Games As Art – We’re Asking The Wrong Questions

There’s a question that keeps coming up amongst gamers of all walks of life. It’s a monkey on our collective back and, for the sake of our beloved pastime, I want shot of it.

“Are games art?”

The answer is very simple. No, they are not, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain why.

When we use the term “video game”, we usually use it to describe a piece of software that has interactive elements, and often features a defined set of win and lose states, or a form of progression – either narrative or mechanical – that is perceived to be compelled forward by actions of the player.

[drop]That definition pretty much covers it, but to re-appropriate and modify a phrase from a 1960s obscenity trial: you know a video game when you see it.

Still, the specific definition isn’t all that important anyway, all that matters is the word “software”.

All modern video games are software. Can we agree on that, fair reader? I think we can.

Software is not art – and indeed the argument is rarely made that it is. It can look beautiful when printed upon reams of paper, and the mysterious dance of logic occurring within the minds of programmers is a beautiful thing indeed, but at its core software is not art.

Software is a set of instructions for a computer system to read and execute, it’s no more art than the list your mum might give you to nip down the shops with.

Microsoft Excel may look nice, it even requires an artistic flare to create its UI, but ultimately it is a functional program designed to serve a purpose other than to engage the higher senses. It is a commercial product made to fill a role.

If we were to argue that Shadow of the Colossus is indeed art, then Excel would be the “No Flash Photography” sign hanging next to Team Ico’s portrait of Mona Lisa. It serves a purpose, even though it may indeed have artistic elements in its construction.

Software then: not art.

Video games, as we’ve agreed, are all software, given the term “video games” because they reside within a specific type of software category due to some of their shared characteristics. They’re not given this name for any reason other than this, and the term “video game” certainly shouldn’t be used to falsely elevate them in the conscience in terms of their artistic merit.

Games are not inherently art, because games are software, and software is not inherently art.

However, that is not to say that games cannot be art, or that there have not been games that have achieved the status of art.

To return to our earlier metaphor likening software to another medium, asking “are games art?” is like asking whether all still images are art. It’s a preposterous question, and it’s equally ridiculous when you boil down other art forms to their components, and ask that same thing.

Are all books art?

Are all films art?

Are all photographs art?

Are all actions within a theatre art?

Of course not. It is the way human beings react to and engage with the experience of the individual end product, made by the person or people working within their chosen medium, that determines whether or not something should be considered artistic.

Basically put: if I derive artistic enjoyment from something, whether in a passive or creative role, then that something could (perhaps even should) be considered to be art. Art isn’t in the components of the object, it’s in the person using those components to create the object.

With software, I can create a first person shooter with no other purpose than to make money, using a boilerplate design that’s taken from other products that have focus tested well, that is creatively bankrupt, but I believe will be commercially successful. Is this “art”?

Alternatively I can take the same medium and produce Killer7 – a visually evocative, tonally complex game about murderers that may or may not be machinations of a man with multiple personalities. Is this on the same level artistically as the example above? I do not believe that it is.

Think of it this way: give me a block of stone, and I can sculpt you a statue more beautiful and representative of the human form than Michelangelo’s David.

[drop2]Or I could bust that exact same lump of rock into pieces and pave your driveway for fifty quid.

Video games are not art then, and neither is clay, or ink, or paint, or celluloid, or the human body moving across a stage. But they can be, and that’s what’s most important about this entire discussion that has become completely lost under a quagmire of blog-based bickering.

The material used does not dictate its artistic merit or its purpose, and video games are a material within which human beings produce work.

“Work” could be exactly that: the product of a task being fulfilled to meet a demand. But that work might also be the manufacturing of an emotion in physical form, or a rendition of an element of the human experience.

Work could tell a mediocre love story, it could sell you a bottle of cola, it could challenge your pre-conceived notions on a subject. But it’s not the building blocks of the idea that is the art, it is the idea itself that may or may not be perceived to be art.

Perhaps now we can start asking the real, and far, far more difficult questions.

Which games of ours do we consider to be art? Who do we want making these decisions for us? What criteria do we use to label them as such? Does a game have to evoke an emotional response to be called art? Should games strive to be art in the first place? What properties are uniquely “video game” that an artist might wish to employ? Who are the most important artists working today? If some mass-market games are art, then has the general population been swept up unaware within a renaissance?

The answer to these questions, I believe, will be far more interesting than endlessly revisiting the regurgitated responses to an overly simple question that never needed to be asked in the first place.

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13 Comments

  1. Just looked up the dictionary definition of art after reading this.

    “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture”

    Though I don’t like calling games art because for me (like film, music etc…) it’s an entertainment item to be enjoyed; games do/can seem to fall under that description.

    My biggest issue with calling something “art” is that is can be used to cover up that something, like a film, has been made but generally misses the point of why they exists – to be entertainment. It ticks all the boxes for critics but I couldn’t care less what critics say, I just want to know will I enjoy it. I couldn’t care less if the script is rubbish, or the acting woeful if the film is actually enjoyable (though there will always be a point where something can’t be enjoyable if it’s made too poorly).

    I hope games never go down the route of trying to be art, if being art is a by product then great.

  2. There is a flaw in your argument.

    “Video games are not art then, and neither is clay, or ink, or paint, or celluloid, or the human body moving across a stage.”

    Video games are the end product, clay, ink or paint are not. They are the raw materials.

    Programming code is the raw material it is the manipulated, much as clay, paint or ink are, to create the final product. As you point out, the raw materials can be used to create non-artistic results – but they can also make fine art.

    So code is not art – but video games most certainly could be.

    “Software is a set of instructions for a computer system to read and execute, it’s no more art than the list your mum might give you to nip down the shops with”

    I also disagree with this. What is painting other than a simple flourish of the hand? That alone is not art, but put lots of them together – or lots of lines of code – and you have may create a masterpiece.

    • Nicely put, fella.

      The software itself represents the paints. It takes someone with genuine creativity and artistic merit to create something incredible (like Journey, for example) but it definitely has the opportunity to be seen as art, in many ways. What’s more wonderful than most mediums is that it can be 2D, 3D, rich in colour or monochromatic, eerily silent or full of lush sound. Possibly more than anything else it’s interactive – it’s one, single, defining characteristic over the likes of films, TV programmes and music.

      For me, the idea of saying video games are not art is just mere pedantry. Necessary semantics but pedantry nonetheless. Simply start with “all games have the potential to become art” and that covers everything. Most people will understand that and appreciate how the different senses that games stimulate (sight, sound, touch, etc.) means we have the most wonderful method of communication possible. A method in which we can actually explore unrealised worlds, engage in creativity, en masse, at a level never seen before.

      Journey, for example, is festooned with unlimited moments of aesthetic beauty that wouldn’t look out of place on anyone’s wall.

      However, what constitutes great art is something that’s hugely subjective but the definition of art itself is something that I’m very happy to see in the industry.

    • I was going to write a glib reply to this article, but you have made my point far more eloquently.

  3. for me it is art. playing games give me happines and of course sorrow (when i have noob team like me.hehe) just like like what arts gives you. the definition/concept of art was establish way back decades where no computers to see and play. but what if we are in a world (the world where we dont know what is art) where the definition of art is about to be define now where computers is a norm. then the definition of art in any books might change. sorry for my shitty grammar.

  4. You know when an artist uses a room full of rubbish as their latest art project?
    Well, the computer game equivalent is the last Duke Nukem release ;P

  5. Video Games are most certainly entertainment first, and some excel (pardon the pun) to ‘art’.

    For me it’s either the art direction that a particular game has taken (Mirror’s Edge, Datura, Unfinished Swan), the story (Heavy Rain, Last of Us), or the emotional attachment (Journey, Ico, FFVII) that makes it more than just entertainment and more an art form.

    The CODs and FIFAs of the world are our big Hollywood Blockbusters, our One Direction, and it’s nice in a way that our more ‘artistic’ games tend to come from the indie scene (like movies and music).

    …will a video game ever feature as the Tuner Prize – why not?

  6. I’m not as good with words as the other guys and girls so I’ll just say you are talking bollocks! This article seems well out of place on TSA, odd.

    • It’s not out of place at all, it’s what we do best – create discussion :)

  7. Great opinion piece. really thought provoking. I disagree because I consider a small handful of games as art or at least “artistic”. In a sense this is what the article is getting at. To consider something art is a subjective choice not an objective fact. So one guy considers Journey art and another girl doesn’t and they’re both right!

    • This is what I was thinking. Art itself is so subjective.

      An enjoyable read but I respectfully disagree.

  8. “The expression or application of human
    creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual
    form such as painting or sculpture”

    …… don’t know about you guys but there are alot of video games out there that fit that description. Ignoring three painting and sculpture bit obviously

    Missile Commands very poignant mechanics spring to mind straight away

  9. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
    – Michelangelo

    I haven’t yet carved out an angel, but I do love chipping away at the marble.

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