It’s a question that’s starting to get thrown around here and there in gamers’ communities with some frequency, and I only expect it to become more and more widely debated in the future:
Are video games art?
Well, that’s just too big a question for me to answer. I’m not qualified to judge the medium as a whole, so I’m not going to try.
Wait, where are you going? Sit back down; I’m not finished. God, you kids and your trying to leave before the bell rings, I swear.
As I was saying, I’m not qualified to judge the entire form of entertainment that is the video game on whether it is or is not art. But I do feel qualified to examine the question in terms of the RPG, at least.
As long as we’re pretty loose with what we consider “qualified,” that is.
So, are RPGs art? That, I can answer with an emphatic, “Yes! Well, y’know. Sometimes.”
What even qualifies as art, of course, is somewhat subjective, and always has been, and always should be. Still, even if it’s essentially impossible to hammer down the exact edges of the concept of art, we can at least generally agree on a broad area of its spectrum of definition. So even though my personal definition of art may not be exactly the same as your own, we’ll probably still be able to agree the majority of time. With this rule in mind, I feel safe in giving the definition I generally adhere to deciding whether something is or is not art:
To me, Art is a creative work or action created with the intent of conveying to or invoking within an audience an emotional, spiritual, or philosophical meaning, question, or resonation. And, well, gets some degree of success in its result. I mean, you can’t deny that Mass Effect 3’s ending invoked one hell of an emotional response, but I don’t think blind, unending fury against the game’s creators was the intended response, so I wouldn’t call that pile of shit art, at least not for that reason.
So, to me, there are a lot of RPGs that are art, yes. As a general rule, RPGs are plot-centric, attempting to engage us with characters who explore various theoreticals of the human condition, with the intent of making an overall statement on the world.
Are these statements always complex and intriguing? Certainly not. More often, the games convey fairly simple ideas as an overall theme, things like Love = Good, Know and Be True to Yourself, Friendship is Magic, and even just Be a Decent Person. Still, art doesn’t always have to be deep and complicated to be art. Sometimes it’s important to contemplate and reinforce the simple ideals and facets of ourselves, too. Besides, sometimes a simple concept can still make for a powerful piece of art; it’s just all in the execution. Yeah, “Love = Good” may be the simplistic message you can take from, say, Legend of Dragoon, but it’s also essentially the message of the gripping, emotional powerhouse that is Disgaea 1, or the truly spectacular Undertale, and I think it would be difficult to argue either of those creative, nuanced explorations of human connections as not art. Likewise, you can say that “Friendship is Really Good,” which is something you can find as a major theme of simple stories like Wild Arms 1 and Secret of Mana, is too facile to be art...but when you get down to it, isn’t that the fundamental theme of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, a game which explores the power and spiritual meaning of our connections to one another in a grandly emotional and even poetic way, and The World Ends with You, an RPG widely recognized for its creativity and the strong emotional connection its audience forms with its cast?
And whether or not you can accept the RPGs with simpler ideas to convey as art or not, there are certainly a number of games in the genre which explore deeper ideas and emotional truths in a way too creative and devoted not to be called art. Deus Ex 1 explores the nature of government and its power, strongly relevant to our current society, and what the truths it has discovered mean for us as a society. The Shin Megami Tensei series takes a number of perspectives in analyzing the concepts of religion and faith, as well as the conflict within us and our society between the wish for security and order, and the wish for freedom and independence. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume examines the concept of vengeance, and what it can do to a person who chooses it as his or her duty. The Fallout series explores, celebrates, and critiques the culture of the United States, and the inevitability of both good and bad aspects of human nature. Several RPGs like Tales of the Abyss, Star Ocean 3, Okage: Shadow King, and Valkyrie Profile 1 examine the question of Man against God/Destiny in a definitive variety of ways. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Q both explore the question of what gives our lives meaning. And then there’s Planescape: Torment, which is just damn.
To me, RPGs can, and more often than not should, be considered art. Not always--there are plenty of RPGs out there that just clearly are a paint-by-numbers affair that convey nothing but their developers’ wish to make money. But overall, the genre is all about the exploration and communication of truths of humanity, and/or the portrayal and invocation of powerful emotional states, be it in a simple or grandiose manner. And to me, that makes them art.