Friday, August 20, 2010

What makes games art?

One of the topics I have yet to address is my perspective on the "games as art" debate.  This is something that has by and large already been hammered into the ground.  It's at the point now where I think any discerning individual would admit that games have the capability to be art, even though the vast majority of them are generally not.  Rather than pore over whether the medium is capable of or conducive to producing art, I'd like to tackle the issue from a slightly different perspective, and instead offer up my opinion on what it takes for a game to be art in the first place.

The typical response, I think, when someone questions whether games are art, is to say "well, it's got great visuals, good dialogue, excellent use of sound, and it's fun to play!"  However, there is something incredibly fundamental that goes overlooked in this sort of argument, and that is that it does not consider the game as a whole.  To say that a game has wonderful visuals, well, that is a totally valid point, and the same goes for music and so forth, but in taking those elements in isolation, we lose their context within a particular game which is, primarily, a piece of work which is to be interacted with.  We're not looking at the experience of playing, but rather just the bits and pieces of it which can all be enjoyed in isolation.

Thus, I'd like to submit that for a game to be art, it needs to have something in addition to great visuals, audio, gameplay, etc., and that is a singularity of vision with regards to the game's purpose and meaning.  That is to say, all elements have to work in tandem with one another, thematically and functionally, in order for a game to ascend to a level where it can be considered a work of art.  I don't think that a game needs to have a deep or complex story to be art, nor does not need to be pretentious and "indie" about doing things to fit into this definition; any game is applicable so long as it achieves a certain level of unity and quality of execution.

As an example, I'd like to bring up the game Fallout, which some of the people reading may know is a game I'm more than a little keen on.  Fallout has one general theme which permeates every facet, and that is hope of new life in the wake of desolation.  The visuals in Fallout are brown and dry, for instance, but also have a certain vibrancy and colour that hint at hope; they're bleak, but not lifeless.  Similarly, the soundtrack interweaves haunting, synthetic keyboards with tribal drums and the ambiance of human activity, allowing for a wide range of moods that all fit into a single framework.

Fallout's world may be ugly, but it also has a level of 
care and detail which help emphasise humanity's struggle for survival.

Unlike most games, however, this direction also extends to the gameplay.  When the player is forced abruptly into the world, an ultimatum is placed upon him or her: survive, and save those who are close to you.  This may at first seem like a nearly insurmountable task, with deadly enemies abound, skill and combat mechanics to learn, and little to no direction on how to proceed through the game; however, through gradual mastery of the game's rules, the player is able to overcome and even nullify many challenges.  Becoming successful at Fallout is difficult, but not impossible; when the player prevails, the feeling of success against all odds is palpable.

There are two implications of my proposition.  The first is that we will have to rethink how many of our favourite games might qualify as art; this could mean taking the mantle off of some and placing it on others.  For example, BioShock is one of the most celebrated "art games" in years, and yet its relatively mundane shooter gameplay, no different than Doom 3 save for its philosophical narrative backing, suggests that it lacks the coherent vision I defined earlier.  Another such game is Portal; it may have a unique art style and dry, witty humour, but those have little connection to its puzzle-platform gameplay, and while they do make for an entertaining package, there is very little intellectually we can draw from the experience in a way that is unique to the gaming medium.

Conversely, this also means that we are going to have to take a harder, closer look at games that we may have dismissed as not artistic, and reevaluate them.  Unreal Tournament may be the last game you think of when it comes to considering games as art, and yet its simple, colourful visuals, upbeat soundtrack and fast, responsive controls all work perfectly in tandem with its lightning-quick kill-or-be-killed deathmatch gameplay; there is a singularity of function to it which is more effective than all the pomp and pretentiousness in the world.  Not all art has to have a high meaning or "message"; it can often be enough simply to relate to the human experience, and Unreal Tournament taps into it in a very primal sort of way.

 Unreal Tournament may not be an "artistic" game, but its use of
colour, sound, and design all work together to feed into its gameplay.

It is worth noting that, although quality of execution is important, I do not mean to suggest that a well-made and consistent game is automatically art.  A game does not have to necessarily be competently designed to be art, nor does it have to have intentions of artistry; what matters is the final product and whether or not it works to achieve a particular artistic goal.  Similarly, whether a game or not is fun to play does not matter, insofar as being fun is not part of its fundamental objective as a game.  A horror game, for example, may not outright declare to be fun or even enjoyable, but it is most certainly capable of being art, as the Penumbra series of games has demonstrated.

The major problem with this framework for interpreting games, I anticipate, is that it raises a few questions, such as whether a game is still a game if it isn't fun to play, and whether we can reasonably call serious games, i.e. medical training software or military simulators, art.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, this framework has no basis within it for actually quantifying or qualifying the individual elements of a game; it relies perhaps too much on vague language and "feelings" rather than things that can be objectively substantiated.  Because of this, we do not yet have a way of determining what games constitute good art, or bad art.  I plan to explore these issues in the near future.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]


  1. I couldn't disagree more.

    I've just spent good 45 minutes walking up and down my apartment in professor Balthazar style. The resulting reply will probably be somewhat incoherent.

    In your post you didn't give a definition of art, although you did give a definition of game as an art:

    "that is a singularity of vision with regards to the game's purpose and meaning"

    I find that completely flawed. Let's try to extend that to other artistic genres, such as movies. According to that pornographic movie could be considered art, considering they are all about one thing and driven to that one thing.

    What about music? In balkans there is a brand of music called Turbo-folk (labeled as such by Rambo Amadeus). The music, hell everything about it is turbo-folk. It has developed from folk music but everything about it is driven so hard to that lowest common denominator (in balkans at least), so there were disco/dance and what not elements added to it. Lyrics are often a variation of: She left me/I should kill my self. It's all about those really basic instincts. The clubs where such music is played are often places of shootouts. Once I talked to a girl that liked that kind of music. She said that when she would get drunk, dance till her feet were able to carry her and in such a state, she could relate to it. I certainly understand why people can relate to it, when alcohol and tiredness shuts down most of their "higher" brain activity. There's nothing wrong with it.

    So why am I writing this?

    Unreal Tournament as art!?! What were you thinking? Really? RLY!?!?!?!

    When I was a kid (15 or so year old) I enjoyed it a lot, you could even say I loved it. That game is all about frantic deathmatch, but it is art just as much as pornography or a large bulk of turbo-folk music. It's designed for one purpose and one purpose only entertainment. And huge reason for it's popularity was because it was designed almost exclusively for multiplayer experience (or emulation of it through singleplayer). As such it becomes a medium for communication and interaction between two gamers, two consumers (or more than two), rather than a medium for communication between the creator (artist) and consumer/gamer. As such it is as much art as is a chat messenger (such as ICQ or MSN), except it features headshots instead of words.

    As I've said UT is all about fun and entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but here lies the reason why games aren't art. They are GAMES. They are meant to entertain first and foremost (someone might reply: "Is art meant not to entertaint", but that is not what I said).

    To be continued…


  2. Let's go to your other example, that of Fallout. Survival indeed was a theme in the game. The PC is just thrown out there, but that survival and desolate world becomes a moot point as weapons and ammunition is abundant and humans fall dead all around vault dweller (PC that is). You could argue that it doesn't have to be that way, that there is a choice to resolve most if not all situations peacefully. That is true indeed, you can actually beat (let's remeber that word, I'll touch upon it later) the game without killing anybody, but how many gamers do it? I never did, killing and shooting folks in the groin is much more fun. I can do the talking all the time in real life, but saving the world through shooting bad guys, that's what games are there for. Escapism. Indeed that's what games offer better than any other medium (you can become a sports star even if you are fat and slow or you could become a plane/space fighter pilot, explorer and daredevil or simply a hero that saves the world and wins the girl) and because they are so good at it, they rarely try to offer anything else.

    I loved fallout. It's probably, wait, not probably. It is the best ROLE PLAYING game I've played. The amount of choices is incredible, featuring that really rare feature of finishing the game without actually killing anybody, but it never felt as deep art to me. Yes, there is something underneath the surface, hidden in all those details, something that could make you think. That could wrap your mind in all those knots work of art is supposed to, but that artistic expression was so down the line and you have to look for it rather than get it.

    As opposed to Fallout, I'd like to bring The Witcher. It's a game where racism is entertwined throughout entire game (and not in a stupid way like in Mass Effect). It's actually a major plot device, how many games have done that before (Mass Effect doesn't count just because how poorly executed entire story development is). The game features choices that aren't your usual black and white, most of them are in shades of grey and the best part of the game. It goes out of its way to show you the consequences of your actions usually quite some time after you made the choice.

    It was the closest I ever got to experiencing the game as a work of art, but was it work of art? No. Large parts of the game were spent in combat, which was obviously the fun part of the game. You end up killing hundreds (if not thousands) of bad guys and saving the world. Once again.

    Now, let me get back to that verb I used. To beat. Not so much lately, but before when you finished a game you didn't say I finished it, you said I beat it. Books are read, movies are watched, music is listened, but games are beaten. They are a challenge that one needs to overcome. They are rarely experienced as virtual interactive content (VIC) , but merely beaten. They are indeed games and not VIC and while it is so, they will not be art.

    To sum it up.

    Can games as a medium become art, yes they can. There are certainly games that can offer something more than pure entertainment and escapism (such as Fallout or The Witcher for example). But for games to become art, they need to stop being games.


    I spent, 45 minutes thinking what to write and two hours writing it. Phew.

  3. Thanks for your reply, I appreciate it quite a bit, considering I think I can count my readers on one hand! I'd like to clarify some of those issues, though I would like to say that many of them will be addressed in the next post I write, which will make distinct the criteria by which I'd like to judge games as art, so I won't be cutting your argument up piece by piece.

    I don't know if I'd consider Unreal Tournament to be high art, make no mistake. But as low art it gets the job done perfectly, in the same way that there are films, music and movies that might be all fluff, but are able to be fluff in an extremely effective way. They may not be deep or meaningful, but the care with which they're constructed is not necessarily less. Furthermore, it was an example. Maybe not the best example, but I wanted one that would demonstrate that our framework for interpreting games needs to be rethought and put under scrutiny if we want to begin to formate a better understanding of the medium.

    The separation between game and art is an interesting proposition, and to be honest it's a strong argument, because very few games actually do a good job of integrating these two aspects. Does the story of Mirror's Edge in any way find itself enhanced by the gameplay? Is the gameplay able to teach us anything about ourselves and about each other? Not really. It could have looked like anything else and would have been as much fun to play.

    In the case of Fallout, however, I'd submit that it does an excellent job of integrating gameplay with its artistic vision. Yes, you can shoot people in the crotch, and a lot of the gameplay is centred around violence or other arguably "non-artistic" things, but, since Fallout is a game which is all about providing the player with a reactive world to explore the choices and consequences of, you can't expect all players to act the same way within it. You might spend your time shooting people, but maybe I'm spending most of my time exploring or talking. It all depends on how you want to make your way in that post-apocalyptic world and ultimately guarantee your success. I do admit this sort begins to dry up near the endgame (though the reasons for fighting The Master are connected thematically to the player's early struggle for survival), and by the sequel it's definitely gone. But then, Fallout 2 is also a pretty disorienting game and I wouldn't put it on the same pedestal as the original.

    I love The Witcher, but I would actually submit that it's a less artistic game than Fallout. It revolves around a lot of interesting and mature themes, but at the same time its gameplay is fairly standard RPG fare with little connection to the narrative, and its treatment of women and sexuality seems out of sync with its headier ideas, to say the least. It's still a wonderful game, but including some allusions to real-world problems of racism and classism doesn't make a game art in my mind.

    Are games to be beaten? I enjoy finishing games and take pride in being able to get through them, but games are something that I, primarily, experience, not just play and throw away. I imagine a great many gamers are like that, as well. The sense of satisfaction doesn't just come from knowing I've killed the final boss, or whatever, but from my completing a story, or being able to say that I fully took in an experience a game offered me.

    In any case, I'll try to make some of those points I made a bit clear the next time around.

  4. That is an interesting arguement. Unreal Tournament is, without a doubt, an interesting example of an "artistic" game. In the same vibe, as well as genre, I would propose Team Fortress 2 as an example. The cartoonish style, over-the-top game world and "story", all contribute to the same idea, making your standard circle-strafing, bunnyhopping online shooter idiocy look natural and organicaly fit the game environment.

    Another idea you touch upon, one which I myself spent quite some time pondering, is whether a game HAS to be fun. I suppose that "fun", much like art, is a very subjective term, but judging
    by the opinion of most maintream gamers and game reviewers I have encountered a fun game is one which delivers some sort of gratification, allows for killing dudes and blowing shit up, if you will.

    The obvious counter to that would be the horror game genre, particularly the universally celebrated Silent Hill series. Now, I havent played a single Silent Hill game myself but from what I gathered about them over the years suggests that the main focus of them is deep psychological interaction with the player, as opposed to shooting monsters with a shotgun.
    Personally I think Pathologic is a good example. Its not a "fun" game and I would hesitate to even call it enjoyable but it is a unique and thought-provoking game the components of which compliment each other and serve to create an interesting experience.