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A (slightly) different way to think about games and art

A (slightly) different way to think about games and art

April 18, 2018 | By Matthew Burns

April 18, 2018 | By Matthew Burns
More: Serious, Business/Marketing

Matthew Burns is a writer, composer, and game developer.

Thanks to a recent headline on a gaming website (“Roger Ebert Was ‘Absolutely Wrong’ About Games, Says A Way Out Creator”), last week the games-as-art “debate” was briefly revived for a moment before sinking beneath the waves of social media’s consciousness once again.

But while that’s not really worth addressing in and of itself, the resulting conversation roused me to finally put into words something I’ve been thinking for a while now about the relationship between digital games and art.

First, though:

You Don’t Have to Read This!

If you already believe in your heart of hearts that “games are art,” there probably isn’t anything for you here; feel free to move along. Likewise, if you’re (understandably) tired of the idea that we need to talk about games and art at all, you seriously don’t need to continue to spend any time with this piece either. Fly away! You’re free!

But... if the formulation of the question “Are games art?” doesn’t sit quite right in your head and gives you an uncomfortable, itchy, slightly allergic feeling— as it does to me— then stick around. I’m going to talk about why I think this particular question is inadequate and propose a better way to approach creating digital games as an artist. (You can also just read the Tweet that this piece expands upon and be done with it, but it might make more sense if I talk through all of it.)

A Few Canards

Before we get going let’s address some of the common gravity wells in the general vicinity of the games-and-art discussion, since I want to make sure we don’t get caught in them.

"You can’t assume some kind of generational changing of the guard will automatically take care of the art question."

Games can make you cry! They absolutely can and they’ve always had that capability. But people cry for all kinds of reasons at all kinds of media; even a sappy television commercial can occasionally get under someone’s skin and draw tears. Depending on your goals as a creator, making the audience cry can indeed be an achievement, but it doesn’t automatically equal artistic merit.

It’s just a matter of time, the only people who think games aren’t art are old. This is not true at all. Some young critics are skeptical of the artistic worth of the vast majority of games, and hold games to a far higher standard than their older colleagues do. (For the record, I think that’s wonderful.) So you can’t assume some kind of generational changing of the guard will automatically take care of the art question.

Games are culturally accepted now, just look at [example of games in some wider pop culture context]. They are, more or less, and that’s nice. But broad cultural acceptance isn’t the same thing as being art; in fact, the two are often at odds. Besides, this argument bases games’ sense of artistic worth on the judgement of society. It’s worth asking why... are we a little insecure, maybe?

Art means different things to different people, so it’s relative. In other words, art is whatever I say it is, and I say games are art. QED, bitch. This line of reasoning reduces to the idea that “art” is just a meaningless word. Maybe it is, but that’s not very useful to us and it’s not where we’re going in this piece. Lots of people go through a what-if-my-red-is-your-blue, woah-really-makes-you-think stage, but if communication based on a vaguely shared sense of reality is truly impossible, then what are we doing here? What are you doing here?

It doesn’t matter if games are art or not. This is a tempting one; it would be nice not to care. Unfortunately for me I do think it matters, because I want it to be possible for people who make games to feel comfortable aspiring to an artistic ideal— whatever their definition of that ideal might be. It could be to express something important, something real, something that speaks to an individual existence or a universal human condition. Or it may be simply to explore subject matter they’re endlessly fascinated with and curious about. Let’s not say it doesn’t matter; let’s try to make real, true, capital-A Art.


So we have two big concepts on the table here, art and games.

Art? What’s That?

It quickly becomes apparent that if you want to answer the question “Are games art?” you have to define art*. Of course, there’s never been universal agreement on this, and arguments around the precise definition of large abstract concepts tend to be both unproductive and often tangential to what’s really important**. Since we would rather let art remain undefined, it’s apparent that a binary “either it is or it isn’t” understanding of art holds little use for us. It would be great if we could acknowledge that art is a concept with a fuzzy, feathered edge and move on... but then how could we answer the original question?

Perhaps the problem comes with talking about games in the universal sense. After all, even those skeptical of games-as-art might agree that a small handful of games could earn the right to be considered art. Then the problem becomes a matter of simply distinguishing between which specific titles are art and which aren’t. This is a stance you see pretty often in games criticism: Someone holds up a few select works and declares them art, with the understanding that most other works are not art, and then there’s a lot of debate about those specific choices.

Critical activity like this is important for the medium, but it doesn’t really help us answer the question. In the end all we’ve done here is created two large plastic bins, one labelled Art, one Not Art, and we’re tossing our cartridges and compact discs into them. Should NieR Automata go into the Art bin? On one hand it addresses war and humanity in deep and unexpected ways that even some of the most artsy indie titles don’t... on the other hand, it’s still a mid-budget action combat game with its fair share of anime tropes... and so on, indefinitely.

There’s no permanent conclusion to discussions like this. Critics constantly reevaluate past works, sometimes significantly affecting their status. Work created as pulp decades ago can earn genuine artistic interest later on while a different work that was praised as a landmark achievement in its day is all but forgotten now. Any argument for games-as-art that picks one or two games and hold them up as irrefutable examples is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of our changing understanding of the past.

But if we want to avoid the idea of art as a discrete quality that certain objects possess and others don’t, what do we even mean when we say something is art? Is it meaningless? I don’t think it is, but first I need to explain that something good happens when you stop thinking of art as a product and instead as the result of a process.

Art as a Product vs. Art as a Process

It’s the default to think of art as a product. After all, everyone knows “art” is a kind of object you can buy and place on your wall, or that you might see displayed in the foyer of a fancy hotel or office building. Art-as-product is encouraged by our consumerist society particularly in the way collectors, galleries, and museums enshrine specific artifacts we’re told are worth millions. It’s entirely possible to experience art without ever thinking about where it came from (and some people even prefer it that way), but whether you choose to ignore this aspect or not, the products we call art are always the endpoint of a process.

"Something good happens when you stop thinking of art as a product and instead as the result of a process."

I’m using the word process in a loose sense; I’m not talking about a specific workflow with charts and defined stages. I’m more thinking of a set of principles that guides a creator through the many decisions that must be made when making a creative work. An example of someone’s artistic process might be as simple as “Keep trying as hard as you can to make something worthwhile for humanity.” If that’s your process, at every stage of your work you will be guided by that baseline— Is this something worthwhile for humanity?

Process is a big part of why and how we consider things art. Explanatory placards at museums frequently share details of the artist’s process, and knowledge of process is why outsider art or naïve art (where the process was presumably noble-hearted) is accepted as real art by many people, whereas slick corporate design (where the process probably includes checkpoints and concerns such as “Is this what the client wants?” or “Will this sell?”) often isn’t.

Hold that thought.

Games? What Are Those?

We’ve addressed art enough for my purposes here, so let’s look at the other side of the equation. Like art, coming to an agreement on what the word “game” actually means has been something of a problem***, and like art, lots of time and effort has been wasted on games’ own version of the pointless binary two-bin situation where the bins are labelled Game and Not a Game.

To get away from that, I’m going to apply the same semantic twist we applied to art by saying that games are useful to understand not as products but as the result of a game development process. This might sound a little tautological, but only because “game development” is a pretty inadequate term for what is really the creative application of a set of tools and techniques developed over the last forty-odd years under the broad goal of employing computers for entertainment.

Let me apply that same distinction to a couple other areas as examples to reinforce what I mean by this. Are films art? Well, some of them are. Is filmmaking an art? Yes, of course it is. “Films” aren’t just the products you see when you browse the Blu-ray aisle at a local retailer— it’s an entire creative field, encompassing more than a century’s worth of global experimentation, exploration, technical innovations, and artistic ambitions.

Are buildings art? Not most of the ones you’d see on any given day (especially in an American suburb). Is architecture an art? Yes, of course, architecture is one of the great classical big-A Arts, and comprises a vast domain of knowledge with millennia of development behind it: Sophisticated theories of space and volume, stunning advances in engineering and science, complex and nuanced ideas about how human beings can and should live and relate to each other.

So in this way, while you can take “games” to mean simply the end products that consumers pick up off the shelf or download, the galaxy brain version of “games” means the full set of tools and techniques that have been used to create games— the collection of skills, patterns, and concepts that have grown around their construction. Let’s call this agglomeration the tools and techniques of game development for lack of a better shorthand.

Putting It Together

Back to our table. Instead of “art” we now have the artistic process. And instead of “games” we have the tools and techniques of game development.

Now let’s ask the real question: Can the artistic process be used to direct the application of the tools and techniques of game development?

To which the answer, of course, is yes! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if one or another specific game is regarded as art, nor does it matter if “games” “are” “art,” whatever that even means. What we make may or may not be understood by others as art; that’s something for critics, operating under changing standards, to continually re-evaluate. What does matter, though, is that we can take the tools and techniques of game development and apply them with an artistic mindset. After all, a work of art is not one because it magically possesses a mystical quality other objects don’t have. Art is art because it constitutes a record of the artistic process having taken place.

Thanks for reading.


I am indebted to Tale of Tales, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, whose 2010 talk Let’s make Art with Games! at the Utrecht Festival of Games was particularly influential on my thinking about the relationship between art and digital games.

*I probably wasn’t the first to note the issue is more about the definition of art than anything else when I first wrote about it back in 2008; a couple years later I reiterated this theme with a joke where I replaced the word “art” with “ert.”

**We have at least a couple centuries of thinking to back us up on this: To pick just two of many examples, Edmund Burke on taste and John Stuart Mill on poetry both open their discussions by immediately refusing to consider precise definitions of the topics of their respective inquiries.

***Ludwig Wittgenstein famously pointed out that “game” (“spiel”) is a word that’s impossible to define in a singular way because there’s no one property common to everything we call a game, but we still use the word and it works out fine (he was actually making a point more about language than about games specifically, but we won’t let that stop us from mentioning it here.)

Matthew S. Burns is a writer and composer who most recently wrote and scored Opus Magnum from Zachtronics. A long time ago he worked on franchises like Destiny, Halo, and Call of Duty. Follow him at @matthewseiji and find his other work at Magical Wasteland.

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