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Not the 'Are games art?' question again...
by Robert Hewson on 01/24/11 06:48:00 pm

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.



This piece was first published at the Ginger Monkey Gaming blog.
Are games art? If I had a penny for every time I seen this question printed, or heard it asked, or saw it attempted to be answered (with varying degrees of cliché and ambiguity) I’d have bought out Activision by now.

Indeed, a couple of months ago I was delivering a talk on games development to a room full of enthusiastic, slightly drunk students when somebody near the back raised that very question. 

"Oh God, not the art question" I replied. No sooner had the words left my lips than I felt remorse. I hadn't intended to sound embittered and the sight of the questioner shrinking in his chair with awkward embarrassment tugged on my little ginger heart. Quickly, I clarified; "Sorry I didn't mean to imply that it's a bad question, it's a very good question - it's just that it's impossible to answer without a definition of what art actually is".

So, we need a definition of what art means. Now whatever we do, let’s not going running to art critics, especially not advocates of so called fine art. As pointed out to great affect in 'What Good Are The Arts?' by John Carey, fine art is not superior to anything else that might claim to have some meaning. The fact that those who advocate it claim that it is, and that only a few enlightened people such as themselves can truly appreciate it says more about those people than it does about the objects of their affection.

Aside from dismissing this snobbery, Carey also meticulously examines and dismantles almost every formal attempt at a definition of art. Indeed he finally settles on this rather disappointing (by his own admission) but perhaps inevitable definition of art:

“Art is anything that anyone has ever considered to be art”

So by that definition, yes, videogames are art. However it’s not very satisfying is it? Even if we accept this conclusion it doesn’t really make us feel any better about the medium we love. What we’re really seeking is recognition.

Perhaps we can find the answer by applying a little game logic to the equation (I believe gamification is what the kids are calling it). Take a YouTube video; 5 hits and you can claim it’s art as long as one of those 5 considers it to be, 5 million hits and (assuming a lot more people consider it to be art by implication) you can claim that not only is it also art but it’s probably much better art than the clip with 5 hits.

Similarly, any game you care to name is most likely art by Carey’s definition, even if it’s only the creator who thinks so. I know for example that the demo I created to get my foot in the door of the industry is a terrible, terrible videogame and I am certain nobody in the world has ever considered it to be art. To me however it’s a reminder of my hopes and dreams, my struggles and triumphs, my naivety and my talent every time I look at it. Perhaps to me alone it is art.

I digress. The point is this. How many games do you think a LOT of people think are art? How many games have moved a generation? How many games have exposed some new truth about existence to millions of people?

The answer of course is not many. However, we few who have been moved by a game or maybe just those of us who have watched them grow and evolve at an astonishing rate; we believe they are capable of it.

Those of us with the foresight and imagination to see where they can take us in the future already know that games are going to become the art form of the 21st century, just as film became the art form of the 20th century against a remarkably similar initial backdrop of general apathy and cynicism.

So lets forget the art question for a while and just enjoy the ride, because like everything else it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.

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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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My thought process on the "are games art" question:

Games are a form of the interactive medium -> Much like Music is a form of sound -> Is music art? -> Yes, but not all music has real artistic value -> What music hasn't? -> Songs produced without actual artistic vision but in compliance with current trends -> These songs are only made to sell and not to have any real value of their own -> For example, most throw-away auto-tune music -> So music can be art if it is created according to the vision of an artist -> Art is a form of communicating a thought/emotion or idea from the artist to an audience -> So are games art? -> Yes, but not all games -> What games aren't? -> For example FarmVille isn't -> Why? -> Because the creators have no point to make with their game -> But the point of the game is enjoy playing with your friends -> No, the reason it was made is to make a load of money while keeping you playing by manipulating you into thinking that you're spending your time productively -> Same as Diablo or WoW, actually -> Then what game could be considered art? Metal Gear? -> MGS is a work of art, but as a game, it isn't very effective. It's has a lot of art, and there is a point to it, but most of it isn't actually communicated through interactivity, so it's not a strong work of art as a game -> Actually, most AAA games are like that -> So give me a positive example -> Shadow of the Colossus -> Why that game? -> Because it succeeds in invoking the feeling of guilt in the player, and not by just telling the player that his character is feeling guilty -> The creators successfully invoked an emotion in the player using the interactivity (slaying the creatures) of the game rather than borrowing techniques from other mediums -> This drastically increases the effect on the player and gives the game a reason of existence as a game -> So are games art? -> Some, not all just as not all movies are art by default (Transformers 2...)

Robert Hewson
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I completely agree with you. My central point was that it's useless asking the question 'Are Games Art?' unless you also provide a definition of art to measure against. I picked the 'What Good Are the Arts' definition in order to show that it's very easy to argue games are art given the right definition - but it still leaves us unfulfilled.

In my opinion we're asking the wrong question of ourselves - as you point out what we're really looking for are examples of games which have a coherent meaning or message behind them which move people, and if we're honest what people are really looking for when they ask that question is recognition.

In addition, we don't yet understand the language of games formally enough. The form you follow when writing a movie is very well defined, obviously you still need talent and creativity and inspiration to produce a great script using that form - but you have principles and guidelines to follow.

With games we don't yet have a formal set of guiding principles for creating meaningful experiences (we perhaps have more for creating fun and addictive experiences though) and as such there are only a few gems which we point to time and again, like Shadow of the Colossus.

I think I'm going to follow this line of thought for my next blog :)