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Art and Video Games: Intersections

Art historian Diana Poulsen takes a closer look at the "are games art?" discussion, bringing in an academic perspective steeped in knowledge of games to help untangle the thorny question of what art, precisely, is, and what relationship games have with it.

Diana Poulsen, Blogger

July 12, 2011

14 Min Read

[Art historian Diana Poulsen takes a closer look at the "are games art?" discussion, bringing in an academic perspective steeped in knowledge of games to help untangle the thorny question of what art, precisely, is, and what relationship games have with it.]

The argument for and against games as art has been made several times on Gamasutra. These have included: "Del Toro Defends Video Games As Art, Accusing Detractors Of Being 'Out Of Touch'" by Simon Parkin which simply stated that director Guillermo Del Toro thought games were art. Several books, such as The Art of Videogames by Grant Tavinor, employ a narratological approach with a dash of art historical bent for examining games, and Brian Moriarty's GDC presentation and article, An Apology For Roger Ebert, tackles the issue using a variety of theorists. Other arguments are manifesto style, arguing that if a "piss pot" can be a work of art, then why can't a game?

Many of the arguments have been overly simplistic, relying on art's beauty and stating that if a work is beautiful or evokes emotion, it must be art. However there are artworks that are outright ugly or evoke no emotion in a viewer, but are considered works of art.

Some writers have suggested that if a game is exhibited in a museum it must be a work of art. Many museums have created exhibitions on gaming including the Museum of Moving Images and the most recent Smithsonian exhibition.

However, are Darth Vader and Julia Child's kitchen considered works of art since they are in museums? No, but they are significant to Western Culture and should be treated, like video games, as having as much cultural relevance as art.

Several have argued that games cannot be art since they are interactive, but interactive art, as well as some performance art, require participation, occasionally taking the form of a game. For example, several of Toshio Iwai's interactive art pieces were re-created for the video game Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS.

Other writers have used the works of Immanuel Kant to argue why a game can't be art. However, contemporary art is rarely discussed or judged as beautiful, sublime, agreeable, or good, as Kant did. Hardly any contemporary art exhibition would fall under what Kant deems a work of art in his Critique of Judgement. The world and theory has changed significantly since it was released in 1790.

It has been argued that art is meaningless. Art is never meaningless; if it is meaningless is it not a work of art.

So far in the games as art debate there is a struggle to define art in relation to gaming. There is no easy definition for art and for every example a counter-argument can be provided.

The big question is: does it matter if a video game is a work of art?

No, it does not make a difference. A video game declared as a work of art does not increase its value, cause it to become intellectual, cultural, or more enjoyable. Video games are already valuable, intellectual, cultural, and enjoyable without the "work of art" label.

Video games are a discipline in their own right and include several fields of study. Ludology, the study of games, examines games and their relationship to traditional games. The video game industry looks at technological advancements and how to improve gaming. The newer genre of theory, Game Studies, is the interdisciplinary field devoted to the study of games.

Video games do not have to be art works. However, art and games are connected. Video games are in essence a visual medium that has yet to be properly contextualized within the confines of art and visual culture.

The face of art history has changed in past 60 years. Art isn't demarcated into strict categories defined by Modern theory. Many works of art blur arbitrary categories. Art history decodes art works and visual culture, rather than making judgements based on preconceived notions of taste.

In the 21st century many art programs as well as first year art history classes have changed their titles from "Art History" to the more inclusive "Art History and Visual Culture". Visual culture includes popular culture. Pop culture includes video games. Yes, you read that right. The study of art history and visual culture can include video games.

"Visual culture" is the all-encompassing term and study that examines culture as a whole. Culture is not divided in separate categories but overlaps and influences each facet. This is an argument put forth by many groups, including the Independent Group in the 1950s.

The Independent Group is the predecessor of 1960s American Pop Art movement. Pop Art consisted of renowned artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns as well as Independent Group member, Richard Hamilton.

The Independent Group was formed in 1952 by younger members of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, England. It was composed of designers, architects, artists and theorists. The group hosted meetings at the ICA encouraging intellectual discussion of modern technology and popular culture, including American advertisements depicting a luxurious lifestyle, the design of cars and science fiction films. The group had a particular fascination with American magazines since they depicted a life of plenty and luxury, contrasted to the bleak reality and harsh rationing of post war Britain.

The group believed that all manners of cultural production are equal, and that instead of making judgements based on value or separating them into different categories, scholars should instead decode these artefacts.

In 1958, group member Lawrence Alloway vocalized his insistence on the inclusion of popular culture into the art world by writing that:

"... Rejection of the mass produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culture but an attack on it. The new role for the academic is the keeper of the flame; the new role for the fine arts is to be one of the possible forms of communication in an expanding framework that also includes the mass arts."i

Alloway believed that with the rise of mass culture the definition of art should be broadened to include popular culture, because it is a reflection of contemporary culture.ii

Television, magazines, cars, the fine arts, video games etc., are all forms of communication and expressions of culture. All should be included in the all-encompassing category known as visual culture. No longer would pop culture and art be thought of as two separate ideas, but examined together as part of contemporary culture as whole.

The argument against the inclusion of video games into the art world was also made against film and photography at their inception. Alexander Galloway postulated that there is a "thirty year rule" for a new medium to be accepted.iii

However, games are not a recent invention, but have been around for thousands of years, and are featured in paintings such as the Backgammon Players, attributed to Pieter Codde from the mid-17th century. Board game designs have influenced several abstract painters and the French word for play, "jou", appears in several collages by Pablo Picasso.

Culture is connected. Culture crosses intellectual boundaries and manifests in fantastic ways. There is a little bit of art history in video games, and I will trace a brief history of the intersections between art and games.

Theorists Omar Calabrese and Angela Ndalianis have written that 20th and 21st century entertainment has a similar 17th century Baroque fascination with remakes, illusion, violence and gore. Contemporary entertainment is the Neo-Baroque.

Remakes, sequels and spin-offs are not all kitsch, as Moriarty concludes in An Apology For Roger Ebert, but are Neo-Baroque. The Baroque period was obsessed with re-telling the same story just as we are obsessed with each remake of Final Fantasy. Seriality allows for the continuation and the expansion of a single theme. For the Baroque artist, it was the life and death of Christ, retold in a contemporary setting with updated visuals (drawing, painting or sculptural techniques). For gamers, it is the latest 1980s or 1990s game re-invented or released in HD.

Game developers and filmmakers, like Baroque artists, constantly invent new ways to blur the barrier between reality and illusion in order to heighten the player or viewer's experience. This illusion is called trompe-l'oeil: extremely realistic drawing or painting that deceives the viewer to believe it is real.

It is also referred to as the Baroque quality of virtuosity; however it dates as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. In the preserved city of Pompeii (79 AD) there are examples of murals of false hallways and windows to make the space appear larger. In Baroque ceiling paintings, it often appears as though the heavens are creeping into the viewer's space and watching the viewer.

These illusions use techniques of foreshortening and perspective to deceive the viewer into believing these imaginary spaces are real. Video games have a similar fascination with optics that was embraced by Baroque artists.

First-person shooters, as well as Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, demonstrate a Baroque adoration for optics and illusion. Eternal Darkness provides gamers with a fully realized co-extensive space. The developer created the concept of "sanity" as a measurable quantity which could be gained and lost. The loss of sanity resulted in faked technological errors, including the familiar volume bar appearing and turning down the sound, and the game pretending to delete itself.

Insanity in Eternal Darkness is reminiscent of the Psycho Mantis encounter in Metal Gear Solid. Psycho Mantis, a psychic, has the ability to read a player's memory card. Psycho Mantis breaks the barrier between the game and player by commenting on how many times a player has saved their game, and discusses other games on the memory card.

Both the insanity mechanism and Psycho Mantis' telepathy lure the player into the game through virtuosity -- like a Baroque ceiling. The illusion makes players start to wonder how the game could know so much about them, taking them out of the safe place of playing the game and inserting them into the narrative by acknowledging their existence... just as the painting would make the viewer believe it is watching them and seeping into reality.

Like the Baroque trompe-l'oeil paintings, video games convince the viewer and player that what they are seeing is real and make them question reality. Art is also referenced by video games through the use of existing objects in the form of cited material. The Kingdom Hearts series uses both Disney and Square Enix catalogues to create its narrative.

Other examples of this collage-type of game include the Marvel vs Capcom and Super Smash Bros. series. In Super Smash Bros., characters such as Mario from Super Mario Bros. can brawl against such characters as Link from the Legend of Zelda or Pikachu from Pokémon. These types of games function like collages by artists like Pablo Picasso and George Braque.

Picasso's 1912 collage Violin and Sheet Music is comprised of a series of fragmented clippings (sheets of music, newspapers, rope), similar to the characters and narratives cited in Kingdom Hearts. Both the art work and the game allow for constant expansion, since new relationships can be formed with the cited material, as different viewers will bring diverse readings to the collage based on their variety of experiences.

A player doesn't need to know all the Square Enix protagonists to enjoy the game, but a player that does know all the Square Enix characters will formulate a different interpretation of the game. Similarly in collage, familiarity with the cited material allows for a variety of readings.

Kingdom Hearts has the incompleteness, perpetual becoming and familiarity that Donald Kuspit associates with collage in his essay "Collage: The Organizing Principle of Art and the Age of Relativity of Art".v

The relationships between the displaced characters in the Kingdom Hearts series are never resolved. For example, are Aerith (FFVII) and Leon (FFVIII) a couple? Is Auron (FFX) in the Greek underworld rather than the Farplane as a punishment for killing a 'god'? Similar to a collage, there are connections that are left unexplained and it is up to the player and viewer to decide what has transpired.


i Lawrence Alloway, "The Arts and The Mass Media," Architectural Design & Construction (February 1958): 84-85.

ii Sun-Young Lee and Terry Barrett, "The Critical Writings of Lawrence Alloway," Studies in Art Education 32.3 (Spring. 1991): 172.

iii Alexander R. Galloway, "Playing for Respect," Artforum International, Dec 2003. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_4_42/ai_111696412/.

iv Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 41-43

v Donald B Kuspit, "Collage: The organizing Principle of Art and the Age of Relativity of Art," Collage Critical Views ed. Katherine Hoffman (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1989).

Another intersection of art and video games is appropriation. In his 2002 book Postproduction, Nicolas Bourriaud observes a trend in contemporary art of artists using prefabricated objects. Instead of creating a collage, artists re-purpose objects transforming their meaning and use. A sewing machine bought a flea market can be turned into a table; a DJ samples a song to create a new composition.

Brian Jungen's Prototypes for New Understanding #23, from 2005, appropriates limited edition Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes, which are marketed towards a primarily African-American audience, to create aboriginal masks. Jungen's fusion of these two highly coded artifacts creates a third object that is a discourse on both cultures. It comments on the corruption and assimilation of culture by using consumerist objects to create authentic native artifacts.

Other artists such as Myfawny Ashmore and Cory Arcangel appropriate the popular video game Super Mario Bros. to create works of art.

Instead of building an object from scratch, artists use existing objects and transform them to suit their needs. Game developers, like artists, repurpose objects and create hybrids to formulate new ideas and meanings. For example, in film, the subjective shot allows for the viewer to "experience" the action through the eyes of the character. It is not a very popular shot, yet it is often used to demonstrate a character's drunkenness.

Film and Game Studies theorists Alexander Galloway and Bob Rehak observed that the FPS style of gameplay is appropriated from the subjective shot. In particular Robert Montgomery's 1947 film noir Lady in the Lake, which uses the subjective shot extensively.vi

It even has moments when the viewer can see the character's arm and hand holding pistol, like an FPS. The subjective shot allows for the player to feel like they are the protagonist. No longer are we an audience, but in control of the character on the screen. The subjective film shot is re-purposed by the game developers to become one of the most beloved genres.

Developers use techniques that have been established throughout art's history to create innovative games. Another example is Resident Evil 4, which is a hybrid of the survival horror genre and an FPS, creating the action-horror genre. Game developers are like artists who repurpose objects and create new ideas.

Separating art and popular culture is not defending culture; it instead prevents it from flourishing. Games and art are not separated into tidy little boxes, but are connected. Art and games exist together and overlap in fantastic ways, each appropriating, influencing and expanding from the other.

Despite their connections, they are not one and the same. Each communicates ideas in a different way, although sometimes they use the same conceptual and visual language. Examples of intersecting relationships between art and games are numerous, and I have only scratched the surface with a few examples.

Video games as art will constantly be debated; however, it is an argument that was settled over 60 years ago with the beginnings of Pop Art and the inclusion of pop culture into the fine arts.

Video games are part of contemporary culture, and therefore are worth as much scholarly devotion as a work of art, film, opera, play or religious ceremony. Both art and games can be examined and decoded to reveal the sensibilities of our time. By denying video games' rightful place in contemporary culture one is rejecting an accurate representation of culture.


vi Bob Rehak, "Playing at Being," The Video Game Theory Reader. eds. Mark J.P Wolf and Bernard Perron, (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 119.

Diana Poulsen, "But Today We Collect Videogames: Appropriation, Citation, the Open Work and the Neo-Baroque in Videogames," (MA thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2010)

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About the Author(s)

Diana Poulsen


Diana Poulsen is an art historian specializing in the similarities between art and video games. She received her MA (Visual Arts) titled: But Today We Collect Videogames, from the University of Western Ontario. She teaches art history at Fanshawe College.

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