“The Walking Dead” illustrates why video games are art

Walking Dead Video Game

Still from "The Walking Dead" video game. (Photo courtesy of Webpronews.com)

by Jac Bergenson

In 2006, at the Conference on World Affairs, famed film critic Roger Ebert claimed that video games do not explore the meaning of being human the way other art forms do. The comments were met with little surprise, as a year earlier, Ebert called video games “a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

But if video games cannot explore the meaning of being human, then they are doing a damned good job of pretending they can.

The year 2012 saw the release of “The Walking Dead,” a video game based on the popular comic and television series. The game garnered critical acclaim, including the “Game of the Year” award from USA Today, Wired, Complex, Official Xbox Magazine, and other publications.

Over the course of the game’s five “episodes,” players assumed control of a character named Lee. As with any video-game protagonist worth his weight in pixels, Lee’s journey was fraught with choices, dangers, and loss. What set Lee apart from the average character was his guardianship of a young girl named Clementine. The choices the player made as Lee ultimately shaped Clementine and her ability to survive in a world full of “walkers,” the series’ terminology for zombies.

March 4 saw the release of “A House Divided,” the second episode of the game’s second season, and Clementine is now the playable character. Over the course of the past two episodes, Clementine has encountered tough decisions of her own, made all the more urgent by her smaller stature and the comparatively higher danger the apocalypse holds for her.

But the most emotionally impactful decisions of the season’s second episode had nothing to do with walkers, or arguably even with life or death. The decision I struggled with the most was simply a matter of who to sit next to at a dinner table. Specifics aside, for fear of spoilers, a simple decision of sitting next to one friend or another, a throwback to the days of junior high school, left me paralyzed. In a rare occurrence in role-playing games, I, the human behind the joystick, felt a need to evaluate my relationships with two individual characters and had a difficult time choosing one over the other.

It was that moment that I knew “The Walking Dead,” by Telltale Games, was art.

The Oxford Dictionaries state art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

If literature and film and paintings and photographs and sculptures are judged to be art, then why not another contemporary medium such as the video game? Are musicians, painters, and writers not involved in the game’s development? Does the climax of the story not generate an emotional response? Can lessons not be learned from the characters in the game, many of whom are well-rounded enough to be believed as real human beings?

Long before Ebert—long before video games—cinema was the newly-emerging medium of communication. And like video games, it was limited by the technology. At the time, films were silent, incapable of capturing the human voice. An issue of The English Review, from May 1922, had this to say about the movies:

This new form of illusion cannot be called an art. Without the magic of the human voice, without the reality of the human form, lacking in color, sound and poetry, the film is purely an ocular illusion, an effect of light.

A time may have existed when video games, like early movies, simply did not have the technological ability to express the human condition the way they do now. But for every “Her,” for every “Gravity,” for every “12 Years a Slave,” there’s “The Walking Dead.” Video games have met, and surpassed, the point where they can take a peek behind the veil of what it is to be human.

Another high-profile game, “Grand Theft Auto,” for example, is littered with jokes, references, characterizations, and recreations of cultural mainstays. It is crude at times, to be sure, but its unapologetic take on the politics of Millennial America breaks new grounds, much like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which took on Cold War politics.

“Metal Gear Solid,” on the other hand, is cinematic in its nature. With a twist behind every door and a hidden motive behind every character, the series has explored the secret societies that shaped the Cold War, that shape today and even the future and leaves the player to decide whether the course we’re on will lead to our own demise—just like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club.”

And the subject of today’s discussion? “The Walking Dead?” Although it shares obvious similarities with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of yesteryear, I’d venture to say that the series is an updated take on “Lord of the Flies.” Just what happens in a world with no rules? Is there a place for the morally right when only the strong seem to survive? These questions are present behind every decision, from the first dialogue of Season 1, Episode 1, to today.

Just how far Lee would go to save Clementine, and just how far Clementine will go to earn the trust of her fellow survivors, is ultimately up to the player. And with no incentives and no rewards but for how the story unfolds, players ultimately stand to learn a good deal about themselves by stepping into the shoes of the characters they control.

There are those who would still argue that “The Walking Dead” is not art. Art critics, like the late Ebert, have long said that video games are dissonant with recognized art forms; they can be “vulgar, crude, disgusting,” said Seth Schiesel of the New York Times.

But so many recognized pieces of art can be equally vulgar. The Museum of Sex in Manhattan, for example, is filled with lewd photographs, pornography, phallic symbols, et cetera; but the message behind it is to recognize the “sexual diversity of New York,” according to the museum’s website. The Museum of Sex has garnered the support even of local religious institutions: the museum held a discussion with a panel including a Buddhist monk and a Pentecostalist minister.

Even cinema was once considered vulgar, ruled unworthy of protection by the First Amendment by the Supreme Court of the United States. According to Schiesel, the courts ruled in 1915 that films could be censored since movies could be “used for evil.” It took 37 years for movies to gain constitutional protection.

But today, the Supreme Court recognizes video games as art. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote of the decision in 2011, “Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many literary devices.”

“That suffices to confer First Amendment protection,” he continued.

Now protected as “art,” it’s only fitting that video games are taking their place among other art forms in museums and exhibits. In 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted an exhibition entitled “The Art of Video Games.” Two games, “Flower” (2009) and “Halo 2600” (2010), were acquired by the museum for its permanent collection.

“Flower,” which the Smithsonian says was “conceived as an ‘interactive poem,’” presents the player with an unmapped landscape to explore. Players take the role of the wind, blowing a flower’s petal through the sky. The Smithsonian calls the interactive component critical; “the art happens when the game is played,” they said.

“Halo 2600” by Ed Fries, on the other hand, took everything that made the popular science-fiction video game “Halo” popular and compressed it into a game playable on the antique Atari 2600 console. By deconstructing the game, the Smithsonian said, “Fries illustrates the ever-changing relationship between technology and creativity.”

The Smithsonian said, “these acquisitions build upon the museum’s growing collection of film and media arts and represent an ongoing commitment to the study and preservation of video games as an artistic medium.”

The last three episodes of the second season of “The Walking Dead” have yet to see the light of day. The story can still play out in a number of ways, but the lessons learned along the way will be palpable. Interactivity does not limit the artistic value of the game, nor does its setting in a zombie apocalypse. It’s the meaning that defines the game as art.

“The Walking Dead” most likely will not end up in the Louvre. It probably won’t be remembered in 20 years, but it has pushed the video game medium forward in a way few of its predecessors have. It is vulgar at times; it is thought-provoking at times; but it is undeniably avant garde.