At the new, Gamasutra-attended Art History of Games conference in Atlanta, GA, professor John Sharp references the Renaissance period to explore the relationship of games with a burgeoning art movement.
In a separate lecture, Frank Lantz, creative director and co-founder, argues that games should embrace their "wild" side, and avoid the "domestication" of more established forms of art.
The Art History of Games - John Sharp
The question "are games art?" is often asked without a careful understanding of the long, complicated, and intertwined histories of both games and the fine arts. John Sharp, professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, tried to correct this oversight by surveying the role of both art and games in culture through the ages.
Games and art have been living side by side for a long time, and only recently have they started to intermingle in people's minds.
"If we look at a definition of art we can see that games meet most criteria," Sharp said. "Games have the potential to deliver deep meaning, just not in the places we're used to looking."
Sharp laid out the history of our concept of art, which he argued began in the Renaissance. Before then the role of art was almost exclusively for the personal use of a religious person. Beyond that, artists weren't precious about how they worked, often doing any job for which they were commissioned.
This changed in the high Renaissance, when art became part of the leisure culture of the aristocracy. Art was now considered primarily visual entertainment and the "artist" became a mythological character. "Game makers", Sharp pointed out by way of somewhat acid clarification, "were not given the same respect."
While games were an important part of life they were mostly associated with what were considered 'baser instincts', not the science and mathematics that the people of the Renaissance believed underpinned the elevation of art.
Through the 18th century games had become recognized as an important part of a well-rounded life. The poet Friedrich von Schiller saw art and creativity as only possible with play, but made clear that the games of his time did not live up to his ideals.
"As much as games mattered in life" Sharp commented, "they were not given the status of the arts." But at the beginning of the 20th century, conceptions about both art and games started to change.
Marcel DuChamp, who was influential in changing people's conception of what could or could not be art, was a devotee of chess and asserted that the play of chess was an art in itself. In the years that followed artists began exploring and taking on games.
Even so, Sharp pointed out "by the late '60s the art world is really open, but despite all this games still had trouble finding a place in the new order."
At this point it's not uncommon to see a game in a gallery. Projects by artists like Cory Arcangel have incorporated game elements, and the games of Mark Essen, such as Flywrench, have been featured in a number of shows.
In the end though, Sharp said that the relationship between games and art remains fraught. "To display a game in a gallery is to take away a part of its game-ness."
Doorknobs and Butterflies: Games after Art - Frank Lantz
Games are more and more recognized as an important art form, but Frank Lantz, creative director and co-founder of game studio area/code (Drop 7, Spore Islands), argued that there's a downside to this situation.
The move to more legitimacy can also be seen as a kind of "domestication" of games; a hemming-in of their wildness and often unruly nature. Lantz argued that perhaps the trick is not to change games to make them more like our conceptions of art, but to change the way we think about art in light of games.
Lantz opened his talk by talking about something that had been bothering him. He was concerned about the status of games as an aesthetic form. Video games have done much to bring people around to recognizing the value of games, according to Lantz, but there's still something strange and unruly about games that doesn't fit into common conceptions about art.
"This moment we're in offers an opportunity to look at art in a new light." Lantz said. "I like the feeling of wildness. This is what aesthetics should feel like."
Lantz argued that we should try to see games for what they are, rather than what we would like them to be. We should ask when we talk about games, what games are we talking about? Lantz asserted often when we talk about games we're really talking about single-player games. These games, according to the area/code co-founder, are easy to talk about because they seem like a tidy package of attributes, much like a painting or a film.
"However," he continued, "I can't help but thinking about the other games I play. Some are single-player, but some are not."
Looking at games like golf and chess Lantz pointed out that as much as single-player games might feel like films and photography, they're also undeniably similar to more traditional games. "They don't feel different, or even look that different." he said.
What we shouldn't be doing, he continued, is putting off talking about these games while concentrating on games that might be easier for us to discuss. Beyond that, we shouldn't suggest that single-player games are more important than other games.
"Are we going to say that Super Monkey Ball is inherently more valuable than golf?" Lantz asked. "We make it easy on ourselves by excluding these games. It's lazy."
The problem, Lantz pointed out, was that games like golf and chess don't look much like what we recognize as art. They don't resemble a painting or a novel. "They're more like ways of life." Lantz said. People devote their entire lives to just one of those games.
Finally, Lantz asserted that while games might not fit into the normal templates for how we think about art, this doesn't mean that we should exclude games from our conception of aesthetics.
Instead, he concluded, if aesthetics cannot take games into account then we should re-engineer our ideas about aesthetics: "The way we think about aesthetics needs to change."
[Charles J. Pratt is a freelance game designer and a researcher at NYU's new Game Center.]