Yesterday, I had the craziest idea: For the first time in a while, I decided to visit a museum again. Why? I don't know. I guess, I just felt the need to clear my head and expose my mind to different thoughts. What I certainly did not expect, is that this visit would make me reassess my view of video games and their respective place in art history.
Yeah, I was pretty surprised myself.
Games are art. Well, not all games are. But if you have lived through experiences like Journey, BioShock or Red Dead Redemption, you will find it hard to argue, that the interactive medium is, by all standards, a discipline that can not only be home to incredible aesthetic accomplishments. It is also capable of creating works that transcend their technical limitations and deeply affect the people receiving them.
The funny thing is that the same day of my visit, I had previously played through the first two hours of BioShock Infinite. So, at noon, here I was, standing in the middle of the magnificent treasures of ancient Egypt, the sturdy statues and walls of the Roman Empire, the rich canvas of painters passed; with the memories of the sky-high city of Columbia still fresh in my mind.
It would seem trivial to compare my copy of a product, that you could buy in any software store around the corner, to the irreplaceable legacies of civilizations long lost – Would it not? Well, to be honest, I certainly did not think so.
If someone at a dinner party dared to declare a video game equal to a classic painting, you would hear appalled uproars within a second. People would say that true artists spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to create the masterful works that we see in museums today. That brushes and chisels, pens and cameras take years of training, to be put to perfect use; and only then you will even start learning how to tell a story with them.
Now, I would be last person to doubt any of that. As somewhat of an "artist" myself, I can relate to all the unsung pains and ordeals that come with even creating a single coherent piece of work. But guess what? The same holds true for video games.
Do you know how many hours are spent on developing, testing and refining a game like BioShock? Yes, there are over a hundred people employed to work on these kinds of titles, 300 on Bioshock Infinite alone. But those are hundreds of people, that each work thousands of hours on their respective parts of one project. And of course, there are also highly regarded games like Braid or Fez, that were pretty much developed by only one or two people, with at least the same amount of effort from each person.
Also, let's not forget the incredible technical expertise and level of skill it takes, to program lines of code into the digital worlds we see before us. Whether it is graphics, physics, animations, scripting, artificial intelligence or controls – all of that needs to be created, put into context and tuned with every single element of the whole picture.
And that is just the technical side of it. How do you even integrate characters, dialogue and story into all of that? Oh, by the way, that whole gaming thing is interactive. So expect players to screw up your carefully orchestrated experiences on every step of the way.
It's true, that in video games there is rarely one visionary working alone on a singular project. People like Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish certainly pose an exception. But you know what? Those are the times we live in.
We live in an age where information is pouring in so fast, that we rarely place particular value on a singular string of data. There is more content around us, than could ever be perceived by a single person. That's why even art has become a part of an industry that makes experiences a reproducible property printed on a hard piece of media. It has to be a product that can be published, promoted and sold, so we can even realize it is there. Otherwise it would drown in a constant stream of content.
But the fact that we are now able to save and copy, even distribute the collective efforts put into a piece of work, doesn't really diminish the value of art itself. It quite possibly signifies the exact opposite: We can now preserve what was accomplished by great women and men, capture it in capsules devoid of time, never to be lost again.
What once were the stones that our forefathers used to carve their imaginations into, now are the polygons from which we build our virtual worlds. We may mold digital bits and bytes, instead of shaping concrete materials with our hands. But the goal is really the same: We bend a medium to our will, in order to create something that is somehow reminiscent of, but also a lot larger than life itself. However, these days, our dreams are potentially forged for eternity.
So, in a way, art actually has changed. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.