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Why It Matters Whether Games Are Art
by Craig Stern on 04/24/09 10:47:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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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Comments


Caleb Garner
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Yea it’s a silly debate IMHO... of course it's art.. making a house is art.. recording metal rods drug across cement and rattling chains is music (thank you John Zorn). plenty of artists have already ready pretty much paved the way (sorry we're not breaking any new ground here folks) that anything can be deemed art... end of story...



I think it's just people who want to be academic or are somehow insecure in their artistic place in this world as a sellout maybe? because they are not drawing with monkey brains on canvas and scratching themselves or whatever that they are less of an artist... total nonsense.. if you need to do that kind of stuff to feel "legit" do it in your spare time and enjoy your cool day job.



artists.. if you make art.. you're artists... game designers... you're defining the rules/story of a game.. i think we all can agree that literature is art.. and making interesting game mechanics is most certainly an art! coders.. you write original code right? you're an artist... level designers.. hell you're a freakin' architect OF WORLDS... yes you're an artist.. sound effects? music? check.. producers / suits.. well you're probably getting paid enough to not lose too much sleep over this ponderous topic... ;)

Christian Nutt
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Yeah, but it's pretty much literally impossible to make money off of poetry. So you're ignoring the converse of your own argument, right?

Jeff Beaudoin
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"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."

False!



The fact that something is "art" is not what allows people to extract meaning from it or the creator to put meaning into it.



The creator creates for a purpose (or not), the observer gets meaning from the creation. The meaning found by the observer can be deeper, shallower, or entirely different than the original intention, but this has nothing to do with the label applied to the creation.



Saying you need games to be thought of as "art" in order to make games that are truly "art" is simply an excuse for not doing it.

Jhypsy Shah
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I always get ideas for machinima skits (battle in the auction house!) whenever I read dev forums..just thought I'd warn ya guys about that, hehe.

Craig Stern
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"The fact that something is 'art' is not what allows people to extract meaning from it or the creator to put meaning into it."



Of course not--the "art" designation is a means to an end. What allows people to extract submerged meaning from a work is their expectation that there is submerged meaning to extract. That's the benefit of people thinking of games as an artistic medium.



If players assume that there is no submerged meaning in games generally, they most likely aren't going to look for it. You are right that that doesn't stop game designers from putting submerged meaning in their games, but that doesn't mean that game designers don't benefit from players understanding games as an artistic medium. After all, content the player never sees is content wasted; I would suggest that the same principle applies to meaning.

An Dang
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"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."

Those aren't mutually exclusive.



Art or not, if a game is beautiful and has depth of meaning, people will realize it. You underestimate the gamers out there. Despite not expecting "art," gamers may find it. And some gamers actually do expect this beauty and meaning when they pick up a game. I expected it when I picked up the Sixaxis to play MGS4 and I found what I was looking for. Personally, I always expect great storytelling--which is obviously a form of art--whenever I pick up a role-playing game.

güzide tk
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The fact that something is "art" is not what allows people to extract meaning from it or the creator to put meaning into it. http://www.burun-estetigi.info/

Gary Hutton
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Are we wasting our time, or simply misunderstanding our current position in it?



Since the beginning of the development of any "technological media" for widespread general consumption, forms now most seriously considered as art, whether that is film or rock music or photography...all went through various degrees of dismissal, vilification, commercialization(and innumerable other phases and terms), and eventually acceptance and recognition as "High Art".



These are all things that "matured" in the eyes of the “Keepers of Taste and Refinement” intelligentsia, and those many consider pretentious trendjumpers, etc…but their maturation was not because of these groups attention, interest, or opinion.



The main shared element of most respected artists in many art forms, is that they concieve of a vision they not only feel utterly compelled to create, but also seem to have a need to share this vision or creation with others.



It's foolish to paint all artists with the same brush (horrible I know), as there are many "serious" commercially and financially successful artists, musicians, photographers etc… and I am also sure there are some serious artists that may never let what they create see the light of day whilst starving to death in utter destitution and anonymity.



I personally think video games contain many artful elements, and have talented creators working on every step of the production process...it would be ridiculous to dismiss these fantastically beautiful (and sometimes disturbing) worlds, characters and stories that would not exist but for the cohesive vision and creative talent of many different imaginative and diverse individuals.



The necessary conditions for the explosive expansion and variety of what people can or will consider gaming experiences are basically all in place at present, and many would argue have been in place for some time.



There are several game titles available now that would certainly make the average non-gamer rethink what they assume or believe people are experiencing when they sit down with their control pad, mouse and keyboard, etc. to "play a video game'…were they to sit and experience it for themselves.



So...My assertion is that the "Are videogames Art?" is an incomplete, and incorrectly phrased question.



If you acknowledge the current body of all games available since their inception, taken together and analyzed for their "artful content"; symbolism, metaphor, imagery, etc...you could take the general progression, evolution, variety, perception, etc and neatly lay it right on top of the timeline for the development and recognition of "artful content" in film, music or photography. And I'm guessing it would very neatly match up...to at least one or more of those forms.



Where it would fall short...is not having the same amount of time to "match up" to the number of years that music, film and photography have had to evolve into what they are today...games simply haven't been around as long as these other forms.



So...I think the question people should be asking is,



"Are Video Games Art Yet?"



Considering the speed at which technology evolves, and the current global population that has access to game making technology, games may not need as much time to reach that acceptance point.



And frankly I agree with Fumito Ueda and others who assert that neither the question, nor the reasoning behind those who answer yes or no matter one little bit, nor does it effect the artful qualities of games being made right now.



Nor will it matter when Video Games are finally acknowledged as having a small percentage of releases that constitute “High Art"...nor will the growth and expansion of things such as Serious Game Art or Art Game Festivals, awards, and the like.



It didn't matter to the "older" art forms either...because the expansion of the known borders of these means of expression and what was contained within them was being expanded by the artists within those forms during these debates, regardless of the accepted or popularity of either answer at any given time in the argument.



And what's ironic, is I believe the body of work produced by these artists' constant stream of creation, synthesis, and experimentation eventually constituted the evidence for the "establishment" to defend their change to the now positive assertions that these forms were indeed "High Art."



Some artists intentionally, some less so, some unconciously, perhaps some even mocking the question through their work...but still they had answered it. And they moved on...



And through history this has happened time and again...painting, architecture, sculpture...some of these forms so old we have not been able even to directly witness this process...the evolution of form, coupled with the establishment of the "Keepers of Taste and Refinement" or whatever you would like to call them.



And through it all the creators; the pioneers, the radicals, the innovators, the unknown, the famed, and many more....they provided the answers through their creations.



But don't mistake my assertion for a dismissal of the process of distinction and debate, it's both needed and often missing in every arena of life...and is a healthy sign of logical and independent thought in its "highest forms". (ha ha)



So, forgive the length of my comment...because I know some of those involved in video game production, of games of every size, duration, and "artfulness" pay attention to this debate to various degrees.



And I would hate to distract them from their work; their visions, passions, experiments, and eventually....



...their various contributions to the critical mass of "evidence' that will eventually be cited by those who finally feel safe to answer;



"Yes, Videogames are Art."



Although they really had little or nothing to do with the process of the answer becoming yes, they eventually just changed theirs.



And like the creators had long before the debaters, they will lose interest in the question entirely...and again just as the creators had long ago, and are always doing…



...they will move on. Not to creation however…but to some shiny new debate…



…and once again, it won’t really matter.



Gary Hutton

Mickey Mullasan
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Spoken like a true post-modernist. :) The final conclusion that being a nihilistic slippery slope.



I'd like to postulate that even if there is a circular debate that wastes time in the pragmatic egoist fight for ideological superiority, those contributing to it will learn more than if the debate never took place. The debate itself may be seen as meaningless and the positions completely unfounded and baseless (often due to the lack of knowledge of the subject), yet that does not mean that a conclusion could not be found that is grounded and rational or that new knowledge cannot be exchanged.

Gary Hutton
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Nope. As I stated...



"But don't mistake my assertion for a dismissal of the process of distinction and debate, it's both needed and often missing in every arena of life...and is a healthy sign of logical and independent thought in its "highest forms". (ha ha)"



And a conclusion will be reached, but it certainly will not be the debate itself that produces this "grounded or rational" conclusion, it will be the inevitable evolution of the designers and artists that continuously push to challenge what a gaming experience is, or can be.



And yes...the debate will produce things like new genre names, "schools of thought", and analysis of existing games with respect to these distinctions and labels.



But even all of those things, and the debate itself...have arose from the evolution of the variety of gaming experiences that exist or are in various stages of development...they wake people up to the need to discuss just what is going on in this creative arena...and force them to come up with names to describe these new forms and experiences.



And again, I don't think that anyone should ignore the debate, and I doubt anyone who truly cares about how video games are percieved doesn't have their own answer, justifications, and examples to defend that answer....and thus are not ignoring it....even if their answer IS "ignore it." That's an answer that acknowledges the debate as well, just as atheism is still technically a belief system.



And I agree with your assertion that those who participate will learn, but you may find that there are those too busy actually producing tangible evidence of this artful evolution ie. GAMES to participate (at least very much).



Even should the eventual answer be a resounding "YES"....there will still be bins full of "Baby Shaker 2000", "BMXXX" and the like, just as for every "Complete Birth of the Cool", there'a a thousand thousand copies of Kenny G and Racist Redneck Rebels to drown the debate in ichor and cotton candy or cliches.



And sadly, the majority of people will know and remember the names of games that make the headlines for the "wrong" reasons, not the unique and beautiful creations that arrive to give new momentum and fuel to the "Yes" that is simply waiting to be spoken, when the time is right.



Just as naysayers in the scientific arena of possibility have been shown to be history's fools, people who deny there's a future for Videogames as Art will have their myopia as their calling card or tombstone engraving.



The saddest thing I think, is that this debate gained popularity because of someone who has probably devoted less time to playing ANY videogames, then they have "wasting" time on reviewing the latest installment of an action movie franchise or romantic comedy clone with a straight face.



And if there is something I am glad is happening as we speak, is we are taking back ownership of the debate and invigorating it with the passionate and mostly articulate arguments of people who might actually know what they're talking about.



Gamers and Gamemakers.

Alan Jack
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Isn't asking "Why Games Aren't Art" a case of asking "Why Isn't My Baby A Grown-Up?"?



Games won't be considered art until we stop worrying about games being considered as art, and start considering how we can better use our medium to portray a message. Right now, the emphasis is - quite understandably - on making things that sell, because development costs are so high. The people who make things that don't sell don't have the academic background to critically analyse what they do, so they just stab in the dark and all make the same mistakes and learn the same lessons.



If we can start talking seriously about games, we can start affecting a change in the way we handle the making of games and maybe - just maybe - change the opinion of the general populace.


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