Interface Value: The History of Video Games as Art

(Written as of 2014)

The earliest constitutional contemplation of video games as a form of art came amidst the third generation of gaming back in the late 80s, when museums started to host retrospective displays of first and second generation games considered to be outdated at the time. These displays included 1989’s Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade, were games were displayed as performed works. This was expanded on in the late 90s, and early 2000s, with displays such as Beyond Interface and Cracking the Maze – Game Plug-ins as Hacker Art, alongside a number of displays back in 2001. It was in 2003 when the British Academy Video Game Awards were introduced, with BAFTAs awarded for such games as Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Metroid Prime.

However, despite the rising number of museum exhibitions, questions arose about whether video games could truly ever be considered a viable form of art; with the general consensus answering in the negative. Even American courts began to examine the validity of whether video games could be entitled to the guarantee of free speech as early as 1982 amidst the video game crash, in the America’s Best Family Showplace Corp. v. City of New York, Dept. of Bldgs case. It was ruled that video games could be no more expressive as pinball or chess or even organized sports. This began to change in 2000, as courts gradually ruled in carving out narrow exceptions for certain elements of video games, such as graphics and visual presentation. In 2002, however, controversy began to rise from a legal point of view, as after games like Doom, Fear Effect and Resident Evil were reviewed, games were legally likened to be “just like Bingo”, and courts failed to understand any artistic value that came with the development of video games.

Early developers of the so-called art game genre echoed the concept of video games possessing a Duchamp style. Professor Tiffany Holmes noted in her paper Arcade Classics Span Art that an emerging trend within the digital art community was the development of playable video game pieces making reference to earlier classic works, such as Breakout, Asteroids or Pac-Man.

In 2010, Professor Celia Pearce further pointed out that the Fluxus movement of the 60s and the New Game Movement had paved the way for more modern takes on art games, such as Pac Manhattan; having become like performance art. Most recently however, artistic expression has been very strongly implemented in the development of indie games, such as Journey or The Unfinished Swan. According to Pearce, this is more important, as it brings art to a wider audience and encourages more people to try indie games.

The French Minister of Culture first characterized video games as cultural goods and as a means of artistic expression back in 2006, which granted the industry a tax subsidy; whilst also inducting game developers Michel Ancel, Frederick Raynal and Shigeru Miyamoto into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. And In 2011, the United States Endowment for the Arts then accepted grants for art projects for the following year, and expanded these authorized projects to include interactive games, providing yet another catalyst needed to recognize video games as a valid art form. And correspondingly, the United States Supreme Court in the same year ruled video games to be protected speech like other art forms, following the Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association.

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