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Opinion: Tell Me What Art Is, and I’ll Tell You What Games Are
Opinion: Tell Me What Art Is, and I’ll Tell You What Games Are Exclusive
September 30, 2008 | By Matthew Wasteland

September 30, 2008 | By Matthew Wasteland
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this opinion piece, semi-pseudonymous Game Developer magazine columnist Matthew Wasteland takes a look at gaming's place in the creative canon, looking at what critics miss within gaming, and what everyone needs to understand about games as an art form.]

Most people in the video game industry, and many people who write about them for a living, hope for games to be taken seriously as art or literature.

It’s just around the corner, we believe — the day the establishment flings open the door to us and lets us in, apologetic tears streaming from their eyes. "We misjudged you," they’ll cry, "Just like we initially misjudged movies, jazz, and prose poetry." Games are a brand-new medium, we console ourselves, and these hidebound fogeys just need time to understand it.

The conventional wisdom is that we’re nearly there — that everyone on our side is just being a little too uncreative, or that the software tools are just a bit lacking, and that our wildest dreams are possible with just a little more cleverness in our game designs and some new technological developments.

"Design challenges" at industry conferences exhort professionals to stretch their brains by sketching out an idea based around something perceived to be an unconventional subject matter (for games, anyway); Moby Dick, for example. We may not have much cachet, people may shrink away when we explain what we do at non-industry social gatherings, but hey! Just the other day we were talking about ideas for games based on Moby Dick! How could that not be serious and important?

We all believe in the future of the games (I think this is why we are here, right?), and while my Magical Wasteland weblog has become known for its skeptical tack, I want to point out I have nothing but respect for those who are courageously trying to expand our thinking about games. I am questioning things because I want them to get better.

If there are significant limits to what games (as we know them now) can do, we need to understand those limits so we can overcome them. Critics of older media often dismiss video games without fully explaining why; this is an attempt to do it in their stead.

Some Possible Approaches

Firstly, we have our “traditional” adaptations. Given that we wanted to maintain at least some semblance to the original work, we have a couple familiar options for Moby Dick: The Video Game (there are also ways to combine both approaches to varying degrees, but for the sake of the exercise I will talk about them as separates).

The first approach would be to keep the sequence of major events— Captain Ahab’s first encounter with the title character, his desire for revenge, his madness, and subsequent death— and attempt to insert gameplay sequences around those fixed points. The player therefore could have fun sailing the Pequod and catching whales at some point between Ahab’s first and second encounters with the whale. Success at these parts of the game would allow him to proceed further in the story. But no matter how much freedom the player was given to navigate the ocean in his own self-directed way, ultimately, the predetermined story of Captain Ahab’s obsession wins out, and at the end of the game, Moby Dick destroys the Pequod no matter what happened in the intervening time.

Most large-budget titles made today take this route (the average consumer does not seem to mind it at all), but many game designers and commentators find themselves dissatisfied with it. It means the player’s agency in the game world is only an illusion. No matter what the player does, or how well he plays, the white whale will kill Captain Ahab in a short cinematic scene after the gameplay is over.

That’s the story that’s been set up for the player to experience, and he travels along that path like a tourist on a Disneyland ride. However much choice the player seems to have in between these story checkpoints, the overall path of the game is geometrically equivalent to those of film or theater or books. We choose to ignore the fundamental quality that makes games different and so compelling— their interactivity.

The other approach is to “open up” Moby Dick, to allow the player real, significant choices in the course of events and their outcomes. In this configuration, an especially skillful player might be so good at the game that he does indeed catch and kill Moby Dick, triumphantly achieving Captain Ahab’s revenge— and along with it, destroying the whole point of Melville’s story. Allowing such an alternate ending robs the work of its power; the story of Moby Dick is engaging precisely because Captain Ahab cannot find extra lives, rewind time or load an old save for a second chance, and the story of his obsession and undoing is fixed over time, a static sculpture in four dimensions.

The issue of these changeable outcomes is what the critic Roger Ebert infamously identified as the central problem with games-as-art, and despite the emotional flurries and dismissive grumblings from the gaming community, it is actually a good point without a clear answer. If Melville had so much as allowed for any possibility at all where Captain Ahab “wins,” no matter how remote, the work’s message and its interpretation of the world completely changes. Instead of destiny and fate, we would now speak of probability and chance. Work hard enough, get lucky enough, and anything is possible.

The problems of these two approaches show why, despite our high hopes and our big money, it sometimes feels like all we have to showcase for our vaunted new storytelling medium is either something that is basically a film or a book conflated with pockets of gameplay, or a cheesy Choose Your Own Adventure affair where no single story can really be granted sole authorial intent.

This puts us in a strange bind: we’re either imitative of, and beholden to, the arts that preceded us (“if you want a good story, why not read a book?”), or we are unmoored in a postmodern haze, trying to argue that a quantum superposition of many possible outcomes is just as artful as a linear story (“this painting is a work of art and self-expression— but it doesn’t matter if that part is red or blue or green”). Neither of these options is fully satisfying.

On 'Systems As Art'

Then, we have what I will call “systems-as-art”. An example of systems-as-art in its simplest and unvarnished form is Rod Humble’s experiment, The Marriage, wherein a couple of floating squares (one blue, one pink) drift around a field but must meet certain different conditions in order to prevent the “game” (that is, the marriage) from ending. Playing it is an exercise in attempting to sustain equilibrium in the face of change, something we understand to be the author’s interpretation of what being in a marriage feels like.

Humble argues that a set of rules by itself can communicate meaning and achieve the status of art. By the same logic, if The Marriage is a work of art about marriage, then chess is a work of art about conflict and war, Monopoly might be a work of art about capitalism, even the sport of basketball could potentially be a work of art about, say, agility and endurance.

Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, goes even farther, suggesting that the creation of internally consistent rule systems is a superior method to writing for the conveyance of philosophy (although in the same interview, he also mentions that nobody has yet fully understood the meaning of his game).

The Marriage is almost completely devoid of context. The system of its rules exist and operate with the barest of any qualities that might attach the player to what is going on. The two squares change position grow or shink in size, and become opaque or transparent. The player may understand (by dint of the game’s title) on some level that one of the boxes is meant to represent the husband, and the other box is the wife, and he may try to keep them together. But it’s also likely that he will see the colored, geometric shapes and not feel much of anything. What brings us to care about a colored square in a video game world?

One of the moments of emotional resonance in Portal is the incineration (by the player’s own hand) of the coyly named and designed Weighted Companion Cube. One could argue that the Companion Cube is just as nonrepresentational as the boxes in The Marriage, but context is the key. It is the only cube of its kind (it has hearts on it, as opposed to the numerous nondescript cubes strewn throughout the game). The level in which the Companion Cube appears is impossible to solve without it. The player’s nemesis, tormentor, and unreliable narrator has specifically advised the player not to become attached to it.

Finally, this villain suggests that the Companion Cube cannot speak, but if it could, it would politely ask the player to destroy it. This is very clever: at that moment, the player can’t help but to imagine the Companion Cube speaking. What would it say? “Please don’t incinerate me,” probably. We feel sorry we have to destroy the Companion Cube to progress in the game. Despite ourselves, we hope we will see it again somehow.

Why would you care about a simple box in a video game? Portal, I think, offers a better answer. Our experience of the Companion Cube sequence draws us in, it interests us. The Marriage doesn’t do that, and that is its fundamental weakness: it is not particularly fun or engaging, except by virtue of the fact that it is one of the first and few deliberate explorations of systems-as-art. Humble comes close to acknowledging this, saying that “The Marriage is intended to be art,” and “meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the traditional sense most games are.”

Distancing the work from the “entertainment” of popular games is fine, but even the most artsy, obscure and difficult works must connect with an audience somehow. I am not sure a system of rules by itself is the best method to achieve that. If rules are art, could not one just as easily publish a rulebook, and leave it at that?

None of this is to say that a system of rules cannot be of artful construction. I have no doubt that, if we wished it and worked for it, we could at some point have departments at forward-thinking arts colleges devoted to the creation of not-very-representational rule systems as art. This might make some of us feel better about ourselves— that there is a recognized, serious side to our medium.

But I can’t help but think something like that would be a Pyrrhic victory, with “art games” sharing space in an airless pantheon next to twelve-tone music or hypertext novellas while the rest of the world goes on listening to primordial melodies and timeworn stories reinvented in the style of the day.


It has become a recognized cliché in these kinds of conversations to ask, “have games had their Citizen Kane yet?” It’s not as if the moment Citizen Kane was released, everyone suddenly decided that the medium of film was serious and important and the next great art form. But I think there’s a reason we have been speaking in terms of Citizen Kane and not, for example, Un Chien Andalou.

While both are important milestones in the history of the medium, Citizen Kane is accessible and easy to like. It synthesized much of what was known about filmmaking up to that point into a coherent whole. It married technical innovations with a good story. It showed that a film could be high and low, art and spectacle, serious and entertaining all at once. A medium that can deliver all of that in one package is a great medium indeed.

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Tom Newman
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Great article! The problem is that we all want games to be given the same respect as film and literatue, but the fact remains that games really aren't art. For example, chess is a game, it is not art - but when surrealist artist Man Ray decided to sculpt a chess set, it went on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The components that make up videogames are undoubtedly art, but the game itself still is not. I personally feel that as gamers mature, the need to classify games as art will be unnecessary - hopefully at least.

Greg Wohlwend
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The notion that any particular video game hasn't achieved art status YET, is completely off base. Every single game ever made is a piece of art.

I refer to Scott McCloud's definition of art in "Understanding Comics." I believe it's chapter 6.

The real issue here is how society deals with new media. A quick look back to television, comics and etc. and you'll see them all universally panned nearest their inception (on a mainstream level). Maybe video games haven't been accepted by the masses as an art form, but that doesn't change their real substance as an expressive medium.

Joshua McDonald
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The whole "Are games art?" discussion has one major problem: Definitions.

To the average person, art is a very vague term. It usually has something to do with creativity, skill, deeper meanings, etc., but if you asked people, even people who have been heavily into this discussion, to define exactly what art is and give criteria for determining whether something is artistic (without using examples), they would have a difficult time doing it.

The only thing they really know is that art is a positive term, and refering to something as artistic somehow makes it better. Therefore, people who like games want to call them art and people who don't, don't.

Next time somebody wants to discuss whether games are art, just tell them to give you a concrete definition of the word. Chances are, they'll fail to do so, but if they actually manage, you can at least then have an intelligent discussion where you aren't barred from making progress by a disparity in definitions.

Greg Wohlwend
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In short, Scott's definition of art, and I'm paraphrasing here: "Anything that doesn't deal with the pursuit of reproduction or survival."

I may have spliced a few words in or out of this, so if someone has the precise definition that would be helpful. But that's the gist of it.

Patrick Dugan
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Art is the immolation of worldviews and games are yogas for remembering reality.

Sounded good at the time.

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Last I checked every modern triple A game has an entire army of ARTISTS behind the creation of it. Last I checked artists create art. The whole discussion is stupid since no one can realize that simple fact.

Tom Newman: Games won't receive the same respect as Film because Baby Boomers aren't gamers. As soon as they all die off in 20-30 years games will be the new leading artform and movies will be an least when compared to games. Film vs Games is a generation gap and the younger generation always wins in a generation gap since the older generation dies first. :)

Leo Gura
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Games should be unapologetically 'gamey', then folks will come to regard them as art. To me, Geometry Wars is the Citizen Kane of gaming: it epitomizes what our medium is (addictive interactivity) without trying to emulate books or movies, or convey a deep emotional message. Geometry Wars is visually gorgeous, hypnotic, fun, and brilliantly elegant.

Diablo 2 is another Citizen Kane. Diablo's loot system design is a piece of art in-itself, something to be marveled at for its insane addictiveness and near infinite scope. This is what makes games art, not the fact they feature stories with different outcomes. If Ebert stopped judging games as movies, he would see the art in them.

Games have to define their own artistic standard and not worry about defining themselves in terms of narrative, like other mediums. After all, paintings don't necessarily have narrative, and that's perfectly fine. If it expresses creativity, if it is lovingly created by human hands, and if it's breathtakingly beautiful -- it's art.

I don't know about you, but when I play Geometry Wars or Diablo I marvel at their beauty (both aesthetic-wise and design-wise).

Crystin Cox
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Personally I believe that the only factor necessary for the general public to consider something art is time. I come from a theatre background and if I were to ask someone on the street if they believed that theatre was art I can almost guarantee they would say yes. Why? I know from personal experience as well as research that the majority of people do not see live theatre; there are many people in my generation who have never seen it. But theatre is old, every old, it hasn't changed much in the last 2000 years. If this is the kind of recognition we want, distant respect for something that isn't well understood, then all we need to do is wait.

I'm not too concerned with games being considered art as a medium. To me, art is something that communicates to me in such a way that my perspective is changed. By that definition, art is rare and not reliant on medium.

Daniel Camozzato
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If one can find "art" in a paint splatter... it should be a lot easier in a game, eh?

Michael Pohoreski
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What the “art” critics still miss are:

1. Games are multi-dimensional:

a. Writing game code is certainly an “art” – that is the “invisible” art. We only see the effects of it.

b. You can create a painting and that is art, but once you do it digitally and put it into a game, the game is no longer art?!?! Games are META-ART, because it contains both the visible (and audible) art, and invisible art. Why are books classified as “Art” but if a computer game that ONLY has text (such as the text adventure games from the 80’s), why it that not considered art? The art critics confuse “quality” with the “definition.”

2. Players give the game meaning. (Designers give an intended meaning.) When you have a players emotionally, mentally, etc. “involved” (love, fear, etc.) about what happens “in” the virtual world, you have already answered the question of “Are computer games art.”

3. What the _point_ of art is: An expression. Whether it is self-expression, or group-expression is irrelevant. One could argue that without an audience to appreciate that expression, that you don’t have art. That’s like saying “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

4. Systems of and by-themselves are interesting and fun. Tetris doesn’t have any narrative, or “classic” art (aside from the classic background music), but yet most gamers would consider its simplicity to be a great example of good game design. There most certainly is an art in designing systems!

The answer to the latter question of “Why/When will games be treated ‘seriously’ like Art or literature”, can be found in Science:

“Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

Computer games may not be GREAT art like the Mona Lisa, the “great” is relative to the viewer. Just because games are interactive and dynamic and as a result may have lower “quality of presentation” as opposed to traditional art being static, doesn’t imply that they are any less “deeper” then traditional “Art.”

Hell, if people are debating this topic in the first place, I think we’ve already reached the answers.

Brice Morrison
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Games are unique from every other medium in that they are interactive; the text changes as the player experiences it. I think the best games to take advantage of this are sandbox games like the Sims, which (not coincidentally) also happen to be the games that give players the most emotional attachment and turmoil.

I'd define art as conveying an experience or a message. What better medium to do it in than the one that most closely resembles not static forms of art, but real life itself?

Steven Conway
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Leo Gura has it spot on here.

I think anyone debating this really should read Henry Jenkins' excellent essay:

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The first time I heard that Games were not Fine Art I was hurt, being that I have a Fine Arts degree/pedigree from UCLA....however after 2 years of meditation on the subject. I will have to agree.

Games are not Fine art, but only if its a singular vision. Which is rare. Most games are done by committee and are created haphazardly towards a milestone.

One day, perhaps, a game will be designed and created by 1 author. Until then, its like a rock band. Its not FINE ART, its a CRAFT as in ART. But it doesn't belong in MOCA, LACMA, or the GETTY....

Ryan Salvatore
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"One day, perhaps, a game will be designed and created by 1 author. Until then, its like a rock band. Its not FINE ART, its a CRAFT as in ART."

But that would mean that Mozart wasn't a fine artist, since he needed a "band" to play his music.

I've seen installations in modern art museums attempt to incorporate 'the viewer experiencing the art' into the art itself. I'm not sure how games are any different from that.

Glenn McMath
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I know I'm late getting in on this, but I couldn't resist weighing in my two cents.

For starters, great article. It brings up a lot of really valid points about a variety of topics; however I do disagree with it on some aspects (which, I think was in many ways the point of the article). First point: while the example of Moby Dick and its awkward transition into videogame form does raise some questions about the nature of games, it can't be used to dismiss them as an art form. There are plenty of books that would not work as films, or films that wouldn't work as paintings. Art forms need to leverage their medium appropriately to be effective.

And that leads into my second disagreement with the article, which is the dismissal (or partial dismissal) of systems as art. While I agree that a set of rules in and of itself is not art, it's also not a full system by game definition. Game systems require some amount of representation of said system in action, a conveyance of the changes within, in response to input from a player. Whether the Marriage fails to compellingly convey its message is up for debate (and there are many who would argue in its favour), there is no denying that its systems were created for the purpose of non-utilitarian expression. In my mind that makes it art.

But this leads conveniently into the main problem of this whole debate (as rightly noted in the article), which is the definition of art. Without a clear definition, it is near-impossible to award the title to games.

Some people here have deemed games art, as there is an art to making them. I personally disagree with that assessment, as that particular use of the term "art" is as the supremely skilful execution of a craft. And the craft of game development is not what we're talking about. Also I feel that in those instances the word "art" being used in an analogous or metaphorical way.

Other people have said that games are art, because they contain works which, through different presentation, would unquestionably be art. I disagree with that as well, as I feel that just because something contains art, that does not make the thing itself art. A house can contain art, but its presence within does not make the house art. The character models, environments, music, etc. within games can be called art by any traditional definition, even Roger Ebert conceded this point. But the game itself exists somewhere outside of that categorization, as it could be seen as merely a way of viewing the art contained within, sort of like an art gallery (which isn't in and of itself art, architecture notwithstanding).

But I do think that videogames are, or can be, art (that's right, I was just disagreeing with you to be a dick... :P). In essence, videogames are nothing more than interactive experiences (be they representational, or abstract; linear or non-linear). Have you ever had an experience in real life that has changed your point of view, or made you feel a particularly intense emotion? Unless your name is Stephen Harper (Canadian politics joke? Anyone?), you should have answered yes. And in all probability, many of those experiences were so meaningful because they directly involved you. If an interactive experience can be crafted which affects the one partaking in it in a way that directly correlates to a creator’s expressive intent, then in my mind it unquestionably qualifies as art. That is the potential of videogames. Whether or not they have reached that potential is up for debate, but the world will only recognize this once the systems of the game are compellingly crafted to support an authorial expression.