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Game Design is the Meta-Medium

What does philosophy say about art? What does it say about games? How do games fit into the world of art? I want to ask and answer these questions for their own sake. I think that the truth is broader and more profound than most people assume.

Why talk about games/art?


It’s fairly well-agreed that the “Are games art?” debate was always pointless, and same goes for the “What is a game?” debate. This article is an answer to both of those questions. So why am I taking the time to write it?

These conversations are almost always vapid and defensive, but they don’t have to be. They’re actually interesting, important questions in the philosophy of games, which could hold a lot of meaning for thinking critics, designers, and artists. Unfortunately, the conversations are usually part of some other debate which is at the same time apparently-larger and obviously-less-significant—’Gone Home is a waste of time, it’s not even a game!’ ‘You can’t censor Dragon’s Crown, games are art!’ Shut. Up.

I’m going to be coming at this from another perspective: What does philosophy say about art? What does it say about games? How do games fit into the world of art? I want to ask and answer these questions for their own sake. This article probably won’t answer any questions conclusively, but it will sure try. It’s worth noting that I wrote a similar piece not long ago, and my thoughts have already changed significantly. Regardless.



A theory of art w/r/t games


Philosopher Kendall Walton’s extremely successful “Make-Believe Theory” defines art, or representational art, or fiction (they’re all the same thing, according to the theory) in game terms. Art is a mandate to play a game of make-believe, says the theory, and a very particular kind of make-believe, a kind much more strictly defined than that traditionally played by children. Instead of vague rules like “[imagine that] the ground is lava,” fictional art presents explicit rules like “[imagine that] [there’s a narrator thinking about how] Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place…”


For the sake of this article, I’m going to grant that this theory is true, which of course does not necessarily follow. However, it is a well-regarded theory in contemporary aesthetics, so it has some significant support behind it.


Some things about Make-Believe Theory worth lingering on:

  1. “Make-believe” is a game, so obviously the rules about what is/isn’t a game are pretty lax here.
  2. Art is a subset of Game, not the other way around. A work of art is a mandate to play a game of make-believe, and to experience art is to play make-believe. Consider how there are many kinds of games, and how art can be subsumed by only one of these.
  3. Each sentence of a novel is a new, very precise rule, directed at the reader. However, there are some overarching, implicit parts of those rules (“[imagine that] [there’s a narrator thinking about how] … ”). There are also explicitly defined parts of each rule (“ … Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place…”). I’m going to call these structural rules and content rules respectively. I think they’re worth separating.



Structural rules define the medium...


When we look at the various kinds of art—theater, written fiction, music—there are different structural rules implicit in their games of make-believe. A person reading a novel aloud is understood to be separate from the fiction, but that’s often not the case for theater. The identifiers preceding spoken lines in screenplays are understood to be just identifiers, and not part of the fictional world. The inconsistencies and inaccuracies of paint are understood to be interpretations of the fictional world, rather than literal claims about it (the Impressionists weren’t actually making art about a place where everything was blurry). These cultural, structural rules are stable within a medium, but vary between them. Understanding them is necessary for properly interacting with a work.



… and content rules define the individual work of art


For artists, these structural rules are crucial and assumed; their work is in designing only the most precise ‘rules’ which generate content within a medium (rules such as the text of a novel). A writer knows that their novel will (or should) be read in a certain order, little-to-nothing skipped, with the reader making as few as possible assumptions (e.g. if an author never states how many toes a character has, it would be absurd for a reader to assume that the number is 20). Their medium is cemented, and they develop ‘content,’ which their audience automatically understands how to interpret.



Game designers design structural rules


And here come the big claims! If artists work within a specific game (make-believe) with specific medium-defining structural rules, then seemingly game designer is not a subset of artist. It could be that an artist is a kind of game designer, but I think it’s worth separating it out further, even.


A game designer, unlike a traditional artist, designs the structural rules for works of art which do not fit within modern mediums, and so are broadly dubbed ‘games.’ A particular game not only has those structural rules, but also some amount of ‘content rules’ (rules like the sentences of fiction), such as the color of the sky in Minecraft, or any particular Magic card. These are the sorts of rules that may be changed without the game ceasing to be thought of ‘the same game.’ Chess played with differently shaped pieces is still Chess. Minecraft played with a texture pack is still Minecraft.


The identity of a specific game is often tied to the same things as the identity of a whole medium of art: the structural rules. Chess and Minecraft are games like this. When we’re talking about games like this, games which are defined systemically and structurally, game design is medium-design. And often, when we’re talking about game design, we’re talking only about this. When, for instance, we separate art from design, we’re separating the design of structural rules (game design) from the design of content rules (content development / art).



… but videogames are also defined by their content


However, the identity of a game is frequently not tied solely to its structure. Videogames in particular are often largely defined by their content—Gone Home with a different setting would absolutely not still be Gone Home. As designing this content was a critical part of designing this game, I think it’s often a mistake to try to separate game design from content design—art, writing, etc.



So what is game design?


My ultimate takeaway is that game design is art-making once removed: when you design a game you will often not only design content rules for others to experience within your chosen medium, but in addition actually restructure a medium. When a player comes to a new game, they have to be ready to reassess the structural rules, to find out how they even are supposed to interact with the work.


However, game designers often choose not to use all of the tools at their disposal. These structural designers, who make abstract games that look like Chess or Go, forgo content design and make games that are entirely defined by their structure. Art-making is the inverse of this: artists choose a set of structural rules they like (e.g. that of the novel), and generate content to fit into that game (of make-believe).


In this way, game design is the meta-medium. It subsumes all other media of art and is in fact often the design of new media.


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