Why Video Games Aren't Art

I play a fair amount of video games, including emotional, aesthetic games like Florence and complex, open games like Dwarf Fortress. Over the years there are periodically discussions about whether video games are art. For example, here are articles from Time and London Review of Books on the subject.

Florence, an interactive story about love and life.

These discussions tend to ask about the aesthetic and entertainment values of the medium, trying to address the question of what exactly makes art, art. But to peel back the layer of indirection, art at its core is anything that is culture; It is a shared experience.

And interestingly, that’s what disqualifies video games.

Cultural Value

When I go on a forum, Discord, or Reddit to talk about a film, a TV show, a poem, a book, I talk concretely about the characters, the plot, the action, the subject: I love that Prince Zuko made a comeback in his character development, but I hate that Snape killed Dumbledore. And while people are free to disagree and take different sides, at the end of the day we’re talking about the same characters, the same events, the same substance, interpreted in our own ways.

The fact that we are able to discuss and relate to one another’s opinions on the same set of events allows us to empathize, laugh, and learn. This is being human. This is culture.

Sharing and relating to an experience is what makes art great.

The Video Game Experience

Experiencing a video game is another beast altogether. Video games are highlighted on their interactivity, the ability to immerse yourself in the world and change events. And sadly, these open-ended decisions and outcomes lead to a divergent assortment of experiences. When I talk about the tragic tale of how Henry the farmer barely got by in my Stardew Valley run or how I led my team to a just-in-time bomb defusal in Counter Strike, even if you’ve played those games you won’t fully relate until I provide a surrounding narrative.

Every decision can lead to a different game, a different story, a different experience. The Fortnite game I played versus pro players was nothing like the beginner lobby you enjoyed. And I can’t anchor my story with a particular character because there is no Snape in this game.

Even worse, modern video games go through new patches and changes all the time. A famous recent case was No Man’s Sky, an indie game that launched as a huge disappointment only to be patched over and over and come into its own after 5 years of progress. Talking to a player who tried it day 1 would be like talking about Dumbledore to a Lord of the Rings reader.

Each of the big content updates in No Man's Sky.

That’s why the “artsy” games tend to always be the story driven games, like Florence above, or the more recent Twelve Minutes (which features famous actors like James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley), which have specific, well-defined characters and a railroaded plot. Even the players of Dwarf Fortress bond over actualized, recorded playthroughs like the epic of Boatmurdered, or at least events like being destroyed by demons.

It’s these stories that give players ways to socialize and bond, elevating the game’s status in their minds in the process.

Dwarves fight monsters and lava in the Boatmurdered saga.

So we do relate to characters, stories, music, and graphics in video games, but video games are also fundamentally encumbered with being something more. The possibilities that make video games so fun and creative ironically make them less relatable for humans looking for a shared experience to talk about.

Therefore, video games are a less “cultural” form of “art” exactly because it’s an experience that’s harder to share.

Appendix: The 0-Player Game

I’ve been looking for a 0-player game for a long time. Something that writes random but coherent stories for you, and you just experience the narrative. So it’s a world, a story, an experience, that only you get to see it. Maybe if it’s a good one you can even edit it and publish it and make it a real cultural experience.

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