Editorial: Games as Art

Goodday, LusiPaintings. I want to start with an apology for opening up an old debate that many gamers have considered closed for a long time. However, I bring up games as art for a few reasons. One is that the discussion has been reopened by a few people I follow on Twitter, so it has been on my mind recently. The other is that I realized that I never really threw my two cents into the pot when the whole Ebert debacle first popularized the debate. Back then all I said was “of course games are art”, and left it at that. But now I feel that that stance is a little shortsighted. And, in fact, a little disrespectful to the many games that I would consider to be art. Are Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books art? Was the hollow, shallow remake of Total Recall art? While nobody debates the artful nature of books and film, there is certainly a range of quality and function to the people who consume it. The interesting thing is that while they share the same spectrum of quality, games have a secondary scale not present in other popular art forms.

Also, awesome.
Art.

Specifically, when compared to other media, it is easier for a game to come into existence as a vehicle for a mechanic. It happens sometimes with movies – Avatar was a showcase for 3D technology – or even books if one were to count pop-up books, but the difference is that the latter examples cannot exist on purely mechanics alone; unlike a game like Tetris. Therefore, strong thematic and artistic ideas are not always necessary to create an excellent game. However, to suggest that a game cannot be built around an artistic idea is either ignorant, naive, or both. Just like all art, as I mentioned, there is a spectrum. One example of a game should not, or more accurately cannot sum up the entire medium. In fact, even a single game can relate to art in more than one way.

Call of Duty single player is to art as Battleship the movie is to art. Call of Duty multiplayer is to art as Settlers of Catan is to art. StarCraft II multiplayer is to art as hockey is to art.
But once we hit games like Shadow of the Colossus and Flower and Majora’s Mask and Final Fantasy VII we run out of comparisons. For these are games with artistic ideas and complicated themes, but they are new art. A Monet painting is not to art what a Bach Toccata is to art except for important. My examples of artful games have no better way to say what they said except for how they said it. They are old ideas that have been expressed through art from the beginning of time told through a completely new form and in a way no other form could express them. The debate is not whether or not games can be art – they have been and are and will continue to be – but whether we can support the medium as a way to express ideas and not just mechanics.

Games have evolved as quickly as technology – which is to say extremely quickly – but it is a baby art form. It can be argued there have been no masterpieces yet. Not in the sense of the perfect execution of ideas from a singular artistic voice. But our focus needs to be on how we can support games as a channel of ideas not on how to convince the artistically blind, stunted, or stubborn that art will always find new ways to be expressed.

The point is that it is important to remember that while some games can be accurately compared to things that are generally not considered art – like board games and sport – it just proves that gaming is a multi-faceted medium that as a whole has no direct comparison. Games are a new art form that is not close to being understood yet. I just hope that we continue to see great games that represent all that gaming can do. From Tetris to Mario to Street Fighter to Suikoden to ICO to Journey to Mass Effect and beyond. I also believe games need more singular artistic voices to become the truly strong art form that it has not quite reached yet. But that is another article for another day.

What do you think, LusiSonatas? Am I on to something, or are you all just sick of this debate?

5 comments

  1. I never got sick of the debate because I felt like it was a debate which was held between your people like Ebert who just come off as curmudgeonly and out of touch. It was the blanket assertion that games weren’t art that I found problematic, because if you look at something like Flower or even something like Xenosaga, who is to say that by virtue of it being a game that it is less artful than something like Hot Tub Time Machine or the Twilight books? Sure Madden isn’t art, but if you aren’t entertaining the thought that games can be art, you’re only cheating yourself out of a potential to experience something like FFIX (just to throw out a random example).

  2. I can’t read the sentence “games as art” without rolling my eyes anymore…

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that certain games either are art, or contain artistic experiences – but the whole debate has grown severely stale, and I wish it would just go away*.

    *This is not at all intended as a slight towards your well reasoned article. I’m just sick of people talking around in circles when the question of whether [or not] a game can be called art contributes precisely nothing to a game’s legitimacy as an interactive experience. The question is almost irrelevant, since at most the naysayers can only cite extremely technical reasons for separating games from other creative mediums as artforms. If their definition of art requires that an artistic object be sterile and unresponsive, then let them have the term ‘art’, and be damned by the limitations that such a term implies.

    I’m more inclined to think that movies are mundane for their lack of audience interaction; I mean isn’t that what the movie industry’s whole drive toward those awful 3D glasses has been about? For all their Imax and Smell-O-Vision, movies will never be interactive experiences, and that is a terrible position to be in going forward.

    Movie makers wish that their pictures were more involving, a la video gaming – only they cannot be because of the inherent deficiencies of the medium.

    I really don’t understand what gaming enthusiasts have to feel insecure about…

  3. Even before the asterisk, I didn’t take your reply as a slight. In fact, I’m pretty tired of the debate too and I actually agree that at the core, it’s pretty irrelevant. I know that seems to contradict that 750 words up there, but it was a ring I had never thrown my hat into before and felt that it was something I should do as a person who has been writing video game articles on the internet for 5 years now.

    The only thing I don’t entirely agree on is that movies are mundane for lack of interaction. The best films use their static form to their advantage, just like the best games use their interactivity to their advantage.

  4. The best films use their static form to their advantage”

    And how many more merely utilise it as a means to an end?

    At any rate I was talking about about movies as a medium, as opposed to dumping shit on the scant handful of films produced every year that actually manage to do something meaningful with their stunted medium.

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