Are video games art? Were they not, it would be necessary to pretend they are. Roger Ebert claimed that video games could not be art, in part because of their inextricable relationship with commercialism and in part because they did not present a single experience curated by the artist. That would seem to render buildings not-art, since they can be explored in many different ways, and it might even turn obvious art into not-art, since nobody looks at a canvas or a statue in exactly the same way or sees the same thing.
Video games deserve to be considered art on the merits, but understanding them as such is also socially useful. Since the toxic GamerGate episode in 2014, video games are the latest seemingly neutral and non-political sphere of life to be tribalized. If you are a female video game developer, you can expect to be endlessly harassed by pathetic basement dwellers. If you are a video game player, you can now play games where the characters are trans.
Back in college, I attended an event about video games and social justice put on by the gaming club. The professor who gave the talk explained that video games were too apathetic and needed to be instruments of activism. She suggested that Farmville and other silly, innocent time-wasters were actually guilty of perpetuating social injustice. Farmville, for instance, portrayed farmers as happy white avatars rather than as the overworked, undocumented, brown laborers that they likely are.
That video games have historically had so little to do with politics is actually a point in favor of their qualifying as art, and a reason they should remain so. Like painting before postmodernism and Catholic churches before Vatican II, they can bring us out of the everyday world of drudgery and injustice and into a different one. (This is the same reason why those 70s church hymns about famine and water shortages are so uninspiring—they merely reproduce the fallen world.)
Of course, not all games are art, just as not all movies are art. But the best games do rise to that level. I happen to be a partisan for “retro games”—generally understood as the eight- and 16-bit titles from the mid-80s to the mid-90s that appeared in video arcades, on the first two Nintendo home consoles, on the Sega Genesis, and on the various other home consoles and portable systems of the era. Most were two-dimensional and scrolled left or right (Mario and Sonic), and some scrolled in four directions with an overhead view (Zelda). The best games from this era were a perfection of the particular art form of the two-dimensional video game. Given limited technology, small budgets, and a relentlessly competitive commercial environment, game developers still managed to produce playing experiences that are remembered and even reworked or duplicated in homage today. (Indeed, brand-new releases for long-obsolete game consoles have become something of a bloated collectors’ market.)
These games may not be “fine art” in the manner of Michelangelo or Da Vinci, though there is no obvious reason why they cannot be. They are most certainly works of cultural art, akin to the best art deco skyscrapers, neon signs, and midcentury appliances and toys that served a commercial purpose but also rose above it. These things might be figments of consumerism, but no one can claim they were not produced with great attention to detail and genuine artistry.
This can easily slip into self-indulgent nostalgia a la Ready Player One, and it can also be re-commercialized as reproduction artifacts tacked to chain restaurant walls or new “collectors’” releases for old game consoles.
So how about some actual games?
My favorite is Donkey Kong Country 2, a 1995 release for the Super Nintendo and the middle entry in a three-game series. These were ordinary side-scrolling 2D games, but the characters and backgrounds were rendered in a claymation-evoking pseudo-3D. This made the series a commercial blockbuster, as it breathed new life into the aging Super Nintendo platform. But the games, especially DKC2, were more than vehicles to showcase flashy graphics technology.
DKC2 is a pirate-themed game, in which anthropomorphic monkeys—but not the titular Donkey Kong himself, who is imprisoned and awaiting your rescue—venture through flooded shipwrecks, spooky bayous, lava-spewing caverns, and the inside of a honeybee hive.
Two levels—and their soundtracks, which are the real stand-out in the game—are particularly good examples of video games as art. The first is a stage that takes place in a partially sunken ship’s hull. As you explore the level, which begins on dry ground, the water rises, blocking off certain areas and turning it from an ordinary running exercise to a swimming one. As a kid, this was a genuinely frightening level to play. Now I think it is a great one.
The other one takes place in a massive bramble bush, with a background of clouds drifting through a blue sky. The soundtrack, titled “Stickerbrush Symphony,” is widely considered among the best pieces of music ever composed for a video game.
Read the comments on these YouTube videos and other similar ones. Multiple people are brought back to their childhoods, remembering when they received the game as a Christmas gift long ago, or when they played it with a friend or relative who has since passed away. There is no politics here, and there is very little cheap nostalgia or sentimentality either. There is art.
The music, in fact, is often the single element that elevates a game from mere entertainment to art. Video game music is an entire genre unto itself. Listen to the soundtrack for Thunder Force III, a graphically spectacular 1990 game for the Sega Genesis console. The music, using a primitive synthesizer chip, contains layers and layers of sound—a “wall of sound”—that evoke the feeling of outer-space action and adventure that are portrayed in the game.
Or listen to the soundtrack for DonPachi, a Japanese arcade shoot-em-up game from 1994 with a military theme. You’d have to listen to Gustav Holst’s “Mars” to find more bracingly warlike music. Is the masterful evocation of an abstraction like “war” through music not art? It is a shame that these musical composers are not recognized in the world of music. They certainly belong there. And I haven’t even touched on the haunting, moody, orchestral role-playing games from the “retro” era.
Video games can be mindless, consumeristic time sinks. But they can also be a pleasant distraction from politics and public affairs, as well as a window into thoughtfully and artfully rendered alternate worlds. That can be taken to an extreme, and it all too often has been. But in a culture where absolutely everything is becoming tribal and political, it’s something we may need more than ever.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.