Games As Art
The following explains the view of video games as art. If you're burned out on this particular topic after experiencing many derailed discussions and convoluted definitions, then I suggest throwing out the terms altogether. Forget labels and categories of "art" and "video game" for the time being. Let's focus on what art does and how art affects us instead. In a general sense we know that art conveys ideas and experiences. Whether through light, sound, images, movement, or physical material, the art itself is a collection of these things. And it's people who shape the medium and frame the ideas to be conveyed.
In many ways art is a statement, intentionally designed to say something or ask a question. Even the mere existence of a work is a clear statement in itself. Each medium is limited to conveying information a certain way, so naturally each medium has a range of ideas it can convey effectively. The collected understanding of the techniques and rules of a medium create the criteria of its design; for it's through careful, meaningful design that information is conveyed most clearly. Likewise, we tend to like art that adheres to some or all of the aesthetic principles of its medium. This is to say we like certain combinations of shapes, colors, sound, flavors, etc. because of how they tend to affect us.
Art seems to be a thing people create when they have something inside of them that must be conveyed; something that needs to exist. Sure, to some creating art is merely a job or a passing hobby rather than a way of life, but the art itself still does its job regardless of the creator's motivation. We use art in many ways to learn about the world, to stretch our minds, and to relate to the hidden goings-on inside other people. All of these uses of art are important.
So what can be said about the art of video games that I haven't already covered in my series Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery? To start, video games in the broadest sense of the term easily convey ideas. Some ideas are very abstract like functions, strategies, and design spaces (interactive potential and balance). Some ideas are very concrete like the stories of heroes fighting against the forces of evil. Some experiences are fleeting happening in your mind as your brain clicks to solutions (eureka!). Other experiences are much more external and direct like the sound of an explosion, grabbing a coin, or catchy background music.
Some have argued that the natural, emergent freedoms found in most games are what directly work against any potential for the creator to control the presentation of ideas and therefore the quality of the conveyed ideas. In terms of just interactive-digital-play spaces, I don't consider video games to be very different from other non-linear artforms like sculpture and 2D art. In the medieval literature course I took at SMU, my professors teamed up with the Dallas Museum of Art curators and art historians to introduce us to the world if medieval sculpture and tapestry. The tapestries in particular were massive woven works that sometimes took up entire walls. These works were incredibly detailed depicting epic scenes of history. To convey so much on a single two dimensional display, the medieval artist learned to present these tapestries with a particular kind of flow, paying attention to the structure of the environments and the direction figures gestured to indicate the passage of time. Yet, as much as these works of art are seemingly limited to linearity by their medium, the viewer is free to start anywhere within the image and move around as he or she pleases. And after diving deeply into the depth and ambiguities of great literature, I fully understand how much freedom we bring to art as we experience it.
While all types of the interactive media we call "video games" can be embraced as art (works in a medium that conveys ideas in aesthetically pleasing ways), there are very specific questions, ideas, and structures that can only be conveyed with works that fit a more narrow definition of "games." To be clear, this is the point where we have to make a distinction between video games encompassing a wide range of interactive, story based, world like experiences, and games as Jesper Juul and I define it. From this point forward, I'll use the following definition of game:
Half-Real, chapter 2: "A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome... and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable."
If you have in your mind right now an example of a video game that fits the above definition, and this example contains characters, a story, and realistic graphics that present some kind of fictional-livable world, then put that example aside for a moment. While these kinds of games are quite popular and interesting in their own complicated way, part of why I love Juul's definition of game is that it applies to very simple, very abstract games. For some examples check out Knowledge, Dexterity, Timing, or Reflect on my downloads page.
At their simplest, video games ask a very simple and important question: can you do this? Well, can you? Do you have the skill to press the button as quickly as possible in Reflex. Do you have the mental capacity to remember a string of 50+ colors in Knowledge? Do you have the ability to keep a steady beat in Timing? Do you have the control to trace your mouse around a race track in Dexterity? Do you have what it takes? This is the question that I frequently ask myself not just when playing video games, but when creating art of all kinds, interacting with friends and strangers, and getting through a normal day.
The question appears to be simple, yet so much is packed inside it. Do I (the person/player/subject) have (contained within my capacity to act/my agency/a quality of myself) what it (the concept, the idea, the task set forth by the game/the work/the art/the designer) takes (to the degree that is required to accomplish the task). This is why games are unique from other mediums in the way that they convey ideas and experiences. Games can express ideas in passive ways through the presentation of visual, aural, and tactile stimuli. But they also ask something of us and take the experience a step further by giving us an opportunity to answer back. Yes, video games can actually test us and reflect us much in the same way that exams in school do. And it is through these tests, these questions and answers, that we have a unique and artistic way of experiencing ideas, interacting with concepts, and most importantly measuring what we're made of.
In some ways, we need art (works that communicate and express ideas) to help us realize who we are and what we think. Like acquiring a clear language to express oneself, art can give us ideas that we take in, collect, break apart, and combine to give us a better way to understand ourselves. This process is more commonly understood as forming opinions, the most abundant substance in the universe. In a very simple, natural, and real way, we use art to define, measure, and express ourself; we reference specific examples to avoid dwelling in vague miscommunications. If you've ever had a conversation with someone about what books, movies, music, or games you like, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Obviously, expressing opinions says things about who we are. But it's not so obvious that without specific works to build opinions out of, we wouldn't have a good way to understand ourselves in the first place.
There's nothing like games as a personal measuring tool. The thing about measuring tools is they work best when you can take that tool and measure more than one thing with it. In other words, when the tool is external or separate from that which you measure, you can begin to make clear and accurate comparisons. Keep in mind, this "measuring" is not a matter of pride or hubris. I'm not talking about gamers looking for a reason to boast or to hold their accomplishments and abilities over others to feel better about themselves. When I say measure, I'm talking about that foundational first step in understanding who you are at the deepest, most hidden, untouchable part of your being. Since we don't have the technology that allows us to share our minds, consciousness, and actual lived experiences with one another, we must use external elements to bridge the gaps between the islands that are individual people.
The ideas is that if two people experience the same thing, the same work of art, the same objective medium then they can use that experience as a point in common. In this way, external measures are the first step to relating to others, then empathizing with others, and finally understanding one another. By asking that one simple question, video games don't just ask us to relate to ideas and experiences. They demand that we change ourself to understand them. To build the skills to play more complex and challenging games, we have to "eat, breath,and sleep" the rules, particulars, complexities, and details until they become second nature. We all know this about games, yet it's still a remarkable thing. Ultimately, the more detailed the system of measure, the more detailed (even persnickety) our opinions and feelings, and the more we can dissect the parts of the measuring system, the better the results.
Likewise, for video games, the more challenge gamers fight through, the more of "it" (the external system of rules) they must embrace by building their skills (a very transformative process due to the learning that's required). The more of "the squeeze" the players endure, the more knowledge players gain of the measuring system (gameplay) and of themselves. As I've described, "the novelty" is a wonderful experience. It's like a new world of understanding, a new language you can use to describe how you feel or what you think, and new angle to see yourself and the creators eye-to-eye.
If you value video games for the above artistic aims and results, then you value games as art. If you think that games are just about having fun, I'd have to agree with you for the most part. Recall my article series on fun titled The Zero-Sum Funomaly. When you really look closely at what fun is, though what we consider fun differs from person to person, the word is simply used to describe activities and experiences that we freely choose to engage in. As I explained in the series, fun is a very important part of video games because of the intrinsic motivation that's inherent in fun. In other words, because you want to do what you think is fun, the motivation goes a long way in making you receptive to new ideas, to learning, to challenge, and likewise to listening. Listening is a very important part of art. In fact, I don't know if art works at all when we are not willing to listen. Art doesn't work when we are forced to go to museums against our will, or we begrudgingly read a book, or we protest participating in a game. Things just don't speak to us the same way when we shut our ears and eyes.
A willingness to listen, to be open minded, and to humble oneself before a task are qualities that we can't produce, synthesize, or force others to adopt. And they're the qualities that make engaging with art so meaningful. If you view games as art, then you should also pay very close attention to how ideas are communicated via gameplay and other forms of interactivity. As a designer, when you have an audience that is willing to listen you better make sure you're doing the best job to communicate. And as a player, you better make sure you are receptive to the different ways ideas are being communicated.
In part 3 I talk about the views of games as technology and games as business.