Saturday, 1 March 2008

Games are not art

There is an ongoing debate, contributed to by far greater luminaries than myself, about whether games are art. I would like to voice the following opinion: games can be art by accident, but games are a lot more than art can ever possibly be. Games can deliver an aesthetic experience, but this is not their strength, and to undervalue games by saying that they can merely be art is to miss what games are good at.

Any discussion of games and art inevitably has to walk around the quagmire of defining what art is. I call it a quagmire, not because of the current state of art and the art world that Jim Preston suggests is contradictory and perhaps even fraudulent in his Gamasutra article the Arty Party, but because any attempt to define art leads to types of circular logic and reasoning that concludes 'art is what you see as art'. In fact, there is considerable disagreement within the art world as to whether any agreement can be made as to what art is, and attempting to define it appears to be a futile exercise. I'll merely point you in the direction of an essay 'What is Art?' by Bart Rosier so that you can at least appreciate some of the complexities involved in thinking about art.

But thinking about art, for my purposes, is not so important as what art is, but as what art does. Art transmits ideas, art engages the viewer, art conveys an aesthetic experience, art is a realised meme. But art is passive, in the sense that art conveys a limited domain of viewer interaction. At best you may be able to view art from a number of different angles, and modern exhibits are likely to have an exhibit which allows the audience to participate or manipulate elements of the exhibit.

Defining games on the other hand appears initially less complex. Games are played, which is their defining characteristic. They involve an interaction between the player and either the game itself, or other players through the game. One of Roger Ebert's chief criticisms on why games cannot be art is the extent of the interaction that games allow: 'I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.' (Games vs. Art: Ebert vs. Barker).

But even in this simple definition, there are complexities. Should we distinguish between single player and multi-player games? How is the role of the game designer, at one position removed from the act of play, important to the game? Similarly, Ebert's criticism feels wrong some how. Is the role of being a game player the same as being an artist, or is it something else? If it is something else, what can it be?

Games have a couple of distinguishing features from art: they have rules, and they have feedback. The rules distinguish game players from artists to an extent, although not completely, because art seems to thrive under restrictions and adversity, and rules are one such type of restriction. But the feedback mechanism - reward and punishment - is unique to games, not art. You can get addicted to games - and the problems of gambling addiction show how strong such an addictive process can be. You cannot get addicted to a piece of art - despite literature's best attempts to suggest otherwise. (You can get addicted to creating a piece of art, which implies game playing and being an artist are closer related than we think. You can also get addicted to buying or collecting art, but the art is not the behavior itself).

Addiction is gaming's dark side. Many games can be accused of being virtual skinner boxes, and slot machines are the closest physical realisation of this idea (and consequently the most addictive). But the concept of operant conditioning behind skinner boxes relies on the basic human function of associating changes in the environment with actions (responses) made by organism being conditioned. And this is the positive function of gaming. Games allow you to condition your behaviour correctly in a simulated (safe) environment. Examples include improving hand eye coordination in key hole surgery by game playing (Medical News Today). But they include more improving more general problem solving skills which are equally transferable. Not one has accused art of making such improvements - at least, not since 1945.

(You may wish to read my follow-up piece on how to define 'What is Art')

7 comments:

Andrew Doull said...

I was going to write more, but I realised I had Godwinned myself...

JohnH said...

The problem with deciding if games are art or not is that people do not define art consistently.

From one point of view (one I agree with) art is the highest human endeavor, so it's impossible for games to exceed that. This is the point of view that Ebert takes, and is why so many people are angry when he says games can never be art. However, I think games obviously CAN be art. We've already seen many games that are artistic, both in their story and premise (which is really a superficial measure when it comes to games), such as Ico and Katamari Damacy, and in their gameplay, such as MULE and Rampart.

If one limits art to being only current examples of art... well, then art can't really be honestly defined, since then movies weren't art until they were called art. Many of the arguments used to deny games are art were once used against cinema, and while, like games, there's a whole lot of crap cinema, the best examples make for a compelling case.

Andrew Doull said...

I think the problem is that trying to make games art is a distraction from what games are good at doing...

That's not to say games can't be art, but that they can be something better than that.

BTW I'd disagree that art is the highest human endeavour. I'd think it lies 3rd behind altruism and science. But that's just me ;)

I was going to write something about games exploring a probability space, and art being an example of a frozen path through that probability space, but realised anything after the 1945 sentence was a bit extraneous.

josh g. said...

While people's definitions of art change on a whim, there is an entire branch of the contemporary art world that's based on interactivity and breaking down the artist/audience boundaries. Lately it gets called "New Media" or just "media art", but it also ties into the modern art traditions of dadaism, John Cage's awesomeness, and much more.

In fact, I'm taking a course in New Media art right now and we just spent our last class this week discussing how to think about interactivity and how our works can bring the audience into an authorship role.

So basically, the quick answer is, Ebert either doesn't know his modern art, or is just choosing to ignore an entire chunk of it.

(Which isn't to say that all games are great examples of art; just that you can't rule them out simply because they're interactive.)

Andrew Doull said...

I guess it just goes to show that you can't argue definitions (in this case what is art) without invoking prototype theory as the only real solution to the problem.

leoboiko said...

From my point of view, the value of a game as a “game” and as “art” are entirely orthogonal. Thus games are neither more nor less than art.

I’d disagree that games are art only by accident; they certainly can be by design.

There are good games which are good art (Mother 3), bad games but good art (ICO), good games with bad art (Virtua Fighter), and bad games which are bad art (Mortal Kombat).

eye said...

I don't see why deciding whether games are art or not is important at all, or rather i doubt the approach.

To move it into a more practical direction, it is trivial that games are an art form, because they comprise multiple fully established art forms, such as literature, visual arts and music.

Whether any subject belonging to any art form really is art, is a matter of personal opinion, or perhaps a quality of implementation issue, and it's not different with novels. paintings or music than with games, with very few things being of any value within any art form.