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Games as an Art Form
by Tristan Meere on 11/24/12 12:32:00 am

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.

 

My name is Tristan Meere, I am currently sitting in a dusty old bedroom and like something out of Calvin and Hobbs I am sitting here in a tilted fedora writing this up, all be it with significantly less confidence. I am on what I'd like to think a well earned week break from school. Durning my first quarter at my currently school as a transfer I had the chance to write a short paper on something of my choosing. Most of what I wrote I'd been mulling over for quite a long time but could never get the words to say it and I certainly still haven't.

Maybe a cup of coffee first?

So without too much adue

 

Games as an Art Form

There has been a growing amount of rhetoric surrounding the idea of games as art within the industry in recent years. But what does 'games as art' really mean? For many it means our medium is aging and maturing, coming into its own within the eyes of its creators and the public. The idea does have its share of opponents from inside and outside the industry who either fear games fundamentally changing or simply think of video games as child’s toys. While the concerns of games changing is a valid one and will be addressed accordingly, the implication that they are nothing more than toys is one born of ignorance of what this medium is capable of doing or has already done in many cases. The future of games relies upon the creators and the players themselves delving into the inner workings of games, talking, discussing, teaching and learning about the medium. Understanding 'games as art' is understanding how humans react and interact with games and only by studying it can we create more immersive, fun, visually dynamic and compelling games.

Much of contemporary philosophy has tried to break down video games logically, using already known forms of art to gauge the artistic virtue of games. The pit fall comes in the mindset of trying to define one form of media on the merits of another, as Grant Trevor cited: 

Aaron Smuts, one of the few philosophers to write specically about videogames as art, addresses this issue in an article in Contemporary Aesthetics. Smuts’ method is to analyze videogames in terms of prior definitions and theories of art, including familiar historical and institutional accounts, to attempt to distinguish in videogames the factors that in uncontested artworks count toward their art status. He concludes positively by arguing: “that by any major definition of art many modern video games should be o_y I do say...considered art." (Trevor 2)

I’d rather try and define games on their own terms and instead of comparing them to other mediums, create whole new definitions to help us understand games and what makes them a unique art form.

 

So, what if games are art…poof, there it happened. What distinguishes games from other media? Games have long emulated other media, drawing from their learnt artistic values, but what defines games as a medium? What unique aspect do games bring to the table?  Are games purely emulations of other media? Extra Credits took a look at this ‘other media’, take for example movies, they’re viewed but the script doesn’t change. The experience the audience has can vary and each person can perceive the movie differently, but fundamentally the movie is the same. Games however are inherently dynamic and the experience the player has depends on how they play. In essence, the player takes the roll of the storyteller; their story being told through how they play (Extra Credits: Role of the Player). A vehicle that games use to develop the story is the narrative.

Narrative is in every aspect of the game, from the audio to the color pallet. Whether you are playing Baldur’s Gate or a multiplayer session of Call of Duty, a story is being told through narrative. To understand what video game narrative is, you need to understand how video games utilize it. Very little of the story is ever conveyed through text, though in some cases it will be short proverbs attached to items or speaking to an NPC, but for the most part the game’s story is told indirectly. The largest way a video game tells its story is through aesthetics and motif. Take for example a game like Saints Row the Third, which is a wacky game to say the least. Everything within the game aims itself at that objective; from the character dialog which, goes from serious to humorous in a few sentences; to the weaponry which ranges from a standard gun to a large purple dildo. Each element of the game was chosen in order to put the player in the correct mindset to experience the game, however crazy. Frank Marquart, art director for Volition, explained that if they wanted to pull off an "over-the-top" style of game, they needed to have an overarching cohesive vision (Staff).

So, if narrative is the means by which a game tells its story, is it possible to have a game that uses only narrative to tell its story? James Portnow, through Extra Credits, provided a rather stunning example of a story told solely through dynamic narrative. The game in question was the 1980s, Missile Command, which sets you in the role of a commander of three small missile defense bases, defending six towns. The core mechanic of the game was to fend off incoming nuclear missiles, with each new wave becoming increasingly difficult. The game placed the player in a situation of “completely reactionary weakness”, as Portnow called it, pitting you against an impossible task with limited to no power to tackle it. Through this the designer was able to create one of the most compelling and complex narratives about nuclear war, all without ever uttering a single line of text or dialog. “And what’s it all for? What’s the bluntest point made by this game? That you can’t win. No matter how many stages you survive or how much time you spend playing, you can’t beat Missile Command. Nuclear war has no winner.“ (Extra Credits: Narrative Dynamics). It managed to convey a deeper and richer game-play experience then most mainstream titles and all without fancy graphics or 60000 lines of dialog, which suggests that what makes a game truly good isn’t the content so much as creating a believable emotional link between the player and the game.

The link in question between the player and the game comes in the form of interactivity. Interactivity is the connection between the player and the game; it is kind of like taking a pen to your favorite book and rewriting it to suit yourself. Interactivity is a form of story writing and storytelling, your choices ultimately reflect how you experience the story. A game like Mass Effect is a prime example of very liberal storytelling, with large blocks of how it is told being subject to multiple choices by the players, leading to hundreds of variations, thousands by the time the recursive third act rolls around. But what of the interaction itself? Does rescuing the princess hold any meaning beyond just winning the game? Is the act of play done because it is emotionally satisfying? These are some of the fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves as developers, designers and gamers. What exactly does meaningful play, well, mean? Rules of Play describe it as: a person dropping an apple on the ground holds no meaning to us, but rolling dice on a craps table does. Why? The latter of the two has a frame of context around it, while the first one is merely someone dropping an apple (Rules of Play 60). So again I ask: Does rescuing the princess hold meaning beyond winning the game? The frame of context we require to answer this question is whether or not we’re emotionally invested in the princess. This context is gained through play, through the designer side of the interaction with the princess in order to forge an emotional link to her and prompt you to your mad quest. In other words, it is the designer’s job to make the player identify with an element of the game so that the player’s interaction with it holds meaning.

One of the best examples of a truly interactive experience comes out of Valve’s Half-Life 2, hidden within the developer’s commentary. The designers wanted to have the player see an epic cut scene but didn’t want to take away from the games experience by taking away control. In this scenario they wanted the player to see a huge flying ship crashing into the ground. In order to make sure the player was looking at the scene while it happened and not off somewhere else they positioned a lone enemy in the direction of the scene. In this way it caused the player to look in the direction they wanted and view the cut scene without taking away the player control (Half-Life 2). Famed Australian game critic Yahteez called it making it up along the way, saying:

…the use of non-intrusive unexplained blink-and-you-miss-it details to tell a story comes with several advantages, most notably giving the player a sense of being caught up in something far bigger than themselves, but what it also does is leave ample room for interpretation, not just for the audience, but for the writer. The story of Half-Life is basically made up as it goes along, but because so much of it is left ambiguous they don't even need to retcon anything. That's the beauty of it. (Croshaw)

            So, we’ve looked at several already good examples of games utilizing artistic values. The real challenge for us now is recognizing what these are and reapplying or reinventing them in future games. Because when it truly comes down it, the debate over games as art isn’t trying to validate video games in the eyes of those not in our industry but one which attempts to bring up the importance of studying our medium, which ultimately is what makes something artistic. Since the inception of video games, our medium has been studies, even if it wasn’t in the most direct manner. They have been studied and it shows. While not always true, games have evolved in every aspect. The aesthetics have certainly come a long way. Games over the years become more and more visually stunning, by which I do not mean graphically stunning. Working with color pallets and motifs, graphically simple games have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the near realistic graphics of most AAA titles. The same can be said for music and sound, with world famous composers like Hans Zimmer working on big titles like Crysis 2 to Darren Korb who captivated gamers with his musical work in the critically acclaimed Bastion.

            Ultimately what defines video games as a unique artistic medium is the complexity of structure and complelling player-based storytelling. Games have the potential to be the truest connection to artistic expression and the most genuine method of not just telling a story, but creating a unique experience. The simplest idea can be forged into a narrative masterpiece all by understanding what games as art truly mean, and as Eric Todd said in Gamasutra's weekly words from within the industry: "Ideas are the easy part. Getting from a good idea to something that's actually good is what's hard." (Caoili)

Farewell for now

 

 

Work Cited

Caoili, Eric. "Your game industry in your words, week of September 21." Gamasutra. 2012. UBM TechWeb. 22 Sept. 2012

 

Croshaw, Ben 'Yahteez' "Valve's Making up Half-Life Along the Way." The Escapist 14 Aug. 2012. Themis Group. 22 Sept. 2012.

 

Extra Credits: The Role of the Player. By Writer James Portnow. Animator. Daniel Floyd. Arist Allison Theus. Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

 

Extra Credits: Narrative Dynamics. By Writer James Portnow. Animator. Daniel Floyd. Arist Allison Theus. Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

 

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. "Interactivity."  Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. Print.

 

Staff. "The art direction of Saints Row: The Third." Gamasutra 2012. UBM TechWeb, 22 Sept. 2012

 

Trevor, Grant. "Video Games and Aesthetics." Philosophy Compass 5.8 (2010): 624-34.Wiley Online Library. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

 

Valve. Half-Life 2. Computer software. Store.steampowered.com. 16 Nov. 2004. 22 Sept. 2012

 

Art provided curtsy of myself ^_^


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Comments


Darren Tomlyn
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Although my reply to this post is based upon the contents of my blog, currently - ( http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php ) - I'm very much in the process of re-writing the first post(s), which will affect the descriptions of all the other posts I've written so far - (including those on the definitions of game and art) - which may also affect my reply, here.

ALL of the discussions about art and games, either or both in isolation and in relation to each other, currently completely fail to do their job properly, and the OP is no exception.

None of anything discussed or described so far is new - people have been arguing about and discussing the nature of such matters for millennia...

All that has changed, is the the different kinds of media used to enable both, and the forms art can take, (usually based upon such media), have been added to and evolved over time, (from films/video to the use of computers).

What must be used to DEFINE either, however, has never changed.

Unfortunately, this is the one element that has always been, consistently, failed to be recognised and understood, with consequences for the perception of what each word represents and their relationship with each other:

Behaviour.

Unfortunately, there is an even greater reason why this has never been recognised and understood, and is why the 'bigger picture' of this matter has never been addressed, and isn't even recognised to exist.

And so the matter is never solved, and the same arguments just go round and round in circles, reaching similar, inconsistent, (and therefore wrong), conclusions, just like the OP.

------------------------

The relationship between games and art is no different from anything and everything else we happen to create and art itself, if art is not its function.

Is EVERYTHING we create, regardless of its function, DEFINED as art?

Are cars, microwaves, televisions, houses, tables, chairs, hammers (or any other kind of tool) DEFINED as art?

No. All of these are defined as and by their function, which is completely separate and distinct from art itself.

Games are also defined by as and by a function that is separate and distinct from art itself.

Which is why games can NEVER be an art form in themselves, and any use as a medium for art (e.g. watching a game being played as a work of performance art), is completely separate and in addition to being a game.

So why do people get so confused?

Because they do not understand or recognise WHAT the function of games and art IS, especially in relation to each other - what it is they are defined as and by.

And this is a symptom of not understanding how the (English) language itself happens to function, and THAT is the 'big picture', without which, nothing else will be fully consistent, and so all the arguments will continue to go round in circles, without any consistent end...

------------------------------

The first, and important thing you need to understand, atm, is that any art used as a condition of the medium that has further been used to enable a game - (pictures for board games, and video for computers etc.) - has nothing to do with the definition of game itself, because ANY and ALL media used for games in general, are completely OPTIONAL, and therefore has nothing to do with the definition of game, too, only its (subjective) APPLICATION.

The act of CREATING a game is art, but the act of playing it is NOT, and it is the latter that DEFINES a game itself.

Luis Guimaraes
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Depends on how you classify art. My humble opinion of what art is:

---

The act of playing is the act of practicing an species' ability outside of a survival situation that requires it. Invention is the result of applying your creative problem solving abilities against a real or perceived problem with a functional approach. Solution is a successful Invention. Art is an Invention that is a Solution for a problem that doesn't exist*.

Unless you consider boredom - the mechanism that drives us to exercise our species' abilities when we have nothing else to do - as a problem (it's more like a Solution).

Art is the result of playing with one's creative problem solving abilities.

---

So yes, you use your creative problem solving abilities to make videogames therefore games are art.

Darren Tomlyn
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Art has nothing to do with problem solving.

Creativity - the act of creating something - yes, that is the basic behaviour art represents (an application of), but you don't have to create just to solve a problem in general - art is far more specific than that.

WHY we create is NOT what art itself represents, (how and why art exists is a completely different, but related, question from WHAT art actually is).

The only, single, function everything considered to be defined as art has in common, is that they tell a story. That is the function the act of creating things relates to, that defines the word art:

Creative story-telling.

Since EVERYTHING we create tells a story of its creation, EVERYTHING we create can be seen as being a work of art - (a creation of such a process or behaviour). But if the function of something we create is NOT to tell a story, (and instead allow someone to use it, or play it, if a game, for example), then although it can be seen as a work of art, it is defined, instead, by its separate function.

All of the different forms of art, therefore relate to how such creative stories are told, usually related to whatever medium is used, from pictures, to poetry and sculpture etc..

Such basic forms of art ONLY make sense with such a definition - problem solving is literally meaningless for such forms of art in themselves, otherwise art=puzzle. Does THAT definition make sense to you? I doubt it.

Games do not exist to tell a story - that is not their function, and the behaviour they are defined as and by, so game != art. Although games can use other forms and works of art to exist, they are not the same thing.

It is the behaviour of the CREATORS of a game that defines it as a work of art (of such a creative process), but it is the behaviour of the PLAYER(S) that defines it as a game. The two are DIFFERENT applications of DIFFERENT behaviour that are only ever compatible, when applied by DIFFERENT people!

If games are defined as art, then EVERYTHING we create is defined as ART, REGARDLESS OF FUNCTION, and therefore the word is then meaningless - it has nothing special to represent.

Luis Guimaraes
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Interesting points, Darren.

Please keep in mind my post are my opinion of things, feel free to argue on the opposite.

I still see it in a different way. Looks strictly at semantics might not be the best wait to see things at some times as semantics reflect points of view / idea organization from the elder times such words came to existence.

"Games do not exist to tell a story - that is not their function, and the behaviour they are defined as and by, so game != art."

As I don't see "story=art" I'd put them into a function of nested media forms: sculpture as a media for art, art as a media for telling a story. You can make sculpture that's not art, and you can make art that doesn't tell a story (apart for the history of it's creation, which I wouldn't consider to be art aswel unless the artists' intention is to input it so).

Re-telling a story (not a real event) or telling a history (real event) is not art in itself, but creating the story aswel as the creative performance of doing so is art.

Anyway as a disclaimer, my original language has a fine line between history and story, they even sound the same, and the specific term for "story" is almost blurred into an archaic form as most people actually uses "history" for both.

Darren Tomlyn
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The only reply I can give you is to tell you to read my blog - even if it is incomplete at this time it should still give you enough information as to why your reply has problems - otherwise I'll just end up repeating it all here, which would take far too long...

The word story in the English language, because of its use, (and which isn't fully recognised and understood!), represents something FAR more fundamental (and powerful) than the word history itself. (I'm guessing that your original language is something like Spanish/Portuguese or something? If so, then you need to know that the word story is no longer directly linked with history at all - but as I said, it's definition isn't fully recognised by anyone atm, anyway - (except me ;) ) (Read my blog)).

(The problem with the word story is that it's become defined by its application - (the word tell is used separately in combination) - i.e. story = narrative - when that CANNOT be true according to the basic rules of grammar because of its use.)

(Story is to tell is as car is to drive - story is to write is as car is to manufacture: story exists in the language independently of both - (but has to be written to exist in place). The only place a story can exist without being told, is (a person's) memory...).

The above is why art is about story-telling.

Everything we create tells a story, which is why everything we create CAN be seen as a work of art. Only that which we create TO tell such a story - has being a work of art as its function - will be DEFINED as a work of art.

What you talk about is how the word art is subjectively applied, based upon its definition - is something a work of art or not? Because the answer to that is purely subjective, people will forever be arguing about it. Unfortunately, at this time, what we're subjectively applying, (the definition of art) isn't helping...

If you see something that you consider to be telling a creative story, then you should consider it to be a work of art. Whether or not you like it, is a completely different matter. If you don't know, see, or understand the story being told, or don't see any or enough creativity, then it's purely in your right to not call and consider it a work of art yourself - even if someone else disagrees. Which is, of course, what being subjective is all about - but that can only apply to the APPLICATION of its definition, not the actual definition itself, which is causing problems at this time.

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks for the reply Darren, I do agree with everything.

Yes it's Portuguese, where história=history and estória=story/tale, but people just blurry the line and takes história=history/story/tale which has to do with both words sounding the same.

I've read some stuff on your blog already, it very interesting. As I said, looking at something from different angles always gives new understanding to work with. Cheers.


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