The first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space by Nutting Associates, was introduced in 1971. In 1972, Atari introduced Pong to the arcades and later created a home console that would launch video games into becoming a household phenomenon in America and around the world. Despite being around since the 1970s, video games are still not considered a form of high art or held in the same esteem as fine art, books, movies or even tv.
Art itself is defined as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. High art is considered to be art that is appreciated by those with the more cultivated taste as opposed to Low art which is more or less for the common folk. Lower art is considered to be more accessible and easy to comprehend. The concept of high and low can be traced back to the 18th-century in regards to fine art and craft.
Much like art is up to interpretation, so is high art. High art is not a “body” of work so much as particular societies deeming selections of work as effective to cultural traditions. The major difference though between high and low art is how we apply value to media. In a traditional sense, we usually attribute classical music to be a higher art form than rock music. High art as it is defined seeks to “serve a spiritual or moral function.”
In the relative scheme of media history, video games are fairly new, however, much like any other form of media, video can still tell emotional and groundbreaking stories that further what it means to be human within a spiritual and moral function. But what separates a classic book or film from the more deeply thought-provoking games created within the last decade? But Why Tho? the podcast was created to address the questions of why does “low art” or popular art matter and to argue that it should be held to the same regard and to the academic standard as high art.
With the recent release of Red Dead Redemption 2 already being held as a critical masterpiece and earning a record-breaking $725 million in its first three days, it begs the question, can games be forms of high art and if so, which games and why? While all art is subject to interpretation, here are the top seven games I would campaign to put in an art museum.
BioShock is one of the more politically driven narratives featured on this list. The game is a first-person shooter developed by 2K Boston and 2K Australia but published by 2K Games on August 2007. It is a spiritual successor to System Shock and the passion project of director Ken Levine. The premise of the game is set in a dystopian underwater extremist libertarian society known as Rapture. The 1960s art deco and steampunk design give the game a unique aesthetic which is only added to by its strong narrative driven story that delves into themes like race, income inequality, communism, capitalism, and the dangerous of libertarianism.
BioShock received critical acclaim for its morality-based storyline and multiple endings as well as its use of immersive environments and its unique setting. BioShock is considered to be one of the greatest video games of all time and is coincidentally my favorite video game to date. It received Game of the Year awards from BAFTA and Game Informer. Following the first game came the less impressive BioShock 2 and then the exceptional BioShock: Infinite. The franchise recently celebrated it’s 10 year anniversary with a collected edition featuring all three games in the series.
2. The Last of Us
The Last of Us follows the emotional journey of Joel and Ellie through a post-apocalyptic infected world. The game is an action-adventure survival horror developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony in 2013. Players face off against hostile humans and humans now infected by a mutated fungus as Joel and Ellie make impossible decisions about their father-daughter relationship and the future of mankind.
The game features an all-star voice cast including Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, and Nolan North. One of the few games that made me cry, The Last of Us won multiple Game of the Year awards from multiple gaming publications, critics, and award ceremonies. It is one of the most awarded games in history. A sequel is set to come out towards the end of 2019.
3. Spec Ops: The Line
While the gameplay from Spec Ops: The Line is mostly forgettable, its story changed the way many players see war and the use of PTSD within games. Published by Take-Two Interactive in 2012, Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter that follows Captain Martin Walker through a post-catastrophe Dubai with an elite Delta Force team on a recon mission. During the game, Walker begins to experience hallucinations but the player is not aware of it until it’s too late.
Slowly both Walker and the player realizes the horror of war. There are four possible endings but all of them are fairly depressing. This is not a game with a happy ending and seeks to remind players war has consequences even those waging it. While Spec Ops: The Line was a commercial failure but it was awarded and nominated for several end-of-the-year accolades and has gained a cult following.
4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was published in 2015 by CD Projekt and is an action RPG based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, that are now slated to also be a Netflix series featuring Henry Cavil. While the game does follow the books, it has passed them in cultural importance. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an emotional journey following Geralt and his pseudo-daughter Ciri.
The beauty of the game lies in its side missions that tasks you to make nearly impossible decisions about the lives and well-being of others while striving to live by the Witcher code. The game received critical acclaim praising the gameplay, narrative, world design, combat, and visuals. It received numerous Game of the Year awards and similar to BioShock, it is considered to be one of the greatest games of all time.
5. God of War
The previous entries in the God of War series are very good but the 2018 entry to the series packed an emotional punch and grounded Kratos in a way the previous games weren’t able too. The game is an action-adventure game developed by Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony. Unlike the other entries, this game follows Kratos through Norse mythology as him and his son Atreus journey to spread his wife’s ashes on the highest mountain in the realms.
I previously wrote about Krato’s emotional journey as a father within the game following my completion of the game. This is one of the few games that made me cry at its emotional ending. While Game of the Year awards have not been announced yet for 2018, the game sold five million copies within the first month of release, making it the best-selling game in the franchise and one of the best-selling PlayStation 4 games of all time. I have no doubt it will take home a few Game of the Year accolades at the end of the year.
6. Silent Hill 2
The only true horror game on this list, Silent Hill 2 followed in the footsteps created by it predecessor Silent Hill and took off running. Similar to Resident Evil, Silent Hill is a survival horror game created for the PlayStation by Konami in 2001. Silent Hill 2 is not a direct sequel. It centers on James Sunderland, who enters the strange town after receiving a letter apparently written by his dead wife.
Through the game, James is met with various monsters set to psychologically torture James. All of these monsters represent the different versions of James’s broken psyche. The game draws on the dark theme of mental illness, morality, grief, abuse, and existentialism. Silent Hill 2 received critical acclaim for its atmosphere, graphics, story, and monster designs. It is considered one of the greatest games of all time and the greatest horror game of all time.
7. The Walking Dead: Season 1
Telltale’s The Walking Dead, published in 2012, launched the now dead studio into the forefront of gamers minds. The emotional episodic adventure games follows Lee, a former university professor convicted for killing a state senator who was sleeping with his wife. His relationship with the young girl Clem who he aims to protect from the harsh zombie-infested world sets the series apart from other zombie games.
The Walking Dead has been praised for it’s harsh and emotional story particularly, the strong connection established between Lee and Clementine. By the end of the game, players are forced to make impossible decisions in order to protect Clem. The game many accolades, including Game of the Year awards from several gaming publications. The franchise has sold over 8.5 million individual units by the end of 2012.
Art is meant to draw an emotional response from its viewer and for me, these games changed my worldview in one way or another. As previously stated, high art seeks to create a spiritual or moral function. It is very hard to argue that the masterpieces of immersion that these video games do not do that. Unlike music, books, or almost any other source of media, video games can immerse players into morally ambiguous gray areas that explore human nature and the human psyche because the player is in charge. The player decided whether or not to save the little sisters in BioShock, the player killed the men and women they did in Spec Ops: The Line.
While the classification of high art within itself is murky and has a classist historical context, for all intents and purposes, these video games are high art. What games would you consider worthy enough to sit next to other “high art?” Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Twitter.