My friend Greg Hunt wrote an excellent piece on Facebook (of all places) arguing that video games aren’t art. Before you groan and say to yourself “oh no, not again” or “of course they are!” I was in the same frame of mind until I’d read it myself. It got me thinking: specifically, that gamers often declare the medium to be ‘art’ without considering what that actually means.
With Greg’s permission I have reproduced his original argument in its entirety. I’d urge you to read it first: my rebuttal was not intended to be read in isolation, but I’ve tried to write so it can be read as such when I’m not directly addressing his essay.
“Are video games art?” My knee-jerk reaction is “no”, but perhaps I should rephrase the question. To the question “do some video games contain artistic elements?” my answer would be “yes”, but to the question “does the video game medium constitute an artistic one?” I’d have to say no: this ought not to be considered a significant demerit for the medium itself.
I’ve never had a problem delineating what is art, and what is not. What a significant feature of debates of this kind seems to be is that when a medium is not considered artistic, it is seen as having failed to achieve a particular level of quality, but this is misguided. The designation of something as “art” is a functional one. What does art do, what is its function?
The simple answer, the unifying thread tying art together, and cordoning it off from the other fields of human activity is the following: that an object becomes an object of art when it has been created, edited or modified so as to communicate an impression. When an artist affects an objective state of affairs to communicate a subjective one, the result is an artistic object. The composition of a symphony, film or novel all constitute the attempts by one human being to render into an objective medium a subjective state. The quality or quantity of states that are rendered obviously do not correspond in any immediate way to the materials used in the materialisation of the object: it is clear that there is no hard and fast rule for determining how troubled a painter is by the amount of brushstrokes, or how elated the director is from the amount of lines there are in the screenplay. When art fulfils its role, it more fully communicates the state of the artist in such a way as to render it more intelligible to the subject.
“Can there be bad art?” yes. When a work of art improperly communicates the intended message: if a painter, attempting to genuinely convey subjective feelings of sadness, uses misleading images, such as kittens and sunshine, the message has been misconveyed, and the result is bad art. Note: this is NOT including instances of irony or satire. The use of misleading images may be intentional, and in this case, the criteria for whether or not the message has been conveyed correctly are different, and amenable to their own forms of criticism. “Is modern art of lower quality?” this question is usually asked by people who can’t see the merit of a urinal turned sideways, or half of the corpse of a sheep. Yes, yes, yes, it’s all art if it has been produced (or modified) by one human being to reproduce, for the purpose of communicaton, characteristics of his or her own subjective realm to be perceived by another. Whether it is a table, or a piece of fluff or a statue of a biblical shepherd, if it has been created with this purpose, then it merits the designation “art”, and figuring out whether we ought to consider a pornographic film or a blank canvas in this way is a question of whether or not this criterion is applicable in the particular circumstance.
But pornography itself, for example, is not art. The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse. Where there is pornography, there is not art, and where there is art, there is not pornography. If a pornographic film contains aesthetically pleasing elements, and conveys a sense of beauty, then we might say that there are artistic elements to the film. The film itself, in being a pornographic film, exists chiefly to serve the ends of pornography. That there exists a possibility of including artistic elements in an object with a particular function does not mean that the purpose for which that object exists is an artistic one; it means that the purpose for which that object exists, exists in parallel with its artistic merits, and so it is with videogames.
Videogames serve to amuse, by posing the players with challenges that they must overcome. When co-operative play is involved, the amusement is derived partially from the social elements of the activity, and partially from the challenge of having to complete it. So when presented with a challege in a videogame, the enjoyment comes from the completion of that challenge. The challenge may be constituent of the structure of the game, such as it is with narrative-based games where the end-point is the goal, or the game may be so designed as to permit no final resolution, but only a record of how well the player has played, so that they can compare their results with those of other players (a hi-score).
What is important here, is that this is analogous only to a game. A film possesses no such challenge. The viewer of a film does not achieve, he does not conquer or win. He or she experiences the objective manifestation of the conscious efforts of another to communicate a message. The same with the reader of a novel, or the listener of an opera. In a book where you filled in chapter 8, inasmuch as you were creating the book, as far as you were concerned, the book would not be art. The elements that were written for you, would be, just as long as they were created with the intention of another human being to communicate a subjective impression, or group of impressions. Likewise, the elements of a game that are controlled by you, and accepted and defeated by you as a challenge, are not art. They constitute a game, and the functions of a game and of art are two mutually contradictory forms of experience, the one being a form of giving you pleasure by allowing you to achieve a victory, the other to communicate to you an impression.
This means two things: firstly, that the videogame medium is not an artistic one, it has more in common with sport or board games. It does not, and, in principle, cannot, share the status of music or film as an artistic medium. Secondly, the videogame medium has, however, great scope for the inclusion of artistic elements, and it’s this second point that ought to calm the raging hordes of gamers and game designers, who feel that the fruits of their efforts and industry are being derided by the cultural élite.
People who design videogames have just as much of an opportunity to show off their skill and technical prowess as do artists in any other medium. A great photographer or composer shares with the designer a sense of beauty, relevance, coherence and many other elements that require astute artistic judgement to achieve desirable effects. There is no way of marking off videogame designers from sculptors in terms of who possesses a greater sense of beauty, as the way in which a person chooses to express him or herself is up to him or her, and the only real indication of quality in their respective endeavours is the result of a combination of intelligence and effort. The visuals in “Bioshock” and “Shadow of the Colossus” deserve just as much commendation as the best work of any graphic artist, and nobody ought to decry these people for want of skill.
But we have to be clear, the total result of the efforts of videogame designers, no matter how beautiful or inspiring the artistic elements, serve to create an object that’s use is not an artistic one. If we were to prioritise artistic effort over the characteristics of a game that make it a good one, we would be forced to reduce the interactivity of the object, and would be left with just a film. Is it any surprise that games that are often touted as “great art” tend to rely on long cinematics?
The true melding of art and game would be something very original, indeed. Though I can’t imagine what such an object would really be like, I expect it would be reliant on a way of causing the subject to experience the subjective impression of another by way of struggling, or something like this. It would be a remarkable achievement, and one especially humorous point was made by Rob Loughney in his article, “The Parallel World of War: Video Games, the Future, and Socialism” wherein he (derisively) mocked the suggestion that the endlessness of 80’s arcade games was an effort to mirror the absurdity and ultimate meaninglessness of life. This gave me a good laugh! I do think that broadly surveying the artistic history of Western civilisation makes it obvious that we have an alarming lack of treatment of the existential subject of pies that eat ghosts, or the one feature of daily suffering that racked no less a writer than Dostoevsky, that of the Italian plumber who jumps on tortoises.
Disclaimer: “You slaggin’ off my hobby, pal?”
It’s important to establish before we continue that my defense of games as an art form comes not from my enjoyment of games. Allow me to indulge in some stake inoculation: yes, I do play video games. I play them too much. I write about them and I have a financial investment in their continued success. However, this essay doesn’t emerge from my love of games as a hobby. Rather, it comes from an analysis of what I believe are some objective truths and subjective assertions about the nature of the modern video game.
The classic rebuttal from the more apathetic gamer is “Who cares? Games are still fun!” and it’s a perfectly valid point that Greg touches on in his piece. Whether games are a work of art or not has no bearing on their propensity for entertainment. Yet, I believe it is important for games to be taken seriously as an emergent art form due to the implications it has on their censorship and promotion, arts funding from governments, and because an acceptance of games as art will ultimately lead to better, more entertaining and more moving experiences for the player, while making the medium more appealing to others, to name but a few reasons. So, without further ado…
Getting Things Straight: Defining Art
It was at the word ‘delineating’ where I felt a bit out of my depth reading Greg’s essay. I’m a science graduate and a writer, not a philosopher, so there’s a danger that I may drown in a murky sea of definition and deduction over the course of this. Bear with me.
Greg defines art as “when (an object) has been created, edited or modified so as to communicate an impression”, and I think that’s a perfectly valid definition. My perhaps more scientific, although I believe no less accurate definition is: something that elicits an intended emotional response, whether by provoking one directly or causing to emphasise or sympathise with another’s emotion.
We both hit on the idea of ‘intention’, i.e. that the artist creates their artwork with the intention of communicating their impression. A stream of noises from an old modem would not qualify as art since the noise is merely functional, but the same stream of noises in the context of an electronic music composition would count as art because it’s being used to affect your feelings, whether to evoke nostalgia or just get you dancing. Likewise, a recording of the banality of your life in a video is not art (although you might well think so) but when woven into a documentary film or presented on Youtube it could well become this. I don’t feel that I need to hammer home the point of what art is, because I think Greg has done an admirable job of this. However, his argument falters on his delineation of games as separate from art.
Games: A Loaded Definition
The problem with videogames is that they are called ‘games’. It is a loaded term that implies a comparison with sports and board games. In the early days of videogame development, this was an appropriate comparison. Greg’s references to ‘challenges’, ‘goals’ and ‘high scores’ reinforce this notion. However, games are no longer limited to these criteria: we’ve come a long way since arcade titles like Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
‘Video game’ merely conveys ‘interactive entertainment’. However, in the same way that music evolved from a caveman banging a club against a dead animal corpse into the work of Mozart and films changed from the stark realism of documentary to the mind-warping science fiction of Inception, games must be allowed to change. Would it be fair to say that music must include a specific time signature, a full orchestra or choir? Can we say that films must be devoid of special effects to maintain their artistic purity? Clearly not.
Games, too, must be allowed to rewrite their own definition through their maturation as a medium. Later in this essay I’ll discuss ‘games’ with no challenge, goals or high scores. Is it fair to say that these aren’t games because they lack these? Really, what we mean by ‘games’ is actually ‘interactive fiction constructed on a computer’, whether we’re talking about simulated sports or a role-playing game. The clichés of the 1970s and 1980s have little to do with how we should define a game. As even a strategy or flight simulation is ficticious by definition, all modern video games fit into this definition. I think it is a fair one, but I would welcome any alternative suggestions. But please, let’s not limit ourselves by leveraging too heavily on the word ‘game’ and resorting to the dictionary to try to prove I’m wrong.
Interactivity is Art
I also disagree with Greg’s assertion that interactively precludes inclusion of a work as ‘art’. He makes the analogy of a novel where you write your own eighth chapter, saying, “inasmuch as you were creating the book, as far as you were concerned, the book would not be art.” I don’t think that is true: if your own completion of the chapter is within the artist’s intention (i.e. you’re not drawing an erect phallus in the margin, but that might be a valid form of completion) then you are still experiencing that artwork in the way the author intended. I would still consider that art, but it has become art that I am actively participating in. Put another way: if a visual artist creates an exhibition of dancing lights that you can affect by touching with your own hands, is that any less of an art work because it is interactive? Is a play less artful if it incorporates audience participation or spontaneity? If an artist wants to make a collage of various paintings made by members of the public who are invited to contribute to the piece, that doesn’t stop them from appreciating both their work and the work of others as an artistic whole.
Greg’s argument of pornography as non-art is a sound one. It touches on my next point, which is the emergence of art from function and their relationship. Consider architecture: buildings are designed with a function, but their form doesn’t always follow function. The artistic merit of the Bird’s Nest Stadium or the Sydney Opera House exists independently of their functionality. You can watch a football match, or you can admire the architect’s construction of the building, which is clearly designed to evoke a response. Likewise, although video games generally provide the function of entertainment, this doesn’t preclude them from being works of art at the same time.
The distinction between an ‘artistic medium’ such as paintings or films and games, which have mere ‘artistic elements’, doesn’t stand up when subjected to scrutiny. Is a beautifully constructed building like the Sydney Opera House merely a structure with artistic elements? I don’t think so. I don’t see any distinction between an artistically engineered building or a sculpture you can walk through, since they are intended to achieve the same goals- we appreciate their beauty irrespective of function. Consider also that a set of Lego bricks has a function of a child’s toy, but the creations one can make with them can be works of art. They’ve still served the function of entertaining the engineer (providing he hasn’t swallowed them) but that doesn’t mean they can’t be art.
I’ve already touched on this point, but it’s worth pointing out that to be considered art the observer’s experience remains within the intention of the artist. It has been argued that because the viewer of a film watches only what the director intends, this counts as art, but games can’t be art because of a lack of directorial control.
To state the perhaps-not-obvious: there is very little in a video game that is not under directorial control. Whenever Mario leaps outwith the confines of World 1-2 in Super Mario Bros. and finds the Warp Zone (spoilers!) that’s because Miyamoto knew some players would try to do so and specifically coded it into the game. In Grand Theft Auto, players are free to explore the sandbox environment that has been created. Yet, to paraphrase Bill Hicks: “You are free… to do as we tell you!” The player can’t decide to swim in GTA: Vice City; he will drown. He can’t enter a building if a working door hasn’t been placed on it instead of a frustratingly unrealistic decal.
Some players devote their time to finding bugs and alternative methods of play that the developers didn’t intend, like escaping the confines of the environment or manipulating an error in programming to bend the game’s internal laws of physics. This is ‘game-breaking’ and although more evident in games, analogues exist in other art forms: if you skip to the end of a novel and read its conclusion, you’re ‘breaking’ the book. If you watch Memento backwards, you’re breaking the film. If you alter the pitch or speed of a song, you’re breaking the artist’s original intention for the music. After listening to some remixes and cover versions of beloved songs, I too have considered them broken.
Ironically, a common complaint is that the modern video game feels ‘on-rails’ and is lacking in player agency: for example, the recent Portal 2 is a highly linear experience. Your victory for solving a puzzle (in the way the developers intended) is a continuation of the story. You don’t get to change the story or alter the ending of the game. Even in notable exceptions Deus Ex and Fallout 3, you are always working within the confines of what the developer- or perhaps more appropriately named, the director- originally intended. Whether or not the player finds it frustrating is irrelevant to games’ inclusion as art.
Before I go on to mention some examples of games that are art, I should briefly set up and demolish a couple of straw men. These aren’t directly related to Greg’s argument (that’s why I called them straw men) but it’s worth taking the time to get them out of the way.
Just because not all games are art doesn’t mean no game can ever be art. If Gears of War is not art, that doesn’t automatically exclude ICO by association. Can Schindler’s List be art because Inglorious Basterds isn’t? Is Let the Right One In left out because of Dawn of the Dead? Is Dawn of the Dead 1978 more arty than the remake? Dawn of the Dead 1978 is not just a great film, but an excellent example of an art film as it’s designed to evoke the sense of monotony and tedium with consumerism felt by Romero in the culture of the time. Alternatively, you might think it’s a film about zombies munching on faces. It can be both, but sometimes art is merely in the eye of the beholder. Our failure to appreciate art does not necessarily mean the piece objectively fails at being art.
Games contain great examples of music and fine visual art. Their soundtracks are worthy of being performed by the finest orchestras in the world, while the talented work of graphic designers is worthy of exhibition in a gallery. Like Greg has stated, this exists independently of their status of art as a whole composition. However, just because the art of Halo is great does not automatically make Halo a great work of art.
Right, now that’s out of the way I can get into my element and talk about games.
Exhibit A: Passage
Passage by Jason Rohrer is a great example of a game without challenges, objectives or high scores to compare with friends. I suspect that many readers will not have heard of it and I would hate to rob their experience of such a brilliant game. It’s available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Linux, so there are no excuses. Give it a go and then read on, it’ll take five minutes of your time.
Passage is about life. It’s an attempt to encompass the totality of life’s existence in five minutes of interactive fiction. It succeeds through its clever transposition of some strange facts into game elements: as you play, it’s harder to see what’s coming next and your past experiences quickly coalesce into an undecipherable mush. You can attain a ‘score’, but the more you try to increase your material achievements, the less distance you can travel. You’ll gain more points with a spouse, but you move more slowly. It packs a hell of a lot into a brief encounter: ‘misleadingly simple’ doesn’t do it justice. I had a lot of the above facts pointed out by Craig, in fact.
Passage is a meditation on life, told within the confines of a ‘game’. It’s also a meditation on life that is poignant precisely because it occurs within a video game: as a static piece of visual art, we experience nothing close to what we feel from playing it. It doesn’t meet Greg’s narrow definition of a game: but if it isn’t a game, then what can it be? It is quite clearly art, and quite clearly a game at the same time. To Greg that might well constitute a paradox, but I’m happy with it.
Exhibit B: The Majesty of Colors
“Last night I dreamed I was an immense beast, floating in darkness. I knew nothing of the surface world until I fell in love with the majesty of colors.”
This is one of the most intelligent games I’ve ever played: emotionally evocative, compelling, engrossing and all without overstaying its welcome or feeling pretentious. The Majesty of Colors puts you in the tentacles of an enormous sea creature and invites you to explore the world from its perspective. It is interactive fiction, a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure with five unique endings to uncover. Yes, there are choices to be made, but every choice is pre-defined by the creator. You can’t stray from the artistic vision, partly because you’re an amorphous blob and have no feet with which to stray.
Its status as art seems self-evident. You appreciate not just the look and feel of the game, but you appreciate how it is trying to make you feel. You are playing a game and yet you are aware that it is to be treated as art. Much like the plight of Kong, we are to emphasise with this curious beast: as The Majesty of Colors is a game, it provides a new way for us to forge this emotional link. Arguably, it wouldn’t be as effect as a non-interactive Flash movie. What it lacks in subtlety compared to King Kong (if subtlety is the right term), it makes up for in emotional attachment. It is this heightened emotional involvement that allows games to be often, in my opinion, superior to film as a medium for story telling and immersion.
Exhibit C: BioShock
BioShock is the poster child for the games as art movement, but probably for the wrong reasons. It is not a work of art because it looks and sounds really nice. It is not a work of art because it’s a study of objectivist philosophy, although this is important to the overall message. It is a work of art because it is a deliberate attempt by a developer to subvert and manipulate the player by revoking their feeling of control.
I am now going to completely and utterly ruin the plot of BioShock. The game came out in 2007, so you should have played it by now.
The supposed point of BioShock is the freedom of choice for the player. You spend much of your time freeing ‘Little Sisters’ from the shackles of slavery collecting a substrate called Adam, used by the denizens of fallen Rapture use to accelerate their genetic development. You too can modify your genes to become more powerful, and the choice is presented simply: will you save the Little Sisters and receive less Adam, or kill them and become more powerful than you would have otherwise?
So far, so gamey. The turning point of BioShock comes when you confront Ayn Rand- sorry, I mean Andrew Ryan- the architect of the underwater utopia. An objectivist tycoon, he has been continually boasting the virtues of individual choice and freedom as the pillar of a great society. A bit like the American Tea Party then, but not quite as intellectually impoverished. Should you kill Ryan or leave him to his own fate? It’s here that the game completely robs of you of any choice: you watch on as the player, mind-controlled by Ryan (it’s explained better in the game, trust me), murders him in the same perspective from you’ve been playing. The message to the player is clear: you never had a choice. It was all an illusion, and it always will be in every game hence.
It’s got a lot to say about games as a medium reinforcing my earlier point: as much as we players feel like we’re in control, we are ultimately at the whim of the developer. BioShock‘s twist is the greatest in any game because it is far more potent than any plot twist: more importantly, it can only have such an emotional effect on us because it takes place in a computer game. Told through the medium of a film, it wouldn’t have the same effect and couldn’t hope to have the same effect. If that doesn’t suggest that games can be art, I don’t know what will.
Exhibit D: Shadow of the Colossus
If you thought the point of Shadow of the Colossus was to kill some giant monsters, then you missed the point. Like BioShock it is a beautiful and immersive world filled with wonder and sadness, but that says nothing about its status as art.
When playing a game, we rarely reflect on the plight of the enemy. I am reminded of that brilliant sequence in Austin Powers when the scene shifts to the family of a lowly henchman and their reactions in the aftermath of his death, something we never thought to consider. Shadow of the Colossus compels us to question our actions as players, but like BioShock, there’s no real choice to be made.
The colossi never actually attack your player. They roam the land as peaceful loners: it’s only until you start stabbing them in the neck with your sword that they try to defend themselves, which is pretty understandable. The aim of the game is to slay all sixteen colossi and restore the life of a girl. It’s actually the only thing you can do, which is unusual in such a title. The question it poses, and one no game ever thought to ask before is: are we justified in taking the lives of these creatures to resurrect one human?
While ironically Colossus often fails within the criteria by which games are often judged, such as controls and technical performance, it absolutely succeeds as a work of art. The key differentiator between Shadow of the Colossus as a game and how it would be as a movie is that you are the one doing the killing and you hold yourself personally responsible, which would not be the case with a film’s protagonist even were the story told through their eyes. It wouldn’t have nearly the same impact as a film. If you don’t hesitate at any point during the course of your murderous quest or question your actions, you are a borderline psychopath. As I said before, art is in the eye of the player.
I hope that this essay provides a satisfactory rebuttal of Greg’s argument. To summarise the main points:
- We must redefine what a ‘game’ is: it is not something we merely play for a high score.
- Interactivity does not preclude entitlement to artistic status, particularly if that is what the artist originally intended.
- Likewise, primary function of an artwork as entertainment or any other purpose does not exclude it from being appreciated as art.
- Gamers can never escape the original intent of the developers’ vision. If they can, it’s considered breaking the game in the way that we can deviate from intention in other forms of art, but it doesn’t mean the medium can never be art.
- There are many, many strong examples of games that stand as works of art. I’ve only had the stamina to list four, so please feel free to list your choices in the comments.
Writing is a process of continual refinement, but in this case I will let my argument stand as it is except for the myriad spelling and grammar mistakes I’ve yet to encounter. I’ve invited Greg to compose a response if he so chooses, but it is entirely his choice and if he doesn’t want to take up this invitation it certainly does not diminish his original essay. As always with Split Screen, comments are always appreciated and I look forward to reading your thoughts and opinions on the subject as well as criticism of my argument.
Thank you for reading.