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Video Games are (Not) Art

The term "art" is used in a broad spectrum. I try to quickly summarize what video games are and what they aren't in that regard and what we want them to be. Feel free to comment with your own point of view.

Thomas Bedenk, Blogger

July 7, 2009

6 Min Read

The term "art" is used in a broad spectrum. I try to quickly summarize what video games are and what they aren't in that regard and what we want them to be. Feel free to comment with your own point of view.


Art Terminology 

Art often means arranging elements in a creative way that appeals to senses or in a broader meaning the mastery of a skill. Often stimulation of thoughts or an aesthetic experience triggered by an object, concept or performance is considered art. Also individuality, uniqueness and value given by an audience can define a piece of art. Moreover innovation has always been an important aspect in the history of art.


Artificiality and Culture

Anything artificial, as a counterpart of nature, can be considered a cultural achievement of human kind. The possible impact after all also depends on how widely spread or common something is in a culture. Thereby the creation of thoughts, concepts and artifacts can possibly influence whole generations.

Video games for sure already influenced many people in the way they think and their everyday life. Video games as a phenomenon have an impact on our culture. The more important question is, how valuable something is to a society or an individual. 


Creativity and Industry

Again we have to reflect on the different aspects of creativity. On the one hand there is the sole meaning of creating something as an output of work that did not exist before. On the other hand we have creativity with the implication of innovation. An industry (with its production plans and "code monkeys") as a whole can hardly be considered art or even innovative. Therefore some parts of the "creative industries" aren't any more creative than car factories.


Fine Art and Applied Art

Nevertheless the term applied art can definitely be used to describe a big part of the game industry. It means that the sound artists, visual artists and designers all require not only certain knowledge to execute their job but also a set of skills that fits their profession. They need sensitivity for their subject to create elements to be used in a practical way. 


Teamwork and Authenticity

Fine art is often considered to be the expression of an individual artist. In video games the complexity of the technology requires a wide skill set and knowledge. Only very small games can be created by a sole artist already by means of the work output one man can accomplish. To get around that restriction some artists use games made by other people and modify them in order to make a certain statement. Authenticity is related to how much a piece of art reflects the author’s individual intentions and personality.


Intention and Perception

At least since Marcel Duchamp, art cannot be limited to the artist himself. While he makes the statement that art can be made solely by claiming something to be art he also brings into consideration that the recipients interpretation is part of the creative act. Thus the status of being a piece of art is dependent on its reception likewise as its creator’s intention. Nevertheless something can be considered art that was never intended to be art. 


Communication and Meaning  

Some art is special for its communicated messages. Games usually don’t touch really meaningful subjects due to their commercial basis and by that avoidance of controversial content. Art can be especially valuable for the society when it is politically, spiritually or philosophically motivated. Only very few games touch that aspect of art at all.  


Aesthetic and Experience

The strongest point for video games as art can probably be made by the aesthetic experience they are able to create. Video games have the power to completely immerse the player into a different world. They can create emotions and make the player feel involved and committed to an extraordinary amount. Games can be beautiful and touching virtual illusions but also create connections and interaction between people like no other medium can.  


Medium and Art Form

Art forms are defined by the constrictions and specific formal qualities they provide to the artist. Basically every medium can be an art form; it depends on what you do with it. So of course video games can be a form or basis for art.

Video games are a special medium at several levels. Outlining all the limitations and possibilities of the medium cannot be done in this context. Interactivity is often named as the outstanding attribute. But also other mediums like the internet offer interactivity. Even though interactivity is an important aspect of games a game is more than that. A game usually sets goals to the player and challenges him in some ways by constricting the user’s possibilities. Games are supposed to be fun and entertaining above all.   


Interactivity and Context

While we group the visual creators in something called the "art department" true innovation in the field of games is always a combination of all the aspects of the medium. Foremost there is interactivity that has to be designed by the game designers as a rule set of mechanics. But this rule set cannot stand for itself without context. Interactivity can only be experienced through the filters of our senses. Our senses perceive information that is limited by the provided interface. The interface also restricts the user’s possibilities of input to the interactive system. 


Playing Games and Conclusion

Are we playing art or are we playing games? Would anyone consider the game of chess and thereby its rule set of interactivity art?

After all most games are not art but have artistic components. There are examples where the medium of electronic games is used to create artistic statements that surpass the possibilities of other mediums. Therefore video games can be an art form but usually are nothing less than platforms for entertainment. 


Why the obsession with wanting to be art?

I think, really we, the creators of games, want to put a meaning into what we do and want to be recognized as a valid source of cultural output. In that we should not mistake art for the only legitimate form of cultural value. The industry as a whole has to make a shift in its approach to appeal to the public. On our side there is too much focus on violent content and on the other side the press likes to reduce video games to its possibly harmful outcome. Video games have become a mainstream medium and that is why there will be more variety in niche markets but also more of the easy digestible and exchangeable meat.

In the end we are in control and the most valuable goal we can have, is to make video games a great experience for gamers.

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