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Can Videogames be Art?

"Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art."

-Claude Debussy

Art you watch, listen to, or read. Games you play. Both those statements are true, but are they enough? Can you also play a work of art? In a statement that has become somewhat infamous, Roger Ebert contested that you cannot play art, at least not yet. (Since his original article he has relented and removed himself from the debate.) It may not seem so at first, but there are many similarities between art and play, conceptually. It is the purpose of this essay to show how videogames can in fact be art.

The most obvious problem with this entire discourse is that there is no working definition of art. Ebert, for example, says that very few films are art. If some of the films he reviews are art while others are not, what is art? Is art just another way of saying something is good or not? Are only four star films art? I think that most of us can agree that art is more than just a measurement. For one thing, all those films that are not art—what do we call them? Is there no “good art” or “bad art?”

Kellee Santiago, a game designer who debated Ebert through the media, produced this this definition for art, from Wikipedia: “The process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” Obviously, whatever his definition is, Ebert disagrees. I think I disagree too, because this definition of art doesn’t tell us anything useful or precise. By way of hopefully resolving this problem, let’s take a look at how established works of art work. Because Roger Ebert made this debate famous, we'll use a few examples from his criticism.

This will break down into three sections. The first answers, “What is art?” with a working definiton. The second section asks “What is play?” And the third section shows how videogames can be art because of the similarities between art and play.

What is Art?

On his top-ten list for films 2000-2009, Roger Ebert includes the film The Hurt Locker. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a movie about a bomb squad participating in the war between the United States and Iraq. Ebert’s review is available on his website; for the purposes of this writing, we can simply say he probably considers the film to be art, or else he would not have selected it as one of the best films of the decade.

A film about war is a very good and straightforward example of how (in this context) art works. An ordinary person does not enjoy war. Indeed, even many military professionals would like to spend as little time in armed conflict as possible, and it is easy to understand why. War is terrifying. So why would a non-military audience (or any audience) enjoy a film detailing something so horrible? The answer is that the audience is experiencing the action, excitement and drama of the war in the safety of a movie theater. They are not having an actual experience, but rather an artistic experience.

Art allows the viewer, listener, or reader to experience something with their senses and emotions without actually experiencing it in reality. This kind of experience is not unique to film. In music we find more revealing examples. Most people don’t want to experience intense sadness, and yet sad or tragic musical pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 or songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” enjoy enduring popularity. This is because the listener is able to experience all the pain and sorrow of the music at a safe emotional distance, and the listener can always turn off the music or leave the concert if they wish. The safety and distance of the artistic experience are what make it enjoyable.

There are some films which are not supposed to be art, and this helps to further illustrate what art is and what art is not. For example, the flight safety message played on some airlines before an airplane takes off is not a work of art; it is merely a set of instructions explaining what to do during an emergency landing. This film is not meant to transmit the experience of an emergency landing. Seeing a detailed depiction of a plane crash, and the terror of the people suffering the event, would cause the passengers to experience at least some of the feelings associated with a plane crash, even though it isn’t happening. This would probably hurt ticket sales. The point of art is to transmit persuasive experiences that audiences can feel. Accordingly, airlines do not show artistic pre-flight films, but rather purely instructional films.

So, just as a brief recap, we can say that we have a working definition of art as something that allows the viewer, reader, or listener to safely experience events and emotions that they are not actually having. This is not a completely comprehensive definition of art, but in terms of the discourse made famous by Roger Ebert, it is a good working definition that will serve in the debate.

What is Play?

The easiest thing to do in the context of this debate is to create a working definition for what makes a game. Most readers can agree that a game is something that you play. There are other defining characteristics of games (that vary), but there are no games without the concept of play. Even when speaking metaphorically, the use of the noun “game” is usually connected to the verb “play.”

So the first (but not the only) question to answer, in order to make a comparison to art, is really “What is play?” The concept of play has evolved a great deal in human society. Once again, I do not pretend that I have come up with a completely comprehensive definition of the concept of play. But for a working definition of play, we can turn to the origins of the concept to get a basic definition.

The most basic idea of play comes from what young animals and young humans do to learn and try things in a safe way. Consider the way young puppies or kittens spar with each other. In most cases, these young animals do not hurt each other as they would in a real fight. That is because they are not really fighting, but rather they are “playing.” Or consider what young children often do together: they imagine that they are pirates, or characters from one of their favorite TV shows, fighting fantastic battles, using sticks and toys for swords and guns and anything else they need. Or consider the more cerebral play of an imaginary tea party, or dress-up dolls, both imitations of adult behavior. All of this is play.

But what is happening when young animals play with their litter, or young children imagine various scenarios while they play? In most of these cases, this kind of play is a way of experiencing the imitated action without having to risk any of the real-world outcomes of that action. For example, kittens that fight each other are not in any real danger; adult cats who fight are in danger of serious bodily harm. Children who wield sticks in imaginary fights probably won’t injure each other very seriously, if at all. Actual gun battles are frequently fatal. Even tea parties can get horribly awkward if the guests are rude, but imaginary guests and stuffed animals don't tend to step too far out of line. One of the most important things about play is that it seeks to do something in relatively safe and orderly manner.

Play, in its most essential form, allows the participants to experience an activity without actually engaging in that activity. Play is a way of understanding an activity, and a way of building skills for an activity, in a safe, controlled environment. Rules protect the participants of play and embody the safety and structure that allows a play experience.

It is obvious that play and art have a lot in common, with these definitions. Both art and play are meant to allow participants to experience things that they are not actually doing. In both art and play the experience is a safe one, whether emotionally, or physically, or both.

Still, the question we are trying to resolve is not “Can play be art?” but rather, “Can videogames be art?” So far this essay has only examined play in its rudimentary state; videogames are different. It makes sense, then, to turn to how games, specifically videogames, evolved from rudimentary play, so that we can say whether or not videogames can be art.

The Problem of Games

There is an obvious problem with the definition of play, given above. An objector might easily say, “Chess is not imitating anything, and for that matter, neither is poker, but you ‘play’ both of them.” And it is true that many games which we play in our current era are not imitating any real-world activity. Football builds coordination, teamwork, perseverance, and good fitness habits. Those skills are a great reason to play the game, but the object of the game is to have the most points at the end. Most people, while playing football, don’t think of anything besides football; they are not having any kind of imitative or imaginative experience.

Games in our era are different in certain respects, from basic play. Certainly, games are a form of play, but games differ from basic play in that they have established rules that define and distinguish them. Play does not need a specific set of rules: children can be “playing” while observing no particular rules. But once they have to scatter and hide while one of them counts to fifty with his eyes closed, it’s hide-and-seek. Likewise, there are a large number of rules that be observed for even one game; consider the numerous variations on the game of poker.

The rules for games probably began the way rules for most behaviors did, as a safety measure. Many of the rules in professional sports, for example, are designed to protect the players from unnecessary injury. But the rules of the many games we play today have obviously evolved a great deal, and often serve a different purpose.

One explanation for the evolution of rules in games is that new rules were the easiest way to make play experiences new and exciting at no cost. Games like poker and chess can be played with very inexpensive game pieces. But ask anyone who plays ice hockey, rugby, or baseball; the equipment can get very expensive. Before mass production made all kinds of game equipment more affordable, it would have been much easier to change the rules of a game for which you already had all the pieces. That is why we have so many different games played with the Western fifty-two card deck, for instance; buy one set of cards, and you have access to dozens of different games.

Videogames defy this trend. Creating new, interesting and fun rules for any game is difficult; and with modern technology it is becoming easier to make videogames more artistically appealing instead. One complaint I hear often from games reviewers is that many of the big-name titles released today contain no new innovations in rules. Games like Uncharted 2, or sequels in the Gears of War or Bioshock or Grand Theft Auto franchises are accused of simply following a formula. This does not make them bad games necessarily; all that this means is that the major game studios have realized that it is just as easy to re-create games with old rules that have more vibrant, artistically persuasive worlds than it is to invent new rules for gameplay. Upgrades to graphics and sound, improvements in writing and music, and better voice acting and direction, all of these will make a game more enjoyable, even if they aren’t purely “game” improvements.

This new enjoyment of a game with a more persuasive world is an artistic experience. The rules and gameplay mechanics may not have changed in a significant way, but the experience of being in a persuasive, strange and exciting world is still enjoyable to many players. Videogame players are able play in a different world and to experience all the things associated with that world. Is this a play experience, or an art experience? It is both, and these games are intentionally designed to be both play and art for the sake of being enjoyable.

Art in the Future of Games

Videogames, particularly major AAA market releases, are going to become progressively more artistic because it is now possible, and because there is an audience for artistic games. Improvements in technology and a widening audience for videogames have recently made it possible to make games artistic. What’s more, these artistically advanced games are popular. So naturally, now that it is possible to sell games based on artistic quality as well as the quality and originality of gameplay, someone will always be trying to do it.

As it becomes easier for videogame developers to create immersive worlds which are artistically persuasive, those games will have more and more in common with traditional art. Star Wars portrayed an enormous galactic civilization; Mass Effect allows you to explore a universe of the same size and imaginative vision. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, a world with extensive history, geography, and peoples, is the kind of world that is being built, with increasing grandeur, in The Elder Scrolls series. Even games set in a version of our own reality, like Heavy Rain or Shenmue have begun to construct persuasive worlds that are meant to be inhabited as much as played.

Playing a work of art; that is, inhabiting an artistic world and actually interacting with it is a relatively new idea. Because this is such a new idea, we cannot use old methods to study it. By this I mean that as a film critic, Roger Ebert is not qualified to speak on the artfulness of videogames. (Ebert has actually admitted as much.) On their own, film criticism, literary criticism, and music criticism aren't really enough to explain or critique videogames. The technical or professional study of games has existed for some time now. Programming, sound design, and game mechanics are courses of study at various colleges and universities. But if games can be art, then they need to be studied from an artistic perspective. Only then can we truly understand videogames for whatt they are, and how they can be made artistically richer.

Part 2 of this essay, “Narrative in games,” aims to explain how the whole game can be studied as a work of art, and how the field of videogame studies has only begun to emerge.

Go to part 2.

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