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Strikes Against Video Games Being Considered as Art

Posted by on September 1, 2015

The following items are not definitive proof video games are not art, but rather exhibits of evidence suggesting they may not be.

1) They have stupid titles.

What is the likelihood that if a movie bore the title The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion it would contend for an Oscar? Yet according to Time magazine it is among the top hundred video games of all time. Most people of halfway decent intelligence recognize that a movie called “Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time” is unlikely to earn its director a place in the pantheon beside Kubrick and Bergman, or even Spielberg, yet as a video game it is considered one of the best in history. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snaker Eater, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Metroid Prime.

Even when their titles are not necessarily bad in themselves, they are likely to be flat, unevocative, or blankly descriptive. Halo is not in itself a bad title, but in the context of the game it simply refers to an alien megastructure that is the chief location. It’s the equivalent of naming your novel after its main character. Peer Gynt may be a great play, but nobody’s going to claim Peer Gynt is a brilliant title.

2) They have infinite sequels.

The more sequels a book or movie has, the more likely it is to be bad. With video games just the reverse is considered true. The Final Fantasy series includes fifty-eight (58) installments (, despite its very name indicating it should not have continued past the first.

All sequels in whatever medium are bad. A good book or movie contains metaphorical relations between the objects within it and within the real world, relations which sequels literalize and commoditize. Like in fanfiction, what was metaphorical in the original becomes literal in the sequel.

The Empire Strikes Back may be a good movie, but it is an even better example of the process of literalization that takes place in sequels for that reason. Empire loses the metafictional aspects of Star Wars. The original movie was self-consciously a re-creation of the Buck Rogers et. al. SF adventure movies of the 30’s and 40’s, but the sequels are straight science fiction. Star Wars refers to other things, even if only other movies, while Empire and Jedi refer to nothing but themselves. In Star Wars the filmmakers presumably had their reasons for choosing a desert landscape to represent Tatooine, but when the characters return to Tatooine in Return of the Jedi for what reasons did they go to a desert? Simply that it was a desert in Star Wars, therefore it must still be a desert in Return of the Jedi.

Insofar as a sequel is good, it is not a sequel but simply a new work using names taken from another work.

Stanislaw Lem wrote of a dichotomy between empty games and meaningful games—the former have internal semantics only, based solely in the relationships between the objects with which it is played, as the king in chess has its meanings within the rules of chess but no relation to anything outside the game; it is only a token and its name a dead metaphor. Meaningful games uses relationships that apply to things other than themselves, e.g., Clockwork Orange contains a message, or maybe just questions, about science and human behavior that is applicable to more than the circumstances described in the book. Games that use words and symbols that also exist in the real world—”soldiers” or “Arabs” or “nuclear bombs”—can never have quite so total a divorce from the real world as does chess, and so might well refer or seem to refer to external things. Whether they do in fact refer to external things is what an analysis must show. An empty game may pass the time in enjoyable ways, but it cannot contain a thesis relevant to things other than the practice of the game, as a game of chess can never contain meanings that don’t relate to chess.  The more meaningful and less empty a game is the better a claim it has to the name of art.

That “great” video games can sustain so many sequels is, I think, evidence they had no metaphorical meaning to begin with.

Which is why fanfiction thrives on junk. It’s much easier to write fanfiction for things that were purely literal to being with.  To write fanfiction of the work of a Tolstoy one would have to be as good a writer as Tolstoy. One would have to understand the world and have insights into it in the manner of Tolstoy.

A great book or movie has already exhausted all the possibilities of its characters and settings. They cannot be used again. Character, action, and setting are so tightly bound they cannot be separated.

3) They occupy incredible amounts of time.

Call of Duty: 2 quadrillion respawns, 18 billion matches, 1,900 years played every day (

Maybe people really are spending that much time on “art,” but they sure weren’t spending that much time on art prior to video games, nor do they spend that much time on alternate forms of art today. Why does this form of “art” consume so much more time than older forms?

The average COD user plays the game 170 hours per years, enough time to complete it 42.5 times (

Maybe that’s only 46 minutes a day, seven days a week, no vacations, but what would we think of a person who reads the same book or watches the same movie over and over, 42 times a year?

Average US gamer, age 13 and up: 6.3 hr/wk

Average American 8 to 18: 13.2 hr/wk

Core gamers (average above 5 hr/wk): 22 hr/wk

4) Innovation renders older games obsolete

“I don’t expect you to put in 40 hours playing a 20 year old game”

Why Video Games are Art,

Why not? Mere age wouldn’t preclude a book or movie from being worth a recommendation. Do people say, “Rembrandt’s worthless, his stuff is hundreds of years old”?  What is it precisely that renders old games unworthy–have we made such incredible advances in our understanding of human nature, emotions, ethics, etc., since 1995, as to render the insights of game-developers of the 90’s obsolete?  Whereas centuries-old fiction may still contain theses relevant today.  Because if we’re talking about “art,” then surely we’re talking about more than just better breast physics (, yes?  We must be talking about issues of greater import, like how we interact with each other, what is a happy and/or fulfilling life, death, love, etc.  If videogame-developers have indeed made such astounding progress in these things, why has it been restricted to videogames?  Why have writers and film-makers not made such advances in artistic technique as to render the books and movies of 1995 unreadable and unwatchable?

5) Narrative vs. Game-play

A game is not a game if it gives the player no choices. A character is not well-developed if he may with equal probability attend his father’s funeral or go bungee-jumping. A movie “railroads” its characters–the audience has no input in their actions.  Video games allow input, but may railroad the player in a subtler way.  If a player is truly free, the character’s actions are random.  If the character’s actions are not random (and purely random actions are not generally thought of as the stuff of great fiction), the player is not free.  Insofar as a game gives the player real choices, to that extent it lacks well-developed characters. Insofar as a game has a narrative, to that extent it is not a game. The better the narrative, the closer the game approaches the condition of a movie. The better the gameplay, the closer it approaches the condition of Parcheesi.

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