Games as Art and Why You Shouldn't Care
“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…
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