Can a Video Game Be Art?

Do you remember Roger Ebert? He’s that jovial father figure from the Siskel and Ebert movie critic show. I must have watched a gazillion of his reviews. But sometimes, Mr Ebert talks about stuff other than movies. For instance, a few years ago, he wrote an article called, ‘Video Games Can Never Be Art.’

It was a pretty bold piece, but I admire Mr Ebert a lot, so to be honest, I never really gave it much thought. Until  recently, when I had an experience that I will never forget.

It all started while I was browsing the internet. I came across an article about a game I had recently played. The designer of the game was talking about one of the features he had added to his game. Apparently, he had done something new and unique with his non-player characters (NPC) – you know, those animated figures in a game – the ones that are not controlled by you.

Well, that’s when I realized, I had missed this feature entirely! I had played the game, beginning to end, and never even realized there was something deeper going on!

So, that night, I went home, and fired up the game. Only this time, I played it differently. As soon as I could, I ran up to the first NPC I could find and then … I began to talk to it! Well, talk is a bit of a stretch. There were no words involved, just chirps, and jumps, and twirls.

And you know what? The NPC began to talk back! It turns out, it wasn’t a NON-player character after all! It was a PLAYER character – another physical human being – somewhere in the world. And, he was communicating back to me!

I called out to my son, and he sat down and watched me play as I chirped and jumped, trying to get that other character to follow me around. And, surprisingly, the other character did the same. When he got too far away, I sang loudly, asking him to wait, and sometimes, I chirped quickly, when I wanted to show him something. One time, he showed me a secret, and I thanked him by dancing in swirls around his head, and another time, we just barely escaped from danger, and we sang in celebration.

By now, my son and wife and daughter were all watching me play, engrossed in what was happening. And, pretty soon, I realized that we were approaching the end of the game. And, that’s when a sadness overcame me. I had grown fond of this stranger. Somehow, with neither words, nor language, he had become my friend. He had guided me through danger and we had both danced for joy.

And soon, this person would be gone and I would never see them again. And, as we approached the final moments of the game, we both began to hesitate. He slowed, and I slowed, and we began to communicate furiously. We sang goodbye and danced and danced and danced. Until, at last, with nothing else to say, we walked slowly, side-by-side, into the end.

And, as the credits rolled, I realized, I was sad and I was joyous, both. And, when I set down the controller, I was surprised at how much emotion this simple game had evoked. Playing it again, going deeper into the mechanics, had helped me discovered a bit of joy and wonder about my fellow man, a stranger I will never see again. And for a long time afterwards, my son, my wife, my daughter, and I, well, we talked about it.

To be sure, my story is a small one, a simple experience I had while playing a game with my family. But, now, I can’t help but believe that perhaps Mr Ebert was a bit hasty with his words. For on that night, I played a video game that took me on an emotional Journey – it caused me to reflect upon the meaning of life. And that qualifies as Art to me.

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