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On Videogames as Art
by Zane Mankowski on 01/19/13 03:32:00 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.


When I think of "art games", the first word that pops into my mind is "pretentious". Most art games are, at best, a shallow examination of some theme at a first grade level, or, at worst, a platformer with a moody art style and everything in the game world blatantly being labeled as a symbol of something else, like childhood angst or human worth.

Art games are a relatively new phenomenon that has slowly been building in popularity over the last few years, and now and then they occasionally break into the mainstream. Most of them tend to have some or all of the following attributes: heavy emphasis on story, heavy emphasis on stylized graphics or audio, low emphasis on gameplay or extremely generic game mechanics, and being very narrowly designed with very little meaningful choice for the players to participate in.

Many prominent game theory writers throughout the years keep pushing the idea that video games have the potential to be a highly artistic art form. They keep reminding us that games have something that film, literature, and music do not, which is interactivity. They parade the idea that this gives video games, as an art form, something that the other art forms do not, and that gives games the power to transcend contemporary art. The classic metaphor for games is a conversation, compared to a film, which would be a lecture. As the argument goes, an interactive conversation communicates so much more than a one-way lecture. Thus, an interactive work of art could communicate so much more than a work of art that simply tells, but never reacts. In theory, this argument is sound.

In practice, however, the current state of the game industry, popular games and art games both, is the most compelling argument against games as art. It's been noted many times before that most contemporary games today are focused entirely on collision, avoiding things or hitting things. These games are spatial environments which focus on problems whose solutions require manipulation of space. Spatial manipulation is inherently a shallow subject, and it's been strip-mined to death by modern videogames. Narratives for these games are no better. They tend to live in fantasy and sci-fi genres while offering their players a safe environment where they can play out their fantasies and petty ambitions without repercussion.

Art games are the bastard spawn of modern videogames, which is why they keep so much of the baggage of their predecessors. They tend to keep the same, tired old spatial game mechanics while awkwardly mixing them with a pretentious narrative that often explores simplistic themes. Or worse, they don't explore any theme, they simply label everything as symbol of something else. Some art games are even accompanied by a long essay describing what everything in the game symbolizes. As a rule, if your work of art needs a companion essay describing why it's art, what it means, or what its themes are, you've probably failed to create a meaningful body of art. Art should speak for itself.

Film critic Roger Ebert has claimed many times that video games can not be art. One of his key points is that, today, to try to claim any currently existing videogame as art, is foolish and wrong. How pathetic is it, that if we were to compose a canon of the most artistic videogames in existence today, one of the more artistic ones on that list might be a game about flying a flower petal around a field to collect other flower petals? Or maybe we'd list a platformer with temporal mechanics poorly stitched together with an inane and vapid narrative? This is the sort of artistic depth that we've achieved with this medium? These are works that are about as intellectually stimulating and moving as Rambo. It's more than a little discouraging.

So, the idea that videogames can be art is solid in theory, but seems to fall down in practice. It doesn't have to though. The idea that a work of art can gather so much more depth due to its reactivity and its dynamic nature is a solid idea. Videogames do have the power to be an art form that transcends all contemporary art forms. But, if videogames as a medium are ever to be something that could be considered art, there are numerous bad assumptions that game designers and developers always make about them, that have to be discarded.

Videogames have to be fun.
This is by far the most damaging assumption ever made about videogames. Fun is a shallow pursuit, and while fun, happiness, play, and enjoyment are all necessary components of the human experience, they are far from the whole of human experience. Suffice to say, fun is essentially the only thing that most contemporary videogames have to offer. These videogames focus on giving their users a power trip, a sense of purpose, escapism, humor, feelings of superiority, self-satisfaction, or any combination of the above. These games focus on giving their players what they what, how they want it, and in the most addicting fashion possible. Many popular movies do this as well.

Interactive art should try to stay away from most or all of those things. Not to say we should make everything contrived, melodramatic tearjerkers, but to try to make games which only inspire happiness is akin to making nothing but comedy or action films. Interactive art should focus on the whole range of human emotion, the whole range of human intellect and experience. Above all, interactive art should not shy away from topics which make their audience think, topics which challenge their audience's beliefs and perspectives, or topics which force their audience to confront ideas what they don't want to confront.

Videogames have to involve problem solving or be challenging.
Problem solving is the tool by which most games generate challenges. It's the foundation of all puzzles. Ultimately, however, it's not necessary in games. Games need choices, but those choices do not need to involve solving a problem, or achieving a goal. Games should usually avoid being challenging, because not only does it inspire a desire to win, it rewards that desire. Such rewards instigate competitiveness and aggression and arguably reduces its audience's capacity for empathy. But worst of all, it promotes elitism among the gamers who are skilled enough to overcome the challenges of the game: the ever prevalent hardcore versus casual gamer segregation.

Videogames have to have a goal.
Zimmerman and Salen would certainly disagree here, and claim that games without goals are simply toys. Perhaps, but that is a question of semantics and there is little to be gained by debating definitions. Interactive art does not need goals because art does not have to be about winning or achieving something, and it should probably avoid such topics. However, remember that although videogames do not need goals, they certainly should not be restricted from having goals.

Videogames need to have an end.
This follows from the last point. If there is a goal, there is an end, which would be when the goal is completed. If there is no goal, there may or may not be an end. And there shouldn't have to be an end. This is something that diverges extraordinarily from classical media like film and literature, a consequence of introducing interactivity to art. Interactive art can be entirely exploratory in nature, and to have a constraint which determines when you are "done" experiencing this art is artificial and unnecessary.

Videogames have to be platformers, shooters, fighting games, adventure games, strategy games, interactive fiction, simulations, or any other videogame genre.
Somewhat obvious, but the idea still stands. The aforementioned genres all are technologically and mechanically oriented distinctions. Though some technologies can convey certain ideas better than others, it should be the artistic idea theme that drives the work, not the technology or mechanics. In fact, works of interactive art should try their best to not get pigeonholed by these genres, because they imply a primary game mechanic, which is generally a bad thing, as covered in the next point.
Videogames need core, primary, and/or secondary game mechanics.
Videogames need rules that govern how the interactivity of the work functions, but nothing more. Dichotomizing these rules as primary or core mechanics versus secondary mechanics implies both a structure of interaction and a goal. No structure is actually necessary to any game's rules, and, as outlined above, goals are equally unnecessary. The structure of interaction created from having a primary mechanic with various secondary mechanics implies that the rules that compose these mechanics are to be invoked repeatedly, which ties into the next bad assumption.
Videogames need repeatable gameplay based on their mechanics.
Repetition is the most banal of ideas a work of art could express, because it gives the player nothing. It offers only whatever it has offered the player earlier. This is one of the greatest flaws in most contemporary games. Of course, if all that a game has to offer is "fun", then repetition can easily be justified. But almost every serious idea, artistic expression, or moving event in a game can not be repeated with meaningful results.

At this point, it may be erroneous to call what has been described 'videogames', and to instead stick to using the term 'interactive art'. This paper shall keep using the terms videogames and interactive art interchangeably, however, because videogames are the seed from which most attempts at interactive art has spawned from.

But where does that leave us, now that many assumptions about what videogames have to be have been sheared away? What should videogames that are attempting any sort of artistic depth be? Below are a list of necessary but not sufficient attributes that videogames should have in order to at least be considered art.
Interactive art should be interactive, first and foremost.
Extremely obvious, but worth emphasizing, given how uninteractive most popular videogames and art games are. Without interactivity, the medium is pointless. A game's interactivity should be the most important aspect of the game, not the narrative, the rules, or the technology. Every component of a work of interactive art should be subordinate to the interactivity.
Interactive art can not exist in a pre-written story.
A pre-written story is immutable, and interactive art does not dwell in the realm of the unchanging. Interactive art is not static, unlike other art forms such as film. By involving the choices of the audience, the work of art becomes dynamic. It becomes reactive to the choices of the players, and the ideas within that work of art change in response. Note that interactive art can include a pre-written story (such as backstory, or a side story), but it can not exist in one. To be interactive, a work of art must be changeable. It is impossible to both exist in an unchanging story and have the ability to change that story.

Take The Walking Dead videogame as an example of how detrimental a pre-written story is. The game offers plenty of "tough" choices which appear to cause huge changes in the game's plot. Instead, however, the game weaves all the choices you make back into the main plot, usually within ten minutes. No matter what you do, you'll always end up in the same place. Every single choice in the game is utterly meaningless. There are absolutely no consequences to anything you do, because narrative causality is king in the game, not player choice. As a rule, in any narratively driven work of interactive art, the number of possible plot synopses should never be less than two, and in ideally, this number should approach infinity.
The choices in interactive art must be both meaningful and impactful.
A videogame can be interactive, in that it uses player input, but it could completely ignore that input, or that input could be barely affect the videogame. Alternatively, the interactivity could could be nonsensical to the players or the choices could mean nothing to the player at the time of choosing. Every choice that players make while experiencing interactive art must be relevant and impact the state of that work of art in a meaningful way. Additionally, every choice must be clearly presented to the player, and the player should at least partially understand the consequences of each choice.

In The Graveyard, for instance, player input essentially allows the audience to either move forward, stay put, or move backward. The audience's only choice is to either continue experiencing the work or not, which is the exact same choice a film offers. The choices are hardly meaningful, to the point where it's hard to actually claim that there are choices.
Static art is declarative. Interactive art is exploratory.
Static art tells its audience something. As with a lecture, it is unidirectional. Interactive art can tell its audience something, but it must also respond to what the audience tells it back. It must realistically address the audience's challenges, questions, and assertions and respond appropriately. Static art is a way for an author to offer its audience an idea while dynamic, interactive art is a way for the author to explore an idea with an audience. In static art, every idea, every theme is probably known to the author upon completion. In dynamic art, the author could be learning and exploring the ideas and themes just as every audience member is.
Interactive art should be meaningless when stripped of interactivity.
This is the most critical point of all. Not only does interactive art need to be interactive and meaningful, it should only be meaningful when interactive. If you can strip the interactivity from a game, and have that game's message and meaning preserved, then the game has failed as interactive art. At best, it simply is static art masquerading as interactive art.

This is something that nearly every modern game with a message to tell fails to do. Such games tie their players down and present their message to the player, often in the form of short movies slipped in between gameplay sessions. For example, in Deus Ex, a youtube video of all the important dialogues and cutscenes has equivalent intellectual depth as actually playing through the entire game. What this means is that the actual interactivity has nothing to do with the message communicated. Going back to the conversation metaphor, this is akin to having one person yell at the other while completely ignoring with the other has to say, which is basically a lecture, just a lot more noisy. The choices in a work of interactive art need to be what's meaningful, not the events that happen in between those choices.

So are you ready to go and make a game filled with artistic depth? Chances are, if you're a game designer, you're probably balking at the thought of discarding primary game mechanics, pre-written stories, and the fun from your ideas. That's fine. There is, and always will be, a huge market for games where users overcome challenges, enjoy lavish plots, and have fun. And such games will probably always be in high demand.

But if you want create a work of interactive art with actual depth, with actual meaning, you're not going to create meaning within the realm of fun and unique game mechanics. You won't create it in pre-canned narratives that blatantly override player choice. You won't create meaning in novel puzzles and mind-bending brain teasers.

And although those kinds of games are precisely the only attempts we have today, it is possible to do so much better. It's no surprise that outsiders of the medium look upon videogames today and claim that videogames can never be art. It's no surprise that when asked to procure a videogame which exemplifies why videogames could be art, there is no real consensus across gamers and game designers. It's because there are no videogames that can be considered art today. Not even close.

Videogames, and interactive art in general, have the potential to have depth that vastly surpasses the greatest works of contemporary art. They have the ability to transcend all modern art forms, but the current state of the game industry and of art games is such a long ways away from such an idea.

But we'll never turn videogames into an art form without attempting to move towards that state. And we won't get to that state without discarding all the assumptions about videogames we've accumulated over the years. Even then, there are many more steps we have to take, but eventually, we may reach a point where videogames could be considered works of art.

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