BONUS: Gaming's Mona Lisa
Could this Game finally Settle the Games as Art "Debate," Once and for All?
Just like novels, films, and TV did before them, video games are fighting an uphill battle for legitimacy. Mainstream society has vilified video games since their infancy and shows no signs of letting up. Throughout video games’ roughly four-decade lifespan, so-called moral guardians and their accomplices in the mainstream media have leveled smear after smear at the hobby and those who partake in it.
Sometimes, these take the form of unflattering and stereotypical portrayals that “merely” continue to propagate gaming’s image as a juvenile pastime for “weird’ people, further stigmatizing games and ostracizing gamers. Other times, talking heads throw more serious accusations at games, painting them as insidious social scourges and blaming them for everything from wasted time and addiction to bigotry and mass shootings.
Granted, this is slowly changing, as people who grew up playing video games1 increasingly inform media coverage and become parents themselves.
But seeing how predictably lawmakers and pundits still rush to blame video games after every single mass shooting (to the point it’s almost become a speedrunning category), it’s clear we still have a long way to go.
Gaming’s Mona Lisa
Understandably, gamers everywhere have been waiting for “THE” GAME, the one title that will finally, conclusively prove to the ignorant masses that video games can be art, they do have artistic merit, and it’s about time society takes the medium as seriously as it does other artistic vehicles.
In his memoir, Sid Meier—the legendary creator of Sid Meier’s Civilization—describes when it happened to film (emphasis mine):
“The generation that grew up with public libraries was horrified by the proliferation of movies, leading the Purity Department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to write scathing editorials against this so-called “addictive activity.” Then, the Academy Awards were invented, movies became understood as an art form, and everyone turned their reactionary instincts toward gaming.”2
In fact, this is more or less what motivated Geoff Keighley to start The Game Awards. And while having its own awards ceremony certainly lends gaming credibility, we still haven’t gotten to the point where a hologram of the late James Lipton is interviewing Tim Schafer on his hit Twitch show, “Inside the Game Developer’s Studio.”
So, if that hasn’t done it yet… what would?
Personally, I—and I suspect, quite a few fellow players—am holding out for gaming’s equivalent to the Mona Lisa. A piece that’s legendarily iconic and representative of the medium and its potential. A work that’s beloved by its target audience, yet instantly recognizable to even the most mainstream audiences. A title that—by merely existing—irrefutably convinces both the converted and the skeptical that yes, this is art!
Basically, a game that has gamer appeal, mainstream appeal, and artistic appeal, all at once:
So far, such a game hasn’t appeared. But a few titles have come close.
Pac-Man (1980), Super Mario Bros. (1985), Wii Sports (2006), Guitar Hero (2005), and the various incarnations of Mario Kart (1992—Present) have all managed to capture (and in some cases, still hold) the mainstream’s attention throughout their respective eras. But while all of these are unequivocally excellent games, they make a good case for games being wholesome and fun—not necessarily for games as art.
Meanwhile, some games have more explicitly artistic ambitions from the get-go. Telltale Games devoted its entire creative output to pushing the boundaries of narrative in gaming. Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear (1987-2018) fame) is famous for using cinematic conventions in his games, to the point it’s hard to tell if he realizes he’s a game designer, not a film director. Titles in the “Walking Simulator” genre nearly always wear their creators’ artistry on their sleeves.
But ironically, while these games are likelier to pass mainstream muster, they’re surprisingly contentious amongst gamers themselves. Those who strongly identify with the hobby (so-called “hardcore” gamers”) often look down on so-called “casual” players and the games that cater to them. And to them, so-called “Walking Simulators”3 are the very epitome of “casual” gaming.
I’ve gone through this whole debate before, and have no desire to rehash it here. I will say this, however: yes, it’s true that some “Walking Simulators”4—and games from adjacent, narrative-centric genres—are so mechanically light as to stretch the definition of a “game.” That said, to call them not-games strikes me as unfair. After all, I’ve played many such games, and they’re usually a lot of fun—and isn’t that the point of playing games, to begin with?
(One BIG Exception: Kentucky Route Zero (2013-2020), which tries so hard to present itself as an “artsy” video game that it reaches the point of The Onion-style self-parody before (mercifully) collapsing under the weight of its own boring pretentiousness, agonizingly slow pacing, and unbearably anodyne game design.)
Again, I’m not going to rehash this whole debate here. But you can read my thoughts on it—and its wider philosophical implications—here:
Oh, and I’d be remiss to not mention mobile games, which may well have already cracked the “mainstream acceptance” nut. Even people who’d never call themselves “gamers” likely have Candy Crush Saga (2012) or a similar
glorified slot machine, er, freemium/free-to-play/gacha puzzler installed on their iPhones.
But these games don’t even pretend to push gaming’s artistry forward—if anything, these games’ very existence feels like an argument against video games as art. Nearly all of the things that gaming’s detractors accuse the hobby and industry of are on full display in mobile gaming:5
Predatory monetization schemes…
Toxic fans and communities…
Insultingly derivative and insidiously addictive game design…
And the list goes on.
When the press and, eventually, lawmakers pick up on this and (rightfully) call it out, the rest of the hobby gets tarred with the same brush—including those artistic games I talked about a few paragraphs ago. So while these games enjoy mainstream success, and are even sometimes popular with gamers, they’re just about the furthest you can get from art.
So, to recap: we’re looking for a game that has mainstream appeal, gamer appeal, and artistic appeal. But so far, we’ve only ever gotten two out of three…
Until this one game came along…
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Game & Word to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.