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Philosophy of Art: Video Games

Obviously, if everything can be art, video games can be art too. The sticking point to the "are games art?" argument isn't a problem of categorization, it's a problem of value judgments.

Simon Ludgate, Blogger

July 7, 2010

10 Min Read

Are Video Games Art? The debate props up time and time again, though it's easily stretched on for over a decade. Sadly, the debate will likely continue to stretch on forever, due to the difficulties in understanding categorizations. However, at least those among us here at Gamasutra won't have to go on pondering the debate any longer; at least, not in such vague terms.

Is an X a Y?

To understand the "Are Games Art?" debate, we have to examine the structure of categorization statements. These take the common form of "Is an X a Y?" such as: "Is a tomato a fruit?" or "Is this a cat?" Of the two elements, the first is generally clearly defined: a tomato is usually well understood and the picture is plainly visible. The category also tends to feel well defined, though it may be more questionable: by fruit, do you mean the botanical definition of the seed-bearing ovaries of a plant, or do you mean the common term to describe sweet, fleshy parts of plants we like to eat raw? Strictly, a tomato is a fruit, but it is served as a vegitable, in salads or sauces.

Thus, the question of categorization relies on the definition of the category, which in turn often derives from the context in which the question is posed. For example, if I ask you to make a fruit salad, and you're wondering what to put in the fruit salad, you might ask: "is tomato a fruit?" and I would answer "no," based on its viability in a fruit salad. Posed out of context, however, the question would rely on the context given by the answerer. Different people might give different answers, based on what they think of the fruit category at the time.

My second example is far more problematic. Strictly speaking, what I linked is not a cat. In the most technical sense, I linked a jpg, a computer format for storing images. So the category of the "this" link is strictly a jpg, not a cat. However, the data stores an image, and it happens to be the image of a drawing that looks like two cats. Again, the context of the question asked determines the context of the answer: clearly, I intend you to click the link, look at the picture, and determine if the character in the picture is a "cat." Of course, even after stepping past the technical hurdles of viewing the content of the image, we still have the challenge of determining whether or not a drawing that is "cat-like" is a cat. So you might say that the picture isn't of a cat, but is merely cat-like.


And herein we arrive at art, at reproduction, at the x-like. Maybe you can exactract the defining characteristics of a cat: the round face, the triangular ears, certain body proportions, and if a drawing meets those in sufficient quantity, it is deemed cat-like. There we reach the problem of defining the boundary conditions for being cat-like. Consider this step-by-step drawing sequence google so helpfully provided. The first step, two circles, seems to not meet the conditions for "cat-like", at least for me. The final step, with the finished cat picture, does qualify as cat-like. But when does that happen? At what step of the drawing, which storke of the pencil, does the image gain the quality of being cat-like? Is it that second step, with the characteristic triangular ears? Or the third step, with the facial features?

This is the problem of category boundaries. In classical antiquity, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle proposed that categories by clearly defined and exclusive things: everything fit into a clear, isolated category. However, modern cognitive theory holds that categories have "fuzzy" boundaries and that things can exist withing "vague" or "transition" zones between categories. A particular image may look cat-like if you've been primed to percieve it as cat-like (such as by being shown successivly abstracted cat-like images, from a very cat-like one to a very un-cat-like one), whereas the same image may not look cat-like to someone primed to percieve it as un-cat-like (such as being primed by being shown very un-cat-like images successively becoming more cat-like).


This sense of fuzziness certainly applies to art, and the question of "What is art?" far preceeds the very invention of video games. I did an entire course on the philosophy of art for my undergrad philosophy degree, but a solid answer was never provided. Every attempt we (the students) made to establish boundary conditions for "art" seemed overly broad or overly restrictive: there was always some exception that made us go "ugh, there's no way that's art" or "wait, that is clearly art, how can we exclude it?" However, I was fortunate enough to be specializing in value ethics, and I came to an important realization: being art is as much a value statement as a category statement.

The key realization I came to was that, in order to understand what is art, I had to isolate the question "what is art" from "what is good art." Thus, I had to accept instances that were totally worthless as art, but still allow them to be categorized as art. I had to create an objective set of boundary conditions for my categorization of art. In the end, I came up with the following definition for "what is art?": any non-functional source of value is art.

Art is worth something (to someone)

Value is a facinating topic in and of itself - I could easily go on and on about it, and indeed much of what I do, such as game citicism, revolves around value judgments - but it's also central to the "are games art?" debate. Art is an inherantly value-based category. If something is art, it has value as art. A painting or sculpture may have no functional value, but it can still have artistic value. Moreover, an object may have artistic value beyond its functional value: an artfully designed building may both serve its function as a building but have further value in its artful architecture. Two functionally identical objects may have different value if one is a work of art.

Of course, the "is a work of art" should be understood as "if someone perceives it to be a work of art". Both both functional and non-functional value is subjectective, thus different things are worth different amounts to different people under different circumstances. The amount that someone is willing to invest in something beyond its functional value is the artistic value to that investor.

This means, of course, that anything can be art, provided someone is willing to percieve it as art and invest something into it as art. The investment need not be monetary: if someone merely invests the time and space to mount an object on their wall to display it as art, it is art. An investment has been made. This is why a urinal, mounted in an art display, actually is art. Though, when monetary investment is made and someone pays $1.7 million for a sideways urinal, everyone else starts to think it's art too.

Art vs Good Art

The tricky part to the art debate is that "art" usually means "fantastic, very valuable works of art" in the same way that "fruit" usually means "the sweet, tasty fruits." Generally, the notion of "art" that is commonly used is one that attaches a high value judgment: something is only "art" if it is very valuable as "art". A video game is art the instant anyone says it's art, but it's not "art" until it's highly valued as such. Until someone opens a museum and buys a video game for at least $1 million and puts it on display and sells tickets for people to come see it, video games won't really enter the collective mindscape of "art".

There is also the sense of art vs a "work of art." "Works of art" suggest something great, grandiose, culturally defining. Perhaps future generations will look back at certain games as culturally defining, grandiose works of art, but these things are generally spotted in hindsight. Keep in mind that Duchamp's Fountain was originally rejected for display in 1917, and it wasn't until 1950 that it was replicated for exhibition. Hopefully we won't have to wait 33 years for a video game to be recognized as a work of art. Without a "magnum opus" to herald their entry into the annals of art, games, like many other nascent art forms, might be scorned by the public at large.

Click here for Art

One of the major obstacles in games being recognized as art is that they are interactive, and a great portion of society lack the time, skills, and motivation to complete them. Trying to push games as art in our culture is like trying to push books as art upon an illiterate society. There are also technical boundaries that can make games inaccessible, as well as cost limitations. All of these things contribute to the perception that games are "just for kids" or "just for geeks" or "just a way to make money."

There are game artists that challenge all three of these limiting factors with their simple, accessible, free-to-play games. These, unfortunately, lack the production values that make games interesting and, indeed, different from movies and books. A game with artistic value only in text or animation is no more artistically interesting than the text or video alone. It is the interaction with the game that makes games unique, and therein lies the challenge to presenting it as art.

Just one Example!

Throughout this article I resisted the urge to display specific games as art, because the purpose of this is to examine whether or not games can be art, not to promote my favorite games as art. However, I will make an exception to illustrate the above point for interactivity. In Metal Gear Solid 4, there is a scene near the end where you simply have to mash a button to keep Solid Snake crawling through a microwave-defended tunnel. In the top half of the screen, a cutscene-driven battle rages on. In the bottom half of the screen, your character struggles to crawl through the tunnel. This scene is an example of interactive art: despite the simplicity of the interaction (press 1 button repeatedly) it completely captures the emotional drive of the scene: "I must keep going." It is simple, direct, visceral, and in every way shape and form artistic.

At the same time, Metal Gear Solid 4 relied tremendously on traditional art forms to present its story: movies were nearly as common as actual interactvie gameplay. The interactive gameplay sections could probably be reduced to a handful of short cutscenes and the whole thing wrapped up and sold as a movie, which probably would be conisidered as art by the very critics who decry games as not-art. I think this shows that games have great potential to be an art form of their own, but their current reliance on traditional art media (eg: movies, cutscenes, scripted events) prevents them from widely being regarded as art in the public eye.

So there you have it: Games are Art

The "are games art?" debate is over. Horray. Now we can move on to the proper discussion: are any games great works of art? If so, which ones? And what will it take for games to gain widespread recognition as an art form?

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Simon Ludgate


Simon Ludgate has worked at numerous game companies, including Strategy First, Electronic Arts, and Gameloft, as well as a journalist and radio personality with GameSHOUT Radio. He recently obtained his Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto iSchool, with a focus on Knowledge and Information Management. His areas of expertise are broad, though he has a particular interest in massively multiplayer online games, both subscription- and microtransaction-based. He currently maintains a blog at soulrift.com and can be contacted through that site. Twitter: @SimonLudgate

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