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Games as Art?: The Play's the Thing

This post is concerned with the rather boring, and absolutely tedious question "are videogames art?". Instead of trying to address the question, I argue we firstly need to reframe it.

Your Princess Is In Another Castle

Are games art? Can they be deemed moving, emotive, beautiful? Immediately the question exhausts me. The only thing more exhausting, more irksome, by virtue of its predictability, are the innumerable cliché answers: “the narrative in [game] was sophisticated”, “look at the graphics of [game], beautiful!”, “the characters in [game] were so memorable and nuanced”, “look at the intelligent way [game] played with storytelling convention”.

Now, all of the above may well be true for certain digital games; indeed I could name a few of my personal favourites that fit into each of the above sentences. Yet I can't help but feel it's all missing the point.

The problem is, in answering the question with statements beginning “the narrative”, “the graphics” or “the soundtrack”, people continuously fall into the trap of trying to play media such as books, film or music at their own game. Quite simply, we keep repeating the mistake of looking in the wrong place for the true aesthetics of the digital game form. Time to move on to the next castle...


Objets d'art

We come from a history of locating the art in the object, in the grandiose 'work of art': the painting, the statue, the book, the dress. This is prudent enough, it is much easier and analytically cleaner to evaluate one specific artefact's aesthetic merit, than to consider the comparatively messy world of not only the object, but of the interaction between artist and work, between audience and art, art and environment.

The danger implicit in such an holistic evaluation of the work would be the daunting prospect that the meaning and artistic merit of the piece is not constant or inherent, as John Fiske points out, “texts are activated, or made meaningful, only in social relations and in intertextual relations” (Fiske,1989: p.3). This was of course Duchamp's point with Fountain, that the status of art was not something intrinsic to the object. Built upon in eclectic ways by the artistic collective known as 'Fluxus' throughout the 60s and 70s, and across the humanities thanks in part to post-structuralism, questions were raised concerning the importance of the audience's understanding, whether interpreting a sculpture, a poster, a television show, and so on. In the same period, digital games were slowly emerging as a cultural force in their own right, reaching their golden age during the late 70s.


Games as Media?

A large problem is, because we play digital games on personal computers or on our gargantuan flat-screen televisions, and because our consoles can play DVDs, Blurays, and mp3s, it's easier for us to just wedge a distinctly square peg into a round hole, believing it will eventually fit if we push it hard enough. It remains convenient for us to just categorise games as media; at least it's a step-up from toys right?

Yet this creates many problems, not least of which is our unthinking translation of many preconceptions, ideas and vocabularies straight from speciously comparable mediums like literature and cinema into games. More square pegs, more round holes, as illustrated in my discussion of the 'fourth wall' and digital games (

Now that's not to say there aren't comparisons to be made, digital games have obviously borrowed much from the above mediums, and do share features with media. Rather, to re-purpose Wittgenstein, the danger lies in the power that language has in imprisoning us in certain modes of thought, removing the possibility for any other way of conceiving the subject. We are now comfortable in discussing the role the audience plays in the reception of art, of media, of communication, but by identifying games as media first, we're missing an important part of the equation; the unique ability for the audience to create in games, to play.

As I believe Jonas Heide Smith commented, perhaps we should stop trying to view digital games strictly as media, and see them instead as a modern branch of the (ancient) ludic tree. So if games don't fit neatly alongside media, where do they find their home?


If It's In The Game, It's In The Game...?

What are games? In their most classical sense, games are structures. They are systems we engage with, sets of rules and limitations that give meaning to action. As Bernard Suits (1978) described:


To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, and where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.


Notice the importance of action within this quote. We play games, we engage with them, they are an activity. To wheel out a favourite quote of mine from Galloway (2006):

If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions. Let this be word one for video game theory. Without action, games remain only in the pages of an abstract rule book. Without the active participation of players and machines, video games exist only as static computer code.

(p.2, italics in original)

Games need players. Soccer without players is simply a few lines of white chalk on a field, adorned by posts at either end. Remove the posts and put a net across the middle and we have Tennis. Chess without players is just sixty-four squares, thirty-two pieces and a rulebook. None of these are things I would pay to see; none of them appeal to my aesthetic sensibility.

In the same way, ballet without the dancer is not ballet. The major aesthetic dimension of ballet does not reside for me in the set design or in the costumes, but in the performance. Similarly, put Barcelona FC on a soccer pitch and I'll eagerly devote attention. Put Roger Federer on the tennis court and I'll gladly pay. Put directly, games, when enacted, become so much more than the sum of their parts. With this in mind, can the aesthetics, the beauty of games truly be said to be located just in the game? As hinted at in my introduction, perhaps we should start looking somewhere else, somewhere outside the game, or more accurately between the game and player.


The Play's The Thing

The true aesthetic dimension of a game, is what makes a game unique: play. Watch me play Chess and it's highly unlikely you will be held in awe of my ability, inspired by my innovation, uplifted by my effervescent performance. But watch a grandmaster, a Bobby Fischer, and you may well be mesmerised by the beauty of the play. Put me on a football pitch and (asides from the odd moment of brilliance I assure you), you'll be as likely to laugh as you are to applaud. But watch Dimitar Berbatov delicately control a ball, nonchalantly glide past an opponent before curling the football into the top corner of the goal, and you will understand why it's called “the beautiful game”.

Of course, this means that digital games, as art, fly in the face of our common sense: traditional art, once designated as such, is a stable, unchanging representative. But, like ballet, like much Fluxus art, games are not static. Games change, they are dynamic, they shift and pulse and breathe, yesterday's euphoric basketball performance may be followed today by the most wearisome match ever witnessed. Clearly, the aesthetic dimension is not solely contained within the game, nor within the player's actions, but in the interaction between the two, in the ability to create moments of transcendent play that create in spectators (and other players) a sense of wonder and admiration. I have witnessed this in high-level Counter-Strike play, in StreetFighter tournaments, in StarCraft, where entire audiences have been silenced by instances of extraordinary play that spoke to their aesthetic appreciation and had an undeniable impact, whether that be intellectual or emotional. So, to answer the question “are games art?”, perhaps we should first respond, “who's playing?”


Conclusion – The Problem of Procrustes

Procrustes was a serial killer in ancient Greek mythology whose modus operandi was to murder his victims by either stretching their limbs, or chopping them off to fit an iron bed of his design. This is precisely what we do when we take our knowledge of aesthetics from other art-forms and try to apply them to games; we stretch, we chop, and we inflict violence upon our understanding. Instead, we need to refuse to get into the bed! More pointedly, we need to throw out the old bed and design a new one, a bed that comfortably accommodates the dynamic, complex and evolving digital game form. We need to recognize the fact that the aesthetics of a game, its beauty, resides not solely in its graphics, or sound, or narrative, but in its play, and thus also in its player.

Of course, in designing our new bed, we mustn't forget lessons learned from the old one. We do need to incorporate what we know from the history and philosophy of aesthetics, much of our understanding of the aesthetics of literature and film can be applied to particular games. This should be acknowledged, whilst always vigilantly and intelligently scrutinized. But in first centring the aesthetics of digital games on play, we can further our cognition of the form, better articulate the pleasures it affords us, ferment more nuanced, insightful discussion, and ultimately provide us with a more refined critical approach in designing better games.

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