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Can video games be art?

As our horizons of what constitutes art are constantly widening, George Robinson discusses whether video games can be considered to be of artistic merit: what makes art into art? And do video games have it? 

For every Pulp Fiction, there is a Bad Boys 2, and for every Beethoven symphony or Bach concerto, there is a Rebbecca Black single. But where exactly is the line drawn between ‘art’ and imitation? ‘Art’ now covers various mediums, including painting, sculpture, music, literature, architecture, and it could even be said that there’s some art to be found in sports too. Video games have always faced a certain amount of derision from traditional news and media, but this notion is slowly changing as we move further into the 21st century. In the 80’s, video games were the pastime of kids, wasting their pocket money at the local arcade; yet now 8 out of 10 households own a games console, and the UK games industry is now almost equal in worth to the music industry.

Arguably the most famous game out there is the Call of Duty franchise, which plays on people’s enjoyment of blockbuster action films and allows them to play the role of the protagonist. However, the brand has been criticised for its lack of creative flair, churning out game after game, year after year, to maximise the profit made, promising even bigger explosions and louder guns for the next instalment. Despite its fame, Call of Duty is, in my view, by no means ‘artistic’: it lacks imagination and is essentially a cut and paste of every American action movie. With COD as our baseline, how can a game ever be artistic?

Well, the greatest works of literature consist of strong story and characterisation, with complex plots and themes that make readers question their held values and prejudices. Given that literature, film, and in this case, video games are all closely tied story telling mediums, a truly great video game will do these same things. A candidate for this award may have appeared recently, with Bloodborne being released onto Playstation 4 on the 25th March 2015.

Bloodborne was the brainchild of Japanese-born Hidetaka Miyazaki, President and art director of From Software. It’s truly fascinating to read about Miyazaki’s creative process, and in one particular interview he remembers being a young child and picking up books in the library. He would often read passages of books that he didn’t truly understand, and would sit and think and use his imagination to fill in the blanks. Its this creative process that he gives to his video games, with his unique form of storytelling creating a truly compelling work.

Miyazaki carries a fixation of Western history and folklore, and his influences for Bloodborne were a terrifying mix of Norse mythology and the works of HP Lovecraft, an American horror novelist from the 1930s who created the infamous ‘Cthulu mythos’. Players are dropped into Bloodborne with very little idea about who they are, what they are doing, or what their ultimate goal is, and it is this directionless-ness that creates a truly horrific, disorientating atmosphere. Over the course of the game, players fight grotesque beasts and madmen, gradually uncovering a complex undercurrent of stories surrounding mysterious cults, cosmic beings and insane scholars. For those who have never touched the game, this all sounds par for the course for a mediocre horror flick or a weird sci-fi movie, and perhaps this game is an experience that can’t be explained but only experienced first-hand.

The game itself has created busy online communities who are still in the process of working out what the storyline is and what it actually means. Just like obnoxious art critics that stand in museums sipping Sauvignon Blanc and discuss the ‘meaning’ of brush strokes, hundreds of sweaty nerds slurp Mountain Dew whilst trawling through item descriptions, piecing together the mystery of Miyazaki’s creation. The storyline is nowhere near simple, with Miyazaki touching on a range of themes including the cyclical passage of time, human rebirth and the concept of reality and its planes of existence.

Bloodborne comes at a time when technology is improving in leaps and bounds, and video games are just years away from being the mainstream. The American sports channel ESPN recently aired its first ever ‘eSports’ competition, where professional gamers competed in front of crowds of tens of thousands of people. Prize funds can reach highs of $6 million and eSports teams are managed with the intensity of ‘real life’ sports teams. As well as this, the most famous Youtube content creator covers video games, benefitting from a subscribership of over 33 million people, a number higher than the population of most countries in Europe.

It would be a far cry to compare eSports players to the most physically capable footballers or Olympic athletes, or Miyazaki to the likes of Da Vinci or Picasso, but one thing remains clear. Although not as ‘traditional’ and well accepted as other areas, video games are an industry, a sport and an art form all rolled into one; and they’re only going to get bigger.

For further discussion of what constitutes ‘art’, why not check out Emily Howard’s piece on Instagram as a form of artistic photography? 

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