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Can Games be Art?
If I asked you to picture art, all sorts of images would probably spring to mind. Of course, it would be contingent on your own experiences or preferences, but you might picture something like the Mona Lisa, grand and detailed works like on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, or one of Michelangelo’s sculptures. Or you may just as validly think of a book, whether a centuries old epic like The Odyssey, or something more recent such as Don Quixote or Stranger in a Strange Land. If music is your pleasure, the composer Beethoven may well come to mind. There’s theater, opera…the examples go on. It would be much more surprising if, alongside the conjured-up imagery of paintings, books, and music, games came to mind. Do they have a place on the same stage?
That’s right, games. But before you shoot me down right away, I’m not referring to games like RuneScape, Skyrim, or Grand Theft Auto. The games I want to discuss aren’t, for the most part, pulling down seven figure plus playcounts. They’re more like a niche in the gaming world, but with internet hosting space readily available, there’s room for plenty of niches, isn’t there? Perhaps a more important question is, what makes something art?
It’s a subjective question, meaning that you’ll likely get different answers depending on whom you ask, so I’ll offer some opinions. Something does not necessarily have to be popular, particularly at the time, for it to be art. In fact, at times it seems almost a prerequisite for the most famous of them to have been rejected as too extreme or for not conforming to the standard of the time. Many artists enjoyed less than bountiful success in their time. Indeed, despite the fact that many art masterpieces may be worth many millions and may not even be for sale (residing in a museum, for example), more than a few of their creators were essentially living in poverty at the time. Their work may have not been taken seriously or even regarded as garbage!
On the other hand, much of what we regard as art has a meaning behind it, or perhaps more than one. It can be open to multiple interpretations, exactly one of the things that can potentially make it controversial. It can address or broach a topic that people are or were less than comfortable discussing.
Just one of many examples of cultural shock can be found in the French painter Edouard Manet’s Olympia. The painting, dated 1863 depicts a consort and her maid in a bedroom. One should keep in mind that in that time and place, such practices were considered “acceptable.” But while people may have been comfortable seeing a prostitute in private, they were apparently not prepared for a confrontation with it while viewing art. The fact that it features realism rather than an idealized or mythical figure only makes it more stark. The function of French art at the time was generally seen as to enhance the reputation of the state and promotion French nationalism, not to challenge its ideas. Given that background, the kind of cultural shock to the painting’s public display may not come as too much of a surprise:
“When Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia is hung in the Salon of Paris in 1865, it is met with jeers, laughter, criticism, and disdain. It is attacked by the public, the critics, the newspapers. Guards have to be stationed next to it to protect it, until it is moved to a spot high above a doorway, out of reach” .
Moving on to games themselves, I’ll provide some examples (warning: there will be spoilers!). Air Pressure  is a visual novel/anime comic ported to Flash so that you can read and choose how to respond from one of a few options – sort of like one of those choose-your-own adventure books. Never mind the mechanics though – the game starts with a picture of the protagonist (you) and a girl, accompanied by soft, solemn music. She doesn’t seem to have eyes in the initial shot, and your face is mostly cut off. “From the second we met, she has wrapped herself around my left arm, and has stuck there ever since,” is how the game introduces her.
One can create several different paths through the interactive story, but ultimately you end up with a trichotomy. You can draw the relationship closer, opt to leave things as they are, or act in such a way as to get her out of your life. Choosing the first option leads to a rather jarring scene, as a nurse informs you “You’re lucky this time…you didn’t hit any nerves or arteries.” The relationship in the story is suddenly injected with a large dose of symbolism. Debates in the comments sections can go on for pages, but it appears to stand either for drug use/overuse or self-mutilation.
You can find comment chains as long as King Kong’s arm arguing about which it is. “Wrapped herself around my left arm” is a figurative metaphor for a scar from one of these episodes when the main character first started. But what makes it art is the skillful and subtle presentation about a topic many people may not want to confront. I’ve never had to deal with either topic, or known anyone close who has, and perhaps you’re lucky enough not to have had that experience either. There are numerous articles and sources to get more information, but they may not have piqued your interest. Through a game, a very different medium, the point is delivered concisely and effectively by forcing you to draw your own connections, rather than presenting the issue as straight-out facts, and that’s what makes it art. You can discover the other endings on your own if you desire, but they are nothing too unexpected, given this one.
Artificial intelligence, at least in a fantasy setting, is a concept that most people are quite familiar with, given the vast literature of stories, books, television, and movies available. In A small talk at the back of beyond , you wake up in a strange room, with a computer console typing out lettering, urging you to respond. Typing to the computer is to become your only real form of interaction, although you can still look around at your environment. Engaging it in conversation reveals that you are in an underground chamber, where you have allegedly been hibernating through a nuclear war and have just returned to consciousness. Hints and prompts on the right of the screen (not related to the computer interface) lead you to believe that this is not necessarily the case.
Through a series of questions and out-of-place labels (“esc pod?” “astro food?”), a persistent player reveals that the computer has lied. The computer admits it, displaying the text slowly, mocking hesitation as if a real person were slowly, painfully telling it. A window is opened and you are told that you are indeed on a spaceship. Due to a malfunction, you are headed into the corona of a star, leaving you with two options: jettison the ship in the escape pod or stay with the computer. The computer tells you that since the pod is incapable of interstellar flight, so that you must wait for survival, and considering supplies available, you have an estimated 3.7% chance of survival. It then asks you to stay with it. That’s right, the computer makes a request, showing sentience.
Should you choose the option to stay, the computer tells you quite bluntly: “You are going to die. Are you sure you want to stay with me?” Asking it to let you go leads the computer to plead with you: “Your chances out there are pretty slim…I was hoping we will at least not have to die alone.” Although there are such are-you-sure messages with each option, the final decision is yours, and each ending has a brief cut-scene. The behavior of the machine – so similar to a scared but selfless human – is enough to contemplate having second thoughts about, well, abandoning ship. A normal computer terminal just displaying information would not induce these feelings or give any reason to stay, unlike the AI.
You may feel that the two games I’ve mentioned are sort of cheating a little. After all, you might argue that they aren’t really a game, more like a storybook turned into an interface. It is with the intention of putting this suspicion to rest that I will cite a third example. Coma  is a platformer, but not the kind that serves to infuriate you with laggy controls or tight jumps. It instead serves to entrance by plunging the player into what we come to understand (through context) as the mind of a small child. On the journey through the picturesque scenes, some bright colored and some dark, we go from meeting a talking bird to playing “goomball” to jumping inside of a worm. We get some hint that there may have been domestic abuse when the father is alleged to have locked his sister in a secret basement. The plot is equivocal and open to many different interpretations. The ending scene involves a boatman, which one could interpret as ferrying souls to hell, consistent with Greek mythology. On the other hand, at the end the boy flies up as if toward heaven.
So what does happen? Does it somehow represent the price of sin? Does the boy die but ascend to heaven? Is it a chronicle of the unconscious state of his mind while he is in the coma, and at the end finally escaping it? Personally I find the last possibility most appeasing, and I’m sure many might well feel the same. But like a work of art, different people see things differently. There isn’t a right answer on how to interpret it – only answers, plural.
Art is not typically thought of in the form of games, but reactions for the other way do not seem uncommon: when people are impressed they have no issue remarking “Wow, that’s beautiful – that’s art.” Not every game is something that deserves to be proclaimed as art. And that’s fine, because many of them never strove to be that way. But, even if it takes another generation, it is my hope that sometime these games are recognized as art as they should be, even if it is only a tiny sliver of the pie.
 A small talk at the back of beyond – http://www.kongregate.com/games/scriptw … t-the-back-of-beyond
 Air Pressure – http://www.kongregate.com/games/bento_smile/air-pressure
 Coma – http://www.kongregate.com/games/wittyhobos/coma
 Manet – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/fl … larts/olympia_a.html