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Are Game(r)s Art(ists)?

March 12, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

"Interactivity's a very interesting word, because it implies that this is something we didn't do in art before, which is complete nonsense, because the only interesting art experiences are the ones that engage you in that way; in which you are invited to become part of the authorship of something in some way or another. And usually in some more meaningful way than choosing whether to open this door or that door."

- Brian Eno

A Fateful Journey

If you've played ThatGameCompany's Journey and traversed its shimmering sands with your pensive little shroud-person until the bittersweet end, there's a good chance you were online when you did and that you traveled at least some of the distance with another pensive little shroud-person just like yourself.

Or numerous shroud-people, if your experience was anything like mine: ponderous, careful, and inquisitive enough to inspire a few partners to leave me behind and allow a number of others to catch up. Over the course of my first trip to that distant mountaintop I tagged along with a total of nine honking mutes, and each one enhanced or disrupted my trip in his or her own quirky way.

Two moments of my initial playthrough stand out: In the game's melancholy middle act, I was fortunate enough to pair with an experienced player of ample scarfage who was solely dedicated to leading me through a long stretch of darkened catacombs to safety, past the hungry eyes of flying sentries, while expecting nothing in return. I was truly touched by my partner's concern for my well-being -- almost embarrassed, actually -- and yet, sadly, we two parted ways when I paused the game for a temporary break, never a word passing between us.

Later, in the final wintry sections of the game, I met someone with an apparently crippling fear of intimacy or cooperation. Even after the game made it perfectly clear that keeping close company with other players had a tangible benefit -- generating a mutual "heat" that recharged our precious scarves -- I discovered that my accidental partner didn't like snuggling.

Instead, this anonymous prude ducked and dodged each of my attempts to get close, as if I were spewing some nasty contagion. Whenever I'd veer in close for a quick recharge, my partner would break off in a violent trajectory to get as far from me as possible. By the time I reached the game's final stage, I was alone.

Whatever the reason behind this player's skittishness, our dispiriting moment together was actually the highlight of my trip through Journey. It was spontaneous and unscripted, and best of all it belonged to me alone. No other person on earth will have had quite the same experience as I did -- a unique blend of awe, empathy, and indifference wrapped up in one lovely little three-hour package.

This notion of experiencing a "unique playthrough" is the fundamental promise of countless games, of course -- even early video games like Pac-Man and Tetris provide novel experiences with each attempt. But to this fundamental promise Journey adds a sensitively chosen narrative layer, and is all the more emotionally engaging for it. Yet not all games with narrative trappings are capable of inspiring such emergent tingles. So what, exactly, sets this game apart from so many others?

If we examine Journey's written narrative alone, we find a passable story; a familiar, moody parable about Sisyphean perseverance set amid the ruins of a dead civilization, where the sleepless ghosts of ages past pop by every now and again to show you images of their fall, and creep you out with lustful stares. And that beaming beacon winking from the distant mountain? It's boilerplate eschatological symbolism, vague enough to support whatever metaphysical metaphors you fancy. I have no doubt a few a few undergraduate theses starring Joseph Campbell are already well underway.

On the design front, the game offers a few more puzzling features. Most notably, the simple scarf-collecting loop -- one of the game's more obvious mechanics -- is not actually required to complete Journey's journey, a design choice that transforms what might have been a patience-straining exercise in exploration into breezy romp.

Collecting scarf pieces is not without its psychological benefits, obviously: seeing other players rock their sinewy twelve-foot sashes as I limped by with a passable two footer was humbling. But I realized early on that I didn't actually need to collect ANY scarf pieces, save the first, to reach the game's end. At every bottleneck -- no matter my skill level -- there was always a convenient way to slip through the blockade and into the next challenge.

And yet, even with an atrophied set of necessary features, Journey occasionally manages to be something greater than the sum of its parts. Its simple but elegant traversal mechanics -- sand-surfing and air-gliding -- are a joy to engage, and the world's ambience is sublime; beautiful visuals, languid music, with a patient sense of rhythm.

But Journey's most singular innovation -- a feature that no other medium could possibly replicate -- is that delightful multiplayer system. Without prompts or invitations, the game seamlessly ushers other human players into your journey for a wholly unique experience, each and every time. To my mind, this is the cornerstone of Journey's importance: a deceptively simple mechanic that allows an emotionally engaging range of results.

It is this feature, too, that offers us a small but clear example of the unique power of our ultra-modern medium... a power, I must say, that has been present in games for quite some time, but which we have failed to praise with vigorous clarity... even as the purview of video games has grown wider and deeper.

In other words, Journey is the latest entry in a long and respectable line-up of video games that are not simply accommodating old definitions of art, but reshaping them into something new. It is the purpose of this essay to discuss clearer ways of thinking and talking about this important shift, using some old but perhaps dusty ideas.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Gil Salvado
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Lately, I would rather call games a form of culture than art. For art is defined by being without use. You can look at the Monalisa, but you can't dance with her. I can look at Journey, and I can also play it.

If we go on calling games art, we may go down a road that is all about look and narrative, but that's not something that defines gaming in it's core mechanic. Games are interactive, therefore much more a form of design rather than art. That's what it unique and separates it from other media.

Tiago Amorim Rodrigues
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But playing wouldn't count as a use, playing isn't usefull in your life.

And you could piss on the Fountain, that's a use, sort off.

"Games are interactive, therefore much more a form of design rather than art"

For crying out loud, plenty of artworks are interactive.

David Olsen
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"For art is defined by being without use."

The thing is, that's not entirely true. There is no real fully agreed upon definition of what art really is, and you'll find different definitions wherever you go; architecture is widely considered to be art, despite it's inherently practical applications.

Furthermore, the purpose of a game is for it's audience to experience it, not to complete some actual task. Because of that, we can't really say that a game has any more use than a painting; it's only application is in regards to itself, it's interactivity only an invitation to the player to experience the game more fully. As such, a game certainly fits the criteria of "art for arts sake."

One might argue that the designation doesn't fit, because games are often used, more and more, for practical real world purposes, such as physiological benefits, training, learning, and so on. But I feel like this doesn't take away from the artfulness of games in general, although the argument could be made that those particular ones perhaps don't fall into the category of art; an appropriate analogy would be of a drawing and a map. Both part of the same medium, pencil on paper, but one certainly wouldn't discount the drawing as art simply because the map exists.

Journey, as most games are, is a drawing, not a map. And so it is a work of art.

Douglas Gregory
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Architecture is regarded as an art form, even though buildings are rarely just for looking at.

Fashion is regarded as an art form, even though it also serves the function of protecting us from the elements.

So no, I don't think art and function/interaction are mutually exclusive.

Boon Cotter
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@Tiago: Play is useless? What strange, emotionless automaton are you? Play has a whole bunch of scientifically quantifiable benefits.

Tiago Amorim Rodrigues
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@Boon Cotter: And I can learn a lot about the 19th century by reading Les Mis, that a "use", doesn't mean that's why I will read it or why the author wrote it, it's not a history book. When people say art is useless they mean it's not made to have an objective use in your life, it's not like a chair that can have asthetic qualities but is made to be sit on. Designed objects are made for a specific objective use but can have artistic qualities, art is made for no particular use besides being experienced and apreciated but can have "scientifically quantifiable benefits". Games are art not a form of design, it's not applied arts.

Darby McDevitt
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Before the comments POUR in, I'd like to acknowledge some earlier articulations on this subject of Agency and Destiny which I was not aware of until after I submitted this article for publication.

Jesper Juul wrote a lovely and brief exploration of "Progression" vs "Emergence":

After contacting Jesper about his paper, he was kind enough to point me to an article written 30 years ago touching on a similar subject:

Had I known about these papers beforehand, I would have certainly included them in my article. As it is, it is my hope that the terms Agency and Destiny are sexy enough to spark new discussions in this old and excellent debate.

Raph Koster
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Yup, nice terms but not really a new way of looking at it. In fact, I did a thing on "impositional games" versus "expressive games" ten years ago or so too.

Not to take away from the many virtues of your article! In fact, my intent in saying that some "games" are better understood as "digital interactive art" was actually to call out the impositional titles.

I definitely think a huge part of the issue is the overloading of "game." I continue to worry that we'll lose ahold of the core concept as reflected in other fields' terminology, and have greater trouble discussing formalist qualities, if we overbroaden the term.

Darby McDevitt
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Hello Ralph. Thanks for reading.

On the subject of "Digital Interactive Art", I agree in theory, but as a matter of practicality I think we have already lost the fight. I can't imagine a scenario where someone asks "Where's Darby today?" and the response is, "He's at home playing Not-Games."

It's a situation akin to the debate over whether or not Joyce's "Ulysses" should be considered a novel ... there is a fantastic case to be made for why it should not be, and yet because it is a work of narrative prose fiction bound between two covers, these nuances are not important for the vast majority of consumers. "Ulysses" is simply a "difficult novel" -- that's all.

So, I suppose I feel the messaging war has been lost and that we should focus on illuminating the interior structures of our videogames ... mainly because the delivery method for "Interactive Digital Entertainment" has remained pretty stable for 30-plus years: small home-bound computer devices hooked up to TVs or Monitors. These are videogames to the vast majority of people, no matter what their internal formal qualities are. And the term "videogame" also has the benefit of being short, sexy and sweet... just just as film, novel, and song are.

Also, I think the Agency-Destiny hybrid quality of most mainstream games makes this bifurcation impossible anyway. As I mention in the article, games like Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, and Call of Duty blur the line so well, it's hard to tell where the game ends and the interactive digital entertainment begins.

Terry Matthes
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Art is about intent. When I decide to play a game my intent is not to make art with it, but to play with it. If I played a game with the end goal of creating art I'm no longer playing it, I'm using it. Now the game becomes a tool.

All of this is highly subjective, but I always try to align art with intent.

Tiago Amorim Rodrigues
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I partially agree with art being about intent, but i would say is more the intent of the viewer than the maker.

Ara Shirinian
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If the intent of the creator is not what defines art, then the concept of art can balloon up to encompass almost everything in the universe.

Dragos Stanculescu
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A definition of art that has served me well ( but to my shame I forgot who wrote it) :
Art is any synthesised construct created for the purpose of triggering an emotional response. (... in the audience).

To further elaborate , the construct may or may not have a tangible/enduring support (such as a canvas, stone) or its support can be ephemeral (speech, gesture, dance) .
Intent of the creator does come into play in a big way.

Games are not ruled out as art.
Activities inside a virtual world are not ruled out as art.
It all comes down to creator intent and emotional response in the audience; the platform is more than viable to sustain art.

Then again this is just an opinion :P.

Gary LaRochelle
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My two cents...
I attended the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called the "California College of the Arts" (*more on this later)). In one of my classes the teacher asked us to come up with a definition for "art". I came up with:"Art is the manipulation of an item by a human being for the simulation of one or more of the senses". The teacher must of liked the answer because I received a good grade for the definition.

Recently I heard someone define "art" as something that has no other purpose other than to exist. Once you interact with it, it is no longer "art" but a "craft". A movie is art. You just sit there and watch it. But if you go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and start throwing toast, the movie is now a craft because you are now interacting with it. Which would mean that games are crafts, not art because you interact with the game. But....

*My alma mater changed its name because of the question: "Are crafts art?" We use to kid the crafts people that crafts weren't art because the school's name says "arts AND crafts". And if crafts were art the school would be called the California College of Art. So the school changed its name to show that crafts are art. The school has been teaching art for over 100 years, so they must know something about what is "art" .

Which would mean that games are art.

I do agree with Jerry's statement: "Everyone defines art differently and it's always a good idea to keep an open mind."

Gary LaRochelle
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oops, that's "stimulation" not "simulation".
typing too fast again.

Darby McDevitt
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Hello all. As I hint at in the article, I don't think it's terribly profitable to argue the question "What is Art?" for the very reasons we are seeing here: It's impossible to resolve the issue cleanly. Which is why I mostly avoided the question here.

But whether or not you think games are Art, it is clear they are a Thing ... a product of creativity and intelligence ... a cultural artifact ... etc. ... and therefore worthy of study and inquiry. The purpose of my article was to tackle what I -- and a number of others -- see as the central obstacle to understanding the "meaning" and "worth" of games. The article is about game mechanics -- Agency and Destiny mechanics -- not the meaning of Art in general.

Gary LaRochelle
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Maybe a differently worded title will clear things up.

Darby McDevitt
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The original title was longer and more descriptive, actually ... pesky editors. :)

Christian Nutt
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It was, so blame me. But at the same time, if you can't get past the title -- given the depth of this story -- I don't think the title is to blame!

Darby McDevitt
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Oops! Double post. Christian's a fab editor, so I trust him!

Gary LaRochelle
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Yes, I'll admit I did not read the article. And it's it because of the title. Over the past year there have been several discussions here on the topic of "Are games art/ Are game makers artist?"(and I've read them all). Then I noticed that the article is six pages long. I thought that it was an awful long essay on the topic of Games as Art.

Mr. McDevitt put a lot of thought and effort into his article. And I feel that the title of the article really doesn't clarify the scope of his work. As you can see by some of the other comments, they feel that the article is another contribution to the ongoing Games as Art discussion.

I admire your work as editor of Gamasutra. I think you're doing an excellent job of keeping the game industry up to date as to what is going on with the industry. Gamasutra is a part of my daily ritual of keeping informed. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to read every article on the site (especially articles six pages long). The titles of the article do help draw me into reading them.

BTW, what was the original title of the article?

Joel Smith
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Loved the article. Coming from an art AND engineering background, you pretty much summed up my perspective on what truly makes games shine as their own artistic medium. Agency as you called it, allows players to apply their own input or touch into whatever creative system has been designed to allow for all kinds of emergent beautiful behavior. It's honestly the reason why game development appeals so much to me. I don't want to make art, I want to make a system that makes new art every time I touch it.

I actually just released a platformer (Super Gravity Ball!!!) where whenever you make contact with a platform it plays a tone based on the type of platform and the current song's chord progression. It was a pretty trivial thing to do with a bit of music theory and most people probably wouldn't notice it but if you really pay attention to it, you start hearing all these cool melodies and tempos based on the player's input. The only shame was I couldn't think of enough special platforms to add more instruments for an even more robust audio experience!

Luis Guimaraes
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Whenever the player sets intrinsic goals for themselves within the game system, what comes out of that play is art.

Art is style.

Ozzie Smith
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Fantastic article. You managed to define the concept of destiny and agency mechanics so well, something that for a long time has been really hard for me to properly articulate. Thanks for writing this!

Ian Custer
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After reading this, I can certainly see why the idea of agency mechanics makes video games so damn compelling from a psychological standpoint. Constant novelty is pretty hard to put away, especially when combined with the feedback loops from RPG mechanics and weapon/item upgrades.

Andreas Ahlborn
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­­Interesting article, but a sentence like this kind of throws the baby out with the bath water.

"Games built on Agency mechanics no longer need to answer the question "are games art?" but rather "are gamers artists?" And the answer is a qualified yes."

Part of the problem in the whole game VS. art -discussion is the whole overloading/overbroadening (like another comment put it) of our terms.

What our education and history has led us to believe is, that ART has to be embodied by Objects made from ARTISTS. In the beginning of the 20th Century with the "invention" of the "abstract" painiting and the introduction of "READY-MADES" and other things, this line has been blured more and more.
Today we have "ENVRONMENTAL ARTISTS" and "PERFOMANCE ARTISTS" that have de facto abandoned this conservative approach but their raison d`etre is far from having any impact on the popular ("canonical") reception of the average art-consumer.

The ART-term is overloaded by history (as being of religious importance to the ones who prey the ART-sermon and who benefit from the absurdities of the ART-market) wheresas the GAMES-term is trivialized as a second-rate/distraction activity.

ARTISTS have to have some kind of special power/magic that has to be coming from a supernatural entity mere mortals have no access to. They are somehow CHOSEN. Itīs clear to me that this is taken directly from the ancient hero-myths, making orpheus a good paradigm of someone being perceived simultaneously as Hero/Artist.

Ironically enough an institution like the OLYMPIC GAMES of the ancient greeks might originally be conceived as a sacred ritual, thus elevating the term GAME into the regions where ART and RELIGION are dwelling, but their current incarnation is at best a political at worst a mere commercial driven sports-happening.

Andreas Ahlborn
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"...but since artists can create art with any tool they choose in which to express themselves, then it stands to reason that artists can use games for creating Art."

With this sentence you are practically strengthening my opinion that when most people talk about art they are not even aware that they create vicious definition circles like:

1.Artist = Someone who can make Art
2.Art= Something that is made by Artists

In Logic you would call that reasoning Tautology, and you should be aware of it that a Tautologiy`s Information content is zero.

Darby McDevitt
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Thanks for the reply. But I think you're making a lot of hay out of a minor sentence. The phrase "qualified yes" is the key. And in the very next sentence I said, No, I don't mean an artist on the level of Da Vinci.

The entire thrust of the article makes it clear that I am simply talking about Agency mechanics giving players a sense of "creative expression" via mechanics, which is the foundation of all artistic expression -- materials, constraints, objectives, expression.

No babies were harmed in the writing of this article, I assure you.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Greg Lobanov
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I object to categorizing Braid and Portal puzzles as non-systemic and "destiny" driven--there's no predefined outcome for any of the player's meaningful environmental interactions. Either game could exist as a blank, empty room where the player gets to rewind time / fire portals, and they could do those things with limitless agency. The puzzles are arbitrary additions to those blank rooms, with implicit goals (puzzle piece or exit door), but again with no preprogrammed solutions to those puzzles.

To use one of your own examples, it's like a zombie-shooting game, where navigation/time rewinding/portals are the player/guns and the room layouts are the zombies. That's why many of the puzzles in both of those games have many solutions, which arise from the limitless ways players can utilize the game systems.

Darby McDevitt
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Yes and no. The core mechanics in Braid and Portal do offer a decent amount of agency in their implementation... but the puzzles built in service of these mechanics usually do not. Most of Braid's challenges and Portals puzzles have one primary order of operation... this is why I said of Uncharted's puzzles that they are "Agency based puzzles yoked to a set of Destiny constraints."

Some very clever people have found one or two alternate solutions to some of the puzzles in these games (Portal especially) but for the most part they have very specific, pre-destined solutions, quite the opposite of games like "The Incredible Machine" or "Scribblenauts". And on the whole, I found Portal 1s puzzles had a greater feeling of open-endedness than Portal 2... In the latter game, I often found myself scanning the levels looking for that single portal-ready wall to shoot... very constrained, very destiny driven.

In general, though, your comment does highlight the hybrid nature of this problem. It's not an easy one to wrap one's head around.

Ben Trautman
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Until we can figure out a way to preserve what ever we create in the electronic medium, we will be nothing but sidewalk chalk artists.

Darby McDevitt
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Fine by me. Just like musicians who performed prior to the invention of the phonograph, or actors who strutted on the stage of the Globe theater in 1600...

Ben Trautman
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Until we can figure out a way to preserve what ever we create in the electronic medium, we will be nothing but sidewalk chalk artists.