Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guest Post: Are Games Art?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 29, 2011

Today’s guest post comes from Travis Bassett, of the new website PC RPG News.  Travis tackles the thorny issue of whether or not games are art. Travis takes a thoughtfully subjective approach, one I don’t feel I can refute. If a game truly moves and inspires you, does it really matter if some ivory tower blowhard dumps on it by refusing to label it capital-A Art? I’ll let Travis suggest an answer:

There are few debates that have animated the gaming community more than this question: Are video games art?

The reason for this animation is straight forward. Gamers enjoy their hobby, and gamers want to see its merits recognized. We have been misrepresented as anti-social types, addicts, and violent freaks over the last few years, and unfairly so. By answering yes we reject the misinformed notions of gaming’s strongest critics.

I think games can be art, but arriving at that conclusion requires gaming experience. What you read here isn’t going to convince your great uncle Hester to boot up the latest indie masterpiece, but it might help you see gaming in a new light.

I’ve wrestled with the question of “what is art” many times, and to figure out the status of gaming, we have to. I’ve never come up with a perfect answer, but I have realized a few important factoids about art.

First of all, it’s subjective. What one person christens as art another despises. Go to an art museum or gallery, and see for yourself. I guarantee you’ll see at least one piece that you don’t think belongs there. That’s because each individual IS an individual. You and I may be looking at the same piece, or hearing the same song, but we will not be experiencing it in the same way. You may hear a turn of phrase that reminds you of your first love, I might hear a bass line that reminds me of an embarrassing moment. That diversity makes life exciting, it makes us human.

Another point: Art raises your consciousness. It exposes you to new ideas and perspectives, and it conveys these things in creative ways. The observations of a narrator will prompt a new and exciting train of thought in the reader’s mind, and the use of black and red in your child’s painting will influence your future perspective of that color scheme.

I may never have figured out a perfect definition of art, but these two points have helped me get close. By realizing that art is subjective, while taking into account that it exposes it’s audience to new ideas and perspective, we arrive at a definition for art.

Art is any product of creativity that elevates the consciousness of it’s audience.

Faulkner fits that definition for me, so do the Ziggurats, and the paintings of Jan van Eyck. And so do some games. The original Deus Ex, the Sith academy level in Knights of the Old Republic, the assassin missions in Baldur’s Gate 2; they have all helped enrich and inform my worldview. Roger Ebert might not understand that, but he doesn’t have to. These games didn’t single-handedly shape my consciousness, but that doesn’t matter. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

What game has expanded your horizons?


Filed Under: Guest Posts - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Yep… Art is subjective… because I’ve always been one of the people to take Roger Ebert’s side. I’m not saying that games will/can never be art… but I’m saying that our current level is that of children.

    Our games rely too much on poor storytelling, mediocre writing, and massive mindless action movie segments for me to take them seriously. If they want they want to be more than dime store action novels… they need to grow up. Not “We have lesbian sex because we are growd ups!”… but give me a real exploration of the human condition. Give me something that makes me think, and question, to ponder, and STILL not have the answers.

    Until our game’s grow up I will happily call them what they are. An entertaining experience.

    And there is nothing wrong with this either. Games are equally fun whether regardless of their “Art” status. It’s the same experience whether or not I call it art.

    The only game that makes me believe art is even possible as a game is “Shadow of the Colossus”. I’ve played all the standard “Games are art” games… and this is the only one that awed me with it’s simplistic beauty. While I still hesitate to call it “Art”, I can’t help but admit that it was beautiful.

    But, to each their own. Many people have been moved by games to the point that they consider it artwork. One day, maybe I’ll agree… but it’s not today.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    If any film, book, painting, sculpture or whatever can be considered art, I don’t know why games can’t be added to that list.

    Defining what is “good” art though, that’s a bigger question!

  • Travis said,

    Come to think of it, I probably can’t defend the entirety of any one game. There have been moments in games that “elevated my consciousness.” That’s probably what I should have wrote.

    I really like what McTeddy and Andy_Panthro are saying, Especially the bit about gaming being a developing medium.

  • eedok said,

    My position on the subject has always been that games are better than art. Fun is what makes games great for me, and when games try to be art it usually gets in the way of the fun.

    Though what I like from games has more in common with sports than say movies, and I rarely see anyone really question are sports art? It seems strange to me that people care if games are art.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    As an artist, I have always wrestled with this question myself – what is art? It certainly is subjective, but Travis’s definition is about as good as any other I’ve come up with on my own or seen from others, but I always run into a problem with these definitions – there are always exceptions.

    Just when I think that I have discovered a definitive definition of “art”, I come across a piece that doesn’t fit the definition, but that I would definitely consider art. Or, more commonly, I come across a piece that fits the definition, but that I absolutely cannot consider art with a clear conscious.

    For myself, anything I would call art must have some beauty – or perhaps elegance is a better word. Inspiring, moving, creative, etc.

    I don’t consider a lot of what is in modern art museums “art”. There are really two “schools” of artists – classical and modern. Ironically, the majority of artists in the world today are in the classical camp, but their work does not hang in museums. Instead you see their work on signs, book covers, and the supermarket shelf. They are the “commercial artists” the modern artists sneer at so often for “selling out”. They are the comic artists, the painters who obsess over light, shadow, and color composition. They are the inheritors and protectors of centuries of hard learned art techniques and methods passed down from master to apprentice, from the time of the great Renaissance masters and before.

    Art, unfortunately, (or fortunately, since I make my living at it) is a business. It always has been and probably always will. In centuries past this meant finding rich patrons and painting what they desired, producing portraits for the world in the ages before the camera, where the ability to replicate reality was paramount to success.

    In modern times, art is advertisement, it is beauty or excitement, something to attract the eye and hold it, an alchemical mix of techniques and knowledge for sell to the highest bidder.

    Even the “modern art” in the museums is a business. In fact, business is the reason modern art exists. To wit, there are only so many times a painting can be sold in a given period of time, and famous paintings by old masters tend to be held on to and passed down in estates for a very long time. The dirty secret of the art world and art critics is that they must continuously create new cash cows, artists that produce new and unique work that cannot be had elsewhere, and get rich off the profits of selling such works.

    It is a very incestuous system. Art critics scout for a new artist, one that is doing something different from anyone else ever (it doesn’t matter what this is, as long as it is DIFFERENT and can be considered art under any rough definition of the word – painting with crap, sculpting with lard, it doesn’t matter, so long as it is DIFFERENT). The critic then sings the praises of the artist everywhere, promoting them shamelessly to museums and gallery directors. They have a side motivation of gaining fame for “discovering” the artist if the artist makes it big. They also usually get a cut of the profits as a sort of agent. (Imagine if movie reviewers in Hollywood also managed actors – couldn’t really trust their praises, could you?)

    Gallery owners act as patron for the artist, hosting and promoting their work and getting a hefty cut of the profits, along with a usual contract agreement to have hosting privileges for all the artist’s work for a certain period of time.

    So, the more hyped a new artist is, the more money and fame the art critic and gallery owner receive. But the product they peddle has to be unique, and eventually an artist will earn them less and less – either the artist falls out of favor, drifts into obscurity, or becomes so successful they no longer need the critic or gallery owner and keep most of the money from their work for themselves. So the critics and galleries must continuously bring in new artists, keeping in mind that many will not pay off for them, but it is worth it for the ones that do.

    Most exhibitions of modern art are sneered at by the general public. In poll after poll and event after event, the public has overwhelmingly disapproved or disliked modern art. In one of Jackson Pollock’s first shows, the public showed up to LAUGH AND MOCK his paintings. But all the critics and gallery owners need is a few wealthy people to like the work, or buy it for it’s rarity and perceived social status.

    There is an “Emperor’s New Clothes-effect” at work as well. Joe Public may not like or understand a piece of modern art, but he sees all these rich socialites and an “highly-intelligent” art critics singing the praises of the work, so he figures there MUST be something there that he doesn’t get, and he doesn’t want to look like an idiot or lower class, so he nods sagely and proclaims, “Yes, truly a remarkable piece of art.” And the myth perpetuates.

    Now, as to whether or not games are art – I agree with McTeddy. They CAN be. But most aren’t. Just like most movies, books, and pictures aren’t art, but some are.

    A couple of games I can name off the top of my head that I consider art are “The Last Express” and “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories”. Both elevate the medium and show what it is capable of, and both left me pondering their stories, gameplay, and the meanings of it all for weeks afterward.

    “Shattered Memories” is remarkable for being a game where your actions matter less than the intentions behind them. It truly starts becoming unnerving when you realize the game isn’t paying attention to the character you are controlling, but to YOU. The game world changes and alters, motivations shift, NPCs actions and appearances become tinted and different, not because of what your character does in the game, but by creating a profile of the type of person YOU are, all through subtle actions and shades of thought evidenced by what you look at, how long you do so, your drives, your motivations, etc. It is all wrapped up in a framing device that puts you a psychologist’s session. The story is distinctly adult, with no fighting or combat, and a situation that would chill any adult’s heart, especially a parent’s – your child is missing. And the story is told in flashback, from a session treating you for depression – Oh, God. Somethings going to go wrong, isn’t it? A manic dread seems to sit over the whole game due to this realization.

    I won’t spoil anything for those that haven’t played it – because everyone should – but the story ending is powerful, and is a perfect example of a story telling narrative and device that would be impossible in any other medium besides GAMES.

    Check out the trailer here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X97TLXtY4Uk&feature=related

    “The Last Express” is an old game, released in 1997 on the PC, yet it is still light-years ahead of most modern games as art. It is an adventure game that takes place in real time, placing you on-board the Oriental Express during its last trip on the very eve before the outbreak of World War I. The research, subtly, and voice acting all raise this title above many other games. You don’t really know who you are, why you are there, or what is going on, but you’d better find out before the train reaches its final stop! The remarkable thing is how compelling and exciting the game and story is considering it all takes place in 5 or 6 train cars. NPCs move around on their own, hold private conversations, interact with you, and have their own agendas and stories that can change based on your actions. Sitting at dinner and reading a newspaper while eavesdropping has never been so riveting. The game also implemented a revolutionary feature at the time of allowing the player to rewind time to any point and start over from there if they wished to make different choices and actions – the mechanic would later be seen in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (created by the same director as the Last Express). Every time I play through the game I discover something new, or hear a conversation that sheds new light on a character or action. It is art, but sadly bankrupted the company that made it.

    See the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X97TLXtY4Uk&feature=related

    You can pick up the game for modern systems at GOG.com if you want to give it a go yourself. (And again, you really should.)

    I don’t think all games need to be art. Just like sometimes all you want from a movie is a popcorn flick, sometimes all I want is entertainment from a game that lets me shut my brain off. But I do wish we had more choices when we wanted to play art. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? “Play art”. Only games can give you that.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    I draw the line at the same place as with everything else. If something makes me say, “ooh, how beautiful!” then it’s art. And by “beautiful” I don’t just mean visually — the only games that actually made me cry are two text adventures (Photopia and Starborn, specifically), and there are many more that made me go “wow”.

    Some games, of course, will not be art, but simple entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Will anyone claim dancing is not an art just because there are such things as ravers and YouTube dancing babies?

    And then of course are those things that try to be art but come out poorly. And guess what, we usually call them bad art, not something else entirely.

  • Travis said,

    That’s an interesting look at the art world’s business model LateWhiteRabbit. I heard a lot of the same during my two brief stints in art school. The right person could probably write a very interesting non-fiction piece about politics and patronage in today’s art world.

    The whole subject reminded me a little of a documentary called “The Art of the Steal” which is on Netflix instant streaming.

    Anways, Silent Hill SM looks depressing as hell, but I’ll give Oriental Express a shot. I’ve been meaning to for a about a decade now. 🙂

  • Vatina said,

    There are definitely games that, throughout my life, have resulted in some sort of emotional reaction inside me. Mostly great ones, and not only due to adrenelin rushes 🙂 Sometimes the way a scene is portrayed does this, other times a thread in the underlying story that touches me in a personal way and inspires me to think differently. This is one of the things I love most in games.

    The word ‘art’ often puts me off when discussed, as it makes me think of those weird things in museum that I would never appreciate myself.

    But in the broad (and true) sense, as you described, then yes – I believe games can be art as well.

  • xenovore said,

    Why are we still debating this???

    From Dictionary.com:
    1. The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
    2. The class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.
    3. A field, genre, or category of art: “Dance is an art.”

    #1 certainly applies to video games! So does #2. And if #1 and #2 apply, then #3 ultimately applies as well.

    Another definition from Wikipedia:

    Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect.

    Does that not also apply to video games?

    Whether games are art is not a yes/no question! Just like any other medium, there is a whole (subjective) gamut here, from the craptastic to the spectacular.

    At one end are games like Pong which are so abstract that they may barely qualify as art to only a select few. (I for one would not consider Pong to be art, but I’ll bet that somebody does among the 7 billion out there…)

    At the other end we have games that are more film than game — like Final Fantasy — and nobody argues about film being art!

    Another key point is that it takes artists to create most games! Artists must paint the textures, sculpt the models, and design the levels. How can games — which obviously contain art — not be art?!

    Finally, the appreciation of art is not democratic. Nobody — neither the majority nor some so-called expert — can say what art is for anybody else. If just one person is moved emotionally or intellectually by something they view or interact with, then I daresay that thing is art.