Can Video Games Be Art?

This is not an artwork.

So Roger Ebert has once again thrown down the Gauntlet, insisting that video games are not art—and what’s more, that they can NEVER be art. Obviously he’s being heavy-handed, and a bit of a firebrand. I swear I can hear his chuckling clear across town!

I have discovered a truly marvelous proof that Ebert is wrong, and that it is in fact IMPOSSIBLE for video games NOT to be art. However, this blog post is too narrow to contain it.

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25 thoughts on “Can Video Games Be Art?

  1. For me, a revealing difference between art and video games is that video games can have a DEMO mode. This doesn’t negate the fact that video games can be complex or visually stunning, but it suggests that their purpose is to offer an experience that is imitable or programmable.

    • A friend of mine, whom I consider fairly knowledgeable about video games (which I am not), maintains that the source of such games’s artistry lies in their interactivity. Thus, games are artistic to the extent that they complicate that interactivity.

      I think that’s a fine starting point. If games are art (and I think they can be, even if few actually are), then they’re artistic in and of themselves—in their own way. Cinema’s artistry is not an imitation of theater or film or music, but it’s own thing, with its own aesthetic principles and devices.

      I see a lot of people who defend video games as art point to the graphics and the music and the stories and think they can compare with painting and music and literature, and I think that’s mostly foolish. It reminds me of when people thought of cinema as filmed theater (not that I was around back then, mind you). Video games must be their own thing, and not some imitation of something else.

      So I don’t have a problem with demo modes per se, since they’re an aspect of interactivity. But, as my friend also notes, most games require very little in terms of interaction. For the most part, they just want the player to push the X button repeatedly.

      The most artistic video game maker I know of, and someone I consider a true artist—indeed, one of the greatest of contemporary artists—is Shigeru Myamoto, designer of Donkey Kong and the Mario games and The Legend of Zelda, among many others. When he speaks about games, he speaks extensively—and poetically—about interaction, and how he builds chances for it into his work. Sometimes that consists of showing players what they can do, initially, so that later they can make express themselves creatively within the game.

      Thus, he placed the first mushroom in the first Super Mario Bros. game in a place where you’d be very likely to discover it (by jumping over the Goomba). And he included a brief demo mode at the start. But SMB 1 was also the very first side-scrolling video game.

      When he made Zelda, the Japanese Famicom version, players started with the wooden sword. And apparently they were confused then as to what to do; they thought they could play the entire game with just that sword. (This was the first video game RPG, really.) So when Nintendo released the game in America, Miyamoto made one change: he removed the sword. Players caught on from the opening screen, where they had nothing but could acquire something, that they needed to find other objects.

      • That’s kind of fascinating.

        I’m playing through a Zelda game on the nintendo DS –both my first Zelda game, and my first handheld system. Because the new games are building on old games when the genre didn’t have conventions yet or much graphics capability, the new games have weird throwbacks that don’t make much sense… but are consistent with the imagery in the earlier ones… it’s an interesting effect.

        There was a video game released recently that I read about (and my partner played) with a BDSM plotline, I think. I can’t remember the title, but I think it was freeware… the player is tossed out of the castle by hir lover, the princess, and forced to climb back through layers of spikes and things to find her. It’s an unforgiving game–every misstep throws you back down to the beginning–and it was supposed to be riffing off of the way that players are like masochists in setting themselves up to accomplish these tasks, and also it was riffing off of the difficulty of old games which were much more forgiving than most new ones –if you game overed in SMB, you started over, no second chances. I can see calling something like that art; it’s playing with concept and convention.

        • That BDSM game sounds interesting! Please let me know if you remember the title.

          I prefer to think of art more as an experience than as a thing: it’s a way in which we interact with the world. (This, to me, is one of the prime lessons of John Cage’s work.) I can have an artistic experience with a tree, if I want to, the same way that I can have a religious experience with it, or a scientific or historical experience with it. Sometimes those experiences can overlap, or even be indistinguishable.

          That said, of course it’s easier to have an artistic experience with some things than with others. Art, like religion and science and history, has its rituals, its dominant conventions. It has places and times and objects that make it easier to enter into “art mode.” (Although of course some will argue that going to a museum to look at Degas paintings is not an artistic experience! And that the only real art is out in the street, etc.)

          (One of the things I like about this concept of art as experience is that it includes more than just statues and paintings. It also includes art instruction, institutions, criticism… And it allows for the objects of art to come in all shapes and sizes, to be in the museum and out on the street, etc. And yet it doesn’t just make “anything” art; it respects the history of the human endeavor we call art.)

          The biggest problem that I see with video games being art is that most games don’t really enable having an artistic experience with them. The designers aren’t trying to get players into art mode: they’re trying to get them into game mode, or entertainment mode. But it can be done; the audience is in control of a lot of it, once they choose to be. When I look at Donkey Kong, I don’t really see a game any more, but an early video artwork. As a critic, I think I can successfully reframe Donkey Kong as an artwork.

          Of course, the more inclined one is to accept design and craft as art, the easier a time one will have accepting this whole argument.

          But going back to the objects themselves: here are some things that I think objects can do—ways they can be designed—to make it easier for people to have artistic experiences with them:
          . complicate the default way of interacting with them;
          . engage with the history of the form;
          . be elegance;
          . demonstrate originality;
          . present new problems or otherwise expand the form;
          . solve old problems in unfamiliar ways.

          That’s not an exhaustive list, and a single thing doesn’t have to accomplish all of those things to be “art” (although it’s nice when that happens).

          Miyamoto’s games consistently do all or most of these things (and more), which is why I don’t hesitate to call him an artist. He’s a pop artist, to be sure, but I think that by now we’re OK with there being pop artists? I know I am.

          • adam, your experience definition of art, and more so your broader application of interactivity as the mode by which a range of possible experience can be evoked from any ‘thing’, is intriguing. reminds me of ken wilber’s four quadrants model, and i’m sure has long philosophical roots. i’m curious if there’s anything in particular that’s influenced your thought in this direction? i’d also be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on the matter in general, if you’re inclined.

            • Hi Keith,

              I’m not familiar with Ken Wilbur’s work, and will have to check it out. Any particular recommendations?

              I’d say the biggest influence on the above view is John Cage. I can’t remember if he ever defined art as experience, but works like 4’33” essentially make that argument. Where is the artwork in 4’33”? It’s in one’s perception. He later said that 4’33” was not only a work of music, but also of theater, because one’s eyes were open and seeing things during each performance. (And I think that 4’33” is terrific theater—every performance is completely different, and usually very exciting, in its own unique way.)

              Following that, the visual art world has seen a real shift away from art as objects and more toward art as process, experience, and concept. For instance, consider Allan Kaprow’s “private happenings”:

              Self-Service, a piece without spectators, was performed in the summer of 1967 in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. It spanned four months, June through September. Thirty-one activities were selected from a much larger number. Their time and locality distribution were determined by chance methods. Participants selected events from those offered for their city; each had to pick at least one, although doing many or all was preferable. Details of time and place were flexible within each month; choices made from month to month overlapped, some actions recurring. Activities took place among those of the participants’ normal lives. These were not necessarily coordinated; it was by chance that some actions turned out to be similar in two or all of the cities.”

              Activities included things like “Couples kiss in the midst of the world, go on,” and “People shout in subway just before getting off, leave immediately,” and “Some torn paper is released from a high window, piece by piece, and slowly watched.” Others leave more of a trace in the world, but most are ephemeral, abstract, absurd.

              (For more on this work and other related artworks, see Mariellen R. Sandford’s wonderful book Happenings and Other Acts, 1995, Routledge.)

              Here in Chicago, many of my friends are performance artists, and it seems to me that redefining art as an experience is the only way to appreciate what a lot of them do. I’m sure others have made this explicit argument, although I don’t know of any examples off hand. (Surprisingly, it’s not something I’ve really ever discussed with my friends. We don’t tend to talk theory, just make work. I think they get enough theory talk at school!) But I think it’s a logical conclusion after Cage.

              …And still only one definition of art. If others prefer to define art as objects, then they should have at it. But what I like about looking at art this way is that it still allows one to include all the objects one would like to.

              Cheers,
              Adam

              • given your explanation, i prefer art as object, while recognizing that i have the freedom to approach all things and all of life from within whatever mode i have access to, and thus recognizing the implicit manifold nature of all things, of which a thing is generally reduced to one functional identity in relation to our everyday modus operandi. regarding performance art, i feel it plays a self-conscious role of artificially forcing the viewer into art mode, and feels condescendeningly guru-ish (which i know is a gross oversimplification). anyhow, i really like your articulation of interactivity as essential to the human experience, the co-causal role of consciousness and world.

                i’ve only read a few books of ken wilber’s, but wiki does a fair overview of his project: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Wilber which is to synthesize all of human knowledge along the order of a spectrum of consciousness into a flexible system in order to expand our perspective into a sort of simultaneity of perspectives always available to us. the two books i’d recommend are ‘a brief history of everything’ and ‘integral spirituality’. i don’t know what your theistic stance is (personally i’m most comfortable with agnosticism), but i’d recommend the latter if only for the first hundred pages which contains a marvelous overview of his system in general; only the latter hundred pages deals with the problematics of spirituality in the modern age. given your own inclusive nature, you might appreciate his capacity to show how fields that are often thought of as contradictory and in fact complementary. he probably falls more along the lines of pop philosophy, but he is going to be a force to be reckoned with for the next century or so.

  2. Isn’t there also like a whole community of conceptual video game artists? Like that one everybody was circulating last year where you grow old and die and depending upon where you travel on the board, your wife comes with you, or else you leave her behind?

  3. Anyone who has played the Metal Gear Solid series knows that many games have more pre-scripted material than are contained in a typical novel.

    The fact that you kill some grunts or jump through hoops in some other way doesn’t negate the presence of a compelling story. And I imagine Ebert would agree that good stories can be art. The pretense of interactivity doesn’t really change that.

    Also, see games as art that I posted in response to Tim. There are games that very much exist solely to explore an aspect of humanity or to evoke an emotional response. Which, in a nutshell, is pretty much art.

    There are so many ways in which we can get tangled between art in a gallery versus visual art as seen through a videogame vs yada yada yada. In the end, it’s mostly a false distinction.

    • Hi Ben,

      (This isn’t an argument with anything you wrote, but what it prompted in me.)

      A friend of mine made the argument last night that, as video game-making technology falls into more and different hands (rather than remaining in the hands of commercial developers), we’ll see more artistic video games.

      I agree, and think this will be accompanied by much disagreement as to which games are the artistic ones. There will be debate over the canon…just like in the art world, and in literature.

      As for myself, I’m less interested in calling any particular game art, and more in describing the ways in which games can be artistic. I think it’s self-evident in theory that video games can be artworks, but that reality is thus far mostly refusing to cooperate. (Meaning, I think that most video games suck, and are complete wastes of time. Which is why I don’t play them! And why I’m hesitant to “defend” them—because I really don’t care.)

      That all said, I would call The Legend of Zelda an artwork, and a fabulous artwork at that (to pick just one example). It broke new ground technically, is elegantly composed, beautiful to look at and listen to, satisfying to play, emotionally involving, intellectually challenging, and has inspired hundreds of imitators. If that’s not an artistic game, then I don’t know what is! Most importantly, in its time it completely rewrote the concept of what was considered possible in video games, in terms of interaction (one collected items to unlock new sections, and one could save the game through its memory). (A few other games had done things like this, but I think we can agree that Zelda very elegantly visually codified these features in an interface still copied today.)

      Another way in which some games are artistic is that they inspire new interactions. For instance, I’d argue that “speed-runs” are playful, creative, and ultimately can be considered artistic experiences:

      As are things like playing the Zelda through without ever getting the wooden sword:

      Finding new ways to interact with the games is, to me, an artistic behavior. Art often consists of finding new ways to interact with reality—playful, fun, challenging, strange ways that often look frivolous to non-artists.

      Meanwhile, I don’t think games need elaborate stories or fancy graphics to be artistic. (They can have them, but I don’t think that’s where their artistry lies.) I also don’t think they don’t need to not be games. Zelda‘s a darn good game! As is Donkey Kong, and Super Mario Bros. (two other games that I think are artworks). Indeed, it’s often by being good games—by being good interactive video works that inspire people to explore different ways of interacting with them—that games can be good artworks.

      Cheers,
      Adam

      (I took some time out this evening to play Super Mario Bros. 2 through again, an occasional pastime of mine. I used only the Princess, and the warp zones in worlds 1-3 and 4-2. I’m not sure it was a very artistic experience—but it was fun!)

      • I agree with comments re: Zelda. Which is great, obviously.

        But even if for those that disagree about the artistry within the game concept itself, how is possible to disentangle both the visual art and music that make up games. Can we say that Uematsu’s Final Fantasy scores are art or that the art design of many of the pre-rendered scenes of Final Fantasy 7 are art—but not the game itself? We can take the parts but not the whole? I think any argument rejecting the category at face value is on very shakey ground.

        • Hi Ben,

          I think that the graphics and music of video games can be artistic, sure. (My tendency is to think that anything can be artistic—at least in theory.) I especially like the graphics and scores of a lot of early games, think they look and sound very beautiful—and look and sound like nothing else. The Legend of Zelda, which I always come back to, is a real stunner. I love it for itself, as its own object (as Susan Sontag and William H. Gass each respectively described).

          But other games sound better: Mega Man II, Ninja Gaiden (for the Nintendo). Both have really awesome soundtracks (as many indie bands have observed).

          Are those games art? I think they can be approached as art, and perhaps someone can argue that they’re great art. I think they’re really great games, and I have very fond memories of both of them, but I don’t think either one is as artistic or as interesting as Zelda. I don’t love either one of them the way I love Zelda, which seems more complete and unified to me. And a more powerful experience than the other two, which I think of more as fun games. (I could attempt to rationalize all of this, but excuse me if I leave at this for now.)

          Actually, Ninja Gaiden makes for an interesting example. It was a pretty innovative game at the time. The cinema scenes did a lot to make the game more immersive. But the storyline is also garbage, and the cinema scenes aren’t interesting as cinema. And there isn’t much interplay between the cinema scenes and the actual gameplay. So I don’t think one can easily argue that Ninja Gaiden is comparable to great literature or cinema (or all that unified as a game, really).

          I see a lot of people, though, argue precisely that. They compare games with books and films and symphonies, trying to argue that games are art because they have great graphics, or great music, or a great story—and while games may have those things, I think that’s the wrong direction to take in arguing that video games as a category are art. Because games rarely measure up to other art forms in these ways.

          And if the music is great, and artistic, then that doesn’t mean the game is great and artistic, really. It just means that the music is art, and music is already accepted as art. So the challenge then would be to explain how the music makes the game art (which might be the case). Or why the game is art in spite of its music.

          For example, Shutter Island has a great soundtrack, one of the best in recent Hollywood history, but I don’t think Shutter Island is all that great a film. And, actually, I think the soundtrack hurts the film, because it seems derivative of what Kubrick did with The Shining—a truly great film, I’d argue. Scorsese’s soundtrack seems derivative. And less daring than what Kubrick did 30 years prior. So while I love all the music in Shutter Island, and think it’s great stuff, I don’t think it helps save the film artistically as a whole.

          Video games are facing a problem that cinema once faced. People kept contrasting film with literature, and with theater, and pointing out how it wasn’t the equal of either. And cinema usually is bad literature, and bad theater. But it has other properties, unique unto itself, which make it its own artistic media. But it took most people a (surprisingly) long time to catch onto this!

          Look at a contemporary film that I’d argue is really great, The Ghost Writer (which I saw for a second time tonight). I won’t go into detailed analysis here; suffice to say the film looks really gorgeous. Excellent production design, excellent cinematography (as tends to be the case with Polanski, who I think a true master of cinema). But I wouldn’t call Ghost Writer art because, say, a single frame of it looks good, and is therefore the equivalent of some painting. I’d call it art because it functions as a film (and as a good film). For instance, there’s a long single tracking shot toward the end of The Ghost Writer where a note gets passed from hand to hand until it reaches a person, who reads it. And it’s a really great shot, the climax of the film. But it is totally different than a painting. Or theater. It’s its own thing. And to admire it is to admire the way Polanski has staged it, and incorporated it into the film. It’s technically very well-done, and it creates a terrific amount of tension. And the acting at the final moment of it, by Olivia Williams, is really tops. And the shots right after it are very cathartic…until the film really ends. It’s just masterful filmmaking.

          Good composition in cinema is different than good composition in painting. As it has to be. You’re going to stare at a painting for…decades. That shot in The Ghost Writer is a long one, but it still only takes 40 seconds.

          But, anyway, despite all this, I’m sure someone else could successfully argue that some game somewhere is an artwork because of its graphics. I’d love to see it done.

          Cheers,
          Adam

  4. I’d like to hear more about what people think of interactivity in video games. A reason I might differentiate between the gaming experience and the art experience is because of what I see as a difference in interactivity. I understand the video game experience as a series of moments that can be described as binary oppositions – the user chooses one action or another action, moment after moment – whereas I understand the art experience as a moment or series of moments that cannot be described as binary oppositions.

    • So what are we calling Choose your own adventure novels?

      What about subversions of choose your own adventure novels? that preserve the binary choice structure, but alter what kinds of effects it has? (I can think of several of these that have been published, but alas, no online examples).

      • I’d say they can do artistic things, too. Why not? They’re literature, and they could be art like any literature (which isn’t to say any of them actually manage). But they’re also games, and like games, they could be art by innovating with their own system of interactivity.

        Let’s say one CYOA author managed to split the story into two paths, A and B. You could go either way. If you went B, you followed the path and the story eventually ended. But if you went A, it eventually fed into B, changing the meaning of B. That would be artistic (and not unlike what Cortázar did with Hopscotch.)

        Here, by the way, is a fascinating visual analysis of the design of many CYOA books. Note the mention of Colossal Cavern Adventure. Lots of other interesting observations and analyses there. Whoever’s responsible for it did a really whiz-bang job.

        And note the “ultimate” ending of UFO 54-40, discussed at the bottom of the page:

        “This ending was not just an easter egg for the obsessive reader who didn’t mind skimming every page looking for telltale words. Instead it’s hard to miss in even a casual riffling. A two-page illustration showing what could only be paradise (or perhaps a theme park) leaps out as the only spread in the book without any text. Flipping to the page before brings you to 101, where you discover that your curiosity has been rewarded. You have found the planet, not by following the constraints of the system, but by going outside of them – a fitting moral to the story and an encouraging reminder that any game should be a starting point for the imagination, not the end.”

        That’s art.

    • I think interactivity is key—but perhaps only one key—because it’s what distinguishes video games from, say, film. But you’re right, Edward, that most games don’t do much in terms of interactivity. Like I said, I think that games can be art, but that most fall well short. Most are crap. The burden of proof is on the game and game-makers to do something artistic with that interactivity.

      I personally don’t know of too many examples. I think that it’s easy to demonstrate that games can be art in theory, but reality is an entirely different matter. And I stopped playing them in the early 1990s. But here are some games I would add to the “artistic video game canon,” based on how they define, expand, and/or complicate interactivity.

      A lot of early video games could go in, since they define the form. Space Invaders, for instance, is both iconic and unlike any game before it, really. And I think the game itself serves as a fine metaphor for life: You hold out for as long as you can, but the aliens eventually get you. There’s no way to win (other than scoring the most points).

      Pac-Man, Donkey Kong. They developed and pushed the then-nascent medium forward. Pac-Man in particular is very pretty, and added a lot to the gaming vocabulary. It’s also a pretty strange concept, when you think about it. (So’s Donkey Kong—which is somewhat surreal.)

      Colossal Cave Adventure, which was the first or one of the first games text-based games, where you could type in commands and explore rooms and objects. Sometimes the commands did something, and sometimes they didn’t: “Rubbing the electric lamp is not particularly rewarding. Anyway, nothing exciting happens.”

      (One might also claim some later games that descended from this basic idea, like Maniac Mansion.)

      As has been noted many times, both by myself and others, both here and elsewhere, Shigeru Miyamoto has a history of greatly expanding interactivity in his games. Super Mario Bros. was the first side-scrolling platform jumper, and all of the later Mario games complicate what it means to solve a game. The player has numerous paths and tasks to choose from. In Super Mario World, for instance, multiple levels have two different exists, and finding all of them changes the game. Players can also play the game in different modes, finding and exploring the uses of different objects. It’s no surprise that Miyamoto’s games are fun to replay over and over again, and that players find new, creative ways to play these games. (My sister liked playing SMB 1 without collecting any coins.)

      Similar arguments can be made for The Legend of Zelda, which also expanded the scope of games, and how one played them.

      After that, my sight grows dim. By 1990 I was losing interest (but once I could drive I also had better things to do—like go see movies!).

      At some point I did play a bit of Katamari Damacy, and thought it interesting, because as you progressed objects that were previously obstacles became collectible items. I found that a very elegant design, and a new spin on interaction.

      I like saying that Bill Viola’s interactive video installation The Tree of Knowledge is a video game. I saw it at MoMA. One by one, museum-goers can walk down a narrow corridor. At the end of the corridor is a tree (video projection). As you walk, the tree grows and begins to grow leaves and flower. If you go backwards at any point, the tree reverses its growth. But at some point, as you move forward, you reach a threshold and can no longer reverse things. As you walk farther forward, the tree continues aging, and eventually it dies. Then you exit the corridor.

      I think this is a very simple video game, with a very simple but artistic interaction. It’s not too dissimilar from Space Invaders, really.

      …Anyway, I’m not the person to make the canon. But I think one can be made. And I’d look for games that define, expand, and complicate the conventional patterns of video game interactivity.

  5. Pingback: Art as Experience « BIG OTHER

  6. I like the way Russ Meyer elevated Pong into art.

    I have a whole lot of hours of WoW behind me. What mostly interests me w/ WoW is not the long narrative line that some players are intensely attuned to, but the social interface that often takes the game experience into a highly randomized experience. When I blew the engine in my sports car it was through WoW that my wife connected w/ a player in another country that helped her locate a used engine available and not too far distant from us. One also tends to begin to see the world through WoW eyes… social interactions in RL are quickly framed into a WoW context and shared between players vs. non-players. So, for me, the perspective of ‘art’ occurs when the game transcends the game and electronic environment.

    For a time I saw all these vehicles that had hand-made signs on them that said, “WOW”. I did not know what they were for. So I made a sign that said, “MOM.” Then I found out that what WOW meant was “Whip it Out Wednesday” and was connected to some radio DJ’s who were encouraging women drivers to unveil their breasts while driving — and that they would get some sort of prize for it? Once I got the message I quickly took down my MOM sign. Now, my question is if that was art or not. It did sort of have a conceptual happening kind of outsider feel to it.

  7. When I taught a class called Unruly Fictions, which explored so-called experimental narrative of all shapes and denominations, to undergraduates, we kept gravitating back to video games. Time and time again, a video game would prove the closest reference point. Part of this might be the challenge and the interactivity that is often a given in experimental writing, as well as the game-like tendencies (think anything from Oulipo to Hopscotch). The work that seems closest to me to drawing from video games and film, along with textual literature, is Andy Campbell’s work at Dreaming Methods, http://www.dreamingmethods.com/. At times his work can feel like a film that one is stepping into, and at times it draws from those quest video games mentioned above (where you need to accumulate a certain number of items or experiences in order to “advance” to the next level or layer), but there is a textual element that rises out of the images and comes to seem indispensable. In Marie-Laure Ryan’s classic book Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, she distinguishes between immersive and interactive texts, and Campbell’s seem to split the difference as well as any I know, demanding interaction but making one feel as if the interaction is just another move in the immersion. It’s the illusion of free will in a deterministic universe or something along those lines.

  8. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other « BIG OTHER

  9. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other (reposted) « BIG OTHER

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