Technology Expanding the Boundaries of Art

How virtual reality may help video games solidify a place in the art world.

My heart races. High up on a mountain, the fear of falling seems real. Lush vegetation and blue bodies of water look authentic; chirping birds and falling rocks add to the experience. The scenario of a person scaling a mountain is lifelike — and I was only watching a clip of “The Climb,” a game being developed by Crytek for virtual reality (VR), on my computer screen.

Crytek is not alone. Companies and developers are racing to demonstrate the potential of VR across industries. Although VR can simulate the experience of climbing a mountain, it can also take you to far off places — places you may not otherwise go — like a Syrian refugee camp. Or, as TechCrunch reports, a VR headset and app can provide art tours that explain the works of Renoir, Monet and Manet, among other art masters at The Courtauld Gallery in London.

VR has the opportunity to upend life as we know it. But according to The Economist, video gamers will be the initial target for Sony, Oculus and Valve, firms developing VR headsets. Given the possibilities of VR and its video game focus among VR firms, it is worthy to reconsider a much debated topic: are video games art?

Critics often see video games as a means of entertainment or fun. Despite exhibitions consisting entirely or partially of video games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Barbican Centre, whether video games are a form of art has been a long-standing debate. But views may shift with the uptake of VR. Indeed, VR could solidify video games as art.

“Video games are a serious medium of expression,” says Warren Spector, a video game designer, in the book “The Art of Video Games.” “The creators of these games . . . think about the creative process in the same way that a filmmaker does . . . in the same way that a musician or painter does.” Creating a video game involves the input of many, recognized video game designer and producer Robin Hunick in “The Art of Video Games.” The process can include computer programmers and sound and graphic designers, among many others. Although defining art is entirely subjective, VR amplifies attributes that underscore the artistic qualities of video games. That is to say, VR’s immersive and multi-sensorial environment heightens video games’ evolving story and emotional tenors.

Total Immersion

First take the immersive, 360 degree environment that VR prides itself on. Playing a video game on a television is different than with a VR headset. In addition to the hardware variances, the experience of VR is a major differentiating factor. “Within minutes, I was deftly moving across a sun-splashed mountainside,” Nick Statt, writer for The Verge, describes his experience playing “The Climb” in a 2015 article, “crossing one arm over the other and strategically letting go with one hand for a brief heart-racing fraction of a second and grasping again with the other.” And when you turn to the side the camera follows, he adds.

As VR continues to improve, so will the experience it creates — not only visually in terms of graphics, but also from physical and auditory sensations used in conjunction with the VR headset. One example is “Impacto,” a prototype being developed by Human-Computer Interaction lab that intends to bridge the physical and virtual worlds. Wearers of this device may feel a punch in a boxing game, for instance, or the impact from kicking a soccer ball. Another example is “RealSpace 3D Audio”: 3D audio technology produced by VisiSonics, a provider of 3D sound for video games, music, movies and VR. These developments seemingly enhance the VR experience, along with the stories told — and this is where video games in VR excel.

The emotive story

Artists over the course of time have used art as a means of communication. Recall the religious art from the Italian Renaissance. Various artists told and retold the stories of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, among other religious narratives, in visual terms. Or consider Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock, who famously said “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them,” in regards to his “gestural” painting technique. Even today in the 21st century, artists turn to art to tell stories. Ai Weiwei is an example: much of his work is political, thereby drawing social awareness to events in China. Although artists convey different messages over the course of time, they are united by using art to communicate. Video games are no different, and VR helps convey these messages.

Video games communicate through the stories they tell. “Narrative remains extremely important because it gives you the opportunity to hook in emotionally,” explains Jane Pinckard, Associate Director at the Center for Games and Playable Media at the UC Santa Cruz Center, in the book “The Art of Video Games.” She goes on to say, “otherwise, a game’s mechanics might be interesting but without that engagement, it feels a little cold or without purpose.”

“That Dragon, Cancer” is one such example. It tells the story of a couple, Ryan and Amy Green, and their young son’s battle with brain cancer. Or consider “Assassin’s Creed,” a historical-fiction game taking place during the third crusade. Despite the video game platform used, these games are powerful: emotionally and intellectually engaging players into a story. Now imagine playing these games in VR: being transported into an enveloping environment with physical and auditory sensations. The stakes are much more real.

VR can heighten emotional impact. According to The Economist, VR’s “all-enveloping nature” is one reason for this. “Clouds Over Sidra,” a VR film, exemplifies VR’s emotional capacity. Created by Chris Milk, a director and filmmaker, and Gabo Arora, a United Nations advisor and filmmaker, in association with, a VR company, this film takes viewers to a place where few have been: a refugee camp in Jordan. Instead of merely seeing the world of a twelve-year-old Syrian refugee, Sidra, from a distance on a screen, by donning a VR headset you are in it. Because of this, “you feel her humanity in a deeper way,” Milk argues. “You empathize with her in a deeper way.”

Above all, it is important to remember the role of the viewer, or player, when it comes to art. Recall the words of artist Marcel Duchamp: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone.” Duchamp recognized the importance of an artwork’s viewer, adding that “the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” Like viewers of sculptures or paintings, video game players also have a crucial role: they advance the narrative, bringing the story to life. Journalist Ann Bednarz gives this example in a 2012 Network World article: two players starting a game at the same point may have two different outcomes, depending how each player explores the game.

Defining art has always been a challenge. Not every video game is compelling, just like not every painting or sculpture is. Arguably, those determining what constitutes as art will likely expand their criteria as industry boundaries continue to blend: think of computer programmers turning to creative coding as a form of expression or artist groups using the Internet of Things to create art. That said, given VR’s improvements in recent years and the many possibilities it offers, VR may be the step to solidify a place for video games in the art world.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad