Graphics, Pixels, & The Fine Art of Video Games


No one likes playing video games with me.

While my younger brother was excitedly bundled on the couch, anxious to watch me play through The Last of Us on PS4, I was forsaking the plot in favor of staring at the dust particles in the synthetic sunlight; the way the sun blinded me when I looked right into it; the tears in the abandoned furniture; and the gentle sway of the animated grasses. The kid could only nag me to continue the story for so long before giving up and abandoning me to my observational efforts.

My awe is to the credit of new and powerful game engines, allowing for highly configurable workflows and runtimes, covering all aspects of development from audio, animation, cinematics, scripting, artificial intelligence, physics, destruction, rendering, and visual effects.

In trying to convert a non-gaming family member to my point of view, I fired up the console and loaded a save from Dragon Age: Inquisition. “Isn’t this incredible?!” I demanded, showing them the gorgeous backdrops, the extreme attentions to detail, and the real-time rendering. They sat politely on standby while I jumped into a cinematic cutscene, flailing my hands wildly all the while. “Isn’t this the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?! How can anyone say that video games are anything but a contribution to the world of art!”

With a disinterested smile, my family member shrugged and said that, “Something can be beautiful without being art.”

Can it?

The conversation prompted me to plunge into the world of art theory, and I emerged well-read and excited to share my in-your-face-Piper’s-family findings.

Let’s Talk About Beauty

Before we get into art, let’s talk about beauty. Philosopher and historian Peter Gay helps us understand beauty’s controversial definition with his notion: “There is no definition of beauty that can be said to have met with universal acceptance.” Gay’s observation was influenced by Bernard Bosanquet’s A History of Aesthetic, where Bosanquet wrote:

“Among the ancients, the fundamental theory of the beautiful was connected with the notions of rhythm, symmetry, harmony of parts, general unity. We may understand it most clearly in its contrast to the ugly. Beauty should give pleasure. Its characteristic in as far as expressed for sense-perception or for imagination can be purely metaphysical or psychological, but also connect with elements of presentation and elements of enjoyment.”

Their definitions are easy to agree with, as they are inherently subjective. The visual appeal of video games is immensely pleasurable to me and conjures an abundance of enjoyment. A typical non-gamer might not agree to the pleasure and joy, but is it the visual that they aren’t enjoying, or the fact that it’s a video game?

On an objective note, rhythm, symmetry, harmony of parts, and general unity can be scientifically calculated, if not intrinsically felt. Mathematical equations and golden ratios put numbers to our attractions. If the Slavic folk art, expansive wilderness, and exhilarating cinematics of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt repeatedly conforms to measurable standards for beauty, how do we decide whether or not that beauty is art?

The Witcher 3

Everyone’s a Critic

The criteria by which a classic painting or art piece is normally judged is whether or not it is finely crafted, original, beautiful, and requires great skill. While many video games can immediately check all of those boxes, the aforementioned criteria is for a traditional painting, not your state-of-the-art RPG. The Harry Potter portraits may move and talk, but in our less magical world, more parallels could be drawn between video games and film in the conversation about art.

On their blog, Observations on Film Art, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell explain that, “[Film is] not necessarily high art. Cinema is often a popular art, or in Noël Carroll’s phrase, mass art. From this angle, there’s no split between art and entertainment.” They go on to say that film is, however, “photographic, narrative, performing, pictorial, and audiovisual art.”

Why can’t film be high art?

David Thomson writes in The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood that, “As viewers, are we watching heightened things—great danger, great desirability, intense loveliness—without being tied by the responsibilities that attach to real onlookers? We are,” he suggests, “like voyeurs, spies, or peeping toms.”

Texts awaken, so the argument goes, while images stultify.


When Art Comes to Life

Where cinema falls flat is where video games shine. Reflected in much art, we see a need for some sort of enchantment or mysticism. You can be enthralled in that wonder in film, and you long for it when viewing a painting, but you live it when you play a video game.

American essayist Elaine Scarry has written at length about art and beauty. She identifies the problem of emptiness in so much of the beauty we see around us in her work On Beauty and Being Just.

“It sometimes seems that a special problem arises for beauty once the real of the sacred is no longer believe in or aspired to. If a beautiful girl, or small bird, or glass vase, or a poem, or a tree has the metaphysical in behind it, that realm verifies the weight and attention we confer on the girl, bird, vase, poem, tree. But if the metaphysical real has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm, but because the girl, the bird, the case, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty.

If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems self-centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard … But beautiful things always carry greetings from other worlds within them.”

In an intensely researched, well-written, flushed-out video game universe, we’re given the unique ability to understand the beckoning of its unearthly realm. The other-worldliness of its beauty is answered with a straightforward ‘it is another world!’ The artistic beauty we see in video games thrives from its developed, populated, thoughtful, intensely personal universe.

Dragon Age

Video Games: Art’s Evolution

In June of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that video games should be considered an art form, deserving of First Amendment safeguards as “the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them.”

For decades, video games have enthralled and inspired, and in 2012, they were the subject of a Smithsonian exhibit that viewed them as serious works of art. Chris Melissinos was the guest curator of “The Art of Video Games,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that celebrated 40 years of the genre from Pac-Man to Minecraft

In defending video games’ place in the world of art, Melissinos wrote that, “They’re the only medium that allows for personalizing the artistic experience while still retaining the authority of the artist.” He goes on to say:

“In video games, we find three distinct voices: the creator, the game, and the player. Those who play a game are following the story of the author and are bound by the constructs of the rules—but based on the choices they make, the experience can be completely personal. If you can observe the work of another and find in it personal connection, then art has been achieved.”

Video games are the next step in explaining our understanding of the world, our impression of the supernatural, our explanation of self, and of each other. Games are able to transport us in a stunning, original, unique, and individualized way.

Point for the Gamers

Can something be beautiful without being art? I suppose it can. But with the weight of worlds behind it, expanding on the limitations of cinema, and the bounding beyond traditional paintings and textiles, video games are crowned victorious as both beautiful and contributions to the world of art. It’s high time the world gave games the recognition they deserved.


4 thoughts on “Graphics, Pixels, & The Fine Art of Video Games

Add yours

  1. I’m afraid I’m on the side of your family.

    When I look at that Witcher screenshot, I see a very realistically-rendered, reasonably attractive landscape. But it doesn’t move me. Everyone with a camera has taken hundreds of pictures of pretty buildings or fields or landscapes, only to find that the images fall flat. There’s no composition, no focal point, no story. I’m not seeing any interest in the Witcher screenshot. I’m looking at the back of a man’s head as he rides on horseback. What’s he doing? Why do we care?

    Even worse, what might otherwise be interesting in the image fades into the background. There’s another horse ahead of the man: is there even a person on the horse? We can’t tell; that figure doesn’t pop, it blends in. And that’s another problem I have with highly “realistic” video games: it doesn’t differentiate the important figures from the background. Every irrelevant detail is rendered as lovingly as the main character, which contributes to the “flatness” of the image. It also, in my experience, makes it difficult to find items and characters with which I can interact. I don’t think I’m alone here either — this is likely a strong reason why game developers put quest markers on your map, and make items glow.

    Occasionally you come across a vista or scene that is visually moving: the Dragon Age screenshot you have up there definitely tells a story and evokes an emotion. But I still almost feel like the realism is a distraction or detraction from these scenes. Like that random boulder to the Inquisitor’s left is much more prominent than most of the statues, and some of the statues are blending into each other or into the stone in the background.

    For me, the art in a game like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition is the story of the game, the story of the world, and the way you interact with it. But are the general visuals of these type of game art? Art can be anything, really. So sure, the visuals in these video games are art. It certainly takes skill and creativity to render these images, and that is impressive. But is it particularly engaging or emotionally effective art? I don’t think so.


    1. The pictures in this article weren’t the focus of the article nor were they the ones I had suggested, just prompts to break up the piece and offer visual aid. The written content is the artistic defense! These screen shots may not move you, but a lot of modern art or pieces hanging in museums don’t move me or others; it’s the definition and intellectual argument, not necessarily a feeling, that defines art.


  2. I have to agree with you! I find that there are certainly some video games that are stunning and clearly beautiful works of art! I myself find the emerging art of screenshot photography to be amazing and I need to re-attack that in the future. Video games are truly interactive works of art.


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