The art of games

In recent weeks an Internet-wide discussion started on whether games are, or can be, art. My first thought when I stumbled on this was “Who cares?” But then I remembered that in the preface of my PhD thesis I stated that games are an art form, so it seems I do have an opinion on this. Therefore I am going to explore this issue a bit here.

What is art? It is far from me to try to give a definition of art. The only thing I can do is point at things that are considered to be art by a majority of the people. Virtually nobody would question whether paintings can be art, or sculptures, or music, or novels. Some would question whether movies can be art, but I think that the general consensus is that they certainly can be.

What are games? Limiting myself to video games, they are a combination of images, sounds, and stories which allow someone (the player) to interact with them. From this perspective, games are an amalgamation of several different art forms. The images can be art in the same way that paintings and sculptures are art, the sounds can be art in the same way that music is art, and the stories can be art in the same way that novels are art. Putting it all together, games can be art in the same way that movies are art.

Of course, a critic who says that “games cannot be art” is using the term “art” in a different manner: he is referring to the “higher qualities” of an art form. Usually that means that, to be art, an expression of the art form must evoke a deep emotional response in the audience. When talking about paintings, if we compare the work by Bob Ross with the work of Van Gogh, most people would agree that Van Gogh’s paintings are on an artistic level far above Ross’ work. Van Gogh produced art, Ross produced paintings.

There are certainly games that contain images that can be considered art, or a story that can be considered art. But containing elements that are artistic does not mean that the game as a whole is art. If the images in Psychonauts are art, the game elements could be removed and the player could just explore the virtual world that is created without bothering about running, jumping, and shooting. And, indeed, the world of Psychonauts would be an interesting place to visit in such a manner. At best that would mean that the game world of Psychonauts is art, but not that the game is art.

Roger Ebert made the statement that games cannot be art, which he based on two arguments: (1) you can win a game, and (2) games are commercial. I think both these arguments fail to discredit games as a possible art form. The fact that you can win a game is a consequence of the fact that you can interact with a game. Winning (or losing) a game simply means getting to the end of a game’s story. One wouldn’t say that novels cannot be art because they have an ending! Furthermore, most art also has a commercial component. Rembrandt’s artistic paintings were produced in a studio of which the singular goal was to make money, and Rembrandt was highly successful at that (he still died in poverty, though). Neither of Ebert’s arguments says anything about emotional response.

One cannot deny that many games evoke an emotional response. Unfortunately, most of the time this response is limited to anger, fear, annoyance, and frustration, and a few emotions in close neighborhood of these. If games are incapable of evoking any other emotional response, then I would hesitate to call them art. And even if I would do so, I would have to add that in my view we already have encountered the end of the line in artistic developments in games.

For a game to be art it must evoke an interesting emotional response. Moreover, it must do that through the one element that sets games apart from other art forms, namely player interaction. If the player interaction is not a requirement for the experience, then the fact that it is a game is not essential to the high qualities of the work. So, the question is: can player interaction in a game evoke a deep emotional response other than anger? Can player interaction evoke a feeling of sadness, or joy, or wonder, or bewilderment?

Some would now point to moral choices in RPGs, which allow you to be “good” or “evil.” I am quick to point out that, in general, while these choices are certainly part of player interaction, there is no emotional response attached to them at all, even if they do shape the story (which they seldom do). However, I do have some examples that, in my opinion, demonstrate that games can be art according to the requirements I gave above.

My first example is a well-known one: the companion cube in Portal. In Portal there are many cubes, which the player uses to solve puzzles. There is a level in which there is only one such cube, which the player has to drag with him through the level. There are only two things that set this cube apart from the other cubes in the game, namely (1) it has a name: the companion cube, and (2) there is a small pink heart printed on its sides. The player is required to solve the puzzles of the level with just this one cube. When the level ends, he must destroy the cube to proceed. Now a strange thing has happened: by the end of the level most players feel attached to the cube, and are averse to destroying it. They actively seek ways to get through the level while keeping the cube intact. And when they finally realize that the only way to proceed is to destroy the cube, they feel a sense of loss when they do so. The feelings of attachment and loss would not exist without player interaction.

My second example is, unfortunately, not as well-known. It is the 1999 RPG Planescape Torment. In this game the player is The Nameless One, an immortal being who has lost his memory and who seeks the reason why he is immortal. In this game, the player’s actions and choices actually have a deep impact on the story that is told. The storyline still follows one path, but the meaning of the story is influenced radically by how the player chooses to play and behave. The game evokes many emotional responses, of which maybe the most intriguing is a feeling of regret. Not regret in the sense of “I should have saved 5 minutes ago,” but regret over how the player, and past incarnations of the player, dealt with the world. Again, through the interaction with the world and its characters, the player becomes attached to them and actually cares about what happens to them, as if they have life beyond the game. Planescape Torment is a unique game; never before or after I have encountered anything like it. Which is perhaps the most obvious argument in favor of it being art.

I have to admit that it is hard to come up with examples of games that are art, but there is no doubt in my mind that the medium will progress, and more games that are definitely art will be produced in the future. And as long as they are enjoyable art, I see no reason why they couldn’t be commercially viable too. But in the end, as far as games and art are concerned, I can only reiterate the classic maxim: I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.

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