Why It’s Important to Consider Atari’s E.T. a Work of Art

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Video Game, 1982)

Developer: Atari, Inc.

Designer: Howard Scott Warshaw

The question of whether video games should be considered art has always baffled me. Video games are compromised of visuals, music and sound, and narratives. Throw is the aspect of gameplay, an equally form of art a well (more on this later), and you have a composite form that evokes mood, sensation, and meaning. Isn’t this what art aims for?

And yet, we still can’t come to a consensus.

Art means many different things to many different people, and often this argument boils down to definitions, but I think we would agree that at its essence, art sparks a reaction, whether that be a painting or photograph, realistic or abstract. I’d argue anything can be considered art, depending on how you experience and interpret the artifact.

Some may disagree. For example, many critics I respect and admire have made the claim that video games are in fact not art, among which include the late Roger Ebert and loveable green guy Film Crit Hulk.

Ebert, whose argument can be found herebases his argument on the fact that video games are akin to sports or chess–a valid point–and that the form is not even close to the chicken scratch that is prehistoric cave drawings. It pains me to say his argument reeks of snobbery. What we have here is an argument of definition.

Hulk, on the other hand, makes a stronger and far more compelling argument. His reasoning, found here, involves a stricter view. His definition of art is that it is “…something where the thematic messages (even if those messages are ambivalent) are the single most important aspect of the product’s inception and identity.” Again, we’re arguing semantics. Should we not, if we follow Hulk’s definition, call a painting of fruit or portrait painting a work of art?

What about a Rothko painting, which is just rectangles against a colored background?

Rothko argued that a painting should evoke a mood, that this is what his work aimed for. We can use this belief to reason that a painting, and by extension art in general, is about a reaction to our senses. Thus, we can feel a mood.

Again, using Hulk’s definition, how do we discuss meaning in lyricless music? What meaning can we glean from Mozart’s great “G Minor Symphony?” We can put attributes to it. The score is haunting, full of despair, pleasing to the ear. But is it giving meaning to the human condition or merely revealing it? While noble in his argument, Hulk’s reasoning, much like Ebert’s, smacks of snobbery.

Which brings us to the heart of this article (About time, right?) If we can at the very least settle into a wide accepting definition of art, what stops us from turning our nose to certain media? I prefer an all encompassing definition, and define art as something, whether created or naturally found, that appeals to our senses and either provides a reflection of reality or evokes a mood or emotion. More so, my definition gets rid of the political dividing notion of such labels as “good” and “bad” and accepts the artifact in question for what it is. This includes what we call “low brow art”, whether it be a Warhol painting, something that we call kitsch, or the divisive video game. Which brings us to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600.

E.T. the video game came out on the heels of the eponymous film’s release, a quick cash grab that was a rushed development to say the least. Many consider it the worst game of all time. You may ask: What could possibly qualify this turd as a work of art?

For starters, let’s move the discussion away from judging, and focus on what the game is. Just as a urinal can be touted as a work of art, so should we look at E.T.


The first thing we should consider about treating E.T., and more importantly video games, as a work of art is determining what we’re considering the complete artifact. Certainly, the gameplay is the main component, but what about the external aspects, such as packaging? It’s an interesting question, and though I would ultimately argue it’s the gameplay solely, let’s get post-modern and look at the packaging.

Without a doubt the cover art is the best thing about the game. The piece, done by Japanese artist Hiro Kimura, has the titular character and main human character Elliot looking up to the sky, evoking the feeling of the film. The characters are positioned side by side in the center of the frame, in the background what appears to be a spaceship. It’s a simple piece, but still gives off the feeling of hope that is a major theme of the film.

Now onto the game itself.

In 1982, millions of kids excitedly plumped down in front of the television with their new E.T.  game plugged in ready to be blown away at the then most hyped video game. What they found was this:

I wasn’t one of these kids (I was born in 1986), but I wound up getting the joy of experiencing this failure in the early 90s. Revisiting this game as a much informed adult, what immediately struck me about the title screen was the simplicity of visuals and music. What we have is something I love about games from the 8-bit era–creating striking visuals and sound with limited resources. Essentially, these games can be classified as reductive art.

What I love about burgeoning form was the use of pixels for images and sprites. It’s an admirable art and is greatly expressed here. What we have is E.T.’s face, comprised of bright green. While the coloring is unimaginative, what I appreciate is the detailed the image is. It’s almost as if it’s a cave drawing in its crudeness and simplicity, something that art and video game historians will look fondly on. Children are already looking at these prehistoric works with awe.

Accompanying the visuals is John William’s famous score, played as a single line melody. What can be said about the melody has already been said, so let’s focus on the actual timbre of instrumentation. The notes sound as if they’re being played through a hollow tube. For a child of the 70s and 80s, this no doubt hits the nostalgia sweet spot, evoking a primitive effect.

What we have in essences is simplicity at its finest–a primitive artifact of its time reminds us of the hopeful yearning of the films. This may sound generous, but I’m truly earnest in how I appreciate it.

Once we get past the title screen, we see a E.T. sprite carried down by a spaceship. The layout is simple and geometric, along with a lack of music. The game is divided into six areas, forming a cube shaped world, most of which is comprised of two shades of green. The green is used to denote nature, some layouts even meant to be a forest. It’s a traditional use of the color. The green color scheme reminded me of a military uniform, fitting since one aspect of the game is avoiding the government. In this case it’s the FBI.

Another screen includes a blue background filled with white buildings. Also, there are wells that E.T. can go down that are black and grey.

There are four sprites in the game: the aforementioned of E.T., a scientist, an FBI agent, and Elliot. As mentioned, E.T. is depicted as bright green with a rectangular head and neck that can elongate. It’s not uncommon to depict aliens as green, and this sprite is part of a long tradition.

The FBI agent is depicted wearing a trench coal, an odd choice but succeeds in depicting a bad guy. There’s not many ways to depict an FBI agent with the Atari. The scientist is depicted in a white lab coat, a stereotypical look. Finally, there’s Elliot, depicted wearing a red and white blue shirt.

The most common argument against video games being considered art is that gameplay is not a feature of art. It’s a reasonable point, but one I disagree with. An integral aspect of art is that it should appeal to our senses (often our sense of sight) and that it should evoke a mood. I’d argue that gameplay achieves this by appealing to our sense of sight, hearing, and muscular tension (sense of muscles being contracted). Different moods can be derived from gameplay, such as pleasure, frustration, and even fear. For these reasons, I present to you interactive art. Some may say that this is a form of creation and that art should be a completed work. I scoff at this notion. Art is an expression, whether created or interactive, plain and simple.

What can be said of the gameplay of E.T.? Put simply, the game is stressful. It should be noted that I played this game online with a keyboard, so I can’t comment on it intended use with the joystick.

E.T. moves through his environment looking for Reese’s Pieces. Once in a while he has to evade a scientist. I did experience joy in evading the bad guy, but was ultimately frustrated with attempting to get out of a well because I kept falling down while trying to get out. This has been attributed to a bug in the game. Like a David Lynch painting, I took it for what it was and had no desire to revisit it.

While it would be easy to slam the game, it must be said that this is typical of a game for the Atari. Remember when we discussed cave art work? Well, E.T. is the equivalent of a cave painting for video games. Some people admire cave painting in their effort to depict reality with limited resources. The same can be said of E.T. it’s best appreciated as a relic there to be discover and experienced. While it can be a frustrating experience, this should in no way be a reason to not consider it art. Indeed, some of our most cherished artifacts prove to be frustrating. Just watch Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life. More so, like most art, the frustration can actually pay off. E.T.‘s high bar for gameplay can certainly be rewarding. Believe it or not, the game is actually beatable.

What can be seen as annoying can actually provide catharsis in seeing E.T. succeed in going home. The joy felt in accomplishing this is something viewers of the film can only empathize with. In this aspect, the game surpasses the film. It’s also here that we can derive meaning: One should never give up hope in the face of impossible odds.

But maybe that’s not all. What can we say about what the game represents? How does it fit into the context of its form. E.T. can be seen as a symbol of the typical failure of movie tie-ins. It’s an ultimate product of rushed productions. These reasons have secured its place in the history of video games.

For all these reasons, we should call a game like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial a work of art. No doubt, my reasoning will not end the larger debate of whether video games as whole should be called art, but consider this me throwing my hat in the ring. People will lump video games with sports and traditional games as an excuse for excluding them from the all elusive club that they call art, but I ask you, why can’t games or sports be considered art? Why do we feel compelled to create a class system and shut out other venues? Why do we take art and give it different definitions? I see this as a form of segregation. I for one reject this belief system, and encourage you to do the same.


About Michael Medlen

My name is Michael and during my free time I avoid having a day job. Strangely enough, this gives me the freedom to run this blog. I write just about anything that can be considered art. I also occasionally post articles that may or may not be relevant to the theme of this site. You’ve been warned.
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1 Response to Why It’s Important to Consider Atari’s E.T. a Work of Art

  1. Pingback: A Diamond in a Haystack – Flawed Masterpieces

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