Defining the Art of Video Games

Often is the question asked: Can games be art? Most arguments COMPLETELY miss the point of video games and the point of art. Underneath it all: what is the purpose of games that all designers should have in mind while setting out on a new project?

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       Warning: Article contains spoilers for Photopia (text adventure) and minor spoilers for Half Life 2.

                 The question of games being an art form has ensued for quite a while, but things really began to boil after movie critic Roger Ebert’s comments on the topic. Since that time, every artist, person who cares about games, and person who despises games has pitched their two cents on the subject. The polarized reaction to the debate shows perfectly the misunderstanding people have on the industry and where it’s going. Some have compared games to comic books, some have compared God of War to the Mona Lisa, and some have dismissed the importance of the debate altogether.

                Out of the gate, I want to convey to you just how important this topic is. If we decide (and prove with our games) that video games are an art form, the industry is going to go down a completely different path than if we decide games are to be defined as the childish activity so many people see today (many argue that is what happened to comic books). I am not saying that if games are art, every game twenty years from now is going to be an interactive story like Heavy Rain, and that there will be no room in the market for your Halo or Gears of War. In fact, I don’t even see Heavy Rain as art! Rather, the industry will be very balanced, much like the film industry; both Inception and King’s Speech were nominated for picture of the year, and millions of people both watched and enjoyed both films. But we do not need to copy other art forms’ definitions and label them games’. An art game doesn’t mean a game with lots of metaphors, cutscenes, and no action (or fun). That is not what makes games art.

                In many people’s defense of video games as an art, they have cited things such as the beautiful cities of Assassin’s Creed, the brilliant writing of Red Dead: Redemption, and the meaningful stories of Mass Effect 2. They have stated that, yes, it takes only one artist to make a painting, but sometimes tens (if not hundreds) to make a game. They have stated that while a movie usually has under one thousand lines of dialogue, Mass Effect 2 had 130,000. Yes, it takes artists and writers (both artists in their own fields) to make video games, but that doesn’t make video games art! I saw a painting in the museum level of Uncharted 2, and while the painting was a work of art, that didn’t make the game art! These arguments come from people (many of us, by the looks of it) who don’t understand what art is, which is understandable, because the idea of a new art form is so alien to us. The newest form of art (besides comic books, which are not considered art by many) is the film, and that was nearly one hundred years ago. It is time we looked deep into what art is, and what it means.

                The main criteria of an art form – it must interact with a person’s deep self, including both senses and emotions, in a way specific to that medium. Paintings and photographs interact through pictures with a person’s emotions, but mostly sight, as one’s eyes move across the varying lines, giving an overall sense of beauty as the colors, shapes, and lines create balance, proportion, rhythm, unity, emphasis, etc. Literature interacts through the written word with a person’s imagery and many emotions. Music, through sound, plays off of our sense of rhythm and beat, along with sometimes telling a story and striking a chord with our emotions. Food interacts through taste and smell, among other things. Film interacts, much like photography, only with moving shots, series of pictures. So what is the point of games?

                Video games are not solely what you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or think – the point of video games is what you do in them – they interact through play. The gameplay, an interaction model between mechanics, your actions, and the game’s response are how games, this new art form, interact with the player. This is hard to visualize at first, as nearly all games are not in any sense of the word art, and many of those that are weakly and minimally match the description.

                Recently, the game Heavy Rain was hailed as being the most artistic game to date and the grandest example of what games can be, but for what reason? Yes, the game had a good story, and yes, it looked good, but these things are nonessential as to whether a game is a work of art or not. That is measured by what you do in the game, but what you did was so heavily restricted due to the story that was trying to be told. If anything, you are supposed to base the story off the game (gameplay), not the gameplay off the story! Upon saying this, the game did make some progress to art. The drug problems one of the characters faced required you to succumb to addiction was interesting, and forced you to see something, drug addiction, that can only be truly seen through the eyes of an addict, THROUGH GAMEPLAY. And the game did push the boundaries in terms of stories that games can tell, with themes of child abduction, prostitution, drug use, etc. And I am not eating my words here – the story doesn’t make art. But for games to be an art form, there cannot be limitations placed on them, dictating what they can/can’t cover (Michelangelo did not have the Italian Censorship Board hide certain parts of his creation). At points, I think the game took itself too seriously, and throughout, the game was too focused on story and being artistic. But why am I addressing this game? I do not want doomsayers to point to this game and shout, “Every game will be like this in twenty years!” When I say games can be art, I do not mean they will be boring (in terms of gameplay)! There are some really great examples of games as an art form – some of which you may not have considered before.

                The game Missile Command, released in 1980, is one of the greatest examples of meaningful gameplay. Escapist’s Extra Credits recently did a show on this topic. You are given three bases, and must defend six cities. You must defend these cities and your bases from the nuclear bombs raining down from above. There comes a point when you must decide how to play – do you focus your efforts on defending one city, on saving humanity? Do you try your hardest to protect everyone, no matter the risk? Do you value a base, needed to defend all of the cities, over one city? The moral dilemma isn’t presented as a good/evil choice to be solved with a selection, rather you play it out, sometimes unaware at first that the game’s strategy is actually how you solve the dilemma. The game has a lot to say about the destruction of war and inevitability of death, all though play, not graphics, sound, or story. Its purpose could not have been conveyed like this through the written word, music, or picture. This is a work which could only have been made as a game.

                Text adventure Photopia, released in 1999, emphasizes the innocence of a young girl through play (***SPOILERS***). In one level, you play as the girl’s father, answering her curious questions about life, the universe, and everything. In another level, you play as a character in a story the young girl is telling a child while babysitting, playing through a story only a child could tell – a beach made of gold coins, etc. The first level of the game was played through the POV of a man in the back of a truck being driven by a drunk man, before it crashes. Later, you play as an unknown man in a hospital, after surviving a car accident, learning that a girl also in the car was killed. In the pivotal level, you play as a man driving the girl home after she babysat you young child, and, in my experience, I realized as I was driving that the girl was going to die while I was driving. I did the obvious thing: I entered “brake”. I halted in the middle of an intersection. A car slammed into me, killing the girl while I would survive. The guilt I felt at that point is unrivaled for me today, even in real life. That guilt could only be felt through the art of the game, and the anger I felt toward the drunk driver, who destroyed the young girl whose innocence was built upon the entire game, is only rivaled through actual events. This game is not a story, nor a song, nor a movie – it is a game, and only a game.

                A more popular example of art in games is Half Life 2, released in 2004.You begin the game in City 17, just one of the many places dominated by the totalitarian rule. In the beginning, you meet people who have gone insane. You watch as a guard beats a person, and if you interfere, you are next to be beaten.  You are defenseless and have no weapon. Walking around a city square, everyone you talk to is afraid, hushing you, glancing behind themselves for cameras. A guard forces you to pick up a can and throw it away. And in the middle of the square: a huge video screen, broadcasting the leader filling minds with propaganda. On your return to the square, after starting a revolution, a group of the very people who were too afraid to speak to you tears down the video screen, cheering as the dust settles, and later joining you. The people under the chains of the rule and their own fear start out on their own and unmotivated, but later group together and help you fight off their suppressors, a team. This is just one of the things in the game that shine through the game through play (I could do a whole article on just this one game as a piece of art).

                All of these games are games. They are not stories told as games, or movies gameified. They are games, and they all influence people’s thought/emotion/senses. They are all art, and there are many more (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Silent Hill come to mind first). But what about the games that aren’t art? What about your Call of Duty’s and Super Mario Galaxy’s? These games are not art, but they are still great games and they are still very fun. It is vital that people know that games can be art, but there is no way that all games will be art at any point in the future. Just look at other forms of art. Star Wars is the favorite movie franchise of millions (it’s probably the most loved movie franchise ever), but I do not consider it art. Most movies are not art, but that doesn’t make Star Wars any worse than Schindler’s List! Both kinds of movies can coexist in the same medium, and the same is true for games.

                And to game designers, the artists of the video game medium: design your game almost solely with what the player will do in mind. The story, music, graphics, etc. all improve the game, but do not make it. Heavy Rain was obviously designed with the story in mean, leading to boring and meaningless (at times) gameplay. Designers can come up with a great idea for a game system through an idea for a story or setting, but if the gameplay just serves as an excuse to make that story a game and cannot survive on its own, there is no real point to the game, whether the designers are trying to make art or just fun. For this reason, I believe that Heavy Rain should have been a novel or a film (probably a novel), as the gameplay did not really enhance the experience – it is like any other movie-game, only with a higher budget.

                This extreme focus on the DO in games, on the definition of games, opens the doors wide open for new kinds of games that we have yet to discover past the clichés of many recent games and of works of other media. Before making a game, ask yourself whether the game would be bettered by the fact that it is a game, that the game is a game, and could not exist as any other form of entertainment.

                So yes, games can be art, but no, not all games are, and we have just begun our course of discovering just how PLAY can be utilized to do things that no other media can, to express ideas that have never been so clearly presented, to make us feel and think things that we have not even imagined yet. The future is bright for the medium with the interaction of the highest potential – not words, not sounds, not movement, not taste, not visuals, but PLAY. Now excuse me, I’ve got some Bulletstorm to play.

This article was posted on Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location:

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