Games as art – does silliness vs seriousness matter?

So a small while ago I picked up two shiny new games to play and enjoy, those being Bioshock Infinite (Yes, late to that party, I know) and Saints Row 4. One is a deep and compelling story about a relationship and hidden backstory between two people set in the beautiful vistas of a flying city, and the other is about… Well, kicking aliens in the testicles, amongst other things. It’s not hard to tell that they are vastly different games, and the sheer contrast between seriousness and silliness that they have has made me wonder about an age old question that provokes the ire of many when it is even mentioned – can video games be considered art?

You only have to look at Bioshock Infinite to see the argument for this being the case. It’s a stunning looking game, full of immense attention to detail, so much so that if you’re not taking time to explore and soak it all in you’re only ruining the experience for yourself. The relationship between the two main characters, Booker and Elizabeth, is also perfectly pitched, with each event they have to deal with making you feel more attached and invested in the characters. This attachment leads to one emotional gut punch after another when you reach the end of the game, where everything is revealed in a way that just leaves your head reeling, and also makes you want to discuss and read more about it long after the credits have stopped rolling. All these things are precisely what any good piece of artwork can achieve, no matter the medium – so why are people so opposed to games being art anyway?

bioshock-infinite

Well, a fairly strong reason for this might indeed take the form of Saints Row 4 itself. You only need to watch the trailers to see this is not a game heading for the goals or immersion or emotional impact, instead choosing to take the juvenile approach of sex and nudity jokes at every possible opportunity. There are giant sex toys that can be used as weapons, there’s the option to ‘romance’ every team member you meet, and it’s so far away from the realms of being tasteful it practically leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. How can games be art, the detractors argue, when stuff like this exists? A simple, dumb game that only tries to invoke a cheap laugh and nothing else?

But here’s the thing – Saints Row 4 isn’t trying to be seen as art. That much is obvious, but the fact is it doesn’t negate the argument games in general can be considered art. It’s silly fun, and the reality is I’ve been turned to it more than Bioshock Infinite of a night simply because the pleasure of kicking an alien so hard in the testicles he flies off into low orbit is more of a stress reliever after a long day of work than Bioshock will ever be. And there’s silly fun in every medium that has something people will consider artwork. For every Citizen Kane there’s going to be a film like Jackass. For every The Wire there’s another reality show clogging up the network. Heck, you have the millions of rude doodles channelling the same basic ideas of drawing and use of colour (amongst others!) that made the Mona Lisa. The point is, just because there’s something that can be considered a ‘lower’ form of the medium does not detract from what that medium can do at its very best – to consider that true almost seems to be foolish.

Of course, negating that assumption doesn’t instantly clear the murky argument of whether games are art. There’s millions of other arguments out there that could more validly argue they aren’t – from games being too bound in rules and regulations that other mediums avoid, or they don’t explore the idea of “being human” as other art forms may do so. Yet a reasonable counter argument to much of that, perhaps, is to merely turn heads back in the direction of Bioshock Infinite itself. There’s violence, sure, but there’s also drama, and mystery, and intrigue. There’s the desire to know and see more, to keep going until the truth is outed and you are left reeling. And there’s actual emotion, if not expressed by yourself by what you see, certainly expressed by the characters in the game themselves. These are all ideas present in any well established art form, and games are just taking them in a new and exciting direction. In short, if games can’t be considered art, I’m not sure what’s left that can be.

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