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I recently professed about games as art for a magazine article. These were my comments in full.

Gilsdorf, Ethan. “Are Video Games Art?” Art New England Jan. 2014: vol. 35 issue. 1

There are many kinds of art in the world. Art that stirs patriotism, sadness, anger, or childlike wonder. Some art informs, advertises, some of it is simply awful, while other works we look at as a representation of our culture at that time. Like great art, excellent video games pull out strands of emotion from their players and challenge one’s own preconceptions. Roger Ebert said that video games aren’t art but later admitted he was ill equipped to comment on an entire medium (although he stands by his principle). I’m OK with that. Some people are dismissive about the work of Chagall or Duchamp, but one opinion does not spoil the barrel. Moreover, games have been around since we painted on cave walls and games are an instrumental element of human existence. The Olympic Games have brought nations together, and digital games can be an extension of that same sense of play. Another accomplished thought leader regarding games is Extra Credits. For instance, Mechanics as Metaphor.

There are a few games that immediately come to mind when I think about artful games. These all evoke *something* although what that something is might be different. They all are on a spectrum of “Art”.

  • Papers, Please
  • Portal
  • Train (Board game by Brenda Romero)
  • Superhot
  • Blueberry Garden
  • Flower
  • Thomas was Alone
  • You Have to Burn the Rope
  • Rez
  • Shadow of the Colossus
  • Loneliness
  • Katamari Damacy

Every format of art has pop, good, and bad. Commercial and educational. Sensibilities change over time and there are countless artists that were never recognized for their work during their own lifetime. Like other mediums, there will be games that can be hailed as a step forward and others that denounced as a step backward. We’ve had games for a very long time but they haven’t always been regarded as art.

Part of this hinges on the concept that these games are merely an evolution of earlier games but no single auteur emerges from the fray. Although this does not apply to all games. These games have been with us for so long and are part of everyday lives. They just “Are”. We are now beginning to realize what kind of effects a designer has upon the subjects of a game. The creative endeavor is to understand how people perceive the world and how to craft an experience that expands horizons. As we’ve begun to create experiences at this scale, we collectively start to realize that rules within a system matter to the feeling and outcome of a game. For instance, what if the NFL increased the point value for a field goal? That drastically shifts the game and how it would play. Kickers could become the most valuable and advertised member of a team. Running plays might evaporate past the 40 yard line and that stand up out of your seat moment when your team is at the one yard line might disappear altogether. The whole system could change in a blink. Games have taken  much longer to be appreciated as works of art, and perhaps as the  appreciation for the current generations of games grows, names like Charles Darrow will be on the lips of newborns.

The definition of art is an elusive concept. If we google it, we get “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

If I use this definition, are games an application of creative skill and imagination? Yes. Do we appreciate it for their beauty or emotional power? Definitely.

When we create games, we are creating a manufactured experience that engages the player, much like a painting or a book engages the viewer. We do it differently, and I think that it might be partially a generational misunderstanding. The first mass market digital games were marketed towards young adults and this “childlike” generalization might make some dismissive of the idea that we could appreciate games. But the very first digital games were played exclusively by adults. Only highly funded universities with mainframe computers could possibly utilize this technology. If original films were only marketed as “moving pictures for children’s stories” perhaps it might have run into the same issues. Today, the average age of someone playing a game is 30 years old, and 45% of those players are women. (*theesa.com) That is a drastically different portrait of users than what the previous generation may think.

At the MoMA, there was a recent exhibit called the Rain Room. If I took a poll of “do you think this is art” most people would say yes. MoMA certainly did. Yet right on their website, they write that this art exhibit is a) digital, b) interactive, c) encourages people to become performers. That comes mighty close to something I’d call a game.

There are so many different types of games that range from ineffectual to brilliant. Take Portal, for example. This game is a First Person Shooter, yet the content of the game is different from the image we conjure when we say “FPS”. These game styles could be compared to mediums. Acrylics, oils, or watercolors. Each has a strengths and weaknesses.

Games have hundreds of different parts. Visual components, auditory components, and game mechanics to name a few. Not only that, games evoke discussion and sharing between players outside of the game space, whether this is over dinner or on message boards. Although many experience a painting in a similar way, games can be experienced in hundreds of ways, and two playthroughs of a game might be different from each other. It is hard to explain, but perhaps I would answer this question with a question (as is my family’s tradition). Is the city of Venice a work of art? What about it makes it that way?

Is it the pretty design or physical backdrops or cool music? Or the food or the people?

What about movies? Is the music art? What about the screenplay? What about the cinematography?

Beyond typical art evaluation that allows us to think about visual and auditory representations like paintings and music, a good place to start are three lines of thought. The first is MDA, the second is The Art of Game Design, and the third is Game Feel.

The way we look at movies is a complex assembly of light and sound. What we are adding are mechanics. Mechanics are the game design term for “rules” that generally encapsulates more than just “do not pass go”. When we talk about mechanics we talk about how rules interact with each other to make up mechanics. For instance, a socialization mechanic might be reinforced by a rule that allows bartering between players. When we are looking at these games we are asking, “how do the mechanics of a game support the theme we are exploring?”

This generation has an all new form of experience that grips them. The generation before us will rail against it until we take their place and lambast a new medium. This has been happening and will continue to happen as new artists synthesize new works to rebel against the old ones. We can critique art for technical prowess, but not all works of art stir the same opinions from critics. Siskel and Ebert disagreed on movies, but that does not invalidate the work itself.

Games have this amazing ability to create hugely varying and valid experiences depending on the user. Players have intentionally subverted the artistic intent game developers within their own systems by rebelling against the intended usage to create and “remix” the work into their own expression. This is often a collaborative medium where we are asking the audience to become members of the band because we want them to add their unique instrument to the orchestra.