In the beginning, there was nothing. Then, suddenly, a flash of light. A small white square drifts
slowly across an infinite black, bordered on each side by rectangular paddles of similar colour. It is 1972 and Pong has just been released to the world. Originally developed by Allan Alcorn as a training exercise at Atari, it would go on to become the first commercially successful video game and ushered in a new age of entertainment. One where, unlike its multimedia predecessors, the user was not just an audience member, but an active participant.
At the time, video games such as Pong were an exciting new medium. Much exploration and learning was done during those early years, as developers and publishers figured out what worked and what didn’t, and consumers gradually acquired some sense of palatability for the format. A lot of what was released was… not good, to say the least, even by the standards of the time and especially as the home computer market emerged. Many titles were slapped together by developers who either didn’t care or didn’t know any better, and distributed by publishers hoping to make a quick buck. However, as the industry has matured, so too have the titles produced by it. In the past few decades we have borne witness to some veritable masterpieces. Now, I am not suggesting that everything that’s dropped onto the Steam store is fantastic – I’m not even saying it’s good. However, I do believe that the quality of some titles released in the years since the industry’s inception is nothing short of masterful. I believe these titles could truly be considered works of art.
First, let us explore what art actually is. According to the folks at Oxford, art can be expressed as:
“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.
While that’s quite the mouthful, I think most people would agree with this definition. When people think of art they often imagine a beautiful painting or sculpture, or perhaps a captivating piece of music. What these things have in common is their ability to make us feel something. Whether it be joy, sadness, or something in between we can’t quite describe – they elicit an emotional response. And so, I ponder, can the same not be said for video games?
I can still recall emotions that I felt even years after the gaming experiences that triggered them. The quiet sadness while listening to Rosalina’s story in Super Mario Galaxy. The excitement and anticipation while listening to Professor Rowan’s introduction in Pokémon Diamond. The genuine fear and apprehension while facing GLaDOS in Portal. These are moments I will always remember, and the emotions tied to those moments are just as real as any in response to more classical forms of art.
Video games have an arsenal of tools at their fingertips to generate these emotional responses in the player. They can achieve it through score and sound design; through characterisation; through narrative; and through visual and graphical effects. These facets combine to create an atmosphere that the player responds to. An advantage that video games have over other classical forms of art in eliciting emotion is that the player is just that – a player. The person engaging in the art is themselves directing how they receive it. I believe this leads to a deeper connection with the medium, resulting in stronger emotional ties.
In past years, I believe video games struggled to present themselves as an art form to be taken seriously. However, as the quality of games produced has risen ever higher, the medium has entered further into popular culture. Nowadays, there are plenty of award shows for video games and their developers, dedicated to honouring the massive amount of work involved in the games’ creation, and the artistry of the experiences. Some examples include the Game Developers Choice Awards, the Golden Joystick Awards, and The Game Awards. Some ceremonies, notably The Game Awards, have showcases that rival the Oscars, with viewer numbers to match – in 2019, The Game Awards were seen by 45.2 million people, compared to The Academy Awards’ 29.6 million!
We’ve come a long way from that small white square and enjoyed the artistry of countless developers and personalities on our journey. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.