Games as Art: A Look at the Ongoing Debate

Here's a rundown on some of the better arguments for and against the debate about whether or not video games are art. The qualification of video games as art is highly debated among gamers and artists alike, so what do you think? Can video games be considered a form of art?

Games as Art: A Look at the Ongoing Debate Cover

Are video games art? This is a question that’s been debated among gamers, artists, and others since the early days of game development. Oftentimes gamers are quick to defend the artistic merits of their hobby, while artists believe that officially designating them as art may water down their craft. These viewpoints aren’t mutually exclusive, though, which furthers the argument for both sides. As someone who considers myself a member of both groups, I’ve developed my own opinions on the matter. I hope here to be neutral as possible, though my deep love of video games does give me an unshakable bias. I won’t try and sway any opinions here, but I do hope that I can impart some knowledge to help you form your own informed viewpoint.

The Case Against Games As Art

In my time at art school, I had a professor who adamantly believed that games were not and never could become a true art form. He had many arguments to lean on, but the one that stuck with me is his assertion that video games are an industry. He suggests that as an industry, the main focus of game development and production is to make a profit. Meanwhile, artists create art primarily to communicate ideas and spread cultural enlightenment. His point sank in but always struck me as a bit general. Throughout history, many painters have seen their craft mainly as a way to support themselves, but still produced work that we study today. Likewise, there are some game developers, particularly independent ones, who intend their games to be more artistic than profitable. I think his true argument is that it depends on the creator’s intent, and in his eyes, the game industry disqualifies it from purely artistic intent.

A more thorough argument is made by famed film critic Roger Ebert, who once asserted that games could never be art. He later amended the statement slightly, admitting that never is a strong word but that the evolution of video games into art would take far longer than any of us would live to see. This article of his from 2010 offers many strong arguments against gaming as an art form. He cites the argument of intent, specifically mentioning the game Waco Resurrection. He relates one view of the game as a response not to the actual events of the Waco incident, but how it made people feel, to a documentary on the same subject. According to him, the documentary was much more effective, though he does concede that these things are a matter of taste.

Braid is a visually stunning game, but Ebert is talking about overall artistic qualities, not simply visual ones

Braid is a visually stunning game, but Ebert is talking about overall artistic qualities, not simply visual ones

He looks at a similar argument about the game Braid, helping us explore our relationship to the past. He makes a very strong argument here that playing this game doesn’t help him relate to his personal past. That opens the door to arguments that any game would have a very difficult time touching someone on a personal level when we’re living out the story of a fictional character. He goes on to look at the game Flower. He points out early in the article that games have a win state. They don’t always have to be a battle or a race, but if you can’t definitively win, he likens the experience as closer to a novel or story than a game. Flower is one such game. He responds to the argument that the game is about exploring the relationship between the urban and natural world by saying, “do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural?”

This sort of argument makes a compelling point about what can be considered art and what can’t be. By definition, a game does have to have a purpose, usually in some sort of win state. The idea of being able to win or beat a piece of art is a bit unusual. He also points out that fans of other types of games, like sports or chess, don’t usually make the argument that their games are art. This leads him to question why gamers want their games to be art, again pushing the idea that art for art’s sake is the only true form of art.

The Case For Games As Art

The Case for Video Games

On the opposite end of the spectrum, gamers and fans of digital media argue that games are already art and have been for a long time. As I mentioned above, I attended an art school where I studied game design. The inclusion of those classes in the school’s curriculum speaks volumes on its own. Most of the classes I took involved in making different forms of game art, such as 3D models or textures. Game art defines the unquestionably artistic building blocks that the game is made of. While the presence of art in games doesn’t necessarily define the game itself as art, it does point out that creating a video game requires specialized artistic talent. Are the designers who create these assets truly artists? Answering that question would certainly be helpful in deciding the artistic qualification of games, but it’s a subject that might see some debate on its own.

What isn’t up to scrutiny is the fact that games have many varying genres and artistic styles, just like movies or plays. Another thing all these forms of media have in common is the potential to tell strong stories. This may be where the most influential argument of games as art comes from. In 2011, California attempted to pass a law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors. On the surface, it makes sense that some parents wouldn’t want their children to be able to interact with such adult media. But the issue was eventually taken to the supreme court, where Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that video games are protected by the first amendment, just like any other form of art.

“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that precede them, video games communicate ideas – and even social messages – through many familiar literary devices ( such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music ) and through features distinctive to the medium ( such as player’s interaction with the virtual world.)” – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Scalia doesn't look like a man who played many video games, but it seems he could still see some artistic merit behind them

Justice Scalia doesn’t look like a man who played many video games, but it seems he could still see some artistic merit behind them

Some look at Scalia’s ruling as the definitive answer to the question of whether games are art or not. Although, there is still room for debate. First Amendment protection doesn’t automatically equate something with art. It’s a strong step in that direction, but that’s all that can be said without question. Besides, this argument mainly works for games with a strong narrative element. What does that mean for games that don’t focus on a story? Who can say?

By far, the biggest indication that games can be considered an art form is the inclusion of a video game exhibit at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. Currently, the exhibit features 23 different influential video games, such as Pacman, Tetris, and Minecraft. The museum displays the games as simple as possible, with just an input device and a screen mounted on a wall. The museum believes this helps players focus, not on nostalgia, but on the design principles of the games in question. As the exhibit continues to grow, many cite the games included. Their inclusion shows that the classical arts community sees the design in games as important as the design in a painting.

Artistic Games

Roger Ebert’s comments on Braid point out an important distinction that needs to be made in this argument. Braid is a very artistic game. Its art style, unique mechanics, and intention to make a person consider their past are deliberate and artistic choices. But Ebert makes a good point that while it may inspire some to consider the past and how it has affected the present, it can’t fully allow someone a window into the personal history of any one person or group the way other art forms might. Because of this, the argument that Braid isn’t art is a valid one. But it is still artistic. There’s a difference between an artistic game and a game that is art. It’s difficult to pinpoint, and that’s another thing that makes this argument a tricky one.

As an example, let’s look at another well-received game with incredible art direction and artistic inspiration. Cuphead is a remarkable game when it comes to the dedication and artistry behind the graphics and music. The game was in development for five years as artists hand drew each frame of animation. The run and gun platformer genre meshes brilliantly with the style of older cartoons that the game emulates. The music brings that era of television to mind as well. Not to mention the major critical success and almost universal agreement that the game is one for the history books.

So, it’s safe to say that Cuphead can be considered an artistic game. The artists behind it certainly deserve that credit. But is it as a whole art? Does it make us reexamine ourselves? Does it make any revolutionary statements about the political or cultural world around us? The answers to those questions are open to some interpretation. So too, is the reason behind the game. Why was it made? To earn a profit, or to enlighten? These are some of the questions that we have to be able to answer to really determine something’s artistic merit. I’m not saying that it can’t be considered art. There are plenty of fine arguments both for and against that fact.

The purpose of examining games the way we looked at Cuphead is to demonstrate the difference between having artistic qualities and being a piece of art. There are tons of games out there that claim to be art, and the majority of those games are unquestionably artistic. The developers have made deliberate decisions to tell their story or heighten the experience of the player. But to say all of these games are works of art might be a bit too general of a statement. When thinking about games as art, it’s important to keep in mind that a game might be artistic but still not be art.

Games Inspired By Art:

Another distinction must be made in relation to games inspired by or based on famous pieces of art. Through the years, many developers have used famous artists or works of art as inspiration for their games. One prominent example is the game Monument Valley. It allows the player the opportunity to navigate bizarre environments, much like the ones in the work of M. C. Escher. Cult classic Okami is based on traditional Japanese art, particularly watercolor and wood carving techniques. It also uses a mechanic based on calligraphy. The artistic inspiration behind these games is clear, but does that make them art?

Monument Valley and Okami are certainly artistic games. They take the best elements of famous works of art and allow players to explore them further. Many of M. C. Escher’s works suck the viewer in and make them want to move around in the space. Monument Valley takes it a step further, allowing them to do just that. But that doesn’t qualify it as art. Other aspects of the game might, but the presence of artistic influence, no matter how clear, is still only influence. Influences such as this are a good starting point to make a case for games as art, but a game needs more than that to truly be considered art.

Monument Valley and Okami both have clear roots in classical art, but that alone doesn’t make them art themselves

Monument Valley and Okami both have clear roots in classical art, but that alone doesn’t make them art themselves

Games Used As A Medium For Art

Taking a step back from the idea of games being art themselves, there are some cases where artists have used games as their canvas. One game that lends itself particularly well to this is Minecraft. The variety of colors and properties of the different blocks allows for the creation of almost anything imaginable. Most use them to create extravagant shelters in the game. Some have taken to creating pixel art with them. And while those uses certainly have artistic potential, I’d like to spotlight one artist who expertly uses Minecraft as a method of sculpture.

Japanese artist Ushio Tokura, or DrBond, as he’s known by some, uses Minecraft to create extravagant digital sculptures. The ‘About Me’ section on one of his accounts reads:

“I like to look at Minecraft in very fantasy scenarios, often incorporating natural elements and conflicting tones.”

This is the language of an artist describing his work, not the language of a gamer promoting his hobby. His interest in the game goes far beyond the intended gameplay and extends into true art. Despite their digital nature, his creations are a form of sculpture. He also allows some of his work to be downloaded for others to experience in the game. Especially when exploring the pieces in the game world, there are a million ways a person can experience these sculptures. Some would argue that that’s exactly why they can’t be art. That the nature of the game gives the viewer too much freedom, taking away the ability for the artist to create a deliberate experience. While others might say that the freedom to explore is part of the purpose of the piece.

This sculpture by Ushio Tokura is titled Perfect Marionette.

This sculpture by Ushio Tokura is titled Perfect Marionette.

A less disputable example comes in the form of two works by artist Cory Archangel. These pieces sit inside cartridges of the original NES version of Super Mario. Museums display the work on a screen playing the version of the game on the cartridge. Archangel has modded the code in order to change what appears in the game. In Super Mario Clouds, Archangel has removed all elements of the game except for the sky color and scrolling clouds. Totally Fucked shows Mario standing atop a single? block against the background of the sky.

Archangel’s message here, like in most art, is somewhat debatable. Personally, I believe the pieces explore the idea of evolution in digital products and the importance of preservation. Some critics describe them as an exploration of space within a digital setting. What’s not debatable is the classification of these pieces as art. Many different museums have displayed these pieces since their creation in 2002 ( Super Mario Clouds ) and 2003 ( Totally Fucked ). Archangel is recognized as an artist in both digital and classical formats, lending credence to his assertion of these pieces as art.

Both of these examples, and the artists behind them, showcase the potential for video games to be used to create art. In these cases, the games themselves aren’t necessarily art, but art has been created by using them. This speaks further to the idea of artistic intent being the key to what can be defined as art in a digital setting. People are more willing to accept these pieces because the artists don’t claim that the games are art, only that they used the games to create art.

Conclusion

The examples above are only some of the many topics of discussion when it comes to games as art. Hopefully, I’ve been able to pinpoint some of the stronger arguments on both sides. A large hurdle in the debate is the difficulty of defining what art actually is. By some definitions, any game that is artistic might qualify as a work of art. Personally, I believe that games have a great potential to be art. Much like the film industry, the medium is handled in many different ways. Most people love a good action movie, for example. But action movies will never be studied the same way classical films are. The same can be applied to video games. Games like Braid or Okami have strong artistic merit and can easily be classified as art by some. However, other games, like first-person shooters with a light story and heavy on action, are less inclined to be considered artistic.

I believe that games can be art and that some already are, but not that the medium across the board is art. The argument of intent is a fair one. If a developer puts their heart and soul into their creation, why should it be valued as less than the work of a great playwright? But a game quickly scraped together for profit isn’t art. It’s very subjective and open to interpretation. I only hope that the discussion continues so that games that do deserve the designation of art are granted with it.

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