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Why It Matters Whether Games Are Art

A response to Christian Nutt's opinion piece of 4/24/2009.

Christian Nutt is tired of the "games as art" debate. Nutt cites certain vacuous postmodern artists as examples that "art" isn't all it's cracked up to be. He cites others who were tremendous self-promoters for the proposition that art is--and has been for quite some time--tied to commercialism. That's all fair. But it doesn't prove (or even really support) the notion that we should Forget 'Games As Art'.

There is a good reason why many game designers (including myself) want games to be understood as an art form: to expand the range of potential things you can do in a game that an audience will recognize as such. In other words, it is important that games be understood as art as a matter of managing audience expectations.

What do I mean by that? It's simple, really. When people write poems, it is widely understood that there will be themes and symbolism beneath the surface of the poem, hidden messages that the reader has to work to uncover. Because poems are considered art, there is an expectation that serious works of poetry will contain submerged meaning. The same can be said for paintings. It has been understood for a very long time that serious paintings contain symbolic meaning. A painter who intends to do more than present a literal depiction of something need not worry that no one will think to look deeper.

Games, by contrast, do not currently enjoy that sort of expectation. People still think of games in a very (and by and large, exclusively) literal way. One symptom of this problem is that you can find game designer discussion threads like this one, in which concerned designers debate the need for creators' statements to accompany artistic games. In a culture where games are understood as an artistic medium, such clumsy devices would be rendered utterly unnecessary. (I happen to think that they're counterproductive regardless, but that is another topic.)

It is one thing to "make great things that people can experience and enjoy," and quite another to make great things that people can experience and enjoy on multiple levels. One has no need of the understanding that games are art, and the other almost certainly does.

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