You Want Art With Those Games?

This is the first part of a series of blogs that aim to contribute yet more internet detritus to everybody’s favorite age-old argument: Seriously, are computer games an art form?

Part 1: Games Are Not An Art Form

By now I would guess that most people with a finger on the pulse of the computer/videogame industry have the sense that there is a growing movement for this medium to be regarded as something more than a hollow, trivial pastime. The “Games as Art” debate has certainly been ongoing for some time now, and unfortunately for everyone I feel the burning need to chime in. Part of the argument that games are not, and perhaps never will be, considered a true art form is that the medium has yet to produce any works of timeless relevance, unlike more traditional media like theater, film, and literature. In other words, the experiences provided by games have yet to (and perhaps cannot) achieve the same level of distinction as that produced in traditional media. But if games, as some (including myself) contend, do have the capacity to produce powerful experiences, why have we not yet seen works capable of attaining the status of an enduring classic? Is it possible for a game to be regarded in the same light as a “Casablanca”, “Romeo & Juliet”, or “To Kill A Mockingbird”? Can a game establish itself as a popular “classic”, a widely accepted work of art? And does a game even need to achieve such lofty status in order for the medium as a whole to be considered an art form of its own?

I think to begin exploring these questions, it first would help to establish what I mean by some of these terms — the most important being what I mean by “art”. Of course, attempting to define the term “art” is problematic, to say the least; it means many different things to different people, and one simplistic definition here will assuredly be insufficient in some way. Still, when I speak here of art I am generally alluding to the fine arts, or rather a generous appreciation of what constitutes fine art, to the inclusion of such forms as painting, sculpture, dance, theater, architecture, cinematography, photography, drawing, poetry, and literature (or creative writing). In this respect, I think of art as an aesthetic expression of an individual or group (whether visible, tangible, or abstract) that can be appreciated by others for its beauty, insight, or emotional power. Although Tolstoy’s dogmatic definition of art from 1896 leaves a great deal open to debate, he does touch upon what I think are some key components of art: a means of intercourse between man and man, based on the capacity of one man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and to experience those feelings himself. There is an appreciation that art stimulates the human senses and mind, by transmitting emotions and/or ideas, and in that respect art is a form of communication between artist and audience.

With this definition of art in hand, an assessment of the body of work that constitutes computer games would, in my mind, conclude that this medium very much has the capacity to be an art form. But as with my contention above, that games have “the capacity to produce powerful experiences,” there are two implications here: first, that no game has yet been able to produce a truly powerful experience; and second, that such a compelling work must exist before this form of entertainment is given serious consideration as a true art form.

With respect to the former, it’s difficult to submit any examples of games that truly convey some meaningful expression about the human condition that is in the same zip code as some of the classics mentioned above; I think some games have begun to tread in this territory, and from the discussions around the net it would seem that this is a target firmly within many game developers’ sights. As for the latter, I suspect the statement will elicit some debate, but I contend that it is the major obstacle to the widespread acceptance of games as a new, true art form. I think many game developers and players would argue that some games — Jason Rohrer’s Passage, for instance — should already be considered works of art given their characteristics and accomplishments. And perhaps from the perspective of the restricted community of game developers and players, they may be. But until there is a game whose impact and reach is powerful enough to extend beyond this focused (and perhaps biased) group, we’ll only continue to have our simple games, thoughtful games, exciting games, and even beautiful games, but nothing widely appreciated by the public at large as “art”.

Nevertheless, as stated above I will contend that within the medium of games there is the capacity to generate a work of substantive beauty, insight, or emotional power. I believe it is possible, and that it will happen eventually. But not until two things occur: first, games figure out how to be more about people rather than objects; and second, we develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of that unique aspect of games that separates them from other traditional forms of entertainment: the role and use of interaction.

Next: Part 2: “Games as Art” = “Games as Storytelling Medium”

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  1. gnome
    Posted April 5, 2008 at 7:05 AM | Permalink

    A very interesting read as usual. Now, on to part two on which I feel we’ll have more to discuss, as this part can’t be regarded as much more than a personal statement on art. Defining art, and I think you’ll agree, is nigh on impossible. Scores of philosophers have already failed. One can in reality only talk about what a society considers art or -as you and apparently Tolstoy did- sketch out ones beliefs about what art should be. Besides, any definition based on words such as “meaningful” is doomed….

    Now, don’t know what this will contribute, but no matter how much I’ve tried I still haven’t found an answer to questions like: is dada art? if movies are art then why isn’t the Alone in the Dark movie considered as a piece of art? is art more than a word to be used as praise for something? where is the line separating exquisite craft and art drawn?

  2. BigBossSNK
    Posted April 5, 2008 at 4:51 PM | Permalink

    “the capacity to produce powerful experiences”
    So how do you measure this power?
    Newtons per sec? Watts per hour? BTU/h?

    “Defining art, and I think you’ll agree, is nigh on impossible”
    It’s a logical mistake to think that no solution exists because one has not been found.

  3. gnome
    Posted April 5, 2008 at 6:34 PM | Permalink

    Well, dear bigbosssnk, I see what you mean but I have to disagree. This is not a matter of “solutions”. Fully describing, thus defining, societal constructs doesn’t always have to be possible. For example, how about a definition of the word definition without actually using the term again? Or what exactly is a city? How can democracy be defined outside a certain society? See what I mean?

  4. BigBossSNK
    Posted April 6, 2008 at 1:03 AM | Permalink

    Go to Google.
    Type in “define: definition”
    define: city
    define: democracy

    “See what I mean?”
    Should I?

  5. gnome
    Posted April 6, 2008 at 6:31 AM | Permalink

    Well, quite frankly you should. Having just typed “define:city” I had google inform me that more or less the city is an urban area. Hope you see the tautology… Ok. Also tried democracy… quite laughable really. Definition on the other hand was pretty robustly defined. Point is not everything can be defined in absolut terms. Unless of course you believe everything is god-given and thus all we have to do is discover an eternal godly secret that never changes.

  6. BigBossSNK
    Posted April 6, 2008 at 7:05 AM | Permalink

    define: city ->
    people living in a large densely populated municipality (-> an administrative entity composed of a clearly defined territory)

    define: democracy ->
    the political orientation of those who favor government by the people or by their elected representatives

    Both definitions are clear. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask for an explanation.

    “Point is not everything can be defined in absolute terms”
    Physical realities can be defined in physical terms. Conventional systems can be defined within the formalism of the system itself.

    “Unless of course you believe everything is god-given”
    God does not exist. It’s a metaphysical notion brought onto the world by ignorant fishermen and farmers a couple of thousand years ago.

  7. gnome
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 1:48 AM | Permalink

    Even though having a philosophical conversation with google can be tiresome, let me just say that: a)neither democracy nor the city are neither physical realities nor convenional systems b) both devinitions you chose to copy and paste are both wrong and incomplete -really, that was unavoidable, and c) I don’t need to have anything explained, thank you.

  8. BigBossSNK
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 4:36 AM | Permalink

    “neither democracy nor the city are neither physical realities nor conventional systems”
    A word is a reference to a neuron structure. As such, it is invariably a part of the conventional system we call language.
    A word can reference a physical reality (a city is a collection of physical components organized in a specific way), or another neuron structure (as with believing in democracy)

    “both definitions you chose to copy and paste are both wrong and incomplete”
    Provide an instance of them being wrong. For people who need more than a baseless opinion to be convinced.
    As for them being incomplete, I’m not writing an essay. Search and you will find definitions that fit any instance of the word.

    “I don’t need to have anything explained, thank you.”
    Apparently, you do!

  9. gnome
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 5:24 AM | Permalink

    Do not :p

    (no, really, I’d love to go on discussing this, as I 100% disagree with you but you do make sense, though you’ll have to wait a bit… can’t find the time today, but as I actually am an urban theorist, I ask you to at least trust me on them city definitions. Anyway. Be back very soon)

  10. Rubes
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 9:32 AM | Permalink

    I don’t necessarily believe that defining art is an impossible task; I do, however, believe that coming up with a definition of art that society as a whole agrees on is likely futile. The definition of art is in the beholder, just as beauty is. But as gnome mentioned, this is more of a personal statement on what I think art is and does.

    As for quantitatively measuring the power of an experience, I fail to see why it is necessary to do so.

    The argument — that games need to produce powerful experiences in order to be considered by society at large as an art form — does not necessarily imply that there needs to be a quantitative measure of power in order to pass an arbitrary threshold. With beauty, we judge something to be beautiful not by some quantitative measure of beauty, but by a personal qualitative evaluation. What constitutes power? What defines powerful enough? These are all qualitative questions that need to be answered at the level of the individual. My answers will likely be different than many other’s answers.

    But what I’m trying to do is to distinguish between the consideration of a medium as an art form at the societal level, as opposed to the consideration of a specific piece within that medium as a work of art at the individual level. My argument is that the former follows from the latter.

    At this time, I would say that there are a few games out there that some people would consider to be works of art — whatever they base that on. Perhaps they felt that these games moved them powerfully enough to believe so. But I believe that no game has been able to accomplish this on a large enough scale such that society as a whole would now consider games to be an art form. It is my belief that some game eventually needs to do this to achieve that ultimate goal, otherwise games will continue to be considered more of a pastime than true art.

    Perhaps that does imply that there is a quantitative threshold defining the number of people that need to be powerfully affected by a game which, when surpassed, will result in widespread acceptance of the medium as an art form. If so, it is certainly an undefinable number, likely relate to a vast number of influences. But the end result nevertheless is that, at some point, it happens.

    If movies are art then why isn’t the Alone in the Dark movie considered as a piece of art?

    This is the general point of my discussion: What defines an art form vs. what defines a work of art. Pieces made within a particular medium can be works of art or they can be vapid and trite — it’s up to the individual to decide. An art form is the medium itself; movies are an art form, but that doesn’t mean that all movies are works of art. But I would argue that there had to be at least one movie generally perceived by enough people to be a powerful work of art before movies (as a general medium) were considered an art form.

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