Can we define games as art?
First, can we define anything as art? Art is an increasingly difficult thing to pin down. Once upon a time, art was simply folly: something made without a real purpose. As humanity has advanced, luxuries have become more and more prevalent, until now. Only a very small subset of things we own are strictly necessary for life.
Art has grown in parallel with this trend. Where once owning a Piece Of Art was a sign of status, now we all of us own hundreds or perhaps more things that could be called art. Every music album, every photograph, every film…and, perhaps, every videogame.
I’ll be talking about games as art with reference to Gaut’s “properties of a work of art” (Gaut, 2000: 28).
(1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant (properties which ground a capacity to give sensuous pleasure)
There are many games with impressive graphics out there. As a student of games development, I often look at such games and marvel at the number of polygons and the detailed textures. But some games are beautiful, graceful, and elegant. They make me forget what I know about their inner workings. Wind Waker is the example that immediately springs to mind. A game so lovingly put together that I found myself deliberately bumping into walls just to see the pretty effects, hear the ‘dsh’ sound and watch the protagonist get up and dust himself off.
(2) being expressive of emotion
Some games certainly do express emotion. Characters and their stories, if done right, can communicate a feeling just as a film or book would. But what about the emotions that games inspire? Not explicitly engineering them (’emotioneering’ – what a great word) but inciting rage in the player who can’t quite catch an enemy, bursts of excitement in the player who dodges a fast-moving lorry, and pangs of glee in the player who emerges from a cave and sees the huge open world for the first time. That is one of the great things that games bring to the table of art.
(3) being intellectually challenging (i.e., questioning received views and modes of thought)
I think this can be a negative as well as a positive feature of games, but it’s definitely there. Negative examples would be when a player thinks a trigger-shaped button fires their in-game gun, but in fact a regular button is mapped to that function. The player has to ignore their instinct – to pull the trigger – and use the button to fire. That’s a simplistic example, but it exists. Positively, many games grant players powers they do not have in real life. In Minecraft, most of the mechanics at least try to approximate the real world, but the first time I realised I could double-tap Space to fly, I was reminded that games truly can do whatever we can imagine.
(4) being formally complex and coherent
I would go so far as to say that games are more formally complex and coherent than several other kinds of art. Even the most basic game must have a degree of underlying complexity – what the player sees is always much simpler than what the developer wrote. As for being coherent, if a game is to be played it must have a certain level of coherence – for example, when the player picks up a particular item it should always do the same thing, unless there is a good reason.
(5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings
Games are often allegorical – they give the player one experience, in order to show the player the essence of another. A while ago my friend Gerry wrote about a game called Dys4ia, a simple Flash game with a very complex message. Dys4ia is a small suite of minigames, similar to WarioWorld, that give the player a sense of the experiences the game developer had in her transition from man to woman. Simple things like trying to manipulate a shape into a gap that won’t accommodate it represent this woman’s adjustment to her new situation.
(6) exhibiting an individual point of view
Although some games present a story (or multiple stories) from different points of view, the majority of games I have played are based around one character or a tightly-knit group, presenting everything from their point of view throughout the game. I think games do this more than other story-telling media, because the player must identify on some level with the characters they are playing.
(7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original)
It’s often said that no game is completely original, but this is also true of art in general. Originality is not easy to come by, with such a rich history behind us. Is it original to draw a landscape of rolling hills and dales? Not particularly, but people still make valid art doing so. I think it’s more important that games can be original in execution than concept. There have been countless shoot-’em-up games over the forty years of gaming, but titles like Geometry Wars and Ikaruga bring something new and that can be appreciated independently of their genre. Genres themselves detract from originality – ‘just another <genre> game’ – but at the same time, it helps people to have a frame of reference for the game, and allow people to easily find the original, interesting elements.
(8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill
Making games isn’t easy. Making bad games is possible, of course, but even a game that nobody likes can be the product of considerable time for talented people. Modern ‘triple-A’ titles like Halo and Legend of Zelda occupy large numbers of designers, developers, and artists for a couple of years before emerging to the market.
(9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.)
This is the most problematic of the ten properties. It’s disingenuous to use art to define art. A hundred years ago, this list would not have included film, even though film was extant as a medium. Graphic novels were still looked down on snootily as recently as ten years ago – even now, some people do not consider them art. This is just another case of people resisting change and fearing the new. Soon people will be saying ‘of course games are art!’. I have every confidence in this. It’s just a matter of time.
(10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art.
I don’t really agree with this, either. Games need not have been intended to be some lofty work of art to be breathtaking, aesthetically beautiful, and technically impressive. And these very qualities mark it as art, by this cluster theory.
If I were to summarise my opinion, it is this: any definition of art (that fits all currently accepted art media) will fit games as a medium, as well. As such, you may consider and criticise a given game as art if you like. I have given this quite a bit of thought, and cannot produce any definitions of art that would exclude games. However, I reserve the right not to treat a game as art. When we cross the line of treating something as art, we open ourselves up to a lot of negative thinking. Video game criticism is already an incredibly harsh world. How much harsher would it be were it suddenly the domain of traditional art critics?