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 as art in the same way as a painting or sculpture loses one of the essential dynamic aspects of the medium. Equating it more to Architecture is a better analogy.
c) Video games trying to be art are not games. Video Games is a term that defines a medium and an industry. Within it are lots of different kinds of Play. The play found in Games proper, which I define as the Play of Measurement, must exclude appreciation for aesthetics by its very nature.
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 have. Games Overanalyzer admits in his video that he is embarrassed to say he plays games so he wants his activity to be seen as legitimate by aligning video games to be art. We also see AAA developers making video games more cinematic to mimic movies.
I fundamentally disagree with these positions. Projecting feelings of embarrassment onto the medium robs it 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 fundamental human development and whereas art cannot make any such claim. Play is 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 do so from a different angle than art does. This was a 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 has adopted the term ‘architecture’ when it discusses software models. Just as architecture contains meshing of disparate systems to construct a building, video games do exactly the same. The fundamental design of a building that is the hallmark of architecture mirrors the fundamental design implementation of a video game and both require a vision/design that ties everything together.
Like architecture, video games are a space that can be visited. These construction spaces requires a complex web of behind-the-scenes function like HVAC, water/waste, electrical, etc. but instead in video games requires code, user interfaces, graphics, etc. The practical and crafted aspect distinguishes both architecture and video games from art.
One of my favorite buildings I visited when I was 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 remains a place of commerce, no different from any other commercial building. It simply possesses aesthetic qualities that makes it appear art-like. Some people believe its aesthetic qualities makes it a piece of Art. I think this assumption is mistaken. They are conflating things that provide a similar experience to be the same thing.
The talent in Michael Jordan or William Van Alen (who build the Chrysler) can be a unique fingerprint by which we can easily identify with and appreciate. But because something is beautiful or engaging does not mean it is art, as demonstrated by the nature’s many breath-taking vistas.
The parts of Chrysler that are actually art (murals on the ceiling) are a characteristic of a whole. They could not exist without the building and if you were to separate them from the building and hang them up in a gallery then they could become art proper.
Just like Michael Jordan’s performance as a basketball athlete contained flourishes and signature moves that defined his style, the Chrysler Building also possessed a style that allows it to stand apart from the multitude of competing commercial spaces. These traits are distinct characteristics that aids in distinguishing itself (branding), but is it art? I think it is improper to conflate the two.
Like architecture, video games are a hybrid creation. They can contain art, but require craft to be created and are completely dependent on engineering to even exist. A video game could not exist without code, user interfaces, and logic engines, just like the Chrysler Building cannot exist without structural engineering.
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 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 or a piece of literature.
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 and I’d suggest we adopt a broader term like video plays or digital plays instead. The NotGames and Interactive Fiction movements provides validation to my Playstates theory by providing an example that different types of play are not all games.
Video games are magical. They have captured our imagination and energy but not because they are art. Their magic is shared with art in that it comes 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 be viable. Those video games that aim to provide art need to reduce the standard design aspects such as puzzles and competitive game-play. Finally, the question to those who feel a need to equate the two have to be asked why are you embarrassed to admit you play video games.
To say that video games are art is like saying the color yellow is red which because they are both colors. Art and games along with architecture, literature, music, and all creative endeavors are simply different colors on the spectrum of human imagination. They may all be colors but are not the same color. It is time to stretch our imagination to understand this.