The Art of the High Score

By Peter Doney

Are video games an art form? This question has always been at the heart of the gaming community. Ever since their conception, they have been viewed only as a means of amusement, just something to kill time. Others see them as corruptors of youth. But nowadays, the question of whether video games can be considered an art form has become increasingly prevalent.

Many believe that games cannot be a form of art. The late Roger Ebert may have been the most famous of them. “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Ebert was certainly right. Games are a medium unlike any other. You can’t manipulate a painting the same way you would a game, or restart a book whenever something you don’t like happens. And video games, in order to function, require a core set or rules and limitations that make up what’s known as “mechanics.”

As it turns out, it is through a game’s mechanics that its full artistic merit can shine through. James Portnow, a writer from the YouTube channel Extra Credits, has done a number of videos on the subject of mechanics as metaphor. The idea is that you take the way your game plays and use it to express a theme. In the game Spec Ops: The Line, for example, they use standard shooter mechanics and moments of communication intended for the player to explore the mental disorders experienced by soldiers, as well as critiquing the shooter genre as a whole.

This idea can even be found during the early days of gaming. The simple arcade game Missile Command was released back in the 80s. Defend six cities with three missile silos with ten shots each from a barrage of incoming missiles. The thing is, you can’t beat Missile Command. There’s a high score board and bragging rights, but the game is set on an infinite loop of increasing difficulty. And when you do lose, instead of the standard “Game Over” you get “The End.”

This game is just as much a statement about the horrors of nuclear warfare as any painting of blasted cities, or novel about the haggard survivors of a post-apocalyptic world. Even during its creation, programmer Dave Theurer says he had constant nightmares where he’d wake up and look outside his window to see a mushroom cloud forming in the distance, knowing that the shockwave would hit in the next few seconds. In his mind, those nameless six cities you defend were the six coastal towns where he lived.

It is my opinion that games are a form of art and expression. On the surface, you might see nothing more than simple amusement, but if you dig deeper you may find a heart with the soul of an artist.