Culture  /  Argument

The Beautiful, Genuine Artistry of Retro Video Games

Amidst so much politics and tribalism, they can provide portals into thoughtfully rendered alternate worlds.

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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.