The question of whether games — usually video games these days, but tabletop games as well as some other kinds that might not be so obvious — can be art is a well trod one. In video games, the comparisons inevitably fall to a comparison between games and film, primarily in how they are alike. The reasoning, however verbose the argument, usually boils down to the following: If a game is like a movie in this way or that, since we consider movies to be art, then we must consider games to be art as well.
The failure of this argument is that it is only made when a game is really good. The flavors dejur is “The Last of Us” from Naughty Dog (published by Sony) and only slightly less recently “Bioshock Infinite” from Irrational/2K. Each game has a Metacritic score in the mid-90s (exemplifying a general consensus that the game is “good” in whatever manner a large, diverse group of reviewing outlets deem “good” to mean). Both of these games are lauded for their strong narratives and well realized worlds and, most importantly to this discussion, deeply ingrained themes.
“Art” has been given a lot of definitions over the ages, but the simplest and most functional comes from the Oxford English Dictionary: works produced by human creative skill and imagination. That in itself should end the discussion on whether games are art, as they are 1) produced by humans, 2) via skill and 3) imagination. But no one ever questioned whether the Nintendo classic “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” was art. And why not? Because it was terrible.
The question of merit does not come into the definition of art. It does, however, enter into the OED definition of literature: Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value. Yes, this definition is a little reciprocal to the definition of art, but the very inclusion of the word “value” adds a layer of meaning to the definition of “literature” that demands quality in some way.
Where these two definitions converge in the world of video games lies in the space of “writing” and where the crafts of story, character, dialogue, plot, theme and setting interact with the craft of game design. It is precisely the games with strong stories that bring up the question of whether games are art because the actual question that is being asked is, “Are games literature?”
Writing in games itself is a strange thing, composed of many different kinds of writing for many different purposes. On the very basic level, there is technical writing: giving direction for the operation of the game with little or no “story” included in the text. The rules for rolling up your half orc barbarian in Dungeons And Dragons is technical writing (even if your actual act of creating the character is a sort of creative non-fiction, but that’s neither here nor there). Some writing is never actually read by the intended game audience, setting development writing that the player experiences through the parts of the world with which they actually interact. Dialogue is direct writing, the kind that the audience of players experiences directly, as are things like “Skyrim” and its books of stories and lore. Not surprisingly, books on “How to Write Video Games” are broad, shallow and, generally speaking, not very helpful. As a freelance writer for table-top role-playing games years ago, I did a lot of emulating what I had seen and relying heavily upon my editor/developer for guiding me. I am sure many video game writers have similar experiences.
Back to the question at hand — Are Video Games Literature? — let’s look at a game that includes a lot of story and theme but is not necessarily as universally loved as either of the previous examples. “The Cave” was produced by Double Fine and is the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, who spearheaded the adventure game era of the 1980s with such classics as “Maniac Mansion” and “Monkey Island.” His new offering is very similar in that it is a point-and-click adventure game populated by eccentric characters set in strange locales full of devious puzzles. Being a fan of the genre and missing it much in the modern era of first person shooters and action-RPGs, I greatly enjoyed it. The game’s metascore, however, is only around 70 (depending on platform), which equates to positive but middling.
“The Cave” has a strong cast of characters, both the ones that the player controls and the ones they meet along the way. They are quirky and strange but all fully realized and individualistic. It has a very interesting setting (or settings, as the game levels within the titular Cave change quite a bit) and there is a Plot, however simple it may be (i.e. “Get through the Cave and perhaps learn something along the way.”) Where it shines from a literary perspective is its powerful inclusion of subplots — every character has one — and theme — which infects each of the aforementioned subplots. Put all these elements together and there is no doubt: “The Cave” is a piece of literature.
But it is an unappreciated one, at least from a literary standpoint. Like most games, including the truly loved like “Bioshock Infinite” but also the reviled like “E.T. The Extra-Terrestria,” its literary achievements are appreciated by next to none and certainly unrecognized by the few literary critics still working and publishing today. In the world of table-top gaming, some of the most mind-blowing world building is being done, but neither role-playing games nor their slightly-better-respected-but-still-trash sibling “game tie-in novels” receive any serious critical attention. Video games are slightly better off since they can often be found reviewed in popular entertainment outlets, (Entertainment Weekly, for example) but still remain in a literary ghetto.
Mathematicians have long adored game design, going so far as to build multi-million dollar machines to beat humans at chess and Jeopardy!. Visual artists and musicians have focused their attentions on video games more and more intensely over the last few years. Yet so-called “serious literature” remains aloof of the game medium in much the same way it remained aloof of speculative fiction for decades until it was forced to acknowledge the works of great writers otherwise “slumming” in fairy land or the future. Sooner rather than later the fact of games as forms of literature — telling the same stories human have always told, from the campfire to the e-book — will enter the popular and critical consciousness.