An Open Essay: Video Games as Art.

This is a response to a question that has no answer.

Except, well, in writing this I presuppose that I can find the answer.

When a video game achieves the status of art, then it will have stopped being a game.

This essay suggests that the definitive terms “art” and “game” are, in fact, not mutually exclusive.  This essay suggests that the definitive terms “art” and “craft” possess almost infinite crossover.  This essay suggests, emphatically, that to deny that a video game can be considered art is to deny that a film can be considered art.  Further it is to deny that a painting is art, that a novel is art and that a poem – a poem! the lyrical verse almost synonymous with the artistry of creative impulses, webs of ideas and words lost in emotion and feeling – is art.

The crux of Ebert’s article appears to be a response to a fifteen minute clip – a clip to which Ebert fails to provide a link – from a TED conference.  In this clip Kellee Santiago proclaims that video games are already art.  She appears to compare the current state of video gaming to “chicken scratch” cave paintings – in that she claims that as cave paintings eventually evolved into the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, so will video games inevitable evolve into something more.

This claim is interesting, because it neglects the fact that video games have evolved as a self-contained medium exponentially and that, during their time of evolution, a number of important things have affected their growth.  First, as Ebert feels it is important to make the comparison often, video games started simply as games.  They were visually primitive and very weak in their approach to anything barring their core play mechanic.  Narrative meant nothing, aesthetics meant barely and more and the sounds were mostly painful.  But hardware growth facilitated the growth of all of this things.  By the time the industry died and got better, Nintendo were already pumping out games with acceptable sound, aesthetics and narrative while improving incredibly upon the base facet of the medium: the way these things are played.

In the early nineties video games were already capable of employing a number of things stapled into films: cinematography, visual symbolism and imagery.  This was before the mechanical jump into 3D gaming.  After that jump, video games became more capable of mimicking the staples of cinematic techniques – to the point now that we have games like Heavy Rain and Final Fantasy XIII that are more movie than game in that they offer a lot of cinematic experiences, while occasionally asking the player to press buttons.

These are interesting incidents to note because, in the evolution of a medium we see an insurgence of creators and developers trying to turn their video games into something that can seriously compete with film in terms of what film does.  While Final Fantasy XIII is a lazy example, and really just a poor game with pretty pictures, Heavy Rain doesn’t fall into the same category.  It takes what films do and applies it to its own medium — as film took what novels did and applied it to its own medium.

Therefore it doesn’t strike as being correct to claim that video games are the early stage of an evolved medium that approaches high art – while the medium is, clearly, still young, the analogy only partially works.  Video games as they are now are to whatever they will become as Realist Literature is to Modernist Literature.  Stages, responses, forms of a medium that claims that they are the objectively right way of creating art within that medium.

Now would be a good time to consider the definition of art – a consideration made to a futile effort in the endeavour to successfully approach an impossible result.  Ebert notes that Santiago at least noted this Wikipedia definition:

Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.

That’s a nice little definition, but Ebert does point out that this definition lends itself to claiming that chess, or sports, can be art.  [I’m not necessarily opposed to that; I’ve seen some individual sportsman that are so very skilled in their craft that, when actually participating in their sport of choice, what they produce can be considered art.  They’re just at levels so far above and beyond the typical player that it’s amazing, but we digress.]  This essay will opt for a definition that the Modernists might like:

Expression. gives more definitions for the word than one would care to read through, but one word stands out: expression.  The deliberate expression of emotions, to appeal to the senses of the viewer – of the reader – of the listener – of the player.   Ebert offers a definition so to exclude games:

Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas…Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.

This essay will point out a number of things wrong with this definition, another taken from Wikipedia.  First, it’s written so to apply rules and goals and interaction to games but at the same to exclude these aspects from art.  Art typically stems from the expression of ideas under very strict rules and constraints: consider poetry and the rules of verse – even the functions of lyrical free verse isn’t without constraints and rules found within the faculties of language and grammar.  Indeed, the artist would rarely approach her art without some kind of goal in mind as to what she would like to express.  Art can scarcely be art without interaction – whether it be the observation of a painting or the reading of a book, art must be interacted with on both ends – in utterance and in appreciation of – for it to really become art.  If art is never written, if art is never read, then art is never art.  And to any who would never consider art a challenge, one would suggest that you go out and read some High Modernism or, maybe, actually read Shakespeare or Donne or Plath or even Jane Eyre.  The challenge in any of these instances would be to actually finish and then appreciate the art.

Here we can see a crossover in the definitions, albeit one contrived by this essay.  But that it is contrived is not to suggest that it is wrong.  But this shows how the interpretation of art can pool into the interpretation of games, not the other way around.  But that’s okay, because this essay does not concern itself with games: it does not consider chess art, or pong art.  This essay considers video games art and this is a distinction that Ebert decidedly fails to make.

Video games, categorically, would include the aforementioned pong – but the aforementioned pong is the aforementioned chicken scratch; preliminary efforts that history will look upon as the birth of art, but not necessarily art in and of itself.  But this is all irrelevant to the distinction we want to make: what is a video game and what is a game?  The distinction is in the word: video.  This single word lends to the entire medium something a simple game can not attain: absolutely everything available to cinema – while the distinction in game is that it does everything that a game can do that a film cannot do.  As Ebert puts it so succinctly: “a game can be won.”

Barber argues:

Gaming has never been considered art, so the onus is on video gamers to demonstrate why this has suddenly changed after several thousand years of games (from chess to water polo) and art co-existing happily as separate categories of human endeavour.

The distinction offers Barber his answer: that which has suddenly changed is the format.  Gaming, as games, is not even remotely similar to video games in anything barring concept.  The format is entirely different and the format, the functions of the medium and the craft offers the artists behind the development the necessary freedoms to actually create art.  Barber would counter:

Of course video games (particularly the graphics they employ) have aesthetic properties. So do cars, tea-cups etc. I’m writing this by staring into an iMac that looks extremely elegant – it’s beautifully designed. This is craft.

This essay now directs your attention to James Cameron’s Avatar. Simply to make the point: not everything in film is ostensibly art.  Avatar one might consider failed to attain the status of art because it focused too much on craft (and on gimmicks) such that it was sacrificial to the other elements that make film, well, film.  It was shallow*, unimaginative, clichéd and poorly written – but this essay offered early that “art” and “craft” crossover.

No one is about to suggest that these words are synonymous.  If art were craft and if craft were art, then the words would not exist disparate.  This essay suggests simply that skills invoke craft and that craft invokes art.  Craft may not always invoke art, but art could not be produced without craft.  Was Virginia Woolf not a master of her craft such that she produced art?  Was not Shakespeare the same?  Was Orson Welles not influential in defining his craft by his art?  This essay acknowledges the distinction offered by Barber, but argues that the distinction does not makes these terms mutually exclusive.  They are irrevocably interrelated.  Craft is always the endeavour to create art.

We now approach Barber’s and Ebert’s conclusion:

The way gamers protest too much seems to give away a rather telling chip on the shoulder (possibly from years of teachers and parents nagging at them for ‘wasting time’). Obviously not yourself. Or am I being unfair? – Barber

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? … Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, “I’m studying a great form of art?” Then let them say it, if it makes them happy. – Ebert

According to both of these men, gamers want video games to be recognised as art because they feel inadequate.  Because they want their wasted time validated and because they want to challenge the people who look down upon them.  According to both of these men: gamers are petty, fickle, insecure and pathetic — and big fat Dorito-munching basement-dwellers, no doubt.  They are all, I will point out, children too.  This is an interesting preconception to seep through their argument, isn’t it?  Video games are the chicken scratch on the cave walls – gamers are all children looking for validation of their hobby – Video games are juvenile! Mature, sophisticated, cultured adults could never appreciate a video game – it would be improper.  Their tastes would be quite too refined for such lowly artless entertainment.

Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku puts it perfectly:

There is a reason why you are a film critic, Mr. Ebert. You know film. You know film and appreciate it deeply. You understand what makes a good film. You have written countless articles and books on film. You have even written a great film. But one thing must be kept in mind at all times: You are not a video game critic.

Indeed he is not even a gamer.  But that he is a film critic strikes me because he seems so thoroughly unable to accept that video games borrow half of their craft from the craft of film.  To every video game made now, and for the last twenty years, there have been two equally important facets: the playing mechanic and the visual aesthetic — the video and the game.  Video invokes cinema, game invokes skill.

We now want to consider media and art within it.  Why would one consider High Modernism as art?  Because it plays with the medium of language, it plays with the idea of narrative and it challenges the importance of reality.  Modernism is a movement against Realism, a movement against Romanticism, a movement against Verse – art moving against art against art.  Why is Picasso an artist?  Why is expressionism an art form?  Why is cubism an art form?  They all challenged the definition of art, and with each challenge of art there is a group of people yelling out: No.  Cubism is not art.  High Modernism is not art.  That is not good art.  That is wrong.  These people, history always proves, are wrong.

Ebert argues:

Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.

This essay suggests that it can define criteria for art within the video gaming medium and further claims that it can, and will, name four pieces of art from it.  They are: Killer7, Bioshock, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Now to justify in the only way that makes any sense: visually.


Stylistic symbolism, abstract concepts and clever narrative aside: this is the prelude to the first boss fight.  This is the prelude to every boss fight.  It breaks the rhythm and the design of every level, every level, for this static refrain before returning the environment of a given level.  Note the word used there: refrain.  A lyrical term, a term for poetry, denoting the repetition of a passage or phrase within a whole text.  This is exactly what this is – a structural element of the medium being used to profound affect.


Visually dystopic aesthetic aside, cinematic mimicry aside: this is the biggest turning point in recent gaming history.  This game, using only it’s narrative, simultaneously deconstructs and celebrates the story-telling constraints and functions of the medium.  Bioshock guided the player through its story in a linear path, with the voice of another guiding them the whole way – telling them their next objective; when to do it and what to do and how to do it and why.  This is a typical employment of video gaming mechanic.  But here it is turned on the player: that they are conditioned, that they are the slave who obeys.  Bioshock uses the medium itself to control its narrative.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Fantastically deep character stories aside, potentially dream-like metaphor aside: this game is one of the few to really take the hardware limitations of the Nintendo64 in the late nineties and make them both relevant and important to the mechanics of the game at hand.  This game is designed with a three-day time limit and a small world.  The time limit and the small world means that everything within that world can be bigger than in a bigger world – that is: a small map with a lot to put on it is superior than a big map with little to put on it.  This is an example of a video game using hardware constraints within the medium to create an experience that is ostensibly unique within the medium.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

The gritty replication of Nolan’s Batman films aside, the cinematic experience aside: this demonstrates an interpretation of a character established in film and comicbooks in a way that can only be made possible within the freedoms, liberties and constraints of the video game medium.  (It also, interestingly, subverts a quick time event mechanic by providing one that is absolutely impossible and actually particular to the continuation of the narrative to fail.  Another example of playing with the mechanical constraints of the medium.)  The game in this instance provides the player with a representation of a dreamscape, something done in other media, but something that can be only experienced this way through this medium.  It uses the visual aspects of the craft to make the player recognise the insanity of the dreamscape (and to put the Scarecrow, a giant, into a position of power) and it uses the gaming aspect of the craft to raise the sense of urgency, of fear and of necessity in the player – they can actually lose.  They can actually die.  This is a perceived staple of the medium, but it is often used to invoke frustration and tedium in the playing experience.  Here it is used to make the drama.

And so we reach the conclusion of the essay and we consider: what makes art, art?  What makes High Modernism art?  That the craft is played with.  What makes Cubism art?  That the craft is played with.  What makes playing with craft art?  The result: expression.  Deliberation.  Emotions.  Appeals to senses.  All of that, in all of these things.  What makes these four video games art?  That they play with their craft.  That they experiment with their constraints but that they deliberate within them.  In the end the result is drama, the result is emotion and the result is that the player responds with their senses.

— Adam ^>^

*There’s also that the lead actor doesn’t care enough about his craft to get a haircut for Clash of the Titans that isn’t anachronistic.  But that’s a different article.


5 Responses to An Open Essay: Video Games as Art.

  1. Safeer says:

    I don’t agree with your definition of art as applied to games but whatever, at least you have an idea of what you like. I just think that unlike those other mediums or whatever, the more games worry about expression the less they’ll have to do with immersion. The more the game is trying to show you metaphors and tricky things it can do the less control it gives the player, and if I wanted to watch orchestrated cool things rather than orchestrate them myself I wouldn’t be playing games. Even in the chicken scratch games there was “narrative”: oh I just jumped off that wall and killed two ninjas, oh no my reflexes failed me I’m on my last breath, I’m going to go down this path and hope I can survive whatever mystery is thrown my way etc. etc. You just don’t notice how creative and exciting these narratives are because you’re actually living them, not watching them happen at you. What I’m saying is the more developers play with the games medium, the less we get to actually play with it, and I’m much more interested in games letting us play (that, developers giving us the tools to play by making the game as complex, varied and interesting as possible, rather than playing with it themselves for the sake of cinematic tricks).

    But hey, as long as we all enjoy something about games, who cares if some other dude thinks what you’re playing is art or shit. Just relax and enjoy it.

  2. Adam says:

    I don’t think expression using the video gaming medium sacrifices the immersion though. I think most people would find it hard to say that Majora’s or Batman lack immersion.

    I think I was trying to suggest that anything can be art if we try hard enough to apply a definition. I do think that my examples can be considered art, but I’m sure the nuanced opinion could disagree with that. I’m not trying to be absolute, or definitive. I’m trying to suggest that being absolute and definitive, in the negative, is *dumb*.

    I think the talk of art always risks getting pretentious. I hope I avoided that – but I don’t know if I did. Personally, I will probably try to justify that almost anything can be considered art. Hell, even Avatar – I only made that point to be contrary. I think we, everyone, has a right to say something IS an art, but to say that something ISN’T an art? I think that that’s just the practice of elitism. Other than finding myself vested in video games, that’s what I found so outrageous about all of this. Who has the right to deny AN ENTIRE MEDIUM the status of art?

  3. Safeer says:

    I agree with you (almost completely lol), though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with elitism. If someone has a good critical ability – and a lot of experience – then I will probably trust their opinion more than the dude who’s only seen three movies and thinks Avatar is the greatest movie of all time. I think just by saying something in particular is an art you’re implying that the things you don’t call art (like us with Avatar) isn’t art, but I see what you’re saying, and Ebert is definitely full of shit because he has neither the critical ability or experience for vidya games – because for either you’d have to play them, a lot.

    And saying video games aren’t art, yeah, nonsensical statement. The whole point of defining art is to rank things within their own constraints, after all. It’s like saying books aren’t art because I think movies are awesome and books are lame.

  4. Adam says:

    There’s also that the perception of art is fluid – there will be a movement in gaming that defines itself purely as art, mark my words. We will see a developer who says that Miyamoto had no idea what he was doing, we will see a company that will absolutely hate everything that Sony ever produced – then we’ll probably see a movement declaring that this mob missed the point and ruined games forever.

    Video games are a huge media movement, a fastly growing medium that wants to be taken seriously as both entertainment and art. This isn’t the gamers putting their hands up saying VALIDATE MY WoW ADDICTION. This is the gamers putting their hands up on behalf of the medium, because the medium is looked down upon by “the arts.”

  5. Safeer says:

    Keeping in mind that everything new is looked down upon by the old – I’m pretty sure movies were considered cheap trashy non-art for the masses by many people at early points, and I mean the entire medium, not just the lower rungs. So the best way to “validate” ourselves is to really just to keep making great ones – which is why I’m not so sure I disagree with the notion that this premature outcry IS just mostly from people who want to validate their vidya game addiction. Time will give everything that should be validated its due – hell, most great artists were misunderstood in their own time, a lot of them not getting any recognition until death, and frankly all this fuss that the medium’s fans are kicking up aren’t exactly helping the cause much – what’s the point of trying to convince non-gamers that games are art? You can’t tell how great a cake tastes unless you eat it. Then again I’m being a hypocrite by continuing the discussion, but I guess it’s good to clear things up amidst all the nonsense.

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