What Is Video Game Art?

Debra Barnhart

So pervasive is the influence of video games on worldwide culture that visual artists routinely use the concepts and technology of video games to create installations for galleries and museums as well as to post art on Internet sites for a wider audience. Video game art refers to the use of video games or modified versions of video games to create a visual artwork. This unique art form obliges viewers to rethink concepts about games, art and perception.

A man playing a video game.
A man playing a video game.

Many visual artists regularly draw creative inspiration from the ideas and images of video games. In a 2011 installation at the Museum of Modern Art, the Chinese artist Feng Mengbo used video art to express his ideas about Chinese history. Mengbo’s video game art was projected on two screens, each of which was 53 feet (about 16 meters) wide. Viewers were required to turn back and forth between the two screens in a game so perplexing and grueling that few could win at it.

A handheld video game.
A handheld video game.

Video game art often contradicts ideas about competition by making the game nearly impossible to win, if at all. What these “games” accomplish, however, is intense viewer involvement. In installations where large screens are being used, the viewer feels as if he or she is entering a unique world. Viewing video game art in this environment is a distinctive experience and different from playing a video game on a computer, although some video game artists do make their work available online.

Some visual artists program their video game art from scratch, while others are not shy about borrowing ideas or elements from existing video games. Video art can also be modified or “mod” art in which the artist takes an existing game or game concept and uses it to express a creative idea. An artist who calls himself Arcangel is well-known for using modding. In 2002 he used a modified version of Super Mario Bros. to create an artwork that consisted of clouds moving across the horizon. Feng Mengbo created a mod that was based on the video game Quake, and every character in the game looked like the artist.

The first video game was created in 1961 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 2011 video games were a $20,000,000,000 a year industry. Some say that much of the art created for video games qualifies as ”art,“ though this might be an arguable position. Experts supporting this position point out that at one time films were considered too low-brow to be an art form.

The first video game was created in 1961 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The first video game was created in 1961 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - My problem with defining all video games as art is not that they contain censorious material, but that they are often very generic and basically slapped together for profit.

You can make the argument that anything is art, in some sense, but most artists wouldn't really consider a collection of stenciled images to be high art.

There are many talented independent games producers who are pushing the boundaries and there are many amazing commercial game makers who are refining the current definition of the genre. In general, I would call these people artists. But those makers who are just putting together a product for sale don't really qualify in my opinion.


@bythewell - I actually don't think that being bloody or pornographic, or being for children should take away from defining something as art. Maybe you wouldn't call it fine art, but there are definitely many traditional artworks that could be called pornographic.

Video games are still a medium in its infancy and I suspect that, just like the "shocking" nude photographs taken by the Victorians, society will one day consider it in a completely different light than how we see it.


Considering some of the beauty and wonder that can be rendered digitally now for video games I don't see how anyone could not consider them as an art form. I mean, I suspect that anyone who argues against this has a very limited view of video games and either sees them as simple activities for children, or as bloody, pornographic affairs catering to the lowest common denomintaor.

But there have been some absolutely ethereal video games, ones which explore the human condition and do so in a way that inspires. I don't think we have another word for that, except for art.

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