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Games as Art I

posted on February 14th, 2006 by jay
Munch
Art

I obviously cannot possibly settle the debate on what art is, but I believe video games are art. To me, it comes down to how much of something is alterable and how much is set. For example, a dish washer basically has to be pretty similar to most other dish washers; besides some of the visual design and new technology now and then, a dish washer is a dish washer. I would not consider dish washers to be art. The same goes for most objects, like pens, staplers, monitors, tires, shoe horns, etc. More room for variation in design, however, leads to a more artistic thing. A car, for example, has specific visual properties, as well as spatial and internal layout amongst other variables. A car is much closer to art in my approximation than a tube of toothpaste.

Music is art because (in theory) so much of it is completely up to the composer. The same goes for painting and other practices that society accepts as art creating. These things also have an emotional impact on people, though I suspect that emotional meaning is not a separate requirement of art but something that emerges from my first requirement. If someone can put his own emotions into something by his design then we can usually react to them and thus we have art.

Thus, it is easy to add games to the category of art. There are some things that must be as they are due to producer requirements and technological constraints, but a significant portion of a game comes from creators personal design decisions. The graphics, control, sound, plot, and nearly everything else are up to the design team to dictate (ignoring producers for a moment). Games bring together many different fields, each of them an art, and attempt to merge them seamlessly. Following this, to say games are not art is almost absurd. How can drawing, composing and writing all be individual arts but the combination of all of these arts be merely entertainment?

Some will argue that the existence of a producer and the end goal of publishers being to make a profit both work against games being art. These facts do probably diminish creativity and artistry. In principle the concept of producing art for money is not self defeating or contradictory. Bach was employed to write his music as Shakespeare was employed to write his plays. On rare occasion it might even be that the insistence by publishers that a game be playable by a wider audience has helped make something better.

Ico
Not art?

Then there are the games by vote, art by boardroom. Many games never existed as a spark in a creative person’s mind nor did they come to a visionary in a dream, but where planned by the sterile minds of marketing execs who need to keep the company in the black by releasing mediocre and spiritually dead games. These games have much less personal energy in them because so much of it was already designed before it got to the design team (usually by some other design team that this team is now being told to rip off). I cannot come up with a number rating of how artistic a game is since it’s an entirely subjective thing, but I do think if any games are not art or come close to not being art, it is these.

Two things can make games that are much more product than art: a design that was inspired by the promise of making a lot of money instead of making a great game and the dilution of someone’s vision. I already covered the first, so now I will complain about producers who do not allow designer’s full creative control. Many games are classics because it is readily apparent that the designer was completely in charge. These games often end up being more unique than games that have producers reeling in the team if they get too out there.

When a game seems so unique that you wonder if the producer went on vacation and left the designers to run wild, the industry calls it an art game. Often these games fall short in the gameplay department but not anymore so than the average non-art game. Examples of the art game are Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Rez, Killer 7, Psychonauts and Katamari Damacy. It is telling that the industry notices when a unique game comes out and has a separate classification for these titles. Do they not think their own work is art and so reserve that term for games that are startlingly original? If this is so it is a damaging view of the industry because it is easy for the general populace to see games as simply entertainment if that’s what most designer’s see.

Boardroom
"What if Sonic were black and had a gun?"

It is worth noting that some will argue Psychonauts and Katamari Damacy are not art games. This view is most likely based in the prejudice that any game that plays well, despite its uniqueness and design quality, cannot be an art game. Calling something an art game may be as big an insult as a compliment. Paradoxically, games that are just entirely bad will never be deemed art games. If a game sucks too much people won’t even bother trying to classify it.

Even if a game is just mass entertainment that does not mean it isn’t art. The Simpsons and Law and Order have destroyed barriers between low and high art so only the most pompous turn their nose up at the idea that at least some of TV is art. If forced to speak of mediums as a whole, games are art despite Madden 2008 just as music is art despite Avril Levigne. On a case by case basis, there are still enough decisions to be made in the creation of most games for me to easily classify them as art. When those in the industry agree with me and the stigma associated with art games disappears, the rest of the world may be ready to accept our pastime as readily as readers are accepted.

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