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video games are artI believe video games are art. I don’t think that’s a very controversial thing to say anymore, but it bears repeating.

It’s true that Lord of the Flies comes to mind now and again if I play a cooperative game with my friends. It’s also true that video games can be dangerously addictive. But in moderation, and at their best, video games provide an amazing new medium for artists and storytellers.

Indeed, the cat is already out of the bag on this one. In 2012, The Smithsonian Institution had an exhibit titled “The Art of Video Games.” I was in D.C. at the time and decided to check it out. Let me tell you I was mildly disappointed. The exhibit itself was great, but the disappointment came from realizing that so many of the pieces on display were so much more impressive than much of the “modern” art held up as cutting edge. I wanted more.

Video games at their best seamlessly weave elegant music, sparkling visuals, moving stories, and creative puzzles into a fully integrated experience.

Of those four categories, I hardly have to prove the visuals. I also don’t need to prove the puzzles. But I am less certain about the music. I also think I need to prove the impressiveness of the stories themselves. So let’s indulge a bit shall we.

Because the music is easier, I’ll start with that. I think a lot of older readers imagine video game music to be primarily like Super Mario Brothers peppy repetitive theme. It’s fun, but not a symphony. It’s more like the sound an ice cream truck makes. It sticks in your head, but it’s not something that moves you emotionally.

Now contrast that with some of the music from newer video games. Try Skyrim’s theme for instance. If that’s a little hardcore, listen to Taylor Davis’ violin cover of “Song of Time and Song of Storms” from Zelda. For something even softer, if a bit more repetitive, listen to “Atonement” from Final Fantasy 13.

On the whole I think it’s fair to say that video game music these days is often much richer and deeper than the top 40 on the radio. It might be a bit of a stretch, but one way to get your kids into classical music could be to find good video game music. Video Games Live would be a good starting point as it’s videogame music performed by orchestras.

Right about now you may saying to yourself, “Visuals yes, puzzles yes, music (grudgingly) yes, but stories? I thought video games were mindless, and often immoral.”

Yes, many video games are mindless (by itself not always bad) and all too many are immoral. But the same thing can be said about movies (and books). A whole lot of mindless and immoral movies exist, but several movies are great works of art capable of stirring the soul. The same is true for video games.

I’m familiar with Final Fantasy 13 (FF13), so I’ll talk about that. Full disclosure—I love this game. Now I don’t play video games as often as I should, but I am willing to spend 2 to 3 hours a week on a game like this if I have some free time. To give you an idea of why I like the game, here’s the story in a nutshell.

Also, fair warning , this is essentially a spoiler.

FF13 is set in a world where humanity lives in a large high tech city in the sky called Cocoon. The city is cared for and largely run by extremely powerful ethereal beings called the fal’Cie. Think of the fal’Cie as a cross between angels and the Greek Gods. Below on the planet’s surface, monsters haunt the ruins of ancient civilizations.

At the beginning of the game, a fal’Cie curses the main characters to save Cocoon. At least that’s what the characters think, because they all see a dim vision of what they take to be a monster ripping Cocoon to pieces and causing it to fall from the sky. They believe their mission is to stop this new threat. If they succeed, they each turn into crystals for several centuries, and if they fail they are doomed to wander the planet as mindless zombielike creatures for eternity. It’s a cruel fate.

So the characters spend the game trying to figure out what or who this mysterious monster is while wrestling with their destinies. They have something of an idea of what they’re facing in the beginning, but it’s still quite hazy. Only very late in the game do the characters find out what has really been going on. The fal’Cie have been preparing them for a final showdown with none other than the fal’Cie themselves. The fal’Cie are grieved over the chaos and destruction that humanity inflicts on itself and the planet. In order to re-make the world, the fal’Cie built Cocoon as a sacrifice. Simply put, the fal’Cie have been plotting humanity’s destruction for centuries.

That’s right, the fal’Cie sheltered humanity with the end goal of eventually getting humans to exterminate themselves. Why? So that the horror of humanity destroying itself would be so great, that God would intervene and remake the world. The fal’Cie cannot commit suicide. They have to prove that humanity is corrupt beyond redemption and they must indirectly train human heroes to be their own murderers.

Predictably, through self-sacrifice and courage, the heroes find a way to both defeat the fal’Cie and save humanity without becoming murderers. Humanity is not acquitted of its wrongs, rather the fal’Cie are held to account for theirs.

FF13 is a complex narrative surrounding duty, despair, hope, and redemption. This is not Pac Man. FF13 makes players examine their lives and encourages them to be brave and honorable and self-sacrificing. Is it perfect? No. But it is literary, and I look at it with same eye I use when reading classical Greek myth. My little plot summary hardly does the game (or the plot) justice, so I encourage readers to watch IGN’s video review of FF13 to get a better feel for the game.

What about a more mindless and violent game? I thought you’d never ask.

BioShock surely fits the bill of mindless hacking and slashing ultra-violence (and it’s not a game I enjoy). But a closer look reveals BioShock is a direct critique of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In the BioShock universe, just as in Atlas Shrugged, scientists and creative geniuses establish a secret city away from the rest of the world. In BioShock the city is located on the ocean floor. Science flourishes in the hidden city of Rapture where selfish genius individualists make their home. There’s a problem though. Without ethics to guide Rapture’s scientific development, science is put to horrifying uses. Rapture descends into the most depraved state of violence imaginable, and the twisted human-mutating technologies hatched in Rapture are poised to spread unless the hero chooses to stop it.

So even a mindless hack and slash game turns out to have some real philosophy behind it. Aside from Whittaker Chamber’s scorching review of Atlas Shrugged, BioShock actually may be the most significant critique of Ayn Rand ever—and it’s a video game! For any doubters out there, Ken Levine (BioShock’s creator) has publicly stated that BioShock was inspired by Atlas Shrugged.

So why should conservatives look at video games? If it’s not evident already, video games are a part of our culture, and not necessarily a bad part. Like all art, video games have the potential to stir something noble in the soul.

We are well acquainted with the dangers certain video games possess—sadistic violence, pornography, and the temptation to tune out reality—but we are only beginning to recognize the truly amazing potential video games can have for enriching our lives. If carefully consumed in moderation, video games can be quite beneficial.

By the way, this does not mean that I want to see a new “conservative” genre of video games—far from it. C.S. Lewis’ warning about the genrefication of Christian literature applies just as well to videogames as it does to books. But what it does mean is that as conservatives, we shouldn’t be afraid to consume, produce, and celebrate video games of high literary caliber.

There’s another side to this though. As Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa wrote in the introduction to “Shakespeare’s Politics,” the ancient Greeks looked to Homer for what it meant to be a hero.

“Socrates had said that Homer was the teacher of the Greeks, and he meant by that that those who ruled Greece had their notions of what kind of men they look like to be set out for them by the Homeric epics. Achilles was the authentic hero, and his glory was that against which all later heroes up to Alexander competed.”[1]

I seriously wonder how many young people look to the examples of video game characters as the Greeks looked to Homer’s characters. Perhaps I am being a bit overdramatic about this, but I do wonder.

The point is, I don’t want conservatives to shut themselves off from an emerging art form. Russell Kirk wrote movingly of the “moral imagination” which has at its end “to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.” He had books in mind when he wrote that. I think that video games deserve to be looked at the same way. I know that the vast majority of video games fall short of that goal. Many are filled with disgusting things. But not every video game is a bad influence or waste of time. Some video games are beautiful and stirring pieces of art.

I used to wonder where a lot of our great poets and artists were hiding. Now I believe that a lot of them develop video games. Maybe, just maybe, the next Tolkien is composing the script for a new video game. If that’s true, I can’t wait to play it.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

1. Page 6 of Shakespeare’s Politics.

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6 replies to this post
  1. I do also question the definition of art. There’s no doubt that there are artistic qualities to video games, but that doesn’t mean the whole package should be considered art. And there are smart aspects to video games, but that doesn’t make them defacto educational (understood in its more robust sense) or humanizing.

    There are many movies that have artistic aspects – great scores, great cinematography, great script, great acting – but fail to achieve the status of art. Books have the same issue. Series like the Game of Thrones, both in its literary and televised format, have many, many aspects of artistic and even philosophic quality, but neither are truly art.

    The Logos can be found everywhere, but not everything, especially that which is man made, properly reveals the Logos present within it.

    Mr. Cloud doesn’t need to be fully denounced regarding his opinion here. He is not incorrect to see philosophical themes of sacrifice in the Final Fantasy series (I point one also to FFX in this regard) or of political critique in the Bioshock series. He is not incorrect to find much of video game music sharing something in common with the musical tradition. He is not incorrect in affirming that a goodly portion of video game illustration is inspired by the best of classical (especially realist) art – though one finds an unhealthy proportion of this art seeking only to titillate (Lara Croft being the first to come to mind, though the recent reboot appears to try and distant itself from the worst of it).

    Rather, I would contend that his final point needs to be reworked and nuanced. We shouldn’t look to video games to be art. Their interactivity (and arguably their inherent relativism) makes it difficult (or perhaps impossible) for them to achieve an approach to the transcendent, which should ultimately be (again arguably, we’re discussing art…) the primary mark of a piece of art.

    However, we should look to video games as markers for how society is still seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful, the permanent things, under variegated, perhaps even declined and degenerate, forms. We should use such markers of seeking to promote a higher seeking – much as the best of music often employs traditional folk tunes or the best of art employs (dare I say baptizes) popular vulgar images.

    One need not say video games are horrible and to be forgotten as soon as possible OR embraced as art and accepted as a growing part of the canon. There are middle grounds wherein one may pull goods from them while remaining silent on what is left behind. Many a Church father took such an attitude to pagan thought. Plato and Aristotle survived mostly intact, yes, but Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Proclus had the good of their philosophy extracted while their remains were passed over in reverential silence.

    So yes, laud and discuss the permanent things present in video games, but do not not feel one needs to canonize them in order to do so.

  2. I actually agree with the author here. I am not much of a gamer, I am way too old school for modern video games. In fact, I actually prefer playing the NES games from my childhood on emulator, if I have to play something.

    That said, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with a video game company and listen to the graphics artists and computer programers tell me about their work on a regular basis – and absolutely they are artists.

    In fact, I would compare them to theatre directors. Video games are like interactive theatre. The comparrison with Homer is apt; players are often introduced to complex moral questions, heroism and the beauty of imagination through these games. To youngsters, video game heroes and iconic moments in gaming may well play the same roll as Homeric poetry did for the Greeks.

    Are they Great Art? Time will tell, but certainly they are not necessarily by definition vulgar.

  3. Thank you for comments. I stand by what I wrote.

    Tomas – Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think there’s a range within video games like there’s a range within books. You have your dime novels and your Ray Bradbury.

    Mr. Rieth – I really liked your description of video game designers as theatre directors. That’s a good way to look at it. I don’t want to undervalue how difficult it is to make a good game though. It’s really a team effort.and it requires a lot of different artists to make a game truly artistic and not just arty.

    Mr. Masty – thank you for reading my piece. Could you elaborate your criticism? I enjoyed (for the most part) your piece on deconstructing progressivism (assuming you are the same Mr. Masty who wrote that piece). I liked your allusion to Richard Weaver’s book “Ideas Have Consequences.” I know the publisher imposed that title on him and he didn’t like it. I also imagine (probably unfairly) if he were alive and prone to violence he may have tossed a chair or two after reading what I wrote given his views on jazz. Anyway, that’s just another long way of saying I’d like to hear what you have to say.

  4. Excellent piece!
    After teaching Hegel’s “Science of Aesthetics,” I had a student suggest that if painting, music, and poetry are the highest arts for Hegel’s time, then film could be a logical next step (as a combination of the three), while video games would be a step beyond that (as a combination of the three that actively involves the viewer).
    I don’t know that I’m completely sold on the argument, but it was an interesting one…

  5. Its immensely immersive art, and I love every single minute of it. While other art forms do immerse you, none let you run around in their world the way that video games do. Nothing like it.

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