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The Ultimate Gaming Breakdown: Are Video Games Art?

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The Ultimate Gaming Breakdown: Are Video Games Art?

Not too long ago recent facts were revealed to the world pertaining to the beloved Mayor of Metro City, Mike Haggar. In fact video documentation was published to the annals of the webiverse that detailed a particular series of exploits that justify this blog’s unending adoration of our iconic hero. The Council of the Metro City Reform Committee feels it would be to everyone’s benefit if these revelations are revealed further into the world, and so this marvelous recounting sits below.

Prepare for pure awe:

Yes, if you watched the attached short film, that is in fact proof that Mike Haggar, during his quest to clean up Metro City of the ne’er do wells that plagued us, did in fact pile-drive Odin, King of all the Norse Gods, once he had been slain in his fight for justice. Why? Because he still had work to do here on Earth, for us. His chosen. His constituents.

Likewise, we here on the Reform Committee have work to do and gaming debates to settle. Following our leader’s example, it seemed time to tackle something big and large, something on par with Haggar’s god-smashing.

But what could be so large?

Why, only to pursue the deepest mysteries of what a game actually is, and to tackle that big hanging question: are games “art”?

So I convened a session of the committee and we decided, like all great political bodies, to pass the buck onto others. In this case, it was decided that some hard science was naturally necessary, so we commissioned esteemed serious scientists Dr. Albert “Wily” Wilhelm, and Dr. Thomas Lighttenstaug (just “Light” for short) to look into the matter, temporarily pausing their research into something silly about “positronic brains” or whatever . . .

Dr. Noah Light and Dr. Albert Wily Working together

The two colleagues hard at work. They’re such good friends! Nothing shall ever come between them and their passionate pursuit of science!

At first the question was simple. A test really.

“What is a Game?” we asked the two venerated members of the scientific community.

“A system of Rules” replied one.

“Rules to make a fun or otherwise engaging activity.” Said the other for specificity.

“An activity that can involve one person, or multiple parties.” Being added as an addendum.

They were in agreement on this basis, nodding in unison, and the answer seemed obvious to all gathered. After all, isn’t that all any game is? A system of rules? In a game of Tag, the rules are: “It” must tag another player, who then becomes “It”. The person who is “It” when the game ends is the loser, the other the winner. Simple really.

But then there was the follow up query, the important one, “Supreme court decisions and other events indicate that video games may be art, but is this true? Are games art?”

Surely two scientific wundergeists such as they could solve this great dilemma with some lucid finality. While this might seem an unimportant exercise in semantic delineation, the answer to this question is of such importance to certain circles that it has become an Op-Ed Everest of sorts. The first person to “prove” it one way or another would no doubt be famous amongst all geekdom!

Logo of 1st World Problems

Even if the true nature of this “debate” easily falls under a certain kind of “problem”, what else are blogs for?

The two men had no immediate answer, and left to consider the question. But before we get into their response, let’s take an in-depth look at the problem for a second.

First, there’s a big issue as to who is seeking to classify games as art, and who they are seeking approval from. I suppose that right now, the people seeking acceptance for the medium are pretty much the fringe fans and certain portions of the developer community though certainly not all, or even the majority, of them. Somehow I don’t think that the makers of Call of Duty and its ilk are concerned with how you “feel” about the experience other than that they want you to enjoy it enough spend more time online with it, and to get your friends to buy more copies.

Heat map as Art

Though call me crazy, but I find the Heat Maps to be quite evocative. This is a topographical road-map of murder.

As to who they seek approval from, well it seems like right now it’s mostly from esteemed critics in other fields. Guys like Roger Ebert, who famously put forth his opinion (later recanted) that he thinks games can in no way can become art, though he was willing to accept that it might change. Now, there’s a pretty strong point to be made that gamers shouldn’t give a rat’s tuckus about what others think (here’s probably the best one from Ken Levine), but for the sake of the argument, we must wonder if there’s any merit to the sentiment: is it even possible for games to become art?

One of the points Ebert and others have made is that sports, whether they be chess or Basketball, aren’t considered art and everyone, including the players, not only agrees to that but seems fine with it. This comparison between video games and sports is actually a minor point made in many of these arguments, yet seems rather apt and probably the best place to start. Why aren’t sports considered art?

Competitive sports are also all easily classified as games since they use a similar foundation of rules at their core. Board games too, are obviously games. So are card games. So are table-top role playing adventures, such as Dungeons & Dragons or GURPS. But board games and table-top adventures and especially sports are again, rather unanimously agreed upon to not be considered art.

MJ Slamming

Not “Art”

So if many video games are considered art by myself and others, despite the fact that they are in terms of function the same as sports and board games and their like, the question becomes “why?” Why does one category of ‘game’ receive special commendation to the status reserved for the Masters of the Renaissance (and Banksy) and yet others don’t?

After all, if a video game is more comparable to basketball than Balzac, why would you consider the electronic game art, and not the one actually played by the living giants with excess dexterity and endorsement deals in real life? This conceptual clash, quite frankly, seems the soundest argument against gaming being considered an art form.

It can’t be as simple as the “jock versus nerd” quarrel either. The fact that sports aren’t art has nothing to do with athleticism. Athletic performance, as long as it’s for the sake of entertainment and expression – ballet being the obvious example – is considered art.

Ballet Dancer in Air


I don’t think this is the one area where the artistes and the tailgaters are high-fiving each other and screaming “NEEEEERD” at the gamer, mostly because it seems everyone plays video games these days. Whether it’s a #1 Fan playing Madden on their console, a mom playing Bejeweled on Facebook, or the philosophy major espousing the wonders of Braid, gaming has gotten pretty universal.

The fact that ballet dancers and ballers are real people also doesn’t matter. We consider many forms of fiction to be art, and I somehow doubt there’s an actual pale and vague man with an unhinged jaw used as a model for The Scream.

Is it about narrative? Sports themselves offer none, other than perhaps that of the lives of the players (sometimes, that’s enough). But neither do many pieces of music, or poems or sculptures. Many are just trying to convey a thought or a mood or a tone. Besides, there’s a pretty obvious “sport” that provides enough narrative that it has to be put in quotes . . .

WrestleMania 21 Elbow Drop

“Art” ???

No, narrative just gets divided between “high brow” and “low brow”. Besides, there are plenty of video games that provide narrative anyway, so it can’t simply be that.

Does it have to do with rules? Games, as already stated, are by definition really just sets of rules. “Art” seems to often say that there are no rules for expression. Except, while that might seem true in the visual arts (Cloaca Machine anyone?), it hardly seems true of the performing arts. I mean, if a ballet dancer started break dancing on cardboard in the middle of Swan Lake, a conductor did his job with raver glowsticks, or Hamlet’s soliloquy was replaced with the lyrics of “Gangster’s Paradise”, you’d probably have a fair amount of empty seats and refunded tickets.

Offended Dowager Simpsons

And thousands of “Well, I never!”s.

So perhaps not. There ARE rules in art. I’d say the primary difference between the “rules” of a game and art is simply how easily they can be broken and when the rules are established. In a game, the rules are agreed upon before hand, are fairly rigid, though the players usually have a fair amount of choice in how they abide by them – e.g. do you go for a two-point conversion or a field goal? But in theater (for example), the “rules” are what the director says and decides on before hand, and once the production is up, the players must abide by them rather consistently, if not exactly.

Is it about competition then? Sports thrive on competition, obviously, while in most instances of the performing arts thrive on cooperation, whether it be an orchestra or a theater company. This seems a likely candidate. You won’t see many folks going into Romeo and Juliet waving a giant foam finger for the Capulets. That would be silly, like modernizing the play and giving everyone handguns!

Benvolio with "Dagger"

No one would ever do that . . .

Anyways, this DOES seem to be the heart of it: competition. At least for Sports versus Art, I’d say this would probably be the definitive answer. And in fact, when our two friendly scientists returned, the very nature of their debate centered around a very similar issue:

Dr. Light spoke first, “Though it seems my colleague and I disagree on this matter, I attest that electronic gaming is about the player struggling against forces laid out before him by the designers, in what will always end up a linear fashion. This is a directed and controlled nature, and even if the player has choices availed to them, will always result in some sort of narrative. Even if it is a narrative the player makes for themselves. As narrative is generally considered art, though it can be high or low brow, it does follow that games therefore are also art.”

“You fool!” screamed Dr. Wily, “You forget the origins of such titles as Pong or the fighting games of today! They are but simple competitions! Digital contests for those weak in body and meant to prove dominance over one another. Even in single player games, the players attempt to best each other in “score” or “achievements unlocked”. Any narrative efforts added on top are like the plots of porn; irrelevant attempts to make them seem greater than they are!”

Light VS Wily

Uh-oh. I hope this doesn’t drive a wedge between them.

“But competition isn’t always the focus!” Dr. Light countered. “Where is the supposed ‘competition’ in a game like Portal? Or Chrono Trigger? The player is struggling against forces laid out before them, and struggle is the nature of drama! There is no “competition” in that sense. No more than Odysseus “competed” with the Cyclops, for it is an inevitability that the persevering player will succeed, and see the narrative through!”

“Focus is inconsequential!” screeched Dr. Wily. “Games by their very nature must be “won”. Even in the examples you proffer, the player still “wins” the game to gain the narrative. If a narrative must be won, the nature of winning supersedes the narrative in importance. Any exercise that gives out its prize based on skill and “winning” is still a sport, and we agree that sports cannot be considered art!”

“But why can’t they?” Was Light’s only response.

They glared at each other. It was back to the question. Why can’t we consider sport art, and as a corollary, anything that offers competition?

Double Dare Dadaism

Especially when Double Dare seems the definition of competitive Dadaism.

Wily, as it turns out, did have a response to this.

“The reason sports cannot be considered art is simple. Sports, and games that seek to emulate them, are based around a single concept, that of equality and fairness. They must be fair to all players involved for everyone participating must have an equal chance at the start. There are no recognized sports and few games that allow for one side to have a clear advantage: it would be “unsporting”. This need for equality means there can be no greater or deeper message, no deeper meaning. It overrides all other emotional or intellectual factors.

Art on the other hand, has no need for fairness. If a painter is better than all his contemporaries, he alone is recognized while they wallow alone and forgotten. The director of a play is a dictator, no matter how benevolent they might be. The writer of literature is for his story, God. Equality in art is not only unnecessary, but would probably be detrimental to the process. Artists seek first to satisfy themselves, without regard to others.”

“Ah,” Light began his retort. “But that speaks only of the intent of the creator, without covering the experience of the player. Who is to say that even if the rules and their makers do not intend to move the players of their games, the players themselves aren’t moved by their experiences with them?”

Gamer Face by Randy Dorney

The “Gamer Face” is certainly that of a person absorbed in their subject matter.

“Of course that is subjective,” Wily admitted. “But again, if the player’s main goal is to ‘win’, then it overrides the openness required to experience other emotional or intellectual change. When you combine the lack of intent to change or challenge the players emotions or intellect on the part of the rule makers, along with the intent of the players to win, you have creators that intend nothing beyond thrills, and an audience not capable of receiving anything but simple engagement.”

“Alright, let’s say we concede this to be true, for SOME games. That within these games it may be impossible to say they are even capable of being emotive or moving.” Light said gently, before continuing.

“But what of simulations? A player of The Sims or Animal Crossing, or Cities XL has no real ending to ‘win’. And what of games that allow creation? A person using Minecraft to make a digital sculpture, or Little Big Planet making an automated film is making art, are they not?”

Famous landmarks made in Minecraft

The Arc de Triumph, an Egyptian Pyramid, and the Parthenon all made in the medium of Minecraft.

“Can you not concede that focus in this matter is important? That if the ‘rule makers’ are intending for their work to either not be about ‘winning’ or at least for the ‘winning’ to be less important than the story or the experience of the interaction, that a game could at least be capable of affecting the changes to perception and emotion classical art always seeks?”

“Hmm.” Wily paused, thinking about this. “There do seem to be too many variations in gaming to simply peg them all as art, or all as sport. Creations in the digital space can be virtually anything, so it is a medium capable of a large range, even in gaming. But what could allow for a medium to both be and not be something at the same time?”

A sense of cohesion seemed to flash between them. “Why Quantum Mechanics could explain it! Gaming is both art and not art!”

They both looked at us in the council eagerly to see if this was an acceptable answer to our question. We vetoed it on the account that having been down this road before, it would be preferable if Quantum mechanics weren’t involved in their answer. They make the brain hurt.

Quantum Leap Bakula

Besides, with our decisive lack of Backula, we prefer not make many Quantum Leaps.

“Well then”, said Light, “If we must come to a consensus, and we cannot state that it is a matter of simply subjective observation, then I propose this hypothesis: Disregarding ‘quality’ which is subjective, there are certain games that can be capable of consideration as art, and others that are so unlikely to achieve this status that it is effectively impossible. There is a divide of class. It is this delineation that we must now seek in order to create a taxonomy.”

“Yes. This does seem acceptable, if a bit obvious.” Wily agreed.

Interesting . . . to say that because video games have such a huge range as a medium, that trying to single out the entire medium based on a yes or no on this question would be impossible. That there needs to be at least some division of classification into games that can or cannot be capable of achieving emotional resonance beyond a simple desire to win or an engaging thrill. At the very least, it’s a compromise to both sides of the “debate”.

TP Debate

If this ends up working, I know exactly which debate to settle next . . .

Such a proposal could become some huge sweeping excel document, filled with sub-types and genres. Or at least that’s what I thought at first.

But then Dr. Light pursued this line of inquiry. “Should we begin looking at genres then?”

For a moment, Dr. Wily said nothing. He just stood there tugging at his mustache, thinking. After some time it seemed, he spoke.

“I think not my bearded friend.” Wily responded, “For that would be looking too low, at the genus, when we should be seeking the larger, more important division of the Domain. Besides, we have hit upon the answer already for this divide!”

“What do you mean?” Light asked, confused.

Wily smiled, “Heh. It seems obvious in retrospect actually: there are only two types of games.”

Wait. What?

Wily went on to elaborate for some time using a basis of Cartesian Skepticism, but I’ll spare you the long form of his logic. Suffice to say, it seemed to make a degree of sense. Even if I couldn’t pay total attention, as it rocked my belief in the apparent infinite possibilities of the medium pretty hard.

I mean there are so many different genres and classifications of gaming: Action, Racing, Fighting, Platforming, Puzzle, Turn-Based Strategy, Real-Time Strategy, 4x Strategy, Flight-Sim, Sports Sim, Dating Sim, Sim Sim, Point and Click Adventure, JRPG, WRPG, SRPG, FPS, MOG, Casual, Educational, Indie, Hardcore, 2D, 3D, Console, PC, Handheld, Episodic, Digital Download, Disc Only, Beat ‘Em Ups, Shoot ‘Em Ups, Spectacle Brawlers, Action/RPG Hybrids, Strategy Hybrids, Puzzle/RPG Hybrids . . . the list goes on. How could anyone say there are only two?!

But then he finished his long explanation with an axiom seemingly simple:

“There are only two types of video game. And they can be divided on the basis of antagonism.”


No, that’s Antagone, who is an antagonist. But close.

Basically it breaks down as follows:

There are games designed for the player to confront AI, hazardous levels, or any other sort of prepared and controlled force of antagonism there solely because the developers intend them to be there. This intent, along with the control the developers have over what the player experiences is what allows the designers to deliver something beyond simple spectacle or engaging but otherwise meaningless activity. These games can be pointless too, but only by choice (or the budget runs out I suppose). You are in the designer’s world and must follow by their predetermined rules and regulations. In a very real way, you are playing against the designers themselves, and they need not be fair if they want to make a point or create an impact on you (Aeris’ death comes to mind).

You could view these as single player games only, but the parlance of the MMORPG is probably more accurate. This is PvE, or Player versus Environment and it seems to allow for the greatest possibility for true art to emerge in gaming. Games such as Deus Ex Human Revolution or Shadow of the Colossus are easy to see as not only action experiences, but also as artistic statements, but this isn’t a recent occurrence by any means. The earliest example I can think of is Missile Command, a game where the developer actively put his fears of the cold war into the experience, and this was one of the reasons the game was so impactful.

The Ultimate Gaming Breakdown: Are Video Games Art? 5

Doubting the subtext of Missile Command? Consider the fact that it is a game about defending against nuclear holocaust, and one in which there is no actual possible way to “win”. They made an entire film about this called War Games, and it wasn’t as powerful (but that might have been due to Mathew Broderick).

The flip side are games designed where the obstacle the player must face are primarily that of other players, or to use the MMORPG terminology again, Player versus Player (PvP). The primary focus of PvP games and modes is competition, and yes, this competitiveness effectively relegates them into the realms of sport and contest. As stated by Wily above, the overriding goal of the developers making an effective competitive game has to do with equality between the participants. The designers in a PvP mode therefore aren’t the antagonists so much as moderators or referees in addition to their role as the creator of rule-sets.

It’s theoretically possible to make a competitive game with a deeper commentary on those playing, and many fighting games certainly have characters that players become attached to, but it isn’t as likely as the priority of equal balance supersedes all others. This priority on balance isn’t a bad thing though. I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to play a fighting game where one player had access to a tank while you could only punch and kick at them, as seen in the ad for Bonestorm on the The Simpsons.

Liu Kang Versus Tank

In the match of Liu Kang v. Tank, there are no winners, only losers.

Still, it was hard to agree with the assertion that there are only these two types of game, and I posited several possible exceptions to Wily. But he seemed to have a retort on hand to most any game I could think of, explaining how they fell into one of these categories, if you break them down.

I pointed out simulations such as the aforementioned The Sims, in which there is no ending or real conflict. The Sims, like its originator Sim City or Minecraft or Spore has no actual “point”, and all of these games mostly seem to be tool sets to allow user creation for messing about.

“Ah, this so called ‘exception’ is an illusion.” Wily stated. “I can only say that either they are not actual games, and thus shouldn’t be considered, or you can look at them in another way. In all of the examples mentioned, there is still an antagonist: the rules themselves or more specifically, the world. Unless you’re using cheats, you can’t simply buy anything in The Sims and in Minecraft even if you ignore the Creepers and Zombies, you still have to contend with the limits of the game world as much as your imagination; gravity works (mostly) so falls kill, lava and fire burn, and you share a weakness with Lara Croft: drowning.”

Spaced Video Games

According to Spaced drowning Lara repeatedly is one of life’s great stress relievers.

“These struggles indicate that while there may be no ‘win’ condition, there is definitely a ‘lose’ condition. Or to put it another way, you ‘lose’ when chaos rules, you ‘win’ by establishing measured order to the worlds presented, even if that is impossible to achieve forever because the system keeps running to undermine it. It’s what gives these games their ‘gameness’, and why they aren’t just elaborate Barbie’s Dreamhouse design studios and pixelated Lego editors.”

Dr. Light pitched in on this as well. “In fact, the chaos versus order point is also easily applicable to pure puzzle games like Tetris or Bejeweled as well. Like the simulations, these games rarely have true win conditions other than a personal challenge for high score, and the player simply must struggle against a system of pure rules and random hazards to survive in a state of stasis.”

Alright, fine, then what of cooperative games? Or games that blend the two sides together? In Left 4 Dead or The Legend of Zelda: 4 Swords Adventures, you both compete against the enemies and environment, as well as with each other to some degree. Where do they fit in?

L4D Crew, Bill, Zoey, Francis, Louis

Bill’s death in particular may prove that it’s possible to create resonant moments in a multiplayer game.

Light responded first. “Well in the case of 4 Swords and the primary mode of Left 4 Dead, the competitive aspects are downplayed. Cooperation of primary importance, and it is against the environment, proving that it is not the multiplayer aspects alone that prevent the possibility of emotional impact.”

Wily expanded ,”In fact, Left 4 Dead may be the best example of what we’re describing. In it’s solely cooperative mode, tensions and emotions run high, camaraderie can be achieved as well as other more complex emotional responses. But in the game’s competitive mode, where other players are capable of playing as the enemy, the focus begins to shift again into competition and people take the game’s more emotional moments less seriously since they must focus on defeating their adversaries more.”

“Besides,” said Wily. “Look no further than game criticism itself. Notice that in games that primarily focus on Multiplayer, they are rarely considered candidates for “game of the year”, unless they also have a strong single player component?”

I had to admit some truth to this. The last purely competitive multiplayer game to win a GotY award from a major organization seems like it might have been Battlefield 1942 in 2002 (from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences). Many of the other games that have multiplayer and get considered for these types of awards ALSO have single player sequences and stories usually considered at least as strong as their respective Capture the Flag and Deathmatch modes, such as Red Dead Redemption with it’s tragic tale of unwanted revenge or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare which if nothing else, contained one of the frankest depictions of futility yet seen when it forced the player to control a dying soldier in his last moments.

Red Dead redemption

When you look back at RDR, what sticks out more? The poignant ending, or that time you won a round of Capture the Bag with seconds to spare?

But looking at these awards does reveal something. It seems that the most popular games that also end up highly acclaimed usually offer BOTH experiences. In Red Dead or CoD, sure you can hop online and blast someone into next week, but you can also play by yourself and experience the world, the characters and the stories the designers want you to. While this division in mode may reinforce the two doctors’ point, that there is a divide between what a game is capable of on an emotional level – I’ve never cringed when getting nuked in TDM during CoD, but the one time it happened in the single player it got to me – it also provides at least some method of resolution: games can be both.

Upon this speaking of this realization Wily only responded with “Well, that may be the case. But it is irrelevant to your original question. You wanted to know if games could be art. I believe that we have answered that. In theory at least, games can have the capability, but the degree in which they can be is only in an inverse to a game’s focus on competition between the players.”

Games according to Dr. Wily

I suppose it was silly to expect anything less than a graph from a scientist.

I turned to Dr. Light, to see if he could in any way negate the growing acceptance of this concept in my mind.

“Actually, in most ways I have to agree with my colleague. But for one thing.”

“Yes, there is both an inherent difference between games and art, and there are areas where they blend into each other. But what one society, or age of a society, perceives to be artistic is and always will be subjective. I suggest that while this line may function as a general rule of thumb, do not be surprised if it isn’t always the case. I accept this current theorization only as a baseline for where we are NOW. When this is proven to no longer work, and it will be, it will have to be altered or eliminated entirely. Whether it is from a truly new type of game, or from multiplayer that can make a point beyond sport I do not know. But it will happen. The digital medium, and human ingenuity, are simply too varied to deny the possibility of change.”

With that, the two left. Back off to work on more important matters. I’m pretty sure its something about making robots to do our chores for us.

I know that I didn’t get the total validation that all games were art that I was hoping for. Nor does such a simplification seem fully adequate for such a large question. But agree or not, it was an answer at least, and a definitive one. I suppose now all there is to do is wait and see if time proves it right or not.

Perhaps the next game on the docket will end up an impassioned example of subtlety and nuance that changes perceptions of what gaming is capable of and can accomplish for our inner selves, truly asking us to examine the frailties of our hearts?

The Ultimate Gaming Breakdown: Are Video Games Art? 6

OK. the one after that then?

As one of the unfortunate few born with three first names, Adam endured years of taunting on the mean streets of Los Angeles in order to become the cynical malcontent he is today. A gamer since the age of four, he has attempted to remain diverse in his awareness of the arts, and remain active in current theater, film, literary and musical trends when not otherwise writing or acting himself. He now offers his knowledge in these areas up to the "California Literary Review," who still haven't decided what exactly they want to do with him yet. He prefers to be disagreed with in a traditional "Missile Command" high score contest, and can be challenged this way via his Xbox LIVE Gamertag of AtomGone, and if you want to "follow" him on twitter, look for Adam Robert Thomas @TheCromulentMan

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