December 16, 2007

Are Games Art?

It’s been done to death, I know. But I’m new, and “games are art” has been my personal rallying cry, so cut me some slack.

To hardcore gamers, there’s not much to debate. We’ve seen the light already. We’ve actually felt moved by games, or gained new insight, or gained a new perspective. Any decent definition of art has to include games.

I've heard a lot of people complain that the games industry hasn’t yet produced a game that’s recognizable as “fine art.” It’s true; the medium is in its awkward adolescent phase. But the elements of art are showing up more and more, and that’s enough to show that it’s a valid medium.

Some still argue that games are artistically deficient by nature. The intelligent and entertaining Roger Ebert got some press a while ago for claiming outright that games can never be high art (A later commentary, responding to a Clive Barker’s defense of games, clarified his argument somewhat). The idea is that Romeo and Juliet would be ruined if players could have chosen a different outcome. While games can be “elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful,” the addition of player choice negates “authorial control,” which Ebert claims is necessary for serious art.

Half Life 2 is the most direct answer. It’s a linear, authored narrative. While parts of the exploration and dialogue are optional, the conclusion is inevitable, unless you count all the times that the player dies. If Gordon and Alyx are destined for a tragic double suicide, there’s not much that we can do about it.

Of course, limiting art to linear stories destroys a lot of games’ artistic potential. What interactivity offers is an artistic application of choice. Think about it this way: every other artistic medium is limited by passivity. No matter what is depicted in a movie or a book, it can’t make you feel guilt or responsibility, for example.

The key point here is that the unique artistic power of games’ stories is not going to be in the specific events that happen but rather the choices and consequences that are presented. Being forced to make a decision subjectively is a lot more powerful than witnessing another person wrestle with that choice. You’re living, not watching.

So while it’s clear to me that games can offer a deterministic authorial control, I think that we ultimately have to reject that sort of control as a criteria for art. A designer can create a game that presents certain choices in certain ways with certain consequences. There’s no way that we can know what the player will do, but there’s also no way to argue that the designer isn’t controlling the player’s experience, albeit indirectly. That’s enough to make art.


Anonymous said...

The future of high art for games lies in ideas that can only be expressed artistically in game form. See

E McNeill said...

Yes, but I think that games also share overlap in artistic potential with other media, and we ought to utilize that as well. I mention The Marriage in this post:

arajand said...

Recently, I came across a custom made level for Crysis. Someone had made a map- an island, which is so beautiful, so peaceful, serene, so Mediterranean in mood....into which the player is dropped.

There is no HUD, no weapons, nothing whatsoever. Just miles and miles of deep blue sea stretching out in front of you, and a beautiful sunny little wood behind you.

The Crysis engine can evoke powerful feelings indeed.

Imagine if one were to use this engine to build the world of Tolkien's LOTR, for example. Not as a setting for an RTS with orcs and such, but with the player as a hobbit wandering down the plains, coming upon Saruman's tower in the distance, with the wind whistling in the trees...!

What is this idiot talking of 'authorial content'? A crappy piece of art requires a crappy audience to be appreciated; a great work of art demands its audience - it is not simply accessible to all. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.