How can you create a game that is also art? This post will show you how.
But first, let us get rid of the obligatory arguments.
Obligatory Argument #1: Games are designed by artists, does that automatically turn them into art?
No, it doesn't. Not everything an artist does is art. (For example, most Hollywood movies aren't art, even though they're being made by very talented artists – actors, photographers, musicians, directors, writers, etc.)
Obligatory Argument #2: Does art have to be beautiful? For that matter, does art have to be snobbish, elitist, or above the understanding of a certain few?
No. Art does not need to be beautiful. It does not need to be snobbish or elitist or above someone's head. None of these is criteria for art.
Obligatory Argument #3: Can a game even be art?
Of course it can. At the very minimum, it's been long established that anything that someone says or believes is art – becomes art. So let's not be touchy on the subject – if you think this and that game is art, I will never argue with you.
However, looking at a broader picture, I am less interested in one person's definition, but rather in a multitude's. Art that is recognized as such by a multitude usually answers a few common criteria.
These criteria for art stem from its nature. Art, by its nature, brings something to those who see/hear/experience it – a thought, an emotion, an intensity, an understanding, a clarity – that was not there before. At the same time, art is not a necessary thing and any viewer of it could have done without it. Art enriches us, but is not necessary (not the way food, money, or shelter are necessary, for example).
To have your game truly considered art, it must fall into at least one of these criteria:
Criteria #1: Your game exposes a truth about the world. (Sub-category: your game takes a political stand, trying to show and convince the players of something you think is true and deep.)
Criteria #2: Your game makes the player feel something new, a feeling that you think would improve him as a person even a tiny bit.
Criteria #3: Your game makes the player think something new, a thought that you feel would improve him as a person even a tiny bit.
That's it. Three criteria. If you make sure your game answers at least one of those, then you've created art.
However, creating art has a price and carries risks. Here are the top three:
Risk #1: Art isn't always good business. Taking a stand alienates people. In exposing a truth, in having a statement, you risk getting people angry. Are you willing to take that risk?
Risk #2: Sometimes the statement/feeling/thought you've centered your game around is important to only a few people and the wide audience does not connect with the emotions/thoughts you're conveying.
Risk #3: You've said something that is too new. People, even gamers, react badly to changes that are too big or concepts that vary from their understanding of the world by too big a margin. You may be heralded as a genius five years from now (or fifteen or never), but right now everybody will hate you and no one will understand you.
So doing art carries risks. Are you willing to take those risks?
Or do you think you can find a way to answer these criteria while at the same time reach a lot of fans and be popular? It's not impossible, and it's certainly been done.
But in trying to think how you can make good business and good art, you're actually thinking about business. Thinking about business is not thinking about art. Thinking about business does not ever create art. It only creates things that look like art. Which is the majority of the games that we have today. (I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I'm just saying this is the way things are.)
Let's do a small experiment. Look at the three criteria again, try to memorize them so that you'll remember what they are for the next five minutes. Then close your eyes for five minutes, and imagine what the world would look like if most games answered one of the three criteria…
What do you think the gaming world would like? It would sure be different from the way it is today!
Food for thought.