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Games as Art and Why You Shouldn't Care

By Thomas Buscaglia | Published Aug 19 2013 11:16 AM in GameDev.net Soapbox
Peer Reviewed by (Gaiiden, Prinz Eugn, Dave Hunt)

opinion

“The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem… I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” -Marcel Duchamp


When you ask anyone who has ever loved a game what their favorite game is, you never really know what to expect, but you can bet that game made their list for a reason. Maybe they loved it because it was artsy, but maybe they loved it because it told an fantastic story. Maybe they liked the character progression, or maybe the dialog made them laugh. Maybe it was that game that allowed them to share an intimate bond with another person, or maybe they fell in love with exploring a new universe. Maybe they just like killing time on their farm.

The point is, all of these experiences can be intensely meaningful to the person on the other side of the screen, board, stick and can, etc. – regardless of whether or not someone thinks it qualifies as art. In other words, my response to the question, “Is a game art?” is an earnest “Who cares, did you get something out of it?”

It’s my opinion that our job as game developers is to create meaningful experiences – to entertain. In some form or another, that’s why most of the developers I’ve met or worked with got into the industry in the first place. For me, games were one of the few subjects that my father and I really connected on, from Backgammon and Chess to Legend of Zelda and Quake Thunderwalker CTF, and that’s always been one of the main influencing factors in deciding that I wanted to make them. I love games and the experiences I’ve had with them and I want to create more of that.

We know that games have brought people together since at least the very beginning of recorded history and, given what we know about human nature, we can easily assume that they’ve been doing so since the dawn of man. In that context, the thought that anyone would seek to validate games by labeling them as art seems not only unnecessary, but detrimental – it distracts from the essence of what makes games so powerful. Games don’t need to be art to be significant because they are already tantamount to the human experience. I’m not saying there’s no room for certain games to be art or to not be art, but to let that define our craft would be to miss the point entirely.

Can a game be art? Hell, a game can strengthen families, it can build friendships, it can introduce lovers, it can change the way you see the world around you, it can teach you things you didn’t know about yourself. Games do all of these things and so much more every day all over the world on an immeasurable scale, as games always have.

I really want to drive that point home: games have always had the power to affect droves of people in a meaningful way. A set of rules can do that. That’s just a property of games. Stack up the sheer number of prides humbled by a game of Go or restless minds calmed by a few rounds of Solitaire and they easily outrank, by at least an order of magnitude, the reach of even the most famous works of art that history has to offer. By that measure, being art must be the least significant thing a game could ever do.

At this point you might be thinking, “…but if we concede that it doesn’t really matter whether or not games are art, doesn’t that mean we’d also be forfeiting all the potential cultural, legal, and financial privileges enjoyed by traditional artistic media?” Well, yes and no.

I would argue that as part of a global society in which games have long been more or less universally accepted, our efforts would be better spent talking about why games are so incredibly valuable and worthwhile by their own merits, rather than falling into the centuries-old trap of trying to get everyone to agree on what the hell makes something art.

When I hear people talk about certain specific games as being works of art, myself included, they typically mean that the game is an exceptionally good game based on criteria used to judge whether or not games are good, not that it’s exceptionally good at being some other sort of thing that’s maybe art but probably isn’t a game. In that sense, you have one group of people saying simply that that yes, some games are incredibly good games, and another group sort of butting in to argue that no, there are no games that are paintings.

To the point, the question should be, “If games are so important, why aren’t they offered the same recognition and consideration as art?” That’s a question that, sadly, I don’t have an answer to.

Maybe it’s because play comes to us so naturally that we’ve learned to associate it with childish behavior. Maybe it’s the nature of play being so deeply hard-wired into our genes that causes us to take it for granted and devalue the beauty in the architecture of a brilliantly engaging set of rules.

Whatever the reason, games typically aren’t regarded with the dignity they deserve. If they were, we might be in the throes of a heated debate over whether or not carving a sculpture or performing a dance could truly be considered a game. Wouldn’t that be something…


GameDev.net Soapbox logo design by Mark "Prinz Eugn" Simpson



About the Author(s)


Thomas is an experienced professional game programmer and designer with a passion for gameplay and interactive storytelling. He's worked on projects in a wide range of platforms including web, console, desktop, and mobile. He is currently running the startup independent game dev gauntlet.

License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

Interesting argument.

 

I think video games are in the stage that pottery/clay was at one point.   "Clay could never be used for art, it's used for making tools/containers".   Now days working with pottery/clay is something that every art teacher has to work through.   The same argument following through with each advance of something major/revolutionary(everything from paint to writing and cars).

 

I don't consider a coffee mug from a cheap cafe to be art(pretty sure the designer doesn't either), but there are a lot things made from clay that are undeniably art.

The concept of art is kind of broken, as I see it, a great example of why I think this is the central station violinist experiment, if you didn't hear about it the premise was taking an extremely talented concert violinist, which people pay insane amounts of money to go see to theaters that can only be seen as palaces or monuments to art, and putting that guy to play in a busy public spot, like grand central station, as if he were a street musician playing for tips.

The result of the experiment says a lot about the relevance of art, the guy played the full program that he was scheduled to play in the theater as a member of a symphonic, in that time thousands of people passed by him, less than 5 even recognized him or stayed to listen to what he was playing, however in that time he earned more money in tips than he was getting payed for one full show at the most expensive theater of the city.

The point being, people that pay good money for what is deemed real good art, are unable to recognize it right in front of them if nobody tells them what it is, or they just don't care and pay the good money to feel somehow entitled because they "appreciate art".
Another example is an incident in which by mistake, a Picasso was displayed upside down in an art gallery, and for weeks, nobody figured it out.

How would being labeled Art benefit games at all? if people don't seem to have a clue what art is or how to appreciate it?
Let games be games, in all their potential, the only thing we developers need to do is to always strive to make our games the very best game they can be and hope somebody enjoys that.

Here in DK, Art is originally synonymous with skill (originally for physical craftsmanship) (See Artisan)

If something looks like it's easy to do, like every man could reproduce the work, we say "Det er ingen kunst", "It's no art" (As in; it's easy) I can best relate to games being works of art as that.

But everything that takes lots of practice to master is an art in my opinion. Even something unfamiliar to physical products (as games, a dance, climbing, parkour etc.)

I believe that any attempt to define the word "art" that tries to exclude computer games will be incomplete, and will certainly exclude other works that the definer wishes to include.

 

Of course, most people who cry that "games are not art" don't care to offer a definition. That tends not to be what they are interested in. They would appear to be most interested in putting down games as a creative medium - often by citing some popular but terrible games. It shouldn't come as a surprise that this is easy to do, after all, 90% of everything is shit.

 

Why is this important? It comes back to "all the potential cultural, legal, and financial privileges enjoyed by traditional artistic media". This is what such people are interested in, particularly the latter two. They wish to deny such privileges to the medium. I imagine they will fight equally hard against attempts to characterise games as valuable in their own right too. They will try to argue that games are different, and don't deserve, for example. the same protections from censorship as other media. And I would be afraid they would succeed, and computer games would get some kind of compromise deal.

 

So, while the question is not really important, the answer unfortunately is.

all this carries a few assumptions:

that art is an end in itself;

that the value of art is to be put on a pedestal and admired.

 

if we instead assume that everything is based on some sort of personal pragmatic value, then there is no issues. games serve to entertain the players.

 

the question might then be raised: what then is the practical value of art? well, it does appeal to the emotions and aesthetic sensibilities of people who are into art.

 

not everyone really cares about admiring art either (and may find the entertainment value of a traditional art-piece as fairly short-lived).

 

in this way, there is not necessarily any "good" or "bad" (or "pure" or "vulgar") in these things, more just personal preferences. anything which fills a role in this way then has its own worth, and no further justification is really necessary. like, if the person likes it, or it serves some role for them, why not?...

 

 

like with music: not everyone really enjoys classical, which is traditionally the "art" of music genres. yet, many people get a lot more enjoyment from, say, rock, country, techno, dubstep, gangsta rap, ..., which aren't held to anywhere near the same level of esteem.

@NEXUSKill -- you've got your facts wrong... the violinist only earned $32 total whilst playing in the subways during rush hour.

 

http://blog.longnow.org/02011/05/17/do-you-have-a-moment-for-pure-genius/

 

http://www.towleroad.com/2007/04/worldclass_viol.html

Your argument is invalid

 

... the violinist only earned $32 total whilst playing in the subways during rush hour.

 

http://blog.longnow.org/02011/05/17/do-you-have-a-moment-for-pure-genius/

 

http://www.towleroad.com/2007/04/worldclass_viol.html

 

The concept of art is kind of broken, as I see it, a great example of why I think this is the central station violinist experiment, if you didn't hear about it the premise was taking an extremely talented concert violinist, which people pay insane amounts of money to go see to theaters that can only be seen as palaces or monuments to art, and putting that guy to play in a busy public spot, like grand central station, as if he were a street musician playing for tips.

The result of the experiment says a lot about the relevance of art, the guy played the full program that he was scheduled to play in the theater as a member of a symphonic, in that time thousands of people passed by him, less than 5 even recognized him or stayed to listen to what he was playing, however in that time he earned more money in tips than he was getting payed for one full show at the most expensive theater of the city.

The point being, people that pay good money for what is deemed real good art, are unable to recognize it right in front of them if nobody tells them what it is, or they just don't care and pay the good money to feel somehow entitled because they "appreciate art".
Another example is an incident in which by mistake, a Picasso was displayed upside down in an art gallery, and for weeks, nobody figured it out.

How would being labeled Art benefit games at all? if people don't seem to have a clue what art is or how to appreciate it?
Let games be games, in all their potential, the only thing we developers need to do is to always strive to make our games the very best game they can be and hope somebody enjoys that.


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