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Game Design is the Meta-Medium
by Kevin Maxon on 08/19/14 02:48:00 pm   Featured 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.


Why talk about games/art?


It’s fairly well-agreed that the “Are games art?” debate was always pointless, and same goes for the “What is a game?” debate. This article is an answer to both of those questions. So why am I taking the time to write it?

These conversations are almost always vapid and defensive, but they don’t have to be. They’re actually interesting, important questions in the philosophy of games, which could hold a lot of meaning for thinking critics, designers, and artists. Unfortunately, the conversations are usually part of some other debate which is at the same time apparently-larger and obviously-less-significant—’Gone Home is a waste of time, it’s not even a game!’ ‘You can’t censor Dragon’s Crown, games are art!’ Shut. Up.

I’m going to be coming at this from another perspective: What does philosophy say about art? What does it say about games? How do games fit into the world of art? I want to ask and answer these questions for their own sake. This article probably won’t answer any questions conclusively, but it will sure try. It’s worth noting that I wrote a similar piece not long ago, and my thoughts have already changed significantly. Regardless.



A theory of art w/r/t games


Philosopher Kendall Walton’s extremely successful “Make-Believe Theory” defines art, or representational art, or fiction (they’re all the same thing, according to the theory) in game terms. Art is a mandate to play a game of make-believe, says the theory, and a very particular kind of make-believe, a kind much more strictly defined than that traditionally played by children. Instead of vague rules like “[imagine that] the ground is lava,” fictional art presents explicit rules like “[imagine that] [there’s a narrator thinking about how] Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place…”


For the sake of this article, I’m going to grant that this theory is true, which of course does not necessarily follow. However, it is a well-regarded theory in contemporary aesthetics, so it has some significant support behind it.


Some things about Make-Believe Theory worth lingering on:

  1. “Make-believe” is a game, so obviously the rules about what is/isn’t a game are pretty lax here.
  2. Art is a subset of Game, not the other way around. A work of art is a mandate to play a game of make-believe, and to experience art is to play make-believe. Consider how there are many kinds of games, and how art can be subsumed by only one of these.
  3. Each sentence of a novel is a new, very precise rule, directed at the reader. However, there are some overarching, implicit parts of those rules (“[imagine that] [there’s a narrator thinking about how] … ”). There are also explicitly defined parts of each rule (“ … Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place…”). I’m going to call these structural rules and content rules respectively. I think they’re worth separating.



Structural rules define the medium...


When we look at the various kinds of art—theater, written fiction, music—there are different structural rules implicit in their games of make-believe. A person reading a novel aloud is understood to be separate from the fiction, but that’s often not the case for theater. The identifiers preceding spoken lines in screenplays are understood to be just identifiers, and not part of the fictional world. The inconsistencies and inaccuracies of paint are understood to be interpretations of the fictional world, rather than literal claims about it (the Impressionists weren’t actually making art about a place where everything was blurry). These cultural, structural rules are stable within a medium, but vary between them. Understanding them is necessary for properly interacting with a work.



… and content rules define the individual work of art


For artists, these structural rules are crucial and assumed; their work is in designing only the most precise ‘rules’ which generate content within a medium (rules such as the text of a novel). A writer knows that their novel will (or should) be read in a certain order, little-to-nothing skipped, with the reader making as few as possible assumptions (e.g. if an author never states how many toes a character has, it would be absurd for a reader to assume that the number is 20). Their medium is cemented, and they develop ‘content,’ which their audience automatically understands how to interpret.



Game designers design structural rules


And here come the big claims! If artists work within a specific game (make-believe) with specific medium-defining structural rules, then seemingly game designer is not a subset of artist. It could be that an artist is a kind of game designer, but I think it’s worth separating it out further, even.


A game designer, unlike a traditional artist, designs the structural rules for works of art which do not fit within modern mediums, and so are broadly dubbed ‘games.’ A particular game not only has those structural rules, but also some amount of ‘content rules’ (rules like the sentences of fiction), such as the color of the sky in Minecraft, or any particular Magic card. These are the sorts of rules that may be changed without the game ceasing to be thought of ‘the same game.’ Chess played with differently shaped pieces is still Chess. Minecraft played with a texture pack is still Minecraft.


The identity of a specific game is often tied to the same things as the identity of a whole medium of art: the structural rules. Chess and Minecraft are games like this. When we’re talking about games like this, games which are defined systemically and structurally, game design is medium-design. And often, when we’re talking about game design, we’re talking only about this. When, for instance, we separate art from design, we’re separating the design of structural rules (game design) from the design of content rules (content development / art).



… but videogames are also defined by their content


However, the identity of a game is frequently not tied solely to its structure. Videogames in particular are often largely defined by their content—Gone Home with a different setting would absolutely not still be Gone Home. As designing this content was a critical part of designing this game, I think it’s often a mistake to try to separate game design from content design—art, writing, etc.



So what is game design?


My ultimate takeaway is that game design is art-making once removed: when you design a game you will often not only design content rules for others to experience within your chosen medium, but in addition actually restructure a medium. When a player comes to a new game, they have to be ready to reassess the structural rules, to find out how they even are supposed to interact with the work.


However, game designers often choose not to use all of the tools at their disposal. These structural designers, who make abstract games that look like Chess or Go, forgo content design and make games that are entirely defined by their structure. Art-making is the inverse of this: artists choose a set of structural rules they like (e.g. that of the novel), and generate content to fit into that game (of make-believe).


In this way, game design is the meta-medium. It subsumes all other media of art and is in fact often the design of new media.


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Daniel Cook
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What a great essay. I particularly liked the insightful note that game design can be an act of designing mediums.

Broadly, it seems game design is the act of designing human processes. Art can be seen as one specific game (or cluster / genre of games). Often it is seen as some sort of platonic ideal, separate and all encompassing. Mostly semi-spiritual nonsense. But art can also very fruitfully be described as just another form of game with rules, plays, dynamics, etc.

It is completely reasonable that games contain other games. This is one of the fundamental insights provided by the game grammar work that's been bubbling up over the last decade. Raph Koster has written on this extensively. If you go back to my skill loops and skill trees work, it explicitly embraces the idea of games within games. As does Joris Dorman's machinations. So for a game to contain sub-games of reading, viewing, etc is directly inline with the current game design theory.

I'm quite curious if this idea catches on. I suspect that understanding "Art as a game" does more for legitimizing our work than any of the rather crude attempts at anti-game colonization from other media institutions. ('games as texts', 'games as movies' etc.)

take care,

Alex Belzer
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Agreed. This is one of the smartest essays on game-as-art I've read. We've all been a little burned out on the topic I think.

I've a question about your note on the trend of "anti-game colonization". Are you saying that reading or viewing content in a game, even though it is, technically a sub-game according to make-believe-theory--still crude? But then are you implying that games-as-structural-rules within games-as-structural-rules are less crude? Otherwise there seems to be a contradiction there.

Perhaps you are saying it is the intent to "legitimize" that is in itself crude...

Chris Crowell
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Great blog, great response.
I am ruminating on the high level Games premise, which leads me to the question of 'at what point does Interaction become Game'? I have always felt that Games were a subset of Interaction. Interaction being activity requiring the Player to take some kind of discrete action which triggers a reaction that updates the world and our understanding of it. I consider that to be the fundamental Interactive loop.
Activities such as pondering a painting or poem, do not require a discrete action and do not typically change the world (leaving the quantum observation theories aside), but they DO update our understanding/pattern libraries.
Is ART a human authored presentation (as opposed to a natural wonder) that creates a change in our personal pattern library, especially for patterns that relate to our understanding of the real world? (I am going to use the term Epiphany for that particular kind of worldview changing pattern update.)

And therefore...
Any Interaction (Games included) can be Art if the Player has an Epiphany as a result of the Interaction?

The more I think about this, the more I think the Epiphany has been the missing piece of the Games as Art question. Especially as the experience of such will be completely subjective and unique to each Player.

Kevin Maxon
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Definitely interesting!

I would argue that experiencing art actually does require action to be taken--reading, viewing, interpreting--even for something so seemingly basic as a photograph. An interesting facet of Make-Believe Theory is the notion that even using very specific rules like "there was a bear" we still construct diverging game-worlds where the bear is black or brown or white. I think this shows that even with more static art, the player acts on rules to alter an ever-changing game state.

Alex Belzer
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How about: "Art is a PROCESS of playing a game of make-believe in order to achieve an epiphany"?

I think you really hit the nail on the head with the Epiphany being key to games/art. I'm sure there are plenty of counter examples--but as a personal ideology on good art-- yes, yes indeed.

Rick Hoppmann
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Oh well, I have a contrary opinion on this.
Hopefully the blog post will be unlocked soon on Gamasutra, but you can already read it on my blog:

I think that there are both games of craft and artistic games.
Not every game is a work of art.

"I think that every game which tries to get a deeper message across can be seen as art."

Rick Hoppmann
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It's up on here as well:
Are_Artistic_Games.php :)

Kevin Maxon
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I'm just talking about lower-case-a art. I'm using the word 'art' in the casual way that includes things like Twilight and amateur pornography as well as the Mona Lisa—'art' as a class of thing that we create and experience in a particular way, I guess. For the purpose of this discussion I'm not really interested in whether or not something is Art.

Nick Harris
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Sorry, but La Gioconda is most definitely Art with a Capital A.

Kevin Maxon
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I'm just saying that it's also art with a lower case a.

Joseph Cassano
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Personally, I feel the whole "are games art/what is a game" discussion to be somewhat pointless since Dadaism showed the world some time ago that "what is art" is a pointless discussion. In other words, Dadaism revealed that basically anything is art -- lowercase "a" or uppercase -- as long as you can make the argument for it. This is why the contemporary art world is full of installations and extreme abstractions; the scales have fallen from our eyes and anything goes.

What I feel is the more important discussion is whether or not one likes a thing, and why. For example, I personally don't care for the contemporary art scene as I prefer a more direct communication between creator and audience, but I'll still call it art because why not? Why we like things can reveal things about ourselves and the works themselves. Definitional discussions, though, really only go to show that us humans like naming/categorizing things for temporary convenience ("temporary" in that the categories can help as shorthand in conversation sometimes, but such categories often aren't accurate in all cases).

ken wong
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Great piece! Very thought provoking.

Have you considered that the game designer tends to be restricted by a given 'platform'? If I decide to make a mobile game in 2014, I must work within the constraints of the size, features and processing power of the current and near-future generations of smartphone and tablets; the nuances of the major App Stores. The same is true of console, PC and even board games. Could platform design be considered one step even further removed?

The Wii, Ouya, Steam and Oculus are relevant examples. Designing a platform means redefining the boundaries that game designers work within to create rules. Platform designers create the rules for creating rules for creating art!

This is true of commercial games, anyway! Some games like Tenya Wanya Teens, DDR and pre-Sportsfriends J.S. Joust defied the input and distribution constraints of their platform. Arcade games have bespoke hardware, and so define their own platform. To further defy the constraints of platform, one could conceivably design games that cannot run on any existing platform, or perhaps not even by humans (see As Slow as Possible, a musical piece by John Cage that lasts 640 years).

Kevin Maxon
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Love it.

Felipe Budinich
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Art is just a social game where 1.2% of the whales play.

Pablo Mera
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Thanks for this very interesting article! :)
I think I've never heard of this approach to this eons-long discussion about game as art, but it makes a lot of sense to me. After all, we are surrounded by systems that could perfectly be described in terms of game design theory.