Are Video Games Art?

    This article explores the often-brought-up debate of whether video games are art. The first part tries to define what art actually is, and then it goes on to look at a few stellar examples of video games and tests to see if they qualify as artistic pieces of work. 

    Kratos looks worried as Atreus joyfully strangles a monster with his bow in a God of War Photo Mode screenshot

    What is Art?

    From a theoretical perspective, art is a human expression that uses signs or symbols, to create material that elicits an emotional response, evokes a feeling of wonder, or can be appreciated for its beauty. Art is part of what makes us human. We are unique in the animal kingdom in producing art. It is a product of the rise of human symbolic culture that emerged some 50,000 years ago. Symbolic culture also includes language, religion, and music. Art has been around since humans lived in caves as parietal art (cave art) is a testament to. 

    Art can have spiritual, political, or social undertones. It can be an expression of feelings that we might not be able to, or not be allowed, to say. In other words, it can be a form of protest. It can be abstract, and metaphorical, hence how it is part of what makes us human since language itself, is based on abstract, arbitrary code. This is similar to how artistic endeavors can be abstract. However, what forms of expression could count as artistic entertainment? Do books and movies count?

    Zelda Wind Waker Gamecube Screenshot. Are vide games art?

    Are Books, and Films Art?

    Sketches, or paintings are widely regarded as quintessential examples of art, but what about books or films? A book can tell a story, which could be fiction, and try to project the writer’s feelings about a particular issue. It can have undertones that have a political, social, or spiritual element. Storytelling is another aspect of humanity that has its origins in the deep past. Fairy tale origins can be traced back to 5000 years ago. Again, they are part of symbolic culture, and their abstract and subliminal aspects could make them count, as artistic creations of modern culture. So, with books, fiction could definitely count as art, and maybe even some non-fiction could count as art if it has an underlying message, is written with artistic flair, or has edgy themes.

    Some films, similar to video games are often said to be examples of art. Studio Ghibli films tell interesting stories, with heavy spiritual undertones, and use great animation. These films are definitely artistic works, both from the quintessential definition, and the more abstract one. Live-action films could also be labeled as artistic creations. Again, they tell stories that generate an emotional response from people, and while they may be whimsical, or fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings, they qualify as art because they use the power of human imagination and abstract thinking to create a story.

    Jurassic Park. Are films Art?

    Are Video Games Art?

    There is obviously art within video games. Graphical animation, pixel work, and environmental textures could all be described as art. However, when it all comes together are games art? Well, they often have stories with well-crafted plot points and undertones that could be political, social, or spiritual. Videogame stories are often based on myth and legend and as I have argued this is abstract symbolic creation. So, yes, some video games definitely qualify as art.

    Even Tetris has elements that are artistic. While there is no story, the falling blocks are designed with aesthetics in mind and the music creates an all-round experience. Other games go further with their artistic flair and could be described as masterpieces, both as video games and as pieces of artistic digital creations.

    puzzle video game Art

    Some Examples – Majora’s Mask

    The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask is a Zelda game that manipulates time and focuses on the daily routines of the citizens of a town. The characters are quirky and all different and resemble caricatures of types of people you could encounter in real life. The abstract qualities of Majora’s Mask go further than this, and there are dark undertones throughout the adventure. 

    In terms of color, textures, and character models, the game makes everything bright, and full of character. There is a great contrast between light and dark elements and this adds to the spiritual undertones of a battle between good and evil. The story of Majora’s Mask is similar to many Japanese fairy tales with its strong links to sentience in the environment, which adds to its Shinto undertones. Overall, Majora’s Mask is a gaming masterpiece, and its themes certainly seem to qualify as an artistic creation.

    Zelda Majora's Mask Official Artwork Art

    Chrono Trigger

    Chrono Trigger is one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, and as a short, relatively easy traditional RPG it’s accessible to most people. It uses a great pixel art style, uses dark colors, that give it a gritty feel, and the game involves time travel. Similarly to Majora’s Mask the story could be described as a fairy tale, and the game has some deep, possibly even spiritual undertones.

    If fantastical stories and myths count as art then Chrono Trigger definitely qualifies. It has a great flow to it, is serious in its messages, and really makes you feel for the characters involved. Again, it elicits an emotional reaction from the player and is a great experience. It’s only through the medium of video games that this kind of experience can be crafted. So far, we have dealt with RPGs (if you count Zelda as an RPG) that have deep stories and aren’t action-oriented, but what about other kinds of games?

    Chrono Trigger Gameplay Art

    God of War (PS2)

    While the recent God of War title of PS4 I haven’t played (but is meant to be awesome), the original game on PS2 I played through on Playstation Vita and thought it was a great action ‘hack an slash’. This kind of game is often labeled as ‘mindless’ as there is little tactical thinking, and usually few puzzles (although God of War on PS2 did have puzzles). But what about the games’ artistic merit? God of War is set in the mythological ancient Greek era and it borrows a lot from myths and stories from ancient texts from that part of the world. The colors in the game are vibrant and the action is intense and satisfying.

    If the story and setting are mythological, and myths and fairy tales qualify as art then this game is definitely an artistic creation. Smashing enemies to bits with chains and swords probably doesn’t count as art though, as this is more mindless fun and entertainment. I think that entertainment can be art, as plays and films show. However, maybe that art is different from art that evokes emotion and sadness or empathy, or sympathy.

    God of War Gameplay Art


    To sum this all up, art can be abstract and isn’t necessarily always static, visual, or created using a pencil or paintbrush. In this article, I have put art into two categories. Firstly, the more obvious type of art could be the use of textures in a game or the creation of character models. Secondly, the deeper, more abstract type of art could be a game’s underlying themes. The games which I’ve looked at all qualify as art under both definitions. symbolic culture is what makes us human, and even with technological advancements of the 21st century people will continue to create art, but in new forms. So, basically, video games definitely are art.

    Concept Art Hyrule Historia
    Hyrule Historia Ocarina of Time concept artwork.

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