Art, art and games

There’s a strong desire in the games industry to see games as an artistic medium. You often hear questions like “Are games art?” and you get answers that go from a radical “no”, over to “some games are art” and “they might be, some day” to “yes, absolutely, all games are art”. And then, inevitably somebody brings up the notion of bad art

One of the things that confuses me when people in the games industry discuss this issue, is what kind of art they are referring to. It often doesn’t have much to do with what can be seen in museums and galleries nowadays. Perhaps, they are referring to “popular” art forms such as film and comic strips rather than to the highly conceptual constructions that are on display in museums of contemporary art.

Game developers, perhaps as a result of limited art education, seem to think of art as something that expresses an idea or an emotion. This is a concept from the nineteenth century that has long been abandoned by contemporary art. Only the other night, I heard an artist define art as “objects or situations that provoke cultural discussion”. Defined as such, games are most undeniably art! Especially games like Grand Theft Auto, Postal, Bully, Rule of Rose, etc. But that is not the point: the point is that, apparently, contemporary artists can simply make up any definition for the word art that suits them. So the question whether or not something belongs in a category that anybody can redefine whenever they see fit, seems absurd.

In games-related discussions about art, however, people seem to skip over that whole modern art era and stick quite closely to dictionary definitions like

“the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”

“the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”

“a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination”
Encyclopaedia Britannica

“that which is made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind and or spirit”

Don’t get me wrong: I personally am a lot more comfortable with notion of art as an expression of something, art as something that is beautiful and meaningful. I did have an art education. I have even produced art, lots of it, both analog and digital. Contemporary art, no less: ironic, clever, non-emotional, discussion-provoking, and all that. And I have abandoned that practice. One day, I consciously decided that I would just ignore most of the art made in the 20th century and find inspiration in a pre-modern art practice. Game technology seemed like the perfect tool for landscape painting and storytelling. Hence my choice.

But is that art?
In the contemporary sense of the word, it certainly is not. This sort of art practice only exists in popular and amateur arts these days. The “museum-quality art” is very very different. That is not to say that there is no interest: our Endless Forest has been shown many times in contemporary (media) art exhibitions. But it seems to be an exception: art curators and critics tend to prefer art about games over actual games.

This is nothing to be sorry about. The contemporary arts scene is a very marginal one, even if it still seems to act as a validator for culture. With our games, our popular-culture-games, we can reach a much wider audience of people who are actually paying attention to our work.

7 thoughts on “Art, art and games”

  1. [thanks for reposting this ;)]

    That’s one of the best thing i’ve read so far about that “games are art” argumentation.

    I think that this desire to be regarded as art comes from a (defensive) need of validation.
    I think they’re indeed refering to cinema and comics (see how scott mcloud references are always thrown in the “games are art” discussions)… they want to be “equal” with those forms or media, and not despised “for just being videogames”.
    So maybe this debate is already not starting on a good ground.
    Does one ask if TV series are art ? I mean… Friends ? Baywatch ?

    Also, the question shouldn’t be “Are videogames art ?”, but “Can a videogames be a piece of art ?”.. well, i think.
    I wouldn’t say, to take another example, “Paintings are art”… it makes no sense… to me at least (and that might be conditioned by a certain definition of art).
    Some paintings are art (and we could say there are different “levels”), but some aren’t.

    Now back to what you’re saying about defining art.. it’s pretty interesting, even outside the “game-art” subject (as was your manifesto, actually).
    My problem is that i (still) can’t stick to a single definition of art, so i’m constantly shifting levels. Or sometimes i just don’t care.
    Somewhat i’ve put myself out of the issue, and until i have any evidence of the contrary, i’ll just say i’m doing something like.. a craft (i prefer the french word artisanat, but i can’t find a good English equivalent).

    I couldn’t agree more with the conclusion 😉

    That was a great article, why did you want to take it off ? 😉 Anything you weren’t satisfied with, actually ?

  2. I wanted to take it off because I was afraid it would cause even more confusion. The varying definitions of art don’t really help the debate.

    But you’re right that this debate should not even be taking place. The best answer to the question that I’ve heard (I forgot who from) is that games will be considered an art form when there are games that are considered art works. Then the only question that remains is “considered by who?” which allows you to choose your own validator. For one it will be an art critic, for another the pres or a philosopher and for many, it will be the audience at large.

    The good thing about this answer is that it puts the ball in the camp of the developer: rather than debating endlessly whether and how games can or should be art, just make a game that is undeniably art.

  3. I don’t think there will ever be a game that is undeniably art, if only because some people (for instance, that movie critic I forget the name of) believe that interactivity is opposed to art.

    Although this art concept is an interesting subject to me, it’s not as interesting as other things. For instance, I care more about the games (goalless games or with games goals) I create being good for people than I care about whether it’s accepted as art or not by whatever definition by whatever decision-makers. I want to create games that people will feel was a worthwhile use of their time, which changed their thinking, which made them happier and maybe mentally healthier, maybe increasing their level of awareness such that their thoughts are now more subtle, maybe just being a delight that they remember fondly or get their friends to experience too, maybe making a person better, making them more active instead of passive, more thoughtful instead of thoughtless, more in love with life, thinking more clearly. I care about that more than whether it’s art or not, I see the term art as just a shorthand way of condensing all of that into one word.

    BTW, I’ve plenty of art experience; my grandmother was a painter, and my father is a piano, violin, and accordian music composer in the classical style and also an expressionist painter in the early expressionist style, both have paintings in galleries (though they are not the most famous artists in the world). So I don’t think my problem is just lack of education in art, I picked up a lot through them; so I dislike the implication that there must be something wrong with someone’s education if they think that all games are art.

  4. I agree that art is shorthand for all you said. So you do care. 😉

    When I say “undeniably”, I mean in general. As with all rules (pardon the word), there will always be exceptions. But that doesn’t mean they are not rules. When I say “undeniably”, I of course mean “virtually undeniably”. I am human.

  5. I think that it is undeniable that video games contain art. whether or not the games themselves are art is yet to be decided by society as a whole.

    A great example of a beautiful video game is Oblivion. I’m dropping a link to some screenshots here:

    There’s no doubt that the game contains beautiful images. Does that make the game itself a work of art? I really can’t say.

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