(Why) Should Games Be Art?

I wrote up a critique of Bioshock recently—a game which seems even more impressive to me now after playing through the much-hyped Halo 3—and among the comments following the post was one that deserves special attention. Z. said:

Not to rip this train from the tracks, but your post, like most other pieces on games and art, brings me back to the simple question of do games *need* to be art?

I understand that following a nebulous, subjective, functionally rhetorical question with yet another nebulous, subjective, functionally rhetorical question is fruitless ploy, but with your admitted focus on adult play I’d love to glean your opinions on the conceptual artistic merit of gaming versus its sheer interactive entertainment value. Personally, I enjoy games that are thematically challenging and emotively immersive, but do you feel such elements at all undermine the simple value of play itself? And, concerning the subjective nature of art, is a game that is emotionally resonant (such as Ico) significantly less “artistic” than a game that is, by design, more visually artistically stimulating (like Rez). I guess my question is simply does art warrant observation or interaction, and, if the latter, does the induction of the player into the formula make games more artistic in and of itself?

That’s a fair question, and I think that I’ll be writing enough about games and play enough that the response deserves its own post. My short answer is this: “Art” is a frustrating term, but yes, I think (at least some) games need to aspire to greater depth if this medium is ever to fulfill the promise that its fans would like to see.

Here is the longer answer:

I dislike the term ‘Art’ (note the capital ‘A’!) because it is loaded and vague. I prefer to break it down into its various components, which include assumptions about contemporary relevance, proven and expected longevity, aesthetic craft, and so on. Not all capital-A art is going to meet every component therein. An object of political art, for example, may be highly relevant in contemporary life and exceptionally effective at spurring debate, controversy, perhaps even reform, but it may seem less relevant in fifty years. On the other hand, some art, such Moby Dick, doesn’t become truly respected until after the death of its creator. What we label as Art may also have less to do with craft and aesthetics than with a piece’s contribution to an ongoing conversation in the art world. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”—a urinal controversially submitted to an art exhibition—has been voted by some as the most influential work of art of the 20th century. The craftsmanship of the artist has nothing to do with this.

It’s possible that we’ll look back on some of today’s video games years from now and recognize them as Art. Some have already made their way into galleries, such as a piece I saw in one show that simply had a looping tape of two Soul Calibur characters staring each other down, but I hardly think that counts for what we’re talking about here. Saying that this proves video games are art would be like saying that Duchamp proved that urinals are art. Those of us who call for greater artistic relevance of games want to see Moby Dick-level art—or perhaps more analogously, Citizen Kane-level art—based on the conversation between creators and players.

As some have argued, the game’s rule system may be the locus of aesthetic depth, such as in “serious games” and games that force you to lose as a means of conveying tragedy (see Lee, 2003). Personally, I think that these count as Art, and I think they’re neat. We may have also seen games whose visual and audio aesthetics qualify them as Art, or at least artistic, such as Z.’s example of Rez, which likely influence the games that come after. These seem like only fragments of the total experience of playing narrative games, however. To have the longevity or depth that we see in narrative art like Moby Dick and Citizen Kane, we would need to see games that more effectively blend the major elements of the game playing experience—audio and visual, and especially gameplay and narrative. I do think that games have demonstrated the potential to blend rules and player control with narrative progression for meaningful results, but I do not think they have fully realized that potential.

This brings us back to Z.’s question about whether narrative and affective elements “undermine the simple value of play itself.” Quite to the contrary, I think they work best when designed to complement one another. Plenty of games, of course, need no narrative element—Ms. Pac-man being a favorite of mine, and Tekken series being an example offered to me as an example by players during my research on arcades. Those games do not need to aspire to be “Art” any more than the Die Hard series of movies (which I’ve generally also enjoyed). Some of those games that do reach further mix narrative and play rather well, though. I think that the game-like elements of Shadow of the Colossus, such as the thrill of conquering obstacles, are essential, not detrimental, to the thematic experience of the game.

In so many games, though, it seems like game designers don’t trust narrative elements to keep people engaged unless those elements are somehow directly rendered in the classic tropes of gameplay. Another games scholar was just telling me the other day about the Scarface video game: The developers took a line from the movie—”My balls and my word is all I have, and I don’t break ’em for no one”—and translated this into a “balls meter” that fills up as you kill people and eventually lets you become invincible. Maybe this kind of playful element is a good reflection of what people enjoy about their willfully unironic viewing of the movie today, but the original story was, I think, supposed to be satirical. (And sure, you could have a knowingly self-referential game satirizing the tropes of gaming, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that most games like this are shooting for that.) In other words, this may work fine as a game, but it sounds like it serves pretty poorly as narrative art. I’m not saying that games should be movies, but that I think there is a sort of spectator/participant experience somewhere between Hollywood movie viewing and game play as we’ve seen it so far. Actually, the first half or so of Bioshock seemed to promise that kind of experience, but ultimately just failed to deliver.

Realizing that potential could have a number of practical consequences, including increased grant funding for meaningful, affecting games rather than (or in addition to) the usually dull, straightforward “educational” games that get the lion’s share of public funding for game projects now. More artistic games could also provide better fuel to the debate that games ought not be treated so harshly as compared to film in matters of legislation and industry self-regulation, which in turn could help alleviate some of the chilling effect that may leave developers and publishers afraid to push the envelope with challenging content. And, selfishly, I must admit that I as a consumer would simply like to play better games. To the extent that the goal of criticism is to encourage better art, I do think it is important to criticize games for not reaching their potential.

I do not think that video games “need” to be art insofar as the medium or industry otherwise face imminent destruction. This is the argument that has often been applied to comics, but that industry has been much more unstable in recent years. Games are doing pretty well, and I think that actually acts against the push for meaningful art. Fearing extinction and irrelevance has been a great motivating factor for formal innovation among comics creators. In the relative absence of such fear in the games industry, perhaps we can only hope that someone sees other practical values in making more sophisticated games.

I think that’s all I have to say on games and art right now. Please feel free to offer your own comments. Thanks to Z. for kicking off the conversation.

4 thoughts on “(Why) Should Games Be Art?

  1. Thanks for providing such insightful commentary, Jason. I can’t help but agree with your position on capital-A art vs. the art of aesthetics/relevance. “Art” has become almost pejorative, as it often conjures images of form without function and appreciation without understanding. Rather, I think we can all agree that a move toward games that are thematically sophisticated, conceptually meaningful, and emotionally resonant is not only good for the gaming industry – as it makes criticism against the disposable nature of the culture less relevant – but also for gamers who would rather be challenged than pandered to on a lesser level.

  2. I just got an iPhone and started playing a game called iPhoneassassin.com. It’s the old game of assassin with the interesting twist of being confined to iPhone users. Basically, you find someone using an iPhone and “assassinate” them (usually convincing them to join the game first. )

    So, it’s at once a commentary on the conspicuous nature of iPhone users, and a community builder.

    That’s art.

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