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Video Games are fun, but are they art? Heck yes. We explore the history and present of video games and what sets them apart as a means of artistic expression. To learn about many other alternative means of expression, preorder a copy of You Are An Artist:
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I am not a gamer.  If anything, I tend to be overwhelmed by and fearful of the addictive immersiveness of video games, but the first time I saw this game Monument Valley, I was completely and utterly mesmerized, by its spare beauty, its MC Escher-like sequence of pathways and structures and ladders, that this quiet little person deftly navigates and unlocks.  I was not just entertained, I was moved.  It was poetic, challenging, metaphorically resonant.  How was my experience of this game in any way lesser than my encounters with other forms of art and what else out there was I missing?  This is the case for video games.

Video games have a rich history, beginning before you think they did with proto-computer games like Tennis for Two in 1958, but they really kicked off in the early 1970s with the explosion of arcade games and the dawn of home consoles, with minimalist wonders like Pong and an impressive variety of plastic boxes with faux wood details and there have been a huge range of kinds of video games since of varying quality and popularity.  Video games are not a passing fad.  They're a multi-billion dollar industry.  I mean, seriously, as big if not bigger than the film industry and it sees growth every year, evolving as the world and technology evolve and as developers and corporations and gamers respond to those changes. 

It's hard to talk about video games as being one thing because they perform varying functions and address differing needs.  I mean, some games are primarily about pattern recognition and spacial reasoning, like positioning Mario above a pipe or dodging bullets or fitting blocks into an allotted space.  Other games are educational, either vaguely or strategically, imparting history or math or engineering.  Sometimes you can choose whether or not you want the game to be educational, but video games can teach and test your coordination and rhythm, alone and of course with friends.  

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Competition is at the core of many games, but so is collaboration, allowing you to work together with others toward a goal, whether you're teammates or in the same room or on a different continent.  Now, it may be obvious, but we're noting that video games are almost always about strategy and problem solving.  You can learn the rules of sports and play them with less risk of injury.  You can simulate potentially real world situations, and also not real world situations.  Video games allow you to build worlds, evolve worlds, and explore the amazingly intricate worlds that others have created.  Who doesn't want to turn into a cat and jump through a tree or discover a new planet, a planet that admittedly no one else will ever see in this vast and lonely universe?

The quality of CGI in games has improved significantly over the years, offering up immersive, cinematic worlds and almost, but not quite, naturalistic reproductions of human beings.  We're still in the uncanny valley, folks, and we likely will be for some time.  Developers have brought in actors you know and love to voice characters in a number of games.

Peter Dinklage: I'm a ghost, actually.

Sarah: And some games feature footage of real-live actors, like Her Story, in which you explore a video database of fictional interviews of a woman to try to uncover the truth of what happened.  Video games are really good at telling stories, letting a narrative unravel over time.  Like a good novel or movie, they're paced, alternating periods of fast-paced action with slower moments allowing for exposition and character development.  

Movies are actually a really good point of comparison here, as they're also a more populist, accessible art form.  Some are considered high art or film, and others are well, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, and like our taste for movies, sometimes we want something fun and easy and other times we feel like something super challenging and intense.  Likewise for the kind of art you see in a gallery or museum.  One day, you might want to gaze at a captivating landscape whose equivalent in gaming might be something like Firewatch.

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Another day, you want to stand before Picasso's "Guernica" and feel the pain and misery of the Spanish Civil War, an experience closer to something like playing This War of Mine about a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city.  Now, there's been plenty of work assigned to the realm of visual or fine art that has involved video game technology, like Cory Arcangel's 2002 work, "Super Mario Clouds" for which he modified the code of the original 1985 Super Mario Bros, erasing all sound and all visual elements except the sky and the clouds that scroll across it.  

Video games have also been collected by art museums, like Jenova Chen and Nick Clark's "Flow" and Jason Rohrer's "Passage", a five minute game where a character moves through the stages of life and dies only once, at the end, both of which were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, but for what it's worth, they also have the Sims.  

There are a number of creators making games who work between disciplines, not confining themselves to one field or another.  Actually, opera might be a more fitting point of comparison for video games, in particular, the idea of the total work of art, or gesamtkunstwerk, propounded by German composer Richard Wagner.  Rather than all the arts existing separately in their own silos, Wagner wanted his own works to synthesize music, drama, dance, costumes, set design, and everything else into one harmonious whole.  Similarly, video games are consolidations of the creative output of many: writers, designers, programmers, composers, concept artists, modelers, directors, sound engineers, and many other roles, all brought together into one package.

The creation of video games is largely a collective enterprise, but there are plenty of individual aritsts and (?~5:43) who are credited as the visionaries behind given games, like Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of classics like Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda, and Hideo Kojima, the lead behind the Metal Gear series, but while the most popular games are truly team efforts, there are still lone wolves out there like (?~6:00), the single developer behind Stardew Valley, one of the top-selling titles of 2016 on Steam, who created the game by working on his own ten hours a day, seven days a week for four years.  

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Like any artist, a game developer begins with a relative blank slate.  They have a particular set of skills and technologies at their disposal and a knowledge either thin or deep of what's been done before.  Whether working alone or with gobs of money and a team of folks behind them, developers build complex, many-layered macrocosms for others to investigate and decipher and explore, and that's really what sets video games apart.  They need you to complete them.

All art is interactive to some degree.  If a painting hangs in a forest and no one sees it, is it really artwork?  Sculpture and installation require you to walk around them to take them in in full.  More and more works of art assume and necessitate viewer involvement, but very few as inherently as any video game.  They not only respond to you, but adapt and offer diverse experiences depending on the choices you make.  This extreme interactivity makes it so that you, at least to some extent, became the co-author.  You are the artist, too.  You can try to understand what the developer might be trying to say or accomplish, and you can also bend the experience to embody or project how you see the world.

There are genres of video games, just as with other forms of art.  You've got your first-person shooters and roleplaying games and platformers, but also like other forms of art, the expectations and rules for every kind of game have been stretched and broken and intentionally subverted.  Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows for open-ended gameplay, enabling you to navigate the world in an unstructured and non-linear way.  Some titles completely discard the idea that a game needs a clearly defined objective, like what am I supposed to be doing on this island exactly?  Or maybe the developers completely throw away the idea of a cutscene, pioneered way back in Pac-Man, and make the entire game feel like a single unbroken tracking shot, or maybe the game's objective is to stake care of this fish man thing?  

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Not every new idea is a winner, people, but video games require much more than coordination.  Whether solo enterprises or social undertakings, they challenge players to think critically about not only the world of the game, but also the real world around them.  The game The Last of Us, in which a smuggler has the job of escorting a teenage girl across a post-apocalyptic zombified United States, sparked discussions about what it means to be a father and the dynamics of father/daughter relationships.  Games like Life is Strange tackled difficult problems head on, like online harrassment and depression.  Life is Strange 2 follows teenager brothers of Mexican descent who are dealing with the traumatic death of a parent and citizenship and racism and religious extremism.  One first-person exploration game, Gone Home, follows a young woman as she returns to her Oregon home in 1995, finds it empty, and pieces together that her family fell apart after her parents found out about her younger sister's lesbian relationship.  

Video games can provide a platform for many under-represented voices in stories, like Never Alone, which was developed in collaboration between game-makers and Alaska native storytellers and is based on a traditional (?~9:19) tale.  US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia ruled in 2011 that video games deserve first amendment protection just like books, plays, and movies, writing, "Video games communicate ideas--and even social messages--through many familiar literary devices, such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music, and through features distinctive to the medium, such as the player's interaction with the virtual world."

Of course, you don't have to look far to find a game that will offend you, no matter who you are, but that's true with any art form.  There are big issues with gaming, but I'd argue they're not baked into the medium.  As Seth Schiesel argued in 2018, "It's not the content, it's the culture."  

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The online gaming culture, that is, where bigotry, bullying, sexism, and all sorts of toxic behavior have run amok and ruined the enjoyment for many.  It can be hard, if not impossible, to separate these issues from the games themselves.  However, they certainly aren't exclusive to the gaming community.  Video games have always been a reflection of their times and these are indeed the challenges of now. 

Whether you play them or not, gaming culture extends far beyond screens and headsets, and is no longer confined to virtual space, but it never was, really.  Arcades were physical places where human bodies shared proximity.  LAN parties in the early aughts were actually real parties.  Playing Wii together and Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution aren't merely virtual experiences, and neither is getting into a car accident trying to catch Pokemon.

Video gaming, like much of modern life, blends online and offline experience and it's firmly part of culture and cultural memory, whether you consider it high art or low.  In his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson reminds us that there is nothing trivial about gameplay.  When negotiating various worlds, young and old alike practice patience, delay gratification, and negotiate complex social relationships.  Gaming, according to Johnson, is about finding order and meaning in the world and making decisions that help create that order. 

The more I learn about video games, the more my respect grows for those who routinely fling themselves into the unknown of a new game.  Armed with knowledge of past games, sure, but up for the challenge of finding order and meaning in a new world, ready to confront unforeseeable futures, failure, death.  It reminds me of the bravery required to walk into an art gallery, where you're unsure of what you'll find or what will be required of you, but are nonetheless open to whatever the artists have in store. 

When it comes to video games, there is still so much left to be done, so much territory to conjure and explore, so many more perspectives to offer on the part of developers as well as players.  It's an outstandingly elastic medium, receptive and also succeptible to all the best and worst we humans have to offer it.  Video games shape our understanding of humanity just as they are shaped by it.  Oh, and they're also really fun.  

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Special thanks to art director, editor, and lifelong gamer Brandon Brungard for his help advising on this episode and bringing it to life.  Also, before you go, did you know that this channel is called The Art Assignment because along with exploring ideas about art and art history, we also give out assignments?  Not the kind where you have to buy paint or stress about your inability to draw, but the kind that ask you to use your phone or bits of material you have lying around to make your life more fulfilling.  

My book, You Are An Artist, gathers together some of the assignments presented on this show, plus a bunch of really good new ones.  It'll be out on April 14 and is available for pre-order right now!  

Thanks to all of our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially our grand masters of the arts, Tyler Calvert-Thompson, Divide by Zero Collection, David Golden, and Ernest Wolfe.