA will finally have a video arcade.

I sent this post to Paul the day I came across it, thinking he might want to include it in The Final Countdown. Instead, he wrote back suggesting I do a post listing the games I would like to see included in MoMA’s new arcade. I jumped at the chance, considering my work buddy (and fellow gamer) and I had already begun emailing each other about the choices we would make. Full disclosure: my Portal 2 partner was the one who alerted me to the good news in the first place, so all props to him.

Reading through MoMA’s official statement revealed that some of my earliest impulses were already accounted for in their list of future selections, namely Zork, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Chrono TriggerAnimal Crossing, and Minecraft. But three of my choices weren’t mentioned:


Much of MoMA’s announcement dwells on “interaction design,” and I think Braid is quite simply one of the finest examples of that facet of gaming. Many analyses of the game focus on its manipulation of time and the way the story toys with the player’s perception of plot and character, which are both highly original design choices for a video game, and could easily carry it into MoMA’s arcade on their own merits. But what I truly loved about Braid was what a deep cut into the world of gaming it presents.

Many devotees of a particular art form or culture (theatre, music, graphic design, Pokemon, etc.) learn to speak its language; to recognize specific rules and trends from the mechanics of the thing itself. Gamers, of course, are no different. I delighted in the way Braid played with the way I played a game, as a gamer. I grew up in the NES era playing many iterations of the run-and-jump sidescrolling platformer. Jonathan Blow’s masterwork continually tricked me by setting up a familiar gaming scenario (or even a specific gaming scene, as in the Donky Kong-esqe screenshot above), and then subverting my well-practiced gamer’s expectations. It’s not just an artful video game based around one guy’s breakup and the creation of the atomic bomb, but a video game that comments artfully on how we play them.

Shadow of the Colossus

Another impressive achievement in interaction design, Shadow of the Colossus also offers spectacular graphics, music, gameplay mechanics, and of course, story. The world is entirely empty of creatures to fight or points to gather, keeping your goal focused on slaying each of the colossi—an early hint that this is an atypical gaming situation. However, the game’s true brilliance really shines at the halfway point, when Wander (our avatar) undergoes a noticeable and dramatic physical transformation. No one who is at all familiar with good vs. evil tropes can avoid the sense of dread that begins to permeate the playthrough. There’s something rotten in the forbidden land, and we may not be pleased to discover what it is.


My reasons for wanting to include Journey can be found in my previous editorial on the game, but the tl;dr version is this: Journey provides one of the deepest and most rewarding multiplayer experiences in gaming, and manages to avoid all of the pitfalls that commonly plague that particular undertaking. You can’t speak with or hear your fellow players through the headset, and you don’t see their chosen gaming handle until the end of the story. You can only sing one unintelligible note at a time to each other, in harmony with the breathtaking score, a conceit that refuses to let a gamer bully any other based on preconceived notions. Add that to an incredibly affecting story, and you’ve got a recipe for a lasting experience.

And just take a look at that screenshot. The sun hurts your eyes.

I would really love to hear what you would choose to go into the collection, or if you disagree with any of MoMA’s or my selections. Or even if you disagree with the idea of video games as art. I’ve read compelling pieces on both sides of the argument and though I can safely state my own opinion with conviction, I always enjoy examining an issue from all angles.

So? What would you choose?

  • Yoh


    I totally agree with your selection, those 3 games are wonderful!

    I think most of people will talk about Limbo, even if it is not my first choice. Instead, I think Bastion deserve to be mentionned !

  • Caleb K

    Panzer Dragoon Saga, Jet Set Radio, Okami.

  • Agree. +Okami. You cannot leave Okami out of the list (I used to do so in the past, because I had not had the chance to play it).

  • Mark Jr

    I don’t know if BioShock is on there (I read a list of the games a year or two ago back when I was subscribed to OXM, so I don’t remember most of the planned games), but it damn well should be.

    Also, either game in the Darksiders series would be a good choice, based on scenery and art style alone, I think.

  • trashcanman

    I disagree with a lot of their picks and I feel they undermine the premise. Sure, if you wanted to say Pac-Man represents America’s rampant consumerism with the ghosts of Communism nipping at it’s heels, you could. But you’d sound like a pretentious dope. Games for the most part didn’t attain the true mantle of art until this generation in my opinion. Sure, Out of This World and many other members of the old guard stand up to that classification, but as a whole games were just games; ways to pass the time. Now, with the stuff like GTA4, Mass Effect, and Catherine coming out with regularity telling deep, immersive stories in fully realized worlds steeped in grey morals, satire, metaphor, memorable characters, and all of the other things discerning intellectuals love, it’s now just plain stupid to deny games as an art form.

    Also, Ebert is a hack and he has always been a hack. He was great on his tv show, but it’s hard to take his written reviews seriously. Look up his pieces on Night of the Living Dead (how the hell did something so weak, baseless, and meandering ever get published?), A Clockwork Orange, and The Golden Compass for some examples off the top of my head. Would a man who truly understands either film or art bash NOTLD for letting the “hero” die with children in the audience? Would he really spend all of his review space bitching about Clockwork Orange doing nothing but glorifying violence? Would he even be able to sit through The Golden Compass with a straight face, much less write down the words “‘The Golden Compass’ is a darker, deeper fantasy epic than the ‘Rings’ trilogy, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ or the ‘Potter’ films” for other people to read? Admit it, you just rolled your eyes. So do I give even a fraction of a single shit about the man’s opinion on games? Please. He’s not even competent in his own domain, and is clearly 100% ignorant of this one.

    tl;dr Catherine, Mass Effect, GTA4. Ebert is goddamn stupid.

  • David Forck

    IMHO, anythign that’s created by human interaction, either directly or indirectly, could be considered art. art is, after all, left up to the interpretation of those that look upon it.

  • Definitely agree 100% with Okami, guys. And I haven’t had a chance to check out Bastion, but like a lot of indie games, it definitely looks like it goes for a deeper than average experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if it deserved a spot.

    I also agree with BioShock. That was the first game I remember blowing my mind. Not so sure about Darksiders and LIMBO, as it seems like MoMA’s smartly going for a mix of characteristics, and not just art style. I thought LIMBO was beautiful to look at but not necessarily all that unique as a platformer. Darksiders II was quite good, however.

    Even if only the latest generation of games is achieving the kind of complex experiences other works of art achieve, I think it’s important to delve into the history of the medium and feature games like Pac-Man that had a significant affect on gaming culture. Also, you have to remember that early developers were often trying to tell a story (Miyamoto with Super Mario Bros., for example), and were working with extremely limited space. Pac-Man may be the cave painting that’s crude on its own, but amazing because it’s the earliest form of the art we’ve discovered.

    Ha ha, poor Roger. But I stand by my fandom of his written reviews. His writing feels like he’s chatting at a party, which is what I dig. I’ve disagreed with lots of people I chatted with at parties. And truth be told, Siskel was my real bro, RIP. I definitely agreed with him more often than not.

    Catherine is a great choice.

    David, I’m totally with you. Defining art in general is already a tricky thing, and of course it’s totally reliant on subjectivity. I suppose that’s why there was never any doubt in my mind about video games being included.

  • Mark Miller

    pac-man and pong are to the art form of gaming what the cave paintings are to the art form of painting.

  • Reed

    I would also add Bastion, mainly for it’s Voice Acting and unique narrative.

  • Akari

    Based on the other games you said you enjoyed, you should check out Bastion.