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Games as Art

The heated debate as to whether or not games can be art. I examine takes from both sides, and give an educated, unbiased answer to the far-reaching question, and explain what we do from here.

Dylan Woodbury, Blogger

October 18, 2010

8 Min Read

This article was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/gamesasart.html.

Today, I am going to begin to tackle one of the industry’s most debated questions: Can video games be art?

Up front, I want to say that I am not going to just pick one based on superficial reasons – I am not going to say that games are art because I really really like them, and give you some uneducated excuse as to why they are artistic. I am going to give you an honest answer (upon writing this introduction, I still have no answer written in stone).

So, starting, what is art? Are the qualifications restrictive, allowing only masterpieces to qualify, or is it very broad (I once saw a commercial vacuum in an art museum… on display). Some things that some consider art include paintings, drawings, photos, songs, crafts, sculptures, buildings, movies, books, poems, food, etc. The problem is that these things are all very varied in terms of skill required.

For example – food. Is an expert chef’s well-planned dish considered art? What about the bowl of soup I just made? I just made a paint mark on my paper. Is it put on the same level as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? No… right?

Or maybe my painting is considered art, but just not very good art. In this case, art would be a scale used to measure the artistic value of something. I think that this is true to a point – some art is better, more artistic, that other art. However, what decides whether or not my single-stroked painting is considered art or not?

I believe that anything can be considered art, but not everything is. I think that it can depend on the artist’s intentions – did the artist try to make something pleasing to the audience, or did he/she design it for other reasons. This leads us to our major qualification. The artist must have designed the “art” with the intentions to make art. What does this mean? It means that if a construction company designs a house, taking into account its usability and other practicalities, it cannot be art. If I painted my painting with the intention to make art, something its audience will find attractive in some way, creating feelings or thoughts.

So do games meet this requirement? Sometimes. Sometimes, designers set out to make the player think or feel. Sometimes, they hash together what the targeted audience wants to see – another cliché shooting game with lots of bad guys, powerful weapons, cursing dialogue, etc. These kinds of things rip the title of art right off the game, because designers are creating the game to please what the gamer already wants. For some games, designers design the game in a way to make the audience experience something that they will like without taking into account what “needs” to be in the game. From the start, nothing “needs” to be in the game – just whatever will add to the player’s experience. This is artistic.

In regards to usability, some elements of the game industry receive fire for not being artistic. The testing process games go through within the company can be shot down, with claims that designers are changing what gamers do and do not like. If a designer does this, taking out aspects of the game the player doesn’t like, even if the designer thinks it will add to the experience, the game can be considered non-artistic. I think what happens most of the time, though, is that designers take what works and doesn’t work in the game and changes it based on the player’s experience to make the artistic value easier to admire. This could make games even more artistic, as designers peer into the user’s mind and take that into account to make the game into a better experience.

It is very common in the other articles I’ve seen on the topic of games as art to see the claim that games are art, taking into account the artistic things that make them up. Writers point out that the music is art, as well as designing the buildings and landscapes the players see, but that does not mean that the game is art. Sure, all of these things add to the experience and could make the artistic value greater, but that does not make it art! It would be like saying the album art is artistic, therefore whatever you throw onto the CD is art, which is absolutely untrue. It is possible that the album cover could add to the overall experience, but it is not the main point.
So what is the point of video games? What is at the very roots? I’d say that we can break it down to the primary elements – story and gameplay. Story is a known medium of art, but gameplay is the unique artistic aspect to games. When these two are combined, they make something extraordinary – giving the story a far different role than the story in a book.

Art is made by combining story with gameplay – and yes, they both have to be there. However, just because a game has both of these does not mean that it is art. Some examples of these principles… Simple puzzle games, like Tetris, are not art – they do not have a story, so the game becomes a gameplay-focused process that has no additional aspects that cannot give the audience anything to walk away with or think about (beyond the gameplay). The same thing goes for most sports games (all of the EA sports and 2K titles, etc.), most music/rhythm games (just because Rock Band has music, does not make it art), most mini-game games (their sole purpose is for the player to compete in light-hearted, shallow challenges that have no message), some simulation games (Flight Simulator), and some of every other genre. There are exceptions for all of these, though. EA could come out tomorrow with a boxing game that takes you through the life of an immigrant athelete in the 1800s who goes through much inequality and adversity (this artistic setup in terms of story could fall apart as a work of art if the gameplay and story do not come together to teach or make the audience feel something deeply rooted in humanity, not just how to play baseball). I think that the Sims should be considered art, as one could find inside questions regarding humanity, life, and everything. Same goes for Spore.

The story-gameplay I gave can be broken, though (many serious games do not have a real story, but still teach us or make us feel a certain way). Very few games do this, though. However, a minigame-game with no story could have minigames that concern a serious topic, and make us think about something. Any game CAN be art, but not all games are.

I have come to the conclusion that video games can be art, and that the medium of video games should also be listed under artistic mediums, right in between literature and architecture. In fact, video games could be considered THE most powerful artistic medium, as they fully engage the audience in a way that cannot be seen elsewhere. I thought about the roles and duties of civilization and mankind while playing Civilization 5. I experienced the feeling of guild while playing Photopia in a way that I have never felt before, regardless of the fact that the whole game is about 10 pages of text (play it now – you will see just what I am talking about, http://www.ifiction.org/games/play.phpz?cat=&game=87&mode=html). I questioned life and love while playing Heavy Rain. There is an endless list of examples, and it grows every day.

I have made it clear that I believe games are art, and that they can be more powerful than any other medium (seriously, play Photopia), but our medium is so new (it has been 38 years since pong – there are prehistoric cave drawings), and I think that games are not meeting their potential as an art medium. In fact, how unobvious the fact is that games can be art shows that we have a long way to go until we make a game that grabs hold of people with the same strength that Grapes of Wrath or Beethoven’s Fifth does.

Video games are even more powerful as an art form because they use so many artistic elements to add to the audience’s experience, aesthetically, musically, in terms of flow, etc. This could be a contributing factor as to why it is hard for designers to make artistically powerful games, and why Photopia, one of the most artistic games I have played, really nails the art form without any graphics (besides text) and music. I should restate that these additional elements cannot be used as proof that video games can be art – sure, the individual components can be, but you are not selling the individual components. The game’s core is what counts.

So what can we do? We need to continue making games, evolving our art form from the cave drawings of Pong to the Mona Lisa of tomorrow. Others will learn our art is art once we make people cry, shiver in fear, ponder humanity, etc. Until then, we can all spread the message by putting the titles of games in italics or underlines, as art should be.

Visit http://dtwgames.com for many more great game design articles, both practical and theoretical. We post multiple articles a week, so you should check them out.

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