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Games as an Art Form

Can games be considered an art form? Are games ready to be considered an art form? From the perspective of a student comes an attempt to rationalize the merits of games as art.

Game Developer, Staff

November 24, 2012

11 Min Read

My name is Tristan Meere, I am currently sitting in a dusty old bedroom and like something out of Calvin and Hobbs I am sitting here in a tilted fedora writing this up, all be it with significantly less confidence. I am on what I'd like to think a well earned week break from school. Durning my first quarter at my currently school as a transfer I had the chance to write a short paper on something of my choosing. Most of what I wrote I'd been mulling over for quite a long time but could never get the words to say it and I certainly still haven't.

Maybe a cup of coffee first?

So without too much adue


Games as an Art Form

There has been a growing amount of rhetoric surrounding the idea of games as art within the industry in recent years. But what does 'games as art' really mean? For many it means our medium is aging and maturing, coming into its own within the eyes of its creators and the public. The idea does have its share of opponents from inside and outside the industry who either fear games fundamentally changing or simply think of video games as child’s toys. While the concerns of games changing is a valid one and will be addressed accordingly, the implication that they are nothing more than toys is one born of ignorance of what this medium is capable of doing or has already done in many cases. The future of games relies upon the creators and the players themselves delving into the inner workings of games, talking, discussing, teaching and learning about the medium. Understanding 'games as art' is understanding how humans react and interact with games and only by studying it can we create more immersive, fun, visually dynamic and compelling games.

Much of contemporary philosophy has tried to break down video games logically, using already known forms of art to gauge the artistic virtue of games. The pit fall comes in the mindset of trying to define one form of media on the merits of another, as Grant Trevor cited: 

Aaron Smuts, one of the few philosophers to write specically about videogames as art, addresses this issue in an article in Contemporary Aesthetics. Smuts’ method is to analyze videogames in terms of prior definitions and theories of art, including familiar historical and institutional accounts, to attempt to distinguish in videogames the factors that in uncontested artworks count toward their art status. He concludes positively by arguing: “that by any major definition of art many modern video games should be o_y I do say...considered art." (Trevor 2)

I’d rather try and define games on their own terms and instead of comparing them to other mediums, create whole new definitions to help us understand games and what makes them a unique art form.


So, what if games are art…poof, there it happened. What distinguishes games from other media? Games have long emulated other media, drawing from their learnt artistic values, but what defines games as a medium? What unique aspect do games bring to the table?  Are games purely emulations of other media? Extra Credits took a look at this ‘other media’, take for example movies, they’re viewed but the script doesn’t change. The experience the audience has can vary and each person can perceive the movie differently, but fundamentally the movie is the same. Games however are inherently dynamic and the experience the player has depends on how they play. In essence, the player takes the roll of the storyteller; their story being told through how they play (Extra Credits: Role of the Player). A vehicle that games use to develop the story is the narrative.

Narrative is in every aspect of the game, from the audio to the color pallet. Whether you are playing Baldur’s Gate or a multiplayer session of Call of Duty, a story is being told through narrative. To understand what video game narrative is, you need to understand how video games utilize it. Very little of the story is ever conveyed through text, though in some cases it will be short proverbs attached to items or speaking to an NPC, but for the most part the game’s story is told indirectly. The largest way a video game tells its story is through aesthetics and motif. Take for example a game like Saints Row the Third, which is a wacky game to say the least. Everything within the game aims itself at that objective; from the character dialog which, goes from serious to humorous in a few sentences; to the weaponry which ranges from a standard gun to a large purple dildo. Each element of the game was chosen in order to put the player in the correct mindset to experience the game, however crazy. Frank Marquart, art director for Volition, explained that if they wanted to pull off an "over-the-top" style of game, they needed to have an overarching cohesive vision (Staff).

So, if narrative is the means by which a game tells its story, is it possible to have a game that uses only narrative to tell its story? James Portnow, through Extra Credits, provided a rather stunning example of a story told solely through dynamic narrative. The game in question was the 1980s, Missile Command, which sets you in the role of a commander of three small missile defense bases, defending six towns. The core mechanic of the game was to fend off incoming nuclear missiles, with each new wave becoming increasingly difficult. The game placed the player in a situation of “completely reactionary weakness”, as Portnow called it, pitting you against an impossible task with limited to no power to tackle it. Through this the designer was able to create one of the most compelling and complex narratives about nuclear war, all without ever uttering a single line of text or dialog. “And what’s it all for? What’s the bluntest point made by this game? That you can’t win. No matter how many stages you survive or how much time you spend playing, you can’t beat Missile Command. Nuclear war has no winner.“ (Extra Credits: Narrative Dynamics). It managed to convey a deeper and richer game-play experience then most mainstream titles and all without fancy graphics or 60000 lines of dialog, which suggests that what makes a game truly good isn’t the content so much as creating a believable emotional link between the player and the game.

The link in question between the player and the game comes in the form of interactivity. Interactivity is the connection between the player and the game; it is kind of like taking a pen to your favorite book and rewriting it to suit yourself. Interactivity is a form of story writing and storytelling, your choices ultimately reflect how you experience the story. A game like Mass Effect is a prime example of very liberal storytelling, with large blocks of how it is told being subject to multiple choices by the players, leading to hundreds of variations, thousands by the time the recursive third act rolls around. But what of the interaction itself? Does rescuing the princess hold any meaning beyond just winning the game? Is the act of play done because it is emotionally satisfying? These are some of the fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves as developers, designers and gamers. What exactly does meaningful play, well, mean? Rules of Play describe it as: a person dropping an apple on the ground holds no meaning to us, but rolling dice on a craps table does. Why? The latter of the two has a frame of context around it, while the first one is merely someone dropping an apple (Rules of Play 60). So again I ask: Does rescuing the princess hold meaning beyond winning the game? The frame of context we require to answer this question is whether or not we’re emotionally invested in the princess. This context is gained through play, through the designer side of the interaction with the princess in order to forge an emotional link to her and prompt you to your mad quest. In other words, it is the designer’s job to make the player identify with an element of the game so that the player’s interaction with it holds meaning.

One of the best examples of a truly interactive experience comes out of Valve’s Half-Life 2, hidden within the developer’s commentary. The designers wanted to have the player see an epic cut scene but didn’t want to take away from the games experience by taking away control. In this scenario they wanted the player to see a huge flying ship crashing into the ground. In order to make sure the player was looking at the scene while it happened and not off somewhere else they positioned a lone enemy in the direction of the scene. In this way it caused the player to look in the direction they wanted and view the cut scene without taking away the player control (Half-Life 2). Famed Australian game critic Yahteez called it making it up along the way, saying:

…the use of non-intrusive unexplained blink-and-you-miss-it details to tell a story comes with several advantages, most notably giving the player a sense of being caught up in something far bigger than themselves, but what it also does is leave ample room for interpretation, not just for the audience, but for the writer. The story of Half-Life is basically made up as it goes along, but because so much of it is left ambiguous they don't even need to retcon anything. That's the beauty of it. (Croshaw)

            So, we’ve looked at several already good examples of games utilizing artistic values. The real challenge for us now is recognizing what these are and reapplying or reinventing them in future games. Because when it truly comes down it, the debate over games as art isn’t trying to validate video games in the eyes of those not in our industry but one which attempts to bring up the importance of studying our medium, which ultimately is what makes something artistic. Since the inception of video games, our medium has been studies, even if it wasn’t in the most direct manner. They have been studied and it shows. While not always true, games have evolved in every aspect. The aesthetics have certainly come a long way. Games over the years become more and more visually stunning, by which I do not mean graphically stunning. Working with color pallets and motifs, graphically simple games have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the near realistic graphics of most AAA titles. The same can be said for music and sound, with world famous composers like Hans Zimmer working on big titles like Crysis 2 to Darren Korb who captivated gamers with his musical work in the critically acclaimed Bastion.

            Ultimately what defines video games as a unique artistic medium is the complexity of structure and complelling player-based storytelling. Games have the potential to be the truest connection to artistic expression and the most genuine method of not just telling a story, but creating a unique experience. The simplest idea can be forged into a narrative masterpiece all by understanding what games as art truly mean, and as Eric Todd said in Gamasutra's weekly words from within the industry: "Ideas are the easy part. Getting from a good idea to something that's actually good is what's hard." (Caoili)

Farewell for now



Work Cited

Caoili, Eric. "Your game industry in your words, week of September 21." Gamasutra. 2012. UBM TechWeb. 22 Sept. 2012


Croshaw, Ben 'Yahteez' "Valve's Making up Half-Life Along the Way." The Escapist 14 Aug. 2012. Themis Group. 22 Sept. 2012.


Extra Credits: The Role of the Player. By Writer James Portnow. Animator. Daniel Floyd. Arist Allison Theus. Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.


Extra Credits: Narrative Dynamics. By Writer James Portnow. Animator. Daniel Floyd. Arist Allison Theus. Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.


Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. "Interactivity."  Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. Print.


Staff. "The art direction of Saints Row: The Third." Gamasutra 2012. UBM TechWeb, 22 Sept. 2012


Trevor, Grant. "Video Games and Aesthetics." Philosophy Compass 5.8 (2010): 624-34.Wiley Online Library. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.


Valve. Half-Life 2. Computer software. Store.steampowered.com. 16 Nov. 2004. 22 Sept. 2012


Art provided curtsy of myself ^_^

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