I came across this compelling Youtube by the Game Overanalyser that challenged my perspective about games and art. It is a well-done video that argues why video games are to be considered art.
Why Games Are Art attempts to convince the viewer that (video) games are art. It is unfortunate that Game Overanalyser conflates all games to be video games but that’s another matter. The video is produced in a quick-fire method where he argues that video games are art for a multitude of reasons. These reasons are listed below are a confusing mess when evaluated. I respond to these points in the brackets:
- The Hero’s Path is a staple in most video games and exists in most art. (He confuses art with literature).
- Stories are art. (Stories and art are not the same thing).
- Emotions are art. (Life is full of emotion but that does not make life art).
- Art exists for its own state. (This is debatable whether this is true).
- Is Michael Jordan not a artist with his unique style of basketball? (He confuses player performance with game rules).
- Art is disinterested pleasure. (Some video games induce this but the vast majority of video games do not promote disinterest).
- Things that practice imitation are art (This is too broad to be useful).
- Things that are communal are art (Again, far too broad to be useful).
- Things that evolves are art (Wow, now this is really far too broad to be useful)
- Art is based on what the experts say art is. (This contradicts his entire video and all of his other points).
In a previous blog post I outlined how art and games appear to be two sides of fantasy/imagination, possessing a common parentage. Having a common parent does not mean they are the same, just like siblings can be similar but to equate them would be improper. Instead I would say that Video Games Are Not Art for the following reasons:
a) Video games do not need to be art to be meaningful. While it is quite possible for a video game to be considered art, they don’t need to be.
b) Video games are more like architecture than art. To consider a video game the same way as a painting or sculpture erodes the medium’s dynamic. Equating video games to be more like Architecture is a better analogy.
c) Video games trying to be provide an an art-like experience need to reduce their game mechanics. Video Games as a term defines a medium and an industry and within it different kinds of play. The play found in ‘Games’ proper, which I define as the Play of Measurement, must exclude appreciation for aesthetics to deliver its style of play.
a) Video Games Don’t Need to Be Art to be Meaningful
This is my simplest and most profound point. If you are embarrassed for loving video games, that’s an internal dialogue you need to resolve. Games Overanalyzer admits in his video that he is embarrassed that plays and loves video games, so he wishes to see his activity to be art and thus worthy of respect. We see AAA developers attempting to make video games more cinematic to mimic movies because there is an inherent low self-esteem in many parts of the industry.
I fundamentally disagree with these positions. Projecting feelings of embarrassment robs video games of its own identity. I believe that video games are inherently legitimate and meaningful because they are a part of play. Play is essential for human development, a mammalian activity that cuts across species. It is fundamental to life and is something to celebrate and not to be embarrassed about.
Play and its digital child, video games, taps into human imagination but does so from a different angle than art does. This was understood by Jung and is captured by another uniquely human enterprise: Architecture.
b) Video Games Are More Like Architecture Than Art
Software (and game) development applies the term ‘architecture’ to software development. Just as architecture meshes disparate systems to construct a building, video games do exactly the same. The architectural design of building construction is mirrored in the game design of video game development. Vision/design that ties everything together is absolutely needed when meshing interlocking systems.
Like architecture, video games are a space that are visited. Physically built spaces requires a complex web of carpentry, masonry, HVAC, water/waste, electrical, etc. while video games requires a complex web of code, user interfaces, graphics, etc. It is the practical and crafted qualities of architecture and video games that separates them from art.
One of my favorite buildings I visited in New York City was the Chrysler Building because of its decorative qualities. The building is beautiful but does that make it art? The beauty does not supersede the inherent practicality and function of the building. The Chrysler Building still remains a place of commerce, no different from any other commercial building. It simply possesses aesthetic qualities that makes it appear art-like. Some may believe that the aesthetic qualities makes it Art but I believe they are mistakenly conflating similar experiences to be the same thing.
The talent of Michael Jordan or William Van Alen (who build the Chrysler Building) is a unique fingerprint we can easily identify with and admire. Michael Jordan’s athletic performance as a basketball player contained flourishes and signature moves that defined a unique style just as the Chrysler Building also possessed a unique aesthetic style that allowed it to stand apart from competing commercial spaces. These distinguishing aesthetic traits stand out but does this make it art? I think it is mistaken to conflate the two. Just because something is beautiful or engaging does not mean it is art as we find in Nature’s many breath-taking vistas.
The parts of Chrysler that are art-like (the murals on the ceiling) are a distinguishing aesthetic trait. It could not exist without the building and its underlying architecture. If you were to separate them from the building and hang them up in a gallery then they could become art proper but art does not possess a monopoly on beauty.
Like architecture, video games are a hybrid creation and can contain art elements that can be beautiful and engaging. But both require immense effort of craft and engineering to even exist. A video game could not exist without code, user interfaces, and logic engines, just like the Chrysler Building could not exist without engineering and the trades. Art does not require those underlying systems.
c) Video Games Trying to be Art Are Not Games
My final point is that I don’t believe it is possible to be a game and art at the same time. Some video games aim to be art-like as we see with ‘walking simulators‘ where the focus of is to remove skill-play and puzzles to allow the graphics, music, sound, and minimal challenge to convey a new kind of player experience.
The NotGames movement was created to promote exactly this kind of experience. The contemplative interaction found in art (such as contemplating a painting) was being mimicked in a video game environment. I think it is wonderful for video games to expand in as many directions as possible and I commend NotGames for this noble effort but a video game creating contemplation of aesthetics does not make it art. It is simply another human artifact that creates contemplation, just like the Chrysler Building, literature, or scenery.
A video game that wants to create contemplation of aesthetics must intentionally reduce the other characteristics of video games (skill, measurement, sport, puzzles). It is not possible to appreciate an aesthetic when you are being attacked or are blocked by a puzzle. The playful irony is that a ‘video game’ like Proteus is not a game as it needs to neuter all of the characteristics of a game in order to deliver its experience. The NotGames and Interactive Fiction movements are illustrative of types of play that don’t want to be be games. A more appropriate for these kinds of experiences would be ‘video plays’ or ‘digital plays’.
Video games are magical and their magic is shared with art because they come from the common base of imagination/fantasy. As I’ve said above, sharing a parentage does not mean art and video games are the same thing. Instead, it appears that video games are more like architecture which requires more than art to exist. Those video games that aim to provide an art-like experience must reduce challenges like puzzles and competitive game-play. Finally, those who feel a need to equate the video games with art – Why are you embarrassed to admit you play video games?
Art, games, architecture, literature, music, and all creative endeavors are simply different colors on the spectrum of human imagination. All of these being a color does not mean they are the same color. Video games are a distinct color and it is time we appreciate its place on the spectrum of human imagination.