Games as Art

Previously disguised as a college professor and family lawyer, JC Lau is an Australian video game journalist and writer living in Seattle. She’s been a gamer since she started playing Pac-Man on her Apple IIe at the age of 3, but her very first love is for words and storytelling. She writes about geekery and gender at her website, Mouse Smash, and probably also tweets too much. She also dabbles in board games and RPGs, but all her characters mysteriously turn out to be like Batman or Wolverine in combat. Her non-gaming interests include political philosophy, food science, roller derby, and being a foster parent for her ferrets. If she had a superpower, she’d want hydrokinesis, although—or because—she can see how easily that could turn her into a super villain.

Games as Art
Can games also be considered art? There are games that, to be sure, are described as art, and games that are visually appealing, but can games as a whole be considered an art form?

In this article, I’ll consider the artistic value of games. This can be a heated and controversial topic, so I don’t expect this to solve any age-old debates. However, I hope that I can generate some thoughts on the relationship between games and art, and how games could fit in to the world of art.

To be clear, I’m not talking about game art—that is, the illustrations on the cover of one’s Dungeon Master Guide or the pictures on the game board. Game art is often considered functional, where it is there to help the players by providing some context. However, I’m more interested in the idea that a game itself—or its components—can be a work of art. So, if a game requires the use of art in it (such as Dixit, Monument Valley or even Pictionary), my query is whether they count as art because of that feature.

What is art? What is a game? Avoiding some preliminary pitfalls
In order to consider whether games are art, we’d first have to establish what counts as a game, and what counts as art. We often have an idea of each, based on our social and cultural practices. But as centuries of philosophers, critics, designers and linguists have discovered, the endeavor to categorically define what art is, and what games are, could be extensive and fruitless. After all, there are whole areas of study devoted to these topics, with little resolution in them.

For example, if we look at the Mona Lisa, most of us may be inclined to say that it’s a work of art. But can the same be said for Duchamp’s Fountain? Or what about cases where everyday objects are assumed to be art because they are in an art gallery? It seems that there are some things which count as art (for example, the Mona Lisa), and some things that do not count as art (such as a discarded napkin from yesterday’s dinner, in a dumpster), but there is a whole gamut of objects that fall into the grey area where they could be art.

Likewise, for games, there are some games which are commonly praised for its artistic value. The video game Grim Fandango, for example, was described as triumph for its strong artistic direction, including its film noir elements. Dixit is known for its surrealist art and creative storytelling. At the other end of the scale, though, are games such as checkers, or Pong, which have little to no narrative and are visually simplistic. Do they count as art?

Instead, perhaps a less infuriating way to open the discussion on this issue would be to look at parallels between games and art, and use that to draw some conclusions.

There’s a well-known and controversial debate about whether video games can be art, sparked by Roger Ebert’s declaration that “video games can never be art”. Ebert argued that “art should be defined as the imitation of nature” (his emphasis), and that art is “usually the creation of one artist”. Since games—especially video games—often do not imitate nature, and are commonly the products of collaboration, on Ebert’s logic they cannot be art.

Thresholds for art and games: creativity, social structures and user experience
Perhaps Ebert is not being sufficiently charitable in understanding games, or art. Sure, art can be hard to define, but at a very general level, perhaps it can be considered to be the product of expression of the creative process. If it’s an expression of one’s creation to paint a picture of a lady with a bemused and mysterious smile, that’s fine as art. If it’s an expression of one’s creation to put a urinal in an art gallery, then that also seems to satisfy the (very low) threshold for art.

Games, by definition, are products of the creative process: many of them (such as Dungeons and Dragons or Galaxy Trucker) are based on imaginary worlds. Even when they are based in reality, they still empower the player to make decisions that affect its outcomes, such as games like Diplomacy, Pandemic, or any war-based first person shooter.

Even games without a narrative can be creative: Minecraft takes place in a fictitious world where the player can determine her own story, and even games without conventional narratives such as Pac Man and Battleship have been given stories of their own with movies based on the games. So, games seem to also meet this requirement for creativity.

However, what also makes something art isn’t that there’s some essential feature of it that is art. As Eric Zimmerman observed, “You can’t split the atom of a Picasso and find an essential art particle inside.” Art is (or rather, becomes) art under certain conditions. If da Vinci had scribbled the Mona Lisa in the dirt with a stick where it was never seen by anyone, then it’s tenuous to think that it would be as revered as the actual painting in the Louvre is today. If Jackson Pollock wasn’t Jackson Pollock, but some random guy on the street throwing paint around, his products probably wouldn’t count as art in the same way (or, at least, we’d be much less inclined to put it in a gallery and sell it for millions of dollars). What matters, then, isn’t the object itself, but rather, the temporal and social conditions that lend themselves to determining whether an object is art.

When considering games as an art form, similar issues arise. There’s nothing intrinsically artsy (or non-artsy) about games; social practices will help determine the game’s artistic value. If H.P. Lovecraft never existed, games like Arkham Horror might come across as confusing and awkwardly pretentious, for example. If we didn’t know about scientific research and what horrible things real-world diseases can do, games like Pandemic might not have as much meaning.

One final parallel is that both art and games, whether intentionally or not, evoke an experience in the perceiver. The ability to evoke emotions is commonly seen to be one of the main features of art. In his book, What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy observes,

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

When you play a game, you’re experiencing something—being thrust into another world, transforming into another character, or even having different goals than what you would have outside of the game. Isn’t this a case of experience and feeling being evoked because of the game?

A final qualification: good art and bad art
It may also be misguided to dismiss games as art simply because they’re not pretty things in a museum. Even given the conditions above for what counts as art, we can see that not all art is created equal. The crayon drawings that a child makes in kindergarten, for example, aren’t on par with the Mona Lisa (even though parents might praise it as such). Art can be good or bad.

If that’s the case, why should we think the same of games? Games can qualify as art to a degree—it’s not an absolute one way or another. Perhaps a game like Monument Valley, which was made by graphics designers, is an instance of good art in a game. Every shot in the game was intended to look like you could just print it out and frame it. We can contrast this with a game such as Pong which, while iconic, probably didn’t have much going for it visually. Maybe this is one of the problems in the age-old debates: when people think of art, they are thinking of high-end, fine art. But if we drop the threshold for what counts as art, we can be a lot more inclusive. And of course, we don’t have to like it all.

So perhaps the upshot of this is, if we have to answer a question such as the one posed at the beginning of this piece, then maybe the answer is “yes”, but with the qualification that not everything that is art is good art, games included.

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