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Videogames as Art

Posted in Content

I’m inclined to believe that the discussion on this topic has long since closed, far before I wasted my time chiming in, but I still want to run over it. Maybe hammer it into the ground.  Maybe I want to write about it because I have a training in philosophy and philosophy is really just rehashes of rehashes, because we never really do settle on what is right but we do eventually decide what is wrong.

Speaking of wrong, the argument that videogames are not art is wrong. Now, they may be “bad” art, intended primarily for financial gain at the expense of truth and self-expression. But arguing that they are not art falls apart.  After all, haven’t we agreed that painting is art.  Games contain digital paintings.  Some games contain hand-drawn images — largely independently developed games but still.  We’ve also agreed that written story, whether in the form of a play, script, screenplay, or novel, is art.  Videogames usually have some kind of written story.  I mean, Pacman didn’t, but that was a game came out 30 years ago.  We’ve agreed that music is art.  I’m especially taken by the music featured in Bastion but there are some really great soundtracks out there — soundtracks that trounce most movie soundtracks.

Roger Ebert once argued that they aren’t art and never could be art, but Roger Ebert is about the last person to ask about games.  After all, his article cites a number of games no one has heard of (Waco Resurrection?) and then makes some comments concerning games he has never played and clearly did not understand (Braid).  But then again, the man was older than my grandpa when he wrote the article.  What did we expect?  This is poor form for Roger Ebert.  His article is loaded with subjective ramblings (stating that no game is as imaginative as the first movies — which in their time weren’t considered art by ‘critics’.  Novels also took their time catching on) and etymological fallacies whereby he attacks word-choice rather than meaning.  He seems to be struggling to attack meaning.  The poor guy had as much business writing about videogames as I do writing about quantum mechanics.

He does raise a good point though — how do we define art?  I won’t delve into that, but most people tend to think of art as an “I’ll know it when I see it” phenomenon.  It’s creative, expressive, and never ordinary.  Games certainly contain creative components glued together by gameplay — essential “gameness” of the work.  Movies, similarly, contain creative components glued together by cinematography.  Those creative components overlap — backdrop, music, story, etc.  

All that’s left is the question of whether or not gameplay itself is art.  Is gameplay itself creative, expressive, and unordinary?  Sometimes it is ordinary.  Farmville and Call of Duty have rendered themselves ordinary by replacing uniqueness with time tested models.  Players return to the games driven by addiction and memory.  They’re to videogames what McDonald’s is to dining — food.  Not a great dinner, just food.  But what about Flower or Braid. Is that gameplay art in itself or just a vehicle for delivering the art?  Is it the architecture of the art museum or just another exhibit?  And could we identify good gameplay?

Let’s assume for a second that gameplay is art — that designing the actions and rules a player goes through is creative, expressive, and often unique.  What does the gameplay express?  Braid stands out again for using gameplay mechanics as a part of the storytelling.  Rules in the game-world mirror the story being told.  It’s certainly creative.  I’ve never played a game like it and it is expressive.  It’s also unusual.  Braid is significantly different from most games.  I can describe Braid in its own terminology.  I cannot play Braid then say, “Oh it is like ____,” because it really isn’t.  The Stanley Parable is also expressive in it’s own way.  The gameplay isn’t unique, although it is very simple.  The gameplay is the point of the game — a way to poke fun at gamers.

Two examples seems to be enough to render a resounding “yes” to the question of “are games art?” But I’m not quite ready to let the topic die.  What other games constitute “good art” in their gameplay itself?  Send me a comment.