Games Are Not Art

by Dan H

Dan rants about something other than Harry Potter for a change.
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I should really begin this article by saying that the title is a little misleading. It's just that "Games Are Not Art" is a whole lot punchier than "The Entire Question of Whether Games Are Art or Not Is at Best Meaningless and at Worst Harmful to the Games Industry."

I recently noticed an article on the Escapist entitled "Games Aren't Art". Intrigued by the idea that a games-related e-zine would go against the prevailing trend in geek culture and admit that, just maybe, Hamlet has more going for it than Perfect Dark I had a look. I got two lines in before reading the inevitable cop-out: "As a result of social pressures, gaming is not an art form in the United States."

It's always the same. The reason that nobody has yet produced the gaming equivalent of the Sistine Chapel or Paradise Lost is because of social pressures, or commercial pressures. It's because of the unwashed Xbox-playing plebs who just want cheap thrills and deny us proper artistic types the pleasures of serious games about important issues.

This is nonsense. The reason that games are not art is because "game" and "art" are two completely different things, both of them extraordinarily hard to define.

A computer game is a vast composite entity. When we talk about - say - Neverwinter Nights 2, we are talking about a huge number of different things all at once. We are talking about a physical object - a copy of the game on a CD in a box in your living room. We are also talking about a digital object - the software itself. We are talking about intellectual property - the Neverwinter Nights franchise, which itself is part of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, which all had its origins thirty years ago with a beardy guy called Gary. And of course we're also talking about the graphics, the character design, the 3D modelling, the actual images we see when we turn on the screen. And we're talking about the story, the text we see (or - for several thousand people who bought of Mask of the Betrayer - don't see) when we load up the game.

When people say that games are, or have the potential to be "art" it is never clear which part of this gestalt entity they are talking about. Do people mean that the narrative explored in a game can possess the same merits as conventional literature? Do they mean that the graphic design in a game can possess the same merits as conventional representational art? Or do they mean that the game as a whole is a work of art, like some piece of modern theatre combining dance, drama, verse and music into an exploration of whatever-the-fuck it's supposed to be about?

I don't know which of the three the games-are-art people mean, but the problem is that I don't think they know either.

If they mean the former, then there's not a lot to say except "well that is true, but not entirely useful." Games contain images, therefore they could contain a picture of the Mona Lisa. They also contain text, so they could conceivably contain the entire text of Hamlet. Both of these things are, uncontroversially, art and both of them could easily be included in a computer game. On the other hand, a CGI copy of an existing work of art is clearly not art in and of itself. Ceci ne'st pas une pipe, as it were. Of course one could argue that it is possible for a computer game to contain individual images which possess equal artistic merit to ol' Lisa, or to contain speeches better written than To Be Or Not To Be, but such a claim would be meaningless, it would be like saying that Deadwood was better than Shakespeare. There's just no way to judge that kind of thing.

The argument that games as a whole constitute a new and wonderful artform is much more difficult to rebut, chiefly because it is almost meaningless. The problem, as I highlighted earlier, is that a game is a massive combination of elements all jumbled together. However, a game does actually have an identifiable core. All the art, the music, the voice acting, the story and the design all supports one fundamental thing: the gameplay. At the end of the day, all computer games, like all other games, involve the player attempting to achieve some arbitrary goal, through a combination of luck and skill. Whether it's defeating your opponent in chess, or solving the Secret of Monkey Island, or getting your electronic D&D party to the final boss fight with Sarevok/Irenicus/Mephistopheles/The King of Shadows. Everything else about a game exists to support the core gameplay. I'll keep playing a game I like, even if it has a sucky soundtrack and ropey graphics, you can sure as hell bet that I won't keep playing a game I hate just because I like the music. I hear Bioshock has an awful lot going for it, story-wise, but I just plain don't like FPSes.

The thing is that gameplay just doesn't leave much room for artistic expression. Even the broadest possible definition of "art" doesn't include things like resource management, reflex tests and strategic thinking. "Game" and "Art" are orthogonal concepts: there is nothing in gameplay which allows you to experience art, there is nothing in art which allows you to play a game. It is theoretically possible to imagine an entity which permits both the expression of art and the playing of games, but those two functions would be wholly unrelated. A beautifully hand-carved chess set does not actually let you play chess any better than one you bought from the Works for two pounds, or a free-to-download chess program.

To draw an analogy: controversy aside, Tracy Emin's bed and Damien Hirst's dead sheep in formaldehyde are widely recognised as art (whether they are any good or not is another matter). Tracy Emin's bed remains a bed, Damien Hirst's sheep remains a sheep, but nobody in their right mind would argue as a result that beds and sheep are great unexplored artistic media. The artistic merit (or otherwise) of Tracy Emin's bed is entirely unrelated to its nature as a bed and by the same token the artistic merit (or otherwise) of an individual computer game is wholly unrelated to its nature as a game. In fact, I'd go further, and suggest that the "game" nature of a computer game necessarily compromises its value as art.

Specifically: unlike Emin's bed or Hirst's sheep, a computer game must perform a dual function. This immediately compromises its artistic integrity. My Bed was not produced in order to give Tracy Emin something to sleep on. To go back to the beautiful chessboard, it could (I would argue) only truly be considered to be capital-A Art if the actual decision to make it a chessboard rather than some other kind of sculpture was made for artistic reasons. If you are a professional chessboard maker, making chessboards to order, then no matter how well made your chessboards are, your "art" will always be limited by the requirement that everything you make be a chessboard.

Probably the biggest sticking point in my "games are not art, because what makes good art and what makes a good game are totally different" argument is, of course, story. And I'll admit that this is where I find myself tripping up, if just for a moment. I'm a big CRPG fan, and the thing about CRPGs is that the gameplay pretty much always sucks. Either they're D&D based, in which case you're cramming a turn-based combat system into a real-time format, or else they're first-person jobbies which devolve into mediocre FPS style action which I totally didn't sign up for. I loved Jade Empire but it was very much in spite of the combat system, rather than because of it. Truly, I say to myself, I play these games for the story.

Except: I played most of the way through the Neverwinter Nights original campaign. And the story for that sucked. And I loved Fallout to pieces, despite the fact that it has pretty much no central storyline (find the water chip/GECK to save your vault/village, try not to get too much VD). Even in the heavy hitters like Torment, Knights of the Old Republic, and Jade Empire the actual "story" is paper thin by the standards of any other medium. You could probably take the core idea of Jade Empire and turn it into a decent martial arts flick, but you'd need to take out pretty much all the sidequests and devote about ten times as much time to character development as the game does. And of course they'd need to give the main character a personality.

The way that CRPGs manage to convince us that we play them for the story is, in fact, a masterful piece of deception. CRPGs rely on a steady drip-feed of rewards to keep you interested: a new sword here, a new power there, a little bit more information about your companions. The "story" in a CRPG is just another reward, it gets revealed bit by bit, interspersed with fights, scavenger hunts, and sweet, sweet resource management. The game is not the medium through which the story is told, rather the story is the medium in which the game is played. Any emotional impact the story has on you is not a result of its artistic merits, but of the investment one naturally places in something for which one is made responsible. I always felt bad having to nuke my blockers at the end of a Lemmings level, that doesn't mean that they were well developed as characters.

I've beaten this horse for over sixteen hundred words now, and you're probably wondering why I've bothered. I have, after all, pretty much already concluded that "Art" and "Game" are pretty much impossible to define, and so devoting all of this bandwidth to the question of whether games are art is a bit self-defeating.

The thing is, it's not whether games are art or not that I'm really bothered about: it's the fact that people are so desperate to declare that games are art and anybody who says otherwise is just scared of change that bugs me. When Roger Ebert had the temerity to suggest that he didn't think there were any computer games out there which were as good as, say, Citizen Kane or a Tale of Two Cities there was general outrage over the matter. Although curiously nobody managed to actually point him at any titles that changed his mind.

Ebert's points, while moderately controversial, are extraordinarily mild. They basically boil down to "computer games, by the nature of their interactivity, cannot be high art." It's not like the man is saying that computer games cause cancer or highschool shootings. Yet half the gaming community is up in arms (the other half, as we saw earlier, is complaining that he's right, but only because of "social pressures").

What nobody is saying (or at least, what I can't find anybody saying in my admittedly cursory Googling around the subject) is this: Not only are games not Art, they are not supposed to be Art and they should under no circumstances aspire to be Art. Games are games are games. They are a form of interactive entertainment which challenges the player through tests of logic, strategy, lateral thinking, hand-eye co-ordination, basic mathematics, timing, and a bewildering array of other faculties. It is no accident that games which have made a serious effort to move in the direction of "Art" have dropped the idea of being "games" altogether (the most obvious examples here being the "Interactive Fiction" community).

A well-made computer game is a wonderful thing. They can make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think. They can excite you or terrify you. They can improve your vocabulary, your verbal reasoning, your critical thinking, your spatial awareness and your attention span. They can be deep and complex and engaging and immersive. None of these things make them art, they just make them good games. Playing a good computer game is an infinitely better way to spend your time than reading a bad novel or watching a bad movie. And frankly playing a computer game that you enjoy and are engaged by is probably a better way to spend your time than suffering through a truly excellent movie which you can't actually get to grips with.

Geek culture seems to have an overwhelming need to justify its icons in terms of mainstream - particularly highbrow mainstream - culture. It's something I find deeply tragic, probably because I understand it so well. Somewhere between your fifth time watching Season 3 of Buffy and your third replay of Knights of the Old Republic, you start to think to yourself that you could have spent all this time watching avant-garde theatre or reading a Recherche de Temps Perdu in the original French. Once that thought strikes, you are left with three options. You can accept that you are who you are, and you like what you like, and to hell with it. You can switch off your computer and reach for the Proust. Oh so tempting, though, is option three, which is to convince yourself that actually, Battlestar Galactica is just as culturally significant as Battleship Potemkin and that only rank prejudice prevents Deus Ex from being accounted as great a study of the dangers of authoritarianism as 1984.

Games might contain art, they might be designed by people called "graphic artists," they might come in a box with "cover art" and they might have a "story" just like a novel, but games are not, and should not be capital-a Art. Which is good, because if they were they'd bore the crap out of me.




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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 13:43 on 2007-10-24
A thought experiment, for the "gaming is art" crowd: imagine a stage play where the first scene is repeated over and over again because the protagonist keeps dying and having to do the same things all over again. The actor playing the protagonist does not know when this is about to happen, and does his level best to avoid it; occasionally it becomes clear that the actor knows precisely what he needs to do to progress, but can't quite get that fiddly jump right.

Or maybe there's a bit in the first scene where the audience have to sit there for an hour while the protagonist tries to apply a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle to every object on the stage. Each time his attempts fail he says "That doesn't seem to work". Over and over again he says it, ad nauseum, until he finds something to use that damn chicken with.

Or perhaps the play is about audience members being eaten by a giant floaty head that's being chased by ghosts. When an especially chubby audience member is eaten, the ghosts turn blue and run away.

Once that thought strikes, you are left with three options. You can accept that you are who you are, and you like what you like, and to hell with it. You can switch off your computer and reach for the Proust. Oh so tempting, though, is option three, which is to convince yourself that actually, Battlestar Galactica is just as culturally significant as Battleship Potemkin and that only rank prejudice prevents Deus Ex from being accounted as great a study of the dangers of authoritarianism as 1984.

Amen.

Yesterday, I finished reading Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars. I'm not going to review it for Ferretbrain, because it's one of those things - like J.G. Ballard novels - where I'd feel presumptuous passing judgement on it; I'd be reduced to saying "it's really good, but I can't quite explain how good it is, because the person who wrote it is much smarter than I am". That said, I do feel that by reading Suetonius, or Ballard, or Umberto Eco, or Milan Kundera, I am in a very real sense expanding my mind, broadening my views and enriching my intellectual palette.

The very same day, I bought a bunch of Yu-Gi-Oh booster packs and felt a certain childish joy on discovering an Elemental Hero Rampart Blaster in one of them.

Now, there's no way in hell you're going to convince me that collectable card games are an art form. I have not attained a greater understanding of my fellow man by purchasing those booster packs. They have not prompted me to explore avenues of thought I had previously neglected. They have not suggested to me that perhaps I could live a better life. In fact, I've achieved nothing except making my Elemental Heroes deck a bit more powerful. And that's fine. There is nothing wrong with dumb entertainment, whether it's nerdish messing about with dice or macho messing about with footballs or childish messing about with cartoons; I'd argue, in fact, that it's necessary to enjoy something dumb and meaningless once in a while to avoid getting jaded by an exclusive diet of high culture.

This, I would argue, is the difference between a postgeek and a self-hating geek. :)
Wardog at 14:56 on 2007-10-24
Well I'm glad I know not to take on your elemental heroes lightly... *runs off to customise her water deck*

Oh, yes, what were we talking about? As ever you make a compelling case, Dan but I have to admit I do have a certain sympathy for the games are art crowd. Wait. No. I have no sympathy for *the crowd* but I have sympathy for the concept. I mean, computer games are still a relatively new media - we haven't even brushed the limits of what they can do and how they can affect us (in a positive, rather than gun-toting way). The fact of the matter is, I really like computer games so I'm not quite ready to give up on their potential just yet. There I said it. Throw tomatoes at me if you like. I'd agree, however, that at the moment, they aren't art, despite one or two interesting experiments. And I will also say that the games that have struck me as being the most like art have also struck me as being the least like games - Short's Galatea for example.
Wardog at 15:06 on 2007-10-24
By the way, Arthur, your play above sounds like something by Ionesco...
Arthur B at 15:22 on 2007-10-24
I think the fact that computer games are a new medium is the only thing sustaining the argument. Board games have been with us for ages; nobody bothers to suggest they are art. Card games are centuries old; nobody holds them up as fine art. (They might take card artwork and claim that it's art, but that's more on the level of admiring the handiwork which went into a game component than calling poker itself art). Dice games have existed since Roman times but nobody pretends they are art.

I think it is the very interactivity of the videogaming medium which acts against it being art. The game designers which talk the loudest about cleaving true to an artistic vision tend to be the sort of people who back in the mid 1990s (and heck, occasionally even today) would have been cranking out "interactive movies" by the score. If there's one thing the "interactive movie" boom taught us, it's that if the player doesn't feel in control of the action of the game, it's not going to be satisfying, no matter how in love you as the game designer are in your story. And the thing about giving the player control is that you inherently make the artistic impact of the game depend on the player's actions. Sure, Oblivion might present a tale of genuine artistic merit if you, as the player, decide to play it that way; alternately, it might be the gripping tale of a man who jumps everywhere to boost his jump skill.

Art is art no matter who's looking at it/reading it/sitting in the audience; the Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa even if you hide it in a cupboard, a good play is still a good play even if you doodle in the programme for the entire performance and don't actually watch it. A computer game, conversely, can be Serious Business or stupid fun depending on who happens to be playing it at the time.

Art is demonstrative: you have artists producing a play or sculpture or painting or symphony that a hypothetical audience could potentially watch, look at, or listen to (whether or not the artist chooses to display their product to an audience isn't relevant). Computer games, like all other games, are participatory; they're set up so that someone can sit down and play them. Crucially, games demand a certain level of skill and adeptness on the part of the player if you are to succeed, whereas no art form - no matter how much audience participation it involves - makes any such demand of its audience; you wouldn't get a pantomime ending abruptly because the audience didn't yell "OH NO IT ISN'T" loudly enough. I could imagine a kind of interactive artwork being produced, a computer-based program where there's no game element whatsoever, and you simply look around and are amazed and slightly humbled by the awesome thing the programmer happens to have built - it'd be a bit like looking around someone's Sim City save game, or something like that. You wouldn't, however, call such a thing a computer game.

Michelangelo did not require the Pope to jump through hoops or solve puzzles before he revealed each new segment of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Computer games do not allow you to see everything they have to offer simply by sitting there and watching the computer present each stage of the game in sequence.
Arthur B at 15:24 on 2007-10-24
By the way, Arthur, your play above sounds like something by Ionesco...

Ah, yes, L'Homme de Pac...
Jen Spencer at 15:45 on 2007-10-24
I think the nearest thing I can think of which would make computer games potentially like art would be Japanese dating sim games. To explain, it's not outside the realms of possibility that there would be a play where a performance artist changes what he does in reaction to the audience, much like a mimic mime does in the street before you punch him. The process is simple: audience does something, next bit of the performance happens. The process is very similar in Japanese dating sim games: you choose between the available options (Go to Mall, Go to House etc.), and then next bit of the plot happens. The difference is that with the mime artist his work is transitory, whereas the game has a physical presence, and one which can be preserved at any moment (a saved game), and the audience with the performance artist can never rewind his interaction with them to try something different, in essence they are always bound by their previous move, like when someone takes their hand off a chess piece. I think games can be /like/ art, in that you could make a game which you can only play through once, and cannot save your progress, however, that kind of defeats the purpose of it being "a game", i.e. some kind of structured or semi-structured tool for enjoyment (and education). Art is not a tool beyond being used "as art", whereas a game is a tool for a multitude of uses.
Jen Spencer at 15:52 on 2007-10-24
Oh, and PS - My Light/Dark deck is ready to crush you all! Plus I've been making a new deck representing me which can almost beat Light/Dark (and I would've done too, if it hadn't been for that pesky Chaos Emperor!). Plus Julian's trying to trade with me for Chimeratech Overdragon - be afraid!
Arthur B at 16:06 on 2007-10-24
I think the difference between a Japanese dating sim and, say, the mime artist is that the mime performance doesn't have an optimal outcome; with the dating sims (if I understand the wikipedia article correctly) it's entirely possible to completely fluff it and end up not winning over any of the potential partners the game offers you, whereas when the mimic-mime is performing it doesn't matter what you do: he's not scoring or assessing you based on your inputs, and the onus is in fact on him to take what you give him and do something interesting with it.

There are right ways and wrong ways to play games - or, at least, tactically optimal and tactically suboptimal ways to approach them. The same isn't true of art.
Wardog at 16:11 on 2007-10-24
Jen! You play Japanese dating sims! I'm coming out my h-game closet right now! I need to talk you. Like now. We must ... bond!
Arthur B at 16:15 on 2007-10-24
Sudden topical injection of fact! The BAFTA computer game awards just came out - see here for the winners. It includes a category for "artistic achievement" (hooray for Okami!) but a) that seems to be a code phrase for "prettiest graphics", based on the nominees, and b) the game which really swept the board was Wii Sports which is very much a game-y game. Which would suggest that even in an awards ceremony which you'd expect to veer towards the "games can be art" side of the debate, gameplay is king.

Oh, and the "people's choice" award went to Football Manager 2007, a game consisting entirely of charts, tables, menu screens and diagrams, where all the action of the actual games of football is represented by coloured dots moving around on a map.
Wardog at 16:21 on 2007-10-24
Now onto what I was actually going to say...

Oh Gawd, I'm stuck on the wrong side of the fence here. I think part of the problem with the computer games are art debate is that the "yes they are" team tends to be comprised of wankers.

Dice games have existed since Roman times but nobody pretends they are art.
But then the scope of a dice game is infinitely less than that of a computer game...

I'm a bit confused by your next point(s) though so bear with me here...

Art is art no matter who's lookign at it/reading it/sitting in the audience; the Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa even if you hide it in a cupboard... a computer game, conversely, can be Serious Business or stupid fun depending on who happpens to be playing at the time."

You seem to be saying (God, that's a fucking awful thing to say to say to somebody, I'm so sorry!) that a computer game is depedent (? is that the right term?) on the person playing it for the experience whereas art has some transcendental quality that makes it art regardless of what quality of idiot is regarding it? But this patantly untrue. I mean, we see Romeo and Juliet together and you see a classical tragedy about some ill-starred lovers and I see an unsatisfying screwball comedy about the inadequacy of the Verona-to-Mantua postal service, how does this differ from the player who gets into the epic spirit of Oblivion and has a wonderful time saving the world, compared to the player who embarks upon Olivion: The Flower Picking Simulator?

Art by its very nature is interactive, even participatory if you will (I'm genuinely uncertainly as where those two terms fade into each other). You *walk* round an installation. You *suspend your disbelief* during a play. You *choose* the angle at which to view a painting. These are all active processes to a greater lesser or extend. Responding/participating/engaging with a work of art goes on on far more levels than shouting "he's behind you" when the bad guy comes on a stage at a panto. When you read a book, you read some bits faster than others, thus essentially prioritising and emphasising certain aspects of the book. Maybe you skim descriptions but concentrate on dialogue? Maybe action sequences excite you so you read them more quickly, holding your breath a little (not in a Tory sex way but because you're caught up in the action and it makes your heart pound like you're involved). It's true that computer games are *more* participatory but there is not *such* an easy to draw between conventional art and a computer game. I'm not saying that computer games are art; I'm just pointing out that it's not actually all that simple to say "they're not art because of these reasons" despite Dan's rhetorical flair.

And I would argue that art does demand a level of "skill" from those who engage with it. If you go to see a Shakespeare play, it really really helps if you can speak English. And if you're vcaguely knowledgeable about the language of Elizabethan England then you're going to at least be able to get some of the jokes and thus a richer experience than somebody who can't. If you don't know why certain houses had stewed prunes in their windows, a certain section of Measure for Measure isn't going to make much sense to you. Maybe this makes me an elitist who needs to get get her head out of her arse, I don't know, but isn't this the intellectual quivalent of jumpign through a few hoops to get to the bonus level?
Arthur B at 19:21 on 2007-10-24
Ah, you see you're talking about interpretation where I'm talking about the experience itself. If we go to a production of Measure for Measure we get the same lines presented to us by the same actors written by the same author, even though you know why those houses had prunes in their window and I don't. The entire content of the artwork is given to us freely (once we've forked over our cash) and while I may miss something because I'm ignorant of history or because I don't speak English, I'm at least given a chance; when the prunes line comes up, we aren't immediately asked to explain what the significance of the prunes are, and those who simply don't get the prunes aren't escorted out of the theatre and denied access to the rest of the play.*

Conversely, we can't get to the end sequence of, say, Planescape: Torment without playing the game through. This requires a certain amount of puzzle-solving, resource allocation and combat tactics on our part. If Clumsy Pete and Dexterity Dave go to the theatre they get presented with precisely the same experience, although their interpretation may differ. Conversely, if they play a game which demands a certain level of manual dexterity then Clumsy Pete's going to get a very different experience from Dexterity Dave (it'll involve a lot more "Game Over" screens for a start).

So, in your Oblivion example our chap who gets into the epic spirit of the main plotline is going to see the game content in an entirely different order and from an entirely different perspective from the guy who just picks flowers, and the two players might even see completely different content.

I would submit that what you are talking about is participation in the interpretation of art, whereas I'm talking about participation in theexecution of art. It doesn't matter what angle you look at the Mona Lisa from, the woman is still smiling in a landscape of brown. On the other hand, it does matter in Fallout whether you play a diplomatic character or a combat monster.

* This sort of thing is why I think "interactive movies" and other attempts to fuse game and art are doomed to failure. If the artistic angle is more interesting than the gameplay (which is theoretically possible, but I've never seen it happen), then the game elements are just irritating roadblocks thrown in your way which prevent you from oohing and aahing at the artist's handiwork. If the gameplay angle is more interesting than the artistic dimension (which I have occasionally seen) then the artistic elements are at best reduced to mere background fluff, at worst obtrusive and wreck the flow of the gameplay (we've all played games with too many cut scenes, right?). If the gameplay angle and the artistic angle aren't interesting, you are left with a pile of crap... and while in theory the solution is to make sure the gameplay and artistic presentation are equally interesting, in practice that's a nigh-impossible tightrope to walk.
Guy at 02:39 on 2007-10-25
I'm not much of a polemicist but I thought I should throw in my 2c here as I'm on the side of the apes with this one. Or rather, to define my position: "Games can be art, many games would reasonably fall into an adequately loose definition of 'art', but most games are bad art because, like Hollywood movies, they want to be profitable entertainment first and foremost". I thought it was really interesting though Dan, that you say something which is actually very similar to something I've always said (and usually had ignored) in arguments about games as art: that for a game to really exploit its potential as art, the artistry needs to lie in the gameplay. A game like "Photopia" is (imho, of course) a genuine work of art, but it would also be fair to say that it's basically a short story that somebody made into a computer game. Sort of like Phil Ochs setting "The Bells" to music... except that everyone agrees music is an artform in its own right. Although... I suppose what's interesting is that music, like "gameplay", at some fundamental doesn't need to be "about" anything, and yet through various colourations and associations can seem to be intimately intertwined with those things. Anyway, I have to go work soon but I suppose I just wanted to comment on how interesting it was that even though I'm on the wrong side of this debate, that we actually have something in common over this question of where artistry sits in relation to the gameplay in games. I suppose what I would argue differently is to say that... there is an "ugliness" to the arbitrary and random nature of the gameplay of snakes and ladders, and an "elegance" to the simplicity and variability of the gameplay of go, and that the existence of this aesthetic difference (at least in my response to them) indicates the possibility of games, or gameplay, which can have artistic value.
Arthur B at 10:31 on 2007-10-25
But is art simply a matter of pretty vs. ugly? The wreckage of Chernobyl is an ugly place. The countryside around Chernobyl is very beautiful, not least because of the nigh-absolute lack of human interference for the past twenty years (and for the next few centuries). A painting of either place could qualify as art; I personally don't think that art needs to be aesthetically pleasing (and some artworks shouldn't be: Francis Bacon's Painting wouldn't be nearly so interesting if it wasn't viscerally horrible.

That said, a nuclear engineer who deliberately blew up a power plant in order to produce a delightful wasteland wouldn't be an artist, no matter how much art his actions inspired; similarly, you might find the simplicity and variability of Go to be especially inspiring, but that doesn't make the man who invented Go an artist any more than it makes an artist of two guys playing Go. You can express the gameplay of Snakes and Ladders or Go with mathematical equations, and I know many mathematicians who would say that the latter set of equations would be more aesthetically pleasing than the ones for Snakes and Ladders. They would also giggle at you if you suggested that mathematics is an art form. (For starters, if it were then you wouldn't need nearly as much training; there'd be no "right" or "wrong" answers, no correct or incorrect way to solve an equation.)

I can almost see a Go or Chess player seeing themselves as an artist, and playing to produce an aesthetically pleasing match rather than playing to win. They would lose very quickly; the beauty of a Go or Chess game relies on people approaching the game as if it were a game, to be played to win - treating the game as if it were a work of art would, in my view, rob it of any potential to become a work of art it might possess.

Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for money, indulgences, and one hell of a boost to his reputation. Shakespeare wrote plays to feed his family. Anyone who says "I am creating ART!" when they sit down to produce something is sure as hell not going to produce art, and 90% of the things we consider high culture these days were initially meant to be profitable entertainment; for most of human history, the only difference between "high culture" and "low culture" is that "high culture" was for the rich and "low culture" was for the poor. It's only comparatively recently that we've developed this self-flagellating idea that for something to be High Art it mustn't actually be enjoyable; I suspect if you looked into it you'd find that the concept is a Victorian innovation.
Julian Lynch at 13:54 on 2007-10-25
But if art requires the absence of dependence on action, where does that leave music? Is music not art for the person playing it, simply because it doesn't exist unless they perform the correct sequence of actions on their instrument?

Also, where would this leave someone who was watching someone else play a game? Could watching someway play Counter Strike really, really well render the actions of the player art? Surely it could according to the definition we're advancing so far...

I suppose my point is, surely you can both execute and interpret/appreciate art at the same time. In fact, the distinction between the two could even be seen as artificial - surely a musician inherently does both, unless the fact he's executing the art means somehow it cannot be art for him. In which case art becomes entirely a subjective experience, in which case you couldn't make a categorical statement about whether games were art anyway.
Dan H at 14:37 on 2007-10-25
But if art requires the absence of dependence on action, where does that leave music? Is music not art for the person playing it, simply because it doesn't exist unless they perform the correct sequence of actions on their instrument?

I think Arthur's "absence of dependence on action" definition isn't a wholly useful one. Kyra has already brought up the idea of Installations, which are experienced differently depending on what you choose to look at and which order you walk around in.

To run with the musician example, for a while: one could theoretically imagine a musical "game" - one might, for example, have to play a particular piece of music as fast as is possible (and indeed I understand people sometimes do this with the Minute Waltz and the Flight of the Bumblebee). Such an act would not have any artistic merit, because it is being undertaken not as an artistic exercise, but as a test of one's technical ability.

One could also imagine an avant-garde play in which (as Arthur suggests above) the first scene is repeated over and over again until the audience succeeds in some arbitrary task. This quite possibly *would* be art, because the "gameplay" element can be assumed to be present for legitimate artistic reasons.

On his blog, Ebert wryly suggests that Andy Warhol would be totally onside with the idea that a computer game could be art, and he would demonstrate this by taking a game, leaving it in its shrinkwrap, and sealing it in a perspex case labelled "Video Game".

The point here (or at least my point) is that of course one can imagine hypothetical scenarios in which gameplay is a component of art, or in which elements of art appear in a game. A game is, after all, a big collection of images and text. However I think it's really important for gamers and the games industry to realise that good gameplay is a valuable end in itself.
Arthur B at 14:53 on 2007-10-25
But if art requires the absence of dependence on action, where does that leave music? Is music not art for the person playing it, simply because it doesn't exist unless they perform the correct sequence of actions on their instrument?

And a play doesn't exist (or isn't being performed correctly) if the actors don't pay attention to the script. That doesn't mean there isn't a clear distinction between performer and audience in plays or music. Obviously pretty much all artforms involve somebody actively doing something at some point; the distinction I'm making is that art doesn't demand anything of its audience in the presentation of the experience. (Kyra is correct in saying that it might ask plenty of us in terms of interpretation, but that's not what I'm talking about). It is true that a musician's art is art for him, but I submit that the appreciation you have of a tune that you get from listening to it and the appreciation you have from performing it are two different things.

In the case of someone watching somebody else playing a computer game, we're still in a situation where a consumer (the player) needs to get actively involved in order to make anything happen; you're not so much gaining any kind of artistic insight into anything, you're just admiring somebody else's skill at shooting bad guys. There might be wonderfully creative and artistic elements woven into the game, but depending on the player's level of skill and decisions while playing the game you might end up missing them - or you'll encounter them, but it'll fall flat because the player himself isn't paying attention.

You might raise the example of a musician playing a composition by somebody else, but I would argue that doing so requires no artistry on the part of the musician, merely technical skill with his or her instrument: all of the creative effort has already been achieved by the person who composed the song.

What I am saying is that games ask the consumer to actively do something in order to enjoy the entertainment presented, whereas most things we'd count as art don't. Even in an installation, you're a passive observer passing through a place that has been set up by somebody else. You can choose to look at as little or as much as you like. You do not have to dance a little jig or answer a little riddle to unlock bits of the installation, any more than a musician's audience is expected to follow along on a guitar hero controller in order to hear the song properly.
Dan H at 15:09 on 2007-10-25
You do not have to dance a little jig or answer a little riddle to unlock bits of the installation

But one could imagine a hypothetical installation in which you did. I think it's an unnecessary distraction to say that art *cannot* require you to solve puzzles, because art can do and be pretty much anything.

A game can be art in the same way that a bed or a sheep or a tin of campbells' soup can be art. Whatever makes them art (and I don't think we can pin that down easily if at all) is obviously different from the thing that makes them beds or sheep or soup.

My basic point in the above article is that although a particular tin of soup might be art, that does not make soup in general art, nor does it mean that the soup-drinking community should be fighting to have soup recognised as a legitimate artform by the establishment.

Going further and saying "soup isn't art because it is edible" or "soup isn't art because it is produced in a factory" only confuses the issue.
Dan H at 15:19 on 2007-10-25
the existence of this aesthetic difference (at least in my response to them) indicates the possibility of games, or gameplay, which can have artistic value.

It's an interesting observation, and since I (like most roleplayers) dabble in game design it's an attractive one. You could also point out the way in which the War of the Ring board game perfectly captures the feel of Middle Earth, or the way that Chess has entered our popular consciousness to such an extent that we use terms like "pawn" and "checkmate" without even thinking about it.

The thing is, I think that these things are very much matters of craft, not art. War of the Ring was designed to be playable first, atmospheric second, and ultimately it only really captures the feel of Middle Earth because we already know what Middle Earth is supposed to be like. I don't think game mechanics have the level of detail required to deal with complex concepts.

In Jamie's recent article about Cabaret, he points out how the musical shows the way in which Naziism was allowed to rise mostly unchecked, because people felt that it did not impinge on them personally. I don't really know how you could explore that sensibly through game mechanics.
Arthur B at 15:59 on 2007-10-25
A game can be art in the same way that a bed or a sheep or a tin of campbells' soup can be art. Whatever makes them art (and I don't think we can pin that down easily if at all) is obviously different from the thing that makes them beds or sheep or soup.

You seem to have started this sentence talking about creative products and ended it by talking about the components of creative products. That can of soup wasn't art until Andy Warhol painted a picture of it. It's obviously ludicrous to say that paint-mixing is a legitimate artform, and it's also ludicrous to suggest that the paint which comprises a picture is art by virtue of being a tool used by an artist.

I would agree that it is possible for a game to be used for artistic purposes, but doing so wouldn't retroactively make the game art. Furthermore, I think that while just about anything can be placed in an artistic context - and so can become a component of an artwork - I don't think every single object has the potential to be art in its own right. Tracey Emin's bed didn't become art until Tracey carefully took it out of its usual context (as a household object), carefully arranged it (or disarranged it), and placed it in an artistic context.

Computer games are a medium like any other. Some mediums can contain artistic elements (and I don't claim that computer games do not). The products of some mediums, in fact, can be pieces of art in and of themselves. However, it would be a fallacy to assume that every single medium could potentially produce an item which could be regarded as a piece of art (as opposed to a piece which contains artistic elements). Newspapers, for example, while they might contain articles about art, and might have fabulous front pages with excellent photography on them, are not "art": I would suggest that computer games exist in the same category, and for very similar reasons, to wit:

- A newspaper would not be an especially good newspaper if it did not report the news in a journalistic fashion; editors generally can't simply make stories up simply because they think the stories they've invented would be more aesthetically pleasing. (They sometimes make stories up because they think they'll sell well, but this is widely frowned on and is generally held to reduce the quality of the newspaper, not enhance it.) Even on April 1st, you don't get newspapers that are entirely full of fabricated stories. This dedication to truth and informing the public is therefore placed above any artistic considerations; in fact, any artistic considerations are simply a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

- Likewise, a computer game which had poor gameplay simply wouldn't be a very good computer game. Occasionally computer game companies will pump out a game with gorgeous graphics and sound but which don't play very well. (Psygnosis were especially well-known for this, back in the day: Lemmings is pretty much the only exception in their repertoire.)

"Is this game Art?" is a question along similar lines to "Does my newspaper smell nice?" It's trying to measure the subject at hand according to wildly irrelevant standards.

I am increasingly of the opinion that nobody should declare anything "art" until everybody who was alive when it was first published/performed/exhibited/whatever is dead. Restraining ourselves to describing such things as "interesting" will make us all look much less silly when future generations, and the ultimate test of whether a cultural artifact is meaningful art or transient entertainment is whether anyone is still interested after a century or two.
Dan H at 18:36 on 2007-10-25
You seem to have started this sentence talking about creative products and ended it by talking about the components of creative products.

There's a subtle reason for that, which is that you've spent the past half-dozen comments trying to argue that the components of a creative product are what determines whether or not it is art.

Newspapers are another excellent example of why this approach doesn't work. You can say "newspapers aren't art" and nobody in their right mind will disagree with you, but if you say "newspapers aren't art, because they don't consist entirely of fictional stories" then you're going to annoy a large number of documentary filmmakers and photographers, as well as Wordsworth, Dickens and anybody else who used art to present the world as it really was.

You seem to be working on the assumption that for something to be "not art" it must possess some quality or attribute which somehow *disqualifies* it from being art. This is fairly obviously not the case.
Arthur B at 19:15 on 2007-10-25
Newspapers are another excellent example of why this approach doesn't work. You can say "newspapers aren't art" and nobody in their right mind will disagree with you, but if you say "newspapers aren't art, because they don't consist entirely of fictional stories" then you're going to annoy a large number of documentary filmmakers and photographers, as well as Wordsworth, Dickens and anybody else who used art to present the world as it really was.

That's not actually what I'm saying at all.

What I am saying is that if one is making a work of art, then one has a certain creative freedom. You may pick and choose which elements of fiction and which of fact to use to suit your purposes; if it would be more aesthetically pleasing for your installation to include puzzles, then by all means you should include puzzles, if it would be aesthetically inappropriate for your artwork to include elements then you would keep the game elements out.

In film, in painting, in theatre, this freedom exists. The documentary maker may put whatever he likes on the big screen. Dickens may describe whatever he desires. Photographers can apply all kinds of filters, effects, and photoshop tricks to their pictures, to their heart's content.

Game designers and newspaper editors alike do not have this freedom. A newspaper editor can't choose to have his writers present a particular factual story as a poem any more than he can choose to fill his newspaper with outright fiction; either decision renders the newspaper useless as a newspaper. A game designer can't choose to simply strip a game of all gameplay; if Square-Enix hire you to design Final Fantasy XIII, and you decided that the game would be aesthetically superior if you stripped out inventory management, combat, and the party structure, you'd no longer be designing a Final Fantasy game, and unless you threw in a bunch of different gameplay elements you wouldn't even be designing a good game.

Newspapers, like games, must necessarily incorporate elements which directly conflict with any artistic intent which exists on the part of their creators. I believe this disqualifies them from being art outright - if the artistic elements overwhelmed these anti-artistic elements then you wouldn't be dealing with a newspaper or a computer game or any more, but something similar but different. At the very least, it surely makes it vastly more difficult for them to produce good art.
Wardog at 09:30 on 2007-10-26
Well at least we're not bickering about rape...

Every Monday the times prints a column consisting of a poem and a brief interpretation/analsysis. Does this mean that the poem no longer counts as art because it exists in a medium whereby you say the anti-artistic elments overwhelm the artistic ones?

And to come back to a point that was buried several thousand posts back, I would argue that the act of intrepretation/analysis is not so very different to, or in fact is merely a different sort of, interaction.

Essentially what you seem to be saying here is that Games contain quality X. Art does not contain quality X. Therefore games cannot be art. This is horrendously limiting in every conceivable way. I'm open to the idea that games/newspapers/cheese are not and cannot be art but I don't think it's helpful -or possible - to come up with a list of qualities that are artistic or anti-artistic. Quite frankly it's mad; people have been trying, and failing, to do this *for centuries* and, although you're pretty cool, I'm slightly sceptical that you're going to be the guy to nail it.

I'd also like to point that John Carey's working definition of art, at the moment, goes something like "art is anything someone says is art." Now you can argue about this 'til the cows come home but it nevertheless it's really the best we've got.

As Dan says in his article, the "are games art" debate is meanginless and pointless because nobody can work out what art actually *is* Furthermore, although I think the argument that they're not art because they're games (in grossly simple terms) is convincing, the argument that they can't be art because they have A Certain Quality in them is simplistic and unsatisfying.

Arthur B at 11:40 on 2007-10-26
Actually, I think the poem is a good example of what Dan is talking about. The poem is undeniably art, but the fact that the poem is contained within the newspaper is not sufficient to say that the newspaper as a whole is "art". If art isn't like chemistry (as Dan correctly says), it's also true that it isn't like homeopathic medicine: a single piece of art in a greater structure (whether it be a computer game or a newspaper) doesn't magically make the entire structure a work of art. The graphical design of Okami, for example, is of great artistic merit - it's won an award for it - but that doesn't mean I am participating in a noble artform when I make the magic wolf bash goblins.

I'm going to restate my position without using the term "quality" because it's caused too much confusion. By definition, a newspaper's purpose is to provide factual information on current events. The consequence of this definition of "newspaper" is that the creative freedom of its editors and journalists is severely constrained. (Compare with, say, writing, where the closest definition we have of "a novel" is "any fictional account which hits a particular word count".) My position is that this constraint is sufficient to prevent a newspaper from being art, even though it may contain works of art, because without a certain amount of freedom of expression art is nigh-impossible to produce. (Look, for example, at the sort of propaganda paintings you get out of North Korea. They're the Communist equivalent of Hallmark cards - bland, shallow, and approved by a committee.)

Similarly, by definition a "game" involves challenges based on luck or skill. It is accepted wisdom in the computer game industry that games based entirely on luck are less satisfying, so most computer games you see will involve skill-based challenges. I'm of the opinion that this is also a sufficient constraint on people's freedom of expression that it makes producing "art" difficult to impossible; to my mind the computer programs which most closely resemble art are Interactive Fiction programs which dispense with puzzles almost entirely. (I remember one where you get to control a guy who's about to commit suicide, and it consisted entirely of walking around, looking at things, and remembering events that those things remind you of.)

I think there are things out there already which we think of as computer games, but aren't, and have the potential to be art. Second Life is more properly a simulation as opposed to a game - you can go anywhere, do anything, and build anything (so long as you have the money), and I could imagine a talented community of artists creating magnificent art there. Of course, it isn't full of artists, it's crammed with furries and vampires and pedophilia advocates, but that's the price you pay for letting every dork on the internet set up shop there. The Sims could almost fall into this same category, but it doesn't give the player complete creative freedom; if you want your Sims to behave in a particular way, you have to jump through various hoops to put them in the correct mood. If you had a situation where you could decide that some Sims are perfectly happy living in squalour, or that some Sims never, ever get angry, then I might be convinced to regard The Sims as a potential tool for art. But at that point, it wouldn't be a game anymore, because there's no challenge if you can directly control the reactions of your Sims.
Wardog at 13:22 on 2007-10-26
I wasn't suggesting that having poem in a newspaper makes the newspaper art...

Also, although the overt purpose of a newspaper is the reporting of factual events to assume this is, in fact, what a newspaper does is the equivalent of, oh I don't know, beliving the study of history does the same thing. With anything that happens, there are angles, interpretations, bias, human error, different priorities, stylistic choices - writing a newspaper story is *literally* an act of creation, even if we pretend it's an act of reportage. Hell, we even read some nespaper *for* the bias. People read The Guardian identify as the sort of people who read The Guardian with those sort of values - every event reported must be done so, must be created in fact, to fit that expectation.

Art versus anti-art is not a black and white issue. You can't make lists about it, select definitions, decide that this is art and this is not for this quality or not that quality. You can't even readily define what art *is* - you've taken the fairly complex and subtle argument of the article and made it simple in all the wrong ways.

Dan says: "Game and Art are orthogonal concepts: there is nothing in gameplay which allows you to experience art, there is nothing in art which allows you to play a game"

You say: "A game contains cheese. Art does not contain cheese. Therefore a game cannot be art."

And are you seriously suggesting that art can only be art if it is created in an atmosphere of what you consider to be "a certain amount of" (what is a certain amount? Two litres? Six tonnes? two grammes?) of creative freedom. Yes, there's 1984 at one end of the spectrum but let's look somewhere in the middle since extremes are unhelpful. What about Jane Austen? Is she no longer a creator of art because she wrote her books in the way she wrote them and about the subjects they're about *to some extent* at least because she was a 19th century woman and therefore wasn't allowed to stand toe-to-toe with the literary men of her day, nor write about things deemed unsuitable for a lady. Is Dickens no longer an artist because he was writing to the pressures of serialisation and, *to some extent* to the demands of his reading public?
Wardog at 13:30 on 2007-10-26
Sorry if that sounded snappish (it was not intentional, I was caught up in rhetoric) and is full of typos - I am having One Of Those Mornings :)
Arthur B at 14:09 on 2007-10-26
I think we're now at the point where we're arguing past each other and screaming the same point at each other. I agree with Dan's position. I don't agree with the position you represent as mine, and don't recognise it as something I've said, but arguing about whether or not I actually said it would probably generate more heat than light at this point. We should leave this behind and move on; we must move forward and not backward, upward and not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!
Wardog at 00:49 on 2007-10-27
It came out far snappier than I intended actually... it was meant to just be flippant.
Arthur B at 01:21 on 2007-10-27
I didn't think what you said was snappish, I just felt that the conversation was getting slightly too circular to be interesting. :)

BTW: I have found something which is either definitely not art or the purest art imaginable. Here it is. Perhaps we could draw surprising new conclusions if we studied it carefully.
Wardog at 22:53 on 2007-10-27
Hee hee!

Actually I think it's one of those perspective things. You're very scientific about it and you obviously have a very clear about what - for you - comprises art. But obviously I come from a wibbly, hand-wringing arts background that won't let me have a clear idea about *anything*
Arthur B at 23:11 on 2007-10-27
Ah, so the only people who are trying to define art these days are those of us who don't really understand it?
Wardog at 16:42 on 2007-11-01
Arthur! I didn't mean that *at all* - I was just trying to make a frivolous point about the fact they teach scientists to find answers and they teach english students to wring their hands and angst. I don't think I'm in any better position to understand art, or what art is, than anybody else.
Arthur B at 19:08 on 2007-11-01
Kyra! I was making a jooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooke!
Wardog at 21:14 on 2007-11-01
You didn't put a smiley so I couldn't tell! *looks around in paranoia* I had a moment of genuine terror that you really thought I'd disappeared that far up my own arse. I am deeply relieved this isn't the case.
Guy at 03:56 on 2007-11-30
I realise this discussion is now long dead, but I just read an interview with Jonathon Blow which says a lot of the things that I think I would say about games and art, if I could say them that well, so I thought I'd link it here:
http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16392
Arthur B at 08:05 on 2007-11-30
I can't help but wonder how much of the guy's attitude is sour grapes. "Loads of people play World of Warcraft because it's gamer crack which gets them hooked like the miserable addicts they are. People don't play my games because they are sheeple who don't understand the difference between ethical games and unethical games."

Then again, his name is John Blow, and that's completely hilarious.
Guy at 12:13 on 2007-11-30
Hmm.
Dan H at 14:46 on 2007-11-30
I'm afraid that this article is exactly the sort of thing I'd file squarely under "self-aggrandizing bullshit". Leaving out the fact that he's actually describing the current state of the computer games industry as a "public mental health issue" like he's Ron Edwards or something. He also talks about "mere entertainment".

He gives two examples of games which he considers to be art, but doesn't actually explain how or in what way they *are* art, he just says that they, y'know, are. Like so many people he seems to be equating "artistic" with "small press."

He seems to be expressing the opinion that games should offer you something "more" than an arbitrary reward for performing an arbitrary task. Unfortuately that is exactly what a game *is*.
Arthur B at 15:06 on 2007-11-30
For the benefit of FB readers who aren't as into obscure geeky as Dan and I am, Ron Edwards is a guy who is famous for a) putting out Sorcerer, a tabletop roleplaying game along similar lines to the modern-day occult horror games published by White Wolf (such as Vampire: the Masquerade) and b) claiming that the modern-day occult horror games published by White Wolf literally cause brain damage to people who play them, but his game doesn't.

We now return you to the scheduled mainstream geekery. :)
Guy at 15:47 on 2007-11-30
I guess on most of this stuff we can only agree to disagree, but I'm curious about your statement that a game *is* "an arbitrary reward for performing an arbitrary task". Sure, many games are just that, or are composed of elements which when broken down appear to be just that... but if both tasks and rewards were genuinely arbitrary, then how would one differentiate between good and bad games? Even within the realm of "mere entertainment", some games are genuinely entertaining and some are tedious, which indicates that there is some difference between well-constructed and poorly-constructed tasks/rewards. I guess more than that, though, I disagree with your definition because it seems to exclude things that would widely be considered as games. Activities like children's games of "let's pretend", or the "games" that people are talking about in personal relationships when they claim that they "don't play games", lack the element of having defined "rewards", arbitrary or otherwise. I suppose what he's saying about WoW resonates with me because I saw someone I know waste a serious block of their life on a very similar game, and it was depressing for them and depressing for me to watch. Yet I don't think that playing games necessarily constitutes a waste of time, and I think if they'd been playing Chess or Bridge or one of a multitude of other games with the same intensity over the same period of time it wouldn't have been nearly as sad to see. I suspect my approach to these things comes from a fundamentally different philosophical basis to yours and that without working through that then we'll never be on the same page about any of this stuff, and "working through that" is probably not a very enjoyable process nor one that could likely ever be accomplished in a forum like this. Still, it's interesting to see just how different someone's reactions can be, I guess. :)
Arthur B at 18:29 on 2007-11-30
Activities like children's games of "let's pretend", or the "games" that people are talking about in personal relationships when they claim that they "don't play games", lack the element of having defined "rewards", arbitrary or otherwise.

Computer games don't resemble "let's pretend", though, because "let's pretend" when you get down to it is more about interpersonal interaction than it is about "winning" or "losing" or anything else. It also isn't very satisfying to anyone above, say, 5 years old; it's arbitrary, lacks any kind of structure, and leads to argument as to whether or not someone died when someone else shouted "bang!" There are two responses to that (three, if you include just plain giving up). Some people add rules systems - whether these come in the form of a rulebook or a computer program - to provide structure and an element of fairness, and that's how we get tabletop and computer RPGs. Others get into collaborative writing, or freeform roleplay communities on livejournal, or otherwise find ways of telling collaborative stories while respecting each other's creative freedom.

CRPGs, as Dan has established, have the challenge/reward setup of pretty much every other computer game. LJ roleplay communities don't, but at the same time can't really be simulated by a computer game.

As far as the "games" in interpersonal relationships go, it's an analogy, a metaphor. Nobody in a relationship actually sits down with a chessboard and plots out what they're going to do next. There is no rulebook for real life. Computer dating sims aren't the same as real relationships (and the dating sims have the same challenge/reward structure as every other computer game).

You know, if you google about you'd probably find people who consider World of Warcraft a work of art. There's certainly people who set up extraordinarily elaborate roleplaying communities within it, effectively adding a "let's pretend" element to the XP-grinding framework that the program provides. That's the thing about conversations like these: whenever someone comes up with a grand theory of Why Games Can Be Art, the games they count as "art" are invariably "games what I like", and the games they count as "not art" are invariably "games I don't enjoy, and look down on as a result".

Compare with the situation in, well, any other artistic medium you care to mention. I don't like James Joyce, and couldn't make any headway into Ulysses at all. I still recognise it as a work of artistic significance; it's not that I think it's overhyped or anything, it's definitely a significant achievement, it's just not one I could ever bring myself to read all of the way through. To my mind, the big test of any games-as-art theory would be saying to the person propagating it "Could you name one game which you would acknowledge as a work of art, but which you personally don't enjoy?", because I'm willing to bet that a lot of the people who promote game-as-art theories will flounder, given that challenge. Certainly, John Blow's piece seems to be all about him pointing out games that he likes and games he disapproves of.
Dan H at 12:38 on 2007-12-01
Sure, many games are just that, or are composed of elements which when broken down appear to be just that... but if both tasks and rewards were genuinely arbitrary, then how would one differentiate between good and bad games?

By whether the arbitrary tasks are fun to perform in and of themselves, and whether the arbitrary rewards are interesting. There's a lot of subjectivity here, but there's a lot of subjectivity about what constitutes "good" and "bad" in general.

Taking CRPGs as the basis, because most games with artistic aspirations tend to have a role-playing element, or at least a strong plot, my central thesis is that the plot, the story of those games is part of the task/reward structure. Now that doesn't mean that some games don't have better plots than others, but that's neither here nor there, both are still offering you a reward for performing a task. I was talking to a friend yesterday and she mentioned that Final Fantasy X has a brilliant plot, but tedious gameplay, while Final Fantasy X2 (not to be confused with Final Fantasy XII) has a stupid plot but brilliant gameplay. She's played FFX2 several times, but barely managed to finish FFX.

My problem with the hilariously named Mr Blow is that he seems to be denouncing the current state of the games industry, without offering any real alternatives for how games could be "art" without being boring as all hell.

On a side note, it occurs to me that there are a great many games which actually *are* considered to be "more than mere entertainment" - you yourself cite Chess and Go as examples. They're considered highly worthwhile things to do with your time, but they aren't considered to have any similarity with "art", and nobody ever suggests that Chess could be improved if they could make us care more about the pawns.
Guy at 13:20 on 2007-12-01
I suppose the trouble with offering alternatives, for how games can be art, and still also be entertaining, is that if there were an obvious way to do it then someone would already be doing it. I've seen Mr Blow say elsewhere that his answer to the problem is that we should experiment with doing all kinds of different things, and most of them will suck, but some of them will be good and lead into more interesting things. Perhaps it would be helpful to give a provisional definition of what I think of when I think of "mere entertainment": when I have a lot of time on my hands (not often the case, lately, sad to say) then I get bored and look around for things to fill up that time. And certain kinds of things will easily relieve that boredom, for a while, but after a certain limit they seem to have done as much as they can do and I'm left feeling a bit depressed by the whole experience. I don't so much get "tired by" them as "tired of" them, if you see what I mean. Blow's analogy to drugs doesn't quite fit but the pattern is that they don't take a lot of work to get into, but they have a fairly solid limit to their appeal. I guess that's what I think of when I think of "mere entertainment". Lots of the stuff on TV falls into this category... I suppose I should add that there's nothing dishonourable about being "mere entertainment" - since many things aspire to be entertaining and fail, something that is genuinely entertaining has achieved something. Then there's a kind of shading over into an area of things which I think of as being both entertaining and having that wonderfully nebulous quality, "artistic value". And the differentiating factor... actually, is often not how hard it is to get into. Some really great films are also riveting from the first scene... tastes vary but for me Kurosawa's films fall into this category. I'm grabbed by them, in much the same way as by typical Hollywood action flicks... but the area of difference is that... I feel as though they sustain some more enduring interest, and the limit on that interest is set (at least for great works) by the amount of effort and time I'm willing/able to put into their appreciation, and furthermore, rather than feeling depressed (or possibly even a bit ashamed) about the whole affair (as one might do at the end of a Michael Bay marathon) there's a sense of being rewarded by the experience, and often of wanting to talk about it with other people. I realise this definition of "entertainment" and "art" is entirely grounded in my own experience and therefore perhaps not terribly generalisable, but it helps me, at least, to make sense of what I think of particular works... I suppose part of what I'd draw out of the distinction is that being artistically interesting, and entertaining, are seperate but connected phenomena. Which is to say... the works which lots of people get interested in and stay invested in over a long period of time will tend to be both. They grab you right off the bat, but once they've got your attention they do something with it. Then there are things which are artistically interesting but not very entertaining, and these might have niche audiences, who for whatever reason, have struggled past the barriers the work has around it, and found something that really resonates with them... but they won't develop mass audiences because those barriers are too high. (And of course there's plenty of stuff which is neither artistically interesting not entertaining, for which the audience consists presumably solely of masochists). Then there's stuff - like the aforementioned Michael Bay films - which gets plenty of people looking at it but no real long-term devotees, because having seen something like that once, you've pretty much already gotten full value from it. Having gone all the way the long way around that, to turn to games... I think most of the games I play these days basically fall into the category of things that I do because there's something else I ought to be doing and I want to distract myself from being aware of it. But, it wasn't always like that... I remember feeling very excited about certain games, the possibilities that they offered, the sense of immersion in their world or the interesting ideas behind their design... and I guess really my interest isn't so much in the technical detail or the semantics of whether a particular game is or isn't "art" or what the proper definition of that term should be, so much as thinking (or hoping?) that my current sense of disillusionment with what's available at the moment isn't just the unfortunate consequence of me being older and more cynical and harder to impress... i.e., that rather than it just being the case that I've "grown out of" computer games, then it's possible for computer games to develop in new and interesting ways such that I can feel like I would play games for the sake of something more than just distraction, or, to use the contentious term, "mere entertainment". :)
Dan H at 15:33 on 2007-12-01
that rather than it just being the case that I've "grown out of" computer games, then it's possible for computer games to develop in new and interesting ways such that I can feel like I would play games for the sake of something more than just distraction, or, to use the contentious term, "mere entertainment". :)

Ah, you see I come at this from exactly the opposite perspective. I like computer games precisely because they *are* "just a distraction". The thing is that I don't think "distractions" or whatever you want to call them are something one "grows out of", if anything I think they're something one grows into. The more time you spend doing useful, productive things with your life, the less you worry about the time you spend pretending to be a genetically engineered assassin.

Mr Blow seems to want a world in which computer games can fill the same role in our lives as books, television series, and movies. They never will, because those roles are already filled by ... well ... books, television series and movies. People keep trying to improve computer games (and roleplaying games, for that matter) by having them emulate other things, and it never never works. Farenheit tried to be an "interactive movie" and by all accounts it sucked goats. Fable tried to make serious points about choices, consequences, good and evil, and wound up being an utter farce. Wii Sports tried to be a fun party game where you get to run around pretending to play tennis with your friends, and it totally rocks.

Wardog at 09:33 on 2007-12-03
I have to confess, I did find the article a little obnoxious in tone which interfered with my ability to consider its points.

As a couple of whimsical side points, I think we never grow out of "let's pretend" - or at least I think if we did, we'd lead rather bland lives. And surely computer games are, to some extent, related to this impulse? Yes, it's "let's pretend you're a kick ass hitman!" rather than "I'm going to be the pirate king and you're going to be the governor's daughter.." but, for me, part of what really makes a computer game stand out is how well it manages to let you enter pretend-space. Guitar Hero has very basic gameplay (press buttons when told to) but it's still fantastic because you genuinely feel like you are THE GOD OF ROCK.

And isn't this temporary-loss-of-self something that art has always aimed to inspire? I'm not saying you look at the Mona Lisa and think "wow, I feel like a Renassiance chick with an ambivalant facial expressin" but more that contemplating a painting, listening to a piece of music, reading a book jerks away from the preoccupations of being yourself and into a space of intellectual and/or emotional ephiphany.

Woah, that sounds embarrassingly pretentious. Please don't jump on me and point out that I'm not likely to see the face of God when playing Guitar Hero.
Arthur B at 10:05 on 2007-12-03
I think "let's pretend" is something which has crept into computer games over time, but wasn't deemed an essential part of them in the early days. It's difficult to say what you are pretending to be in, say, Qix or Breakout, and the paper-thin storylines imposed on the likes of, say, Robotron: 2084 are there for no reason other than to provide some explanation of why you're running around shooting robots in the first place.

As gaming hardware's developed, the ability to embellish that explanation - and thus justify more nuanced and subtle gameplay - has increased, even though the gameplay itself isn't necessarily very different in spirit from those early arcade games. What is Doom (and, by extension, the first-person shooter genre as a whole) if an evolution of Pac-Man? It's all about a dude who runs around a maze collecting stuff; some of that stuff allows him to slay the monsters who are chasing him, but woe betide our hero if he's cornered when he's run out of his ability to kill the ghosts...

There may well be artistry in coming up with the plot wrapper for a game, but it's a wrapper; it's there to contextualise the gameplay, and if the gameplay isn't solid a good wrapper just isn't enough. Guitar Hero has a hell of a wrapper, but if the actual guitar-playing bit of the game was dull nobody would care. You can find people creating beautiful stories on RP servers in World of Warcraft, but that doesn't change the fact that the actual gameplay element of WoW is sheer grind. In fact, I'd argue that part of the reason people love to roleplay in World of Warcraft is that outside of the grinding and the fighting the game doesn't support very much, which gives players the creative freedom to do more or less what they like outside of those two contexts: you don't have to jump through gameplay hoops to have your in-game marriage ceremony or gay pride march, it's a matter of pure human-to-human communication.

There may well be art in World of Warcraft, but - here's the kicker - it exists far away from the grinding provided by the actual gameplay. If you look on WoW forums you see a real conflict between the folk who are there for the grind - for the gameplay - and the people who are there for the roleplaying, who tend to be less interested in the grind and seem to treat WoW less as a game and more as a medium for let's pretend - and there is a distinction there.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 18:42 on 2010-04-21
Roger Ebert re-made his games are not art claim, which is now the subject of a Penny Arcade comic and accompanying newspost.

It's entirely reasonable that Tycho would be wholly opposed to Ebert's judgment that games cannot be art. He is not quite a professional video game player, but he claims that very very nearly all his free time is spent playing video games, and his actual profession is intimately related to the medium.

And of course he's completely right that Ebert's blog post is a mess of undefined, muddled terms and controversy qua controversy.

But what I find most interesting is that he points out that there's nothing to be gained in winning. Of course, he means it in a different sense: Whether or not you rhetorically outmaneuver Ebert is irrelevant to whether or not video games are or are not art, since he is not an arbiter of culture. Which is true! However, I think there's a different meaning: It is not actually relevant whether or not games are art, at least for the purposes of enjoying games.

We do not consider the games of chess, football, Dungeons & Dragons, or Clue to be art. We also do not consider them "worthless things", and I would say we consider them "wholly valid experiences". An experience can be worthwhile and valid without being art, and to conflate "worhthwhile" with "high art" is to be at least as confused about what art is as our friend Ebert. To say that video games are not art in the sense that a novel or film can be art is not to denigrate the validity of experiencing video games. Video games can be a perfectly legitimate form of recreation, whether or not they are also a legitimate form of artistic expression.

It is, perhaps, confusing because so many things we DO recognize as artistic media are present in video games. After all, video games have films embedded in them, so aren't video games an extension of film, a recognized artistic element? Don't video games have concept artists? If you combine art with art with art, don't you get art?

I'm not convinced that you do.

====

Another point: Most examples of video games as art strike me as not particularly great. CRACKED.com is no arbiter of culture, any more than Ebert is, but take a look at the games namedropped by Michael Swaim. Specifically, his explanations of why they're art. It reads as a parody of attempts to find meaning in contemporary (is "modern" the correct term here?) art.

Looking at his explanation of Portal, he also invokes one of my less-favorite tropes: The idea that a work within a medium that deconstructs or comments on that medium is necessarily intelligent and artistic. It's perhaps unfortunate that we still think of Watchmen as one of the principal legitimators of the comic book medium, and that we do so because of its role in deconstructing the medium.

I might say that BioShock succeeds as philosophy, a satire of Objectivism analogous to Voltaire's satire of Leibnizian optimism. Everything else he seems to be confusing "alluding to some theme" with "making a serious comment about that theme". Yes, death is an element of Grim Fandango. What does it say about death? Does it just dump tons of vague questions at the viewer's feet? Well, I suppose that's art, but shitty and obnoxious art that I have no desire for games to be.

It's even more apparent if we try to think about games as art by virtue of the stories they tell, because then we're thinking about games as very poorly-written, often poorly-acted films. If Fallout 3 is supposed to be an examination of, say, the unchanging nature of combat, then they might have wanted to reconsider having that examination consist primarily of one dude wandering around, helping random people, and repairing random crap. Possibly it would've been good to include anything in the game that actually resembled war except for the Liberty Prime sequence in the final mission. The ultimate commentary on war is clearly one which places the war itself two hundred years in the backstory, and then spends its entire story not dealing with any war whatsoever. Maybe the actual message is "Nuclear holocausts make life worse for the survivors", and I'm truly glad that video games have matured enough to be able to communicate that with the deftness and sophistication Bethesda Softworks delivered.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 22:09 on 2010-04-21
Addendum:

Well, Gabe has weighed in, and said games are art.

I suppose it's impossible to deny that games can communicate ideas. At the very least, game after game after game glorifies the military. So games can express ideas. That's one of the key elements of art, definitely. They may not be expressing ideas like "Life is just an inconvenient prelude to death", but they convey meaning to people. They also communicate meaning to people in ways closer to a film or a novel than to a game of chess or D&D. A video game can be didactic in a way that very, very few board games are.

There's also no inherent contradiction between "video games can be fun to play" and "video games can be art", any more than there's a contradiction between "films can be fun to watch" and "films can be art". Unless we're still believing that hoary bit of nonsense that all art must be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and incomprehensible.

It's probably futile to try to make art anything more specific than "a human artifice which communicates meaning to its viewers". It may be that we're trying to limit what kind of ideas art is allowed to express. After all, we don't want art to be so broadly defined that every human artifice is art, do we?

Well, maybe we do, for that matter.

====

I should apologize for my previous post, since I'm starting to think that I've been chasing red herrings. It's pointless to say that games aren't art in the same way that films are art, because that's both obvious and irrelevant. Games make for very poor films, and games that attempt to implement the techniques of films tend to be awful. It doesn't mean that the medium isn't art, it just means that the medium is art AND is capable of crudely emulating some other medium, in much the same way that you can make a film out of a painting.

Perhaps the problem is that games are sending objectionable messages. Certainly, I can see that people would find it problematic that games tend to be pro-military, often pro-U.S.A., almost exclusively white, et cetera. But just because art sends an objectionable message doesn't mean it's not art. The films of Goebbels are, presumably, still art.

So, maybe games aren't art, but they're communicative artifice, which we might as well say is the same thing as art.

The question remains how many games are good art, or to what extent the artistic value of a game exists independently of its entertainment value. I could provide an example like The Path and say that games which are explicitly geared toward being an artistic artifice are necessarily worse than games that don't care about conveying meaning and are just about being fun...but then, The Path is both bad art and a bad game.

A game's quality as art, its ability to communicate some idea, will necessarily be dependent on how well it leverages the mechanisms of the medium. The care and attention required to make an incredibly entertaining game will probably go hand in hand with the care and attention required to make engaging, compelling art, especially since in both cases you would do well to emphasize the unique capabilities of the medium.

It may well be that games aren't well-equipped to send messages about the unchanging nature of war or the ultimate finality of death. It may well be that films and novels aren't, either--there are plenty of simplistic and unconvincing ruminations on both in both.

Is it worthwhile to distinguish between what may be the stated message of a game and what can actually be read from the text? It could just be that the games that call attention to how communicative they are tend to be the ones that do a poor job of it.

Hrrrrrrrrrm.
Shim at 22:51 on 2010-04-21
I suppose it's impossible to deny that games can communicate ideas.
Not at all. Judge Limbaugh did so a while ago. I believe the case was Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County, No. 4:00CV2030 SNL (E.D. Mo.) though it's too far past my bedtime to do detailed research. For a non-scholarly viewpoint, I'll see your Gabe comment and raise you an actual comic.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 22:57 on 2010-04-21
For a non-scholarly viewpoint, I'll see your Gabe comment and raise you an actual comic.


Thanks for that link--I had that on my mind when I started thinking about games as communication.
Sister Magpie at 04:52 on 2010-04-22
I am totally not up to being in this conversation on the level of everyone here, but I think I lean towards Kyra's pov. I don't think any videogames existing now is art, but it's hard for me to believe that it's impossible for one to ever be that. Perhaps because I seen way too many movies or read sci-fi stories (aka: art!) that suggested that possibility.

I remember studying film theory that talked about the myth of total cinema, the idea that humans have always been able to imagine an alternate reality, with photography and film being steps in that direction. 3-D goes further in that direction. I guess in my mind I can't help but think it would be possible for a game to take it even further. I don't think any do now, but I can imagine that it might. But I think we can't even imagine what that kind of game would look or feel like.
Dan H at 14:43 on 2010-04-22
Gosh, article necromancy!

For what it's worth, I still stand by the central tenet of this article, which is that Games aren't Art because "game" and "art" are orthogonal concepts. One could imagine a work of art that was also a video game, and was also a good video game, just as one could imagine a work of art that was also a delicious chocolate cupcake.

Suggesting that games are art is as meaningless as suggesting that cupcakes are art. You can argue the points as much as you like, but you're left with insight into neither art nor cupcakes.
Shim at 14:53 on 2010-04-22
I always find it quite difficult to care about these things. Why is it supposed to matter whether things are art or not? I honestly don't get it.

@ Sister Magpie: I'd argue that an alternate reality is a very different thing from a game. I mean, reality is kind of... reality. Games are one single thing that occurs in reality. I dunno about you, but my life isn't much like any game I ever heard of, and I wouldn't see the point in playing one that was like any kind of life I can imagine.
Dan H at 14:53 on 2010-04-22
Also: JESUS H CHRIST that Penny Arcade comic is self congratulatory horseshit.

The final "thought experiment" might be better expressed as:

"Consider this, if a hundred people engage in a random activity for five years, how could the result not be art".
Dan H at 14:58 on 2010-04-22
I always find it quite difficult to care about these things. Why is it supposed to matter whether things are art or not? I honestly don't get it.


It is, in fact, exactly as Ebert observes. Gamers are woefully insecure and desperate for validation, as a result of which they are determined to have the "art" label applied to their chosen timesink.
Arthur B at 15:18 on 2010-04-22
The final "thought experiment" might be better expressed as:

"Consider this, if a hundred people engage in a random activity for five years, how could the result not be art".

It's even worse than that. The comic assumes that because the people in question happen to be artists, what results must, inherently, be art.

At which point the problem of creating games which are also art is trivial: simply rename all your game designers and programmers as "artists", regardless of whether their role involves designing the formulae for calculating attack damage and armour ratings, playtesting the game for hours on end searching for bugs, coding a scripting system to enable people to quickly and easily construct cut scenes using the in-game engine rather than pre-rendering, writing a physics engine, or actually drawing/writing and recording the stuff that you see and hear in the game. Artists produce art, therefore the resultant game is art.
Arthur B at 15:51 on 2010-04-22
Also! An art gallery is, itself, art, because it collects art created by lots of different artists and puts them altogether. Similarly, your photobucket account or Facebook gallery? Art, man, art.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 19:17 on 2010-04-22
So, Arthur, what DO you mean by art? I'm sympathetic to the idea that an art gallery is art, particularly if the gallery itself is curated so as to produce a specific communicative effect on its patrons.

Unless, of course, you've somehow managed to psychically glean what Ebert's definition of art is AND agree with it.

====

Robert Brockway, CRACKED.com, weighs in with a post that seems fairly reasonable. It's got spoilers for Call of Duty 4 and Children of Men.

====

It is, in fact, exactly as Ebert observes. Gamers are woefully insecure and desperate for validation, as a result of which they are determined to have the "art" label applied to their chosen timesink.


Swaim seems to be doing pretty much exactly that in the first CRACKED article I linked. It is interesting that one of the main ways we seek to validate our recreation is by defending it as art.

====

For what it's worth, I still stand by the central tenet of this article, which is that Games aren't Art because "game" and "art" are orthogonal concepts.


Even if I agree that the concepts are orthogonal, all that shows it that video games aren't necessarily art. You actually admit that video games can be art, which is pretty far from Ebert's stance that no video games are art or ever will be art. It's also pretty far from the stance that all video games are art, which I suspect some Games Are Art proponents advocate.

Perhaps it is the case that video games (the medium) are necessarily Game (the concept) and are possibly Art (the orthogonal concept).

I'm not sure why this doesn't constitute an insight into video games, but that's because I'm not sure what you mean by insight.

====

"Consider this, if a hundred people engage in a random activity for five years, how could the result not be art".


You're pretty abusively bending the meaning of "random", there, which means that it's not actually a better expression at all. Very few video game developers emulate Cage.
Arthur B at 19:34 on 2010-04-22
I'm sympathetic to the idea that an art gallery is art, particularly if the gallery itself is curated so as to produce a specific communicative effect on its patrons.

Oh, a gallery can be art, especially if it's some sort of installation or themed exhibition like you say.

But by Gabe's logic, a gallery must be art, even if it's just a random collection of paintings assembled in no coherent order.

I think "art" is a concept people use to spark arguments. It's a snooty way of conflating "stuff what I like" to "stuff what is actually meaningful". I would be a happier man if we dropped the concept and just enjoyed games and films and music and paintings and sculpture and so forth in their own right without applying this godawful word to them, a word which acts like flypaper for elitism and snobbery and pretentiousness.

"Validating our recreation" is a horrifying concept. What happened to just enjoying it?
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 19:52 on 2010-04-22
The artists decided that only certain types of joy were valid, obviously. Consider John Stuart Mill, who declared that certain kinds of pleasure were superior to other kinds (chief among them philosophical and artistic contemplation).
Sister Magpie at 20:53 on 2010-04-22
I'd argue that an alternate reality is a very different thing from a game. I mean, reality is kind of... reality. Games are one single thing that occurs in reality. I dunno about you, but my life isn't much like any game I ever heard of, and I wouldn't see the point in playing one that was like any kind of life I can imagine.


True, but alternate reality is different from art as well. A movie isn't like life and a game isn't like life, but both could be created on the way to an AU. Like with Avatar, part of the experience--really the main selling point of the movie as far as I can tell--is the experience of being in this other world.

The difference between the two, as Dan says, probably just comes down to the definitions of game and art. If we're dropped into the 3-D experience of Avatar in the service of a movie (and let's pretend for a moment that it's a good movie with a good story and characters etc.) it's art. If we're dropped into the same 3-D experience and are supposed to complete the task of befriending the Native American metaphor and fighting against the American Military metaphor (nod to video for that description: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbhrz1-4hN4) it's a game.
Shim at 22:10 on 2010-04-22
@ Sister Magpie:
Sorry for any lack of clarity. I was responding to this:

humans have always been able to imagine an alternate reality, with photography and film being steps in that direction. 3-D goes further in that direction. I guess in my mind I can't help but think it would be possible for a game to take it even further. I don't think any do now, but I can imagine that it might. But I think we can't even imagine what that kind of game would look or feel like.

I read that as you conflating "alternate reality" and "game", and felt it didn't hold up well. I entirely agree that "art" is also a separate concept, and probably not a very useful one, to be honest.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 01:53 on 2010-04-23

Oh, a gallery can be art, especially if it's some sort of installation or themed exhibition like you say.

But by Gabe's logic, a gallery must be art, even if it's just a random collection of paintings assembled in no coherent order.


Anyway addendum to my previous post:

Gabe may have been unclear, but it's pretty dang disingenuous to suggest that games are a random collection of things assembled in no coherent order. The artistic subcomponents of a video game are NOT assembled randomly, they are synthesized to create a single, unified, purposive experience. In this analogy, video games are FAR closer to the themed exhibition than some random pile of prints.
Arthur B at 09:10 on 2010-04-23
The idea that if you bring together "artistic subcomponents" (artistic particles? articles?) in a purposive way you inherently get art seems a bit of a stretch to me. A mathematical formula isn't really a work of art, and yet in your average game these days there's a ton at work behind the scenes running the physics engine and the rendering engine and the game mechanics. You can't see them directly, but they're there, and arguably they have as much (if not more) impact on the game experience than the pretty pictures and the sound and dialogue. Does a damage system become art if it is surrounded by sufficient "artistic subcomponents"?

If we use your idea of "artistic subcomponents", then we have to acknowledge that games also include "nonartistic subcomponents". And then we end up either in a situation where the "artistic subcomponents" can transform the "nonartistic subcomponents" into art by magic, or where the "artistic subcomponents" somehow matter when the "nonartistic subcomponents" don't, or where there's a magic "art ratio" where if you have a sufficient ratio of "artistic subcomponents" to "nonartistic subcomponents" you magically get art.

In short: "artistic subcomponents" is a nonsense. Games should be assessed as a whole on the basis of the final product, not on the individual elements that went into it or the people that worked on it. A number of artists worked to design the packaging on my food and drink containers. That doesn't mean when I synthesise the single, unified, purposive experience which is breakfast I am creating art.
Dan H at 11:23 on 2010-04-23
You actually admit that video games can be art, which is pretty far from Ebert's stance that no video games are art or ever will be art. It's also pretty far from the stance that all video games are art, which I suspect some Games Are Art proponents advocate.


Ebert does actually admit that some video games could be art - but only in the same way that a tin of soup or a splash of blue paint can be art. He points out in his original post that you could, for example, take a boxed copy of Counterstrike, leave it in its shrinkwrap, and put it in a box labelled "video game".

The problem is that this *isn't* what the games-are-art people are after. They want an admission that *all* video games are *necessarily* art. This is nicely clarified by Gabe's pathetic screed about how it is TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE for a bunch of game designers to create something that isn't art.

You're pretty abusively bending the meaning of "random", there, which means that it's not actually a better expression at all. Very few video game developers emulate Cage.


Actually, I'm using a perfectly legitimate use of the word "random" in the sense of "chosen at random" rather than in the sense of "independently randomised at each step".

Gabe's assertion is that it is somehow impossible for a hundred people to spend five years designing a video game, and for the resulting video game to not be art. This is manifestly stupid, because you can apply the same logic to any random activity. Building a bridge, say, or taking a group of students through their secondary education.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 14:57 on 2010-04-23
In short: "artistic subcomponents" is a nonsense. Games should be assessed as a whole on the basis of the final product, not on the individual elements that went into it or the people that worked on it. A number of artists worked to design the packaging on my food and drink containers. That doesn't mean when I synthesise the single, unified, purposive experience which is breakfast I am creating art.


Well, sure. That point didn't come across in your example of an arbitrarily-assembled collection of independent art objects. Thanks for clarifying it.

Ebert does actually admit that some video games could be art - but only in the same way that a tin of soup or a splash of blue paint can be art. He points out in his original post that you could, for example, take a boxed copy of Counterstrike, leave it in its shrinkwrap, and put it in a box labelled "video game".


Uh huh. If you can actually provide a definition of "art" and a clarification of the ways things can be art, I might begin to be convinced. Not only do we have a nebulous meaning of "art", we've got nebulous categories WITHIN art. It's enormously unhelpful to just make assertions like this without even trying to clear up what your terms are.

Actually, I'm using a perfectly legitimate use of the word "random" in the sense of "chosen at random" rather than in the sense of "independently randomised at each step".


Okay.


Gabe's assertion is that it is somehow impossible for a hundred people to spend five years designing a video game, and for the resulting video game to not be art.


You are aware of the difference between Gabe, Tycho, Mike, and Jerry, right? Would it kill you to keep the characters straight before you pile on the insults? It's cool if you don't actually follow Penny Arcade at all and are giving this a cursory examination before launching a few insults at them and re-iterating your confusing defense of orthogonal concepts--wait, no, it's not, that's annoying as hell.
Dan H at 15:33 on 2010-04-23
You are aware of the difference between Gabe, Tycho, Mike, and Jerry, right?


Nope. Nor do I care.

The argument presented in the comic you linked, along with the accompanying blog post was circular and peurile. Whether said argument should properly be attributed to one webcomic-author, or the other webcomic-author, or one fictional character within the comic, or another fictional character within the comic really makes no difference. You appear to be relying on defence-ad-hominem.

The "thought experiment" proposed at the end of the comic is stupid. It relies on the presupposition that video games are art by definition, which as part of a debate about whether video games are art is beyond worthless.

By comparison, Ebert actually does spend quite a lot of time talking about what he thinks art is, and why he thinks video games don't fit the bill.

It's cool if you don't actually follow Penny Arcade at all and are giving this a cursory examination before launching a few insults at them and re-iterating your confusing defense of orthogonal concepts--wait, no, it's not, that's annoying as hell.


I'm sorry that you find the fact that I don't follow one particular webcomic annoying. And I'm sorry if you are finding yourself confused by this discussion. I am not, however, quite certain how you expect me to rectify either situation.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 17:12 on 2010-04-23
By comparison, Ebert actually does spend quite a lot of time talking about what he thinks art is, and why he thinks video games don't fit the bill.


We can list a few of the qualities Ebert thinks art usually has, but I don't think anybody is going to be satisfied by that.

I'm sorry that you find the fact that I don't follow one particular webcomic annoying. And I'm sorry if you are finding yourself confused by this discussion. I am not, however, quite certain how you expect me to rectify either situation.


Is your misreading of my comment deliberate?

It's not that you don't follow Penny Arcade--it's that you don't follow Penny Arcade, you didn't pay attention to the strip, and you don't seem to have any reason to re-enter the discussion. I posted the blog entry, comic, and newspost to resurrect this thread because I thought it was an interesting continuation of the discussion. If you have nothing more to say than what you've already said, combined with poorly-informed insults, you are under no obligation to participate in the comment necromancy.

Furthermore, I am not confused by this discussion. It is you, specifically, and your nebulous terms, and your nebulous application of those terms to video games, that is confusing. I am not baffled by everyone and everything, only what you mean by "orthogonal concepts" and "insight into...art".

I'll grant you that the thought experiment demonstrates nothing, that it's circular and self-congratulatory. It's just too bad that you've spent five posts since the thread's resurrection making one fairly obvious point.
Wardog at 17:46 on 2010-04-23
Official moderator warning incoming, Webcomcon.

Discussions will get heated - and that's fine - but you're actually personally insulting one of our contributors now for not responding positively to a link you chose to post here.

Furthermore, it is not appropriate for you to pass judgement on what is relevant commentary and what is not. Especially when you are directly addressing the author of the article about which the discussion circulates.

Please find a link to our comment guidelines here
Wardog at 17:48 on 2010-04-23
In my capacity as myself: I find it amusing, and also depressing, that Penny Arcade chose to respond to a pile of "reeking ejaculate" by producing reeking ejaculate of their own. I'd be more convincable on the whole Games Can Be Art score if videogame enthusiasts could present themselves in a less smug and self-congratulatory manner.
Dan H at 18:05 on 2010-04-23

I'll grant you that the thought experiment demonstrates nothing, that it's circular and self-congratulatory. It's just too bad that you've spent five posts since the thread's resurrection making one fairly obvious point.


I would also point out that I actually spent one post making that point, and then spent four posts defending it against you.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 18:11 on 2010-04-23
Sorry for my rudeness, Dan and Kyra.
Guy at 08:34 on 2010-04-24
It relies on the presupposition that video games are art by definition, which as part of a debate about whether video games are art is beyond worthless.


I agree, but I think it also highlights the central problem of this debate, which is that it's an argument about the definition of something which, (at least a fairly large general consensus agrees), can't be defined. That is, one can absolutely declare certain things to be or not be art only if one has a clear and inarguable definition of what art is, and mostly people have given up on trying to create one of those. I imagine actually doing it would involve a lot of wrestling with Wittgenstein and not in a fun way. Or... I think what I see a lot of in debates around this question are statements along the lines of... "I know there isn't one final definition of art, but don't most people agree that..." and then use various things that lie along the "borders" of it to generate a kind of "fuzzy definition" that either include or excludes computer games, as their preference inclines. Ultimately I think I agree with whoever it was in this thread that said, it doesn't matter... if someone somehow managed to wrangle a confession out of Ebert that games were really, definitely art, then it wouldn't make playing space invaders feel any better or worse than it presently does. I think Arthur is right when he says that a lot of the heat in this argument comes out of an anxious, insecure desire on the part of gamers to have their hobby somehow culturally validated in the way that reading or painting or going to the cinema is... but that's a sociological issue, not a philosophical one. An argument for games-as-art that looks logical and watertight and sparkles like a diamond in the sun isn't going to make a whit of difference to what "most people" think, a vice versa ditto ditto.
Andy G at 11:36 on 2010-04-24
@ Guy: I was going to mention Wittgenstein actually! It seems to me not so much a problem of definition as of *why* it matters whether or not games are art - what is actually at stake? What purpose does it serve to categorise them one way or the other? Ultimately, it is *us* who gets to categorise things as art - it's not something that we discover about them.
Rami at 13:26 on 2010-04-24
Arthur said:
A mathematical formula isn't really a work of art
Oh ;-)?
if you bring together "artistic subcomponents" (artistic particles? articles?) in a purposive way you inherently get art
Ferretbrain brings together articles ... FB must be Art!
Arthur B at 13:37 on 2010-04-24
Arthur said:
A mathematical formula isn't really a work of art
Oh ;-)?

No, it really isn't. You can make an aesthetically appealing mathematical formula which is, in fact, completely wrong on a mathematical basis. You can make a formula which looks sinfully ugly but is in fact mathematically correct.
Rami at 14:14 on 2010-04-24
No, it really isn't. You can make an aesthetically appealing mathematical formula which is, in fact, completely wrong on a mathematical basis. You can make a formula which looks sinfully ugly but is in fact mathematically correct.
But if it's possible to make an aesthetically appealing mathematical formula that is correct, then that, surely, would be a work of art?
Arthur B at 14:49 on 2010-04-24
But if it's possible to make an aesthetically appealing mathematical formula that is correct, then that, surely, would be a work of art?

Only if we are adopting a definition of art so insanely wide that it's meaningless. By that logic, anything with any aesthetic appeal is art. In which case why not drop the word "art" and use "aesthetic appeal" instead, and remove all controversy?

Mathematical formulae are assessed using entirely different criteria from things which most people acknowledge as work of art. If you're analysing a formula as a mathematician would, then you're not treating it like a work of art. If you're not analysing it as a mathematician would, you're not treating it like a mathematical formula.
Rami at 16:16 on 2010-04-24
Mathematical formulae are assessed using entirely different criteria from things which most people acknowledge as work of art
Yes, but I don't think that excludes them from being judged by aesthetic criteria as well, even if they're not typically considered artistic. I'm mostly thinking of a couple of formulas that I'd be happy to put up on my wall, for instance, as purely aesthetic objects in addition to their mathematical elegance.
Guy at 17:08 on 2010-04-24
Ah, but Rami, do mathematicians make formulae, or do they discover them? If I put a poster of Maxwell's equations up on my wall, is it analogous to having a Chagall print up there, or is it more like a photo of, say, a nice bit of coral, where, I'm grateful to the photographer for finding the coral for me, but I'm interested in the thing photographed rather than act of photographing it? :P
Guy at 17:30 on 2010-04-24
It seems to me not so much a problem of definition as of *why* it matters whether or not games are art - what is actually at stake? What purpose does it serve to categorise them one way or the other?


I guess my first answer to this would be, it doesn't matter, because very little is at stake. Imagine a hypothetical alternative world where everything was the same except that everyone agreed that music wasn't art. All the same music exists, people listen to it and enjoy it in the same ways and to the same extent, there are concerts &c &c. What do we lose, relative to the world as it is now?

I guess the funny thing about that thought experiment is... I can't really do it. I mean, my imagination stumbles at the task of trying to imagine what... people who write about music for a living would do differently. Or... how the hell the world could be in every other way that one that it is without somebody saying, "hang on a minute, music is art!" and everyone else going "oh yeah, whaddya know, how come nobody thought of that before!?" and then we revert to the world we have. Hmm.

I suppose... OK, here's an argument for why it might matter, but it's not really "my" argument because I'm not sure I'm very convinced by it myself. But anyway: Thelonious Monk (I think) spent many years as a struggling musician, living on the generosity of patrons and friends, and making music that was "admired" in a kind of unhelpful way, sort of people saying, "well, this is very good, but nobody else is going to want to hear this stuff." Then, nearly 40 years old, he releases a record which sells well and allows him to actually make a living and start getting wider recognition and all the rest of it. I'd say, it's bloody hard to be a "failure" most of your life and keep sticking at what you're doing, hoping to one day get recognised for it... and many people would say at some point, "you know, this isn't happening, maybe it's time to get a day job". But maybe what sustains someone through a long "fallow period" like that is a kind of romantic picture of oneself as an artist, with all the... history and associations that word has, and maybe without it we'd have fewer Thelonious Monks... or rather, that somehow we might miss out on the could-have-been-Monks of computer game design...

...but I don't actually believe it, because I think someone like Monk would have done what he did, definitions be damned. Hmm. Well, just a random thought... I will keep thinking about it, but I suspect I will still end up settling on that first answer, ie, "does it matter?"; "no".
Rami at 17:32 on 2010-04-24
is it analogous to having a Chagall print up there, or is it more like a photo of, say, a nice bit of coral
The latter, I'd have thought?
Arthur B at 17:47 on 2010-04-24
@Guy: How about another thought experiment: supposing there was a world where we didn't have a concept of "art", per se. We still have paintings, installations, music, plays, writing, games, and so forth, but we don't apply the term "art" as a big umbrella for them (or as an exclusive category which applies to some examples of the above but not others). What would really be different, aside from the "Arts Council" being referred to as the "Creative Pursuits Council" or something like that?
Niall at 19:24 on 2010-04-24
I'm mostly thinking of a couple of formulas that I'd be happy to put up on my wall


Or get as tattoos?
Andy G at 20:23 on 2010-04-24
@ Guy: I don't actually think we can do without the concept altogether. There may be various reasons for categorising something as art or not, and there may be restraints on whether we can categorise it as art and make it stick. It's just that the pure, contextless question "Is it art?" is, if not meaningless, at least pointless.

Incidentally, I think the alternate world *would* still contain art, by *our* definitions, regardless of whether they had a concept of art. And I think if they didn't have that concept or there weren't any art, more would have to be different - arthood supervenes on other properties, just like goodness. You can't have two identical things, one good and one not good, and you can't have two identical worlds, one with art and one without. *Something else has to be different*.
Arthur B at 22:25 on 2010-04-24
Actually, I think we already live in that world. If the meaning of the term "art" is so hard to pin down, that might just be a sign that it's actually a completely meaningless concept which we've all fooled ourselves into thinking is real.

We don't have a concept of art, because nobody can define art to anyone else's satisfaction.
Andy G at 00:27 on 2010-04-25
@ Arthur: Not necessarily. There are lots of concepts we use perfectly well without being able to pin them down exactly - it's actually quite rare to be able to precisely define terms (those are atypical cases in science and mathematics, which have to work quite hard against the natural tendencies of language). So even if 'art' is just a slightly amorphous fudge of overlapping concepts, that doesn't mean it's meaningless - though it may mean that absolute proclamations that something is art are meaningless without any sort of context.

To steal a classical philosophical example: we might want to say that this lump of driftwood in a gallery is art, but this one that's just lying on the beach is not. 'Art' is being used in a meaningful way here to categorise the two objects - one has been selected and presented in an appropriate way by an artist, the other is merely there at random.
Arthur B at 13:48 on 2010-07-01
Opening up this vault again to mention that Roger Ebert has and hasn't retracted his opinions about games.

He still doesn't think they're art for him. But he concedes that they might be art for other people. And he also thinks he was daft for wading into the topic when he has no interest in it in the first place.
Guy at 08:16 on 2010-07-02
At last, at last, the validation I've been praying for! Roger Ebert, with this act you transform the future of gaming and art forever!!
Dan H at 09:11 on 2010-07-02
You joke, but the sheer amount of anger, bile and plain stupid that erupts every time a mainstream media figure suggests that hey, maybe shooting aliens in the face isn't an artform, strictly speaking, implies that a lot of people *do* draw a considerable degree of validation from the notion that games are art, and do react badly when people suggest otherwise.
Arthur B at 10:41 on 2010-07-02
I can imagine, right now, all these people shaking their heads sadly, and wondering why an otherwise intelligent man like Ebert should choose to starve himself intellectually by spurning an entire art form.

And then if you offered those people tickets to the opera or the Tate Modern or something a lot of them would turn them down on the basis that they aren't really interested in opera/modern art/whatever...
Dan H at 10:54 on 2010-07-02
Actually, I suspect if you offered a lot of them tickets to the Tate Modern they'd turn them down because "like, modern art's all bollocks isn't it."
Andy G at 12:20 on 2010-07-02
Did anyone notice the YouTube link at the bottom:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAtr7LsenJ8&feature=player_embedded#!

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel playing an early Sega motion capture boxing game ...
Jamie Johnston at 20:16 on 2010-07-02
Okay, so Ebert's thought-process is essentially this:

1. I take it as axiomatic that games are not art.
2. I must therefore find a definition of art that indisputably excludes games.
3. The only such definition I can think of is one that determines whether something is art solely by reference to its effect on my psyche.
4. It would be ludicrous to suggest that something is objectively and categorically not art purely because it fails to have that particular effect on me personally.
5. Therefore I have to accept that each person can determine whether something is art by reference to its effect on that person's own psyche.
6. Therefore there can be no objective answer to whether something is art or not: we can only say whether something is or isn't art in relation to a given person.

I would find it hard to think of a worse methodology for producing either a definition of art or a proof that games aren't it.

In fact he's basically just saying, 'You can't tell me I'm wrong because it's only my opinion and my opinion is as valid as anyone else's so LEAVE ME ALONE YOU MEANIES.'

Am I being unfair?
Andy G at 20:50 on 2010-07-02
Charitably, I can imagine a more plausible view:

1. I am confident that games are not art.
2. Just like everybody else, I can't provide an acceptable definition of art, but however you define it, it doesn't include games.
3. Certainly, games don't give rise in me to the kinds of experience I associate with art.
4. Of course, maybe they do give rise to those kinds of experience in other people.

Things that aren't art can still give rise to aesthetic or art-appreciatory experiences (like a beautiful landscape), but that doesn't necessarily make them art. Similarly, some art might not provoke those kinds of experiences, and yet still be art (bland watercolours, art designed to be ugly or obscure). I think if you take those two things apart, you can make a fair point out of what he's saying.
Jamie Johnston at 22:28 on 2010-07-02
Ah, I confess to misreading 'I concluded without a definition that satisfied me' for basically exactly the opposite. So I was being unfair. However he does rather invite it by implicitly adopting his definition anyway when he goes on to say, 'I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.' There and in the rest of the paragraph he does seem to be fairly clearly saying that if games make gamers feel like Huckleberry Finn makes him feel then games actually are art in relation to them.

So, Andy, I can't fully sign up to your reading. It feels like he sort of wants to say what you've suggested, and if he'd said that then that would be fine; indeed I'd say kudos to him for admitting that his position is based on feelings that he can't fully justify or explain, and thus although he isn't prepared to say that his position is wrong he also accepts that he can't really support it with argument. And that does seem to be the general tenor of the article. But then at the end he says the other thing.
Andy G at 00:11 on 2010-07-03
It wasn't so much a reading as a suggestion what he *should* have said ;)
Dan H at 12:15 on 2010-07-03

1. I take it as axiomatic that games are not art.
2. I must therefore find a definition of art that indisputably excludes games.


I think you're being a bit unfair to Ebert here.

I don't actually think two follows from one at all. Something we got into upthread was the distinction between "video games are not necessarily art" and "video games are necessarily not art".

I've always read the debate as being about whether video games are *necessarily* art, because otherwise the whole debate - to me - makes no sense.

It is demonstrably true that a tin of Campbell's soup *can be* art, but nobody goes around saying "tins of soup are art." Similarly it is certainly possible for a particular work of art to take the form of a video game (Ebert admits this, although he playfully admits that you could achieve this by leaving the game in its wrapper and putting it in a box in an art gallery), but that is not the same as video games "being" art in the way that the games-are-art lobby believe they "are" art.

So I kind of read the whole thing the other way around to Jamie. Basically outraged geekdom turned around to Ebert and said "Well we think games are art and we think you're a BIG MEANIE for saying they're not and that is OUR OPINION and OPINIONS CAN'T BE WRONG" and Ebert has finally got to the point where he's saying "okay, whatevs".
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 17:41 on 2010-07-03
Okay, but the statement "[XXXX] is not necessarily art" is almost certainly true for any medium you'd care to name. Film is not necessarily art. Music is not necessarily art. Printed words are not necessarily art. Illustration is not necessarily art. Video games are not necessarily art.

Similarly, the statement "[XXXX] is necessarily not art" is almost certainly false for just about any medium you'd care to name, including video games.

If all Ebert is saying is "There are many video games which are not art", well, that's a bit obvious, and we start to wonder why he'd bother to say something as trite as that. Especially when it's equally true of films, books, TV shows, and drawings.

Could it be, as he EXPLICITLY STATED three months ago, that video games can never be art? He specifically stated that video games are not now and can never be art. I quote: "I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art." (Emphasis Ebert's.)

It sounds a lot like Ebert's original statements were hard on the "Video games are necessarily not art" side of things, which is a lot more inflammatory than "Video games are not necessarily art." You'd have to pretty willfully ignore the explicit thesis presented in Ebert's original and restated arguments to think that he's not making the claim "Video games are necessarily not art."

(He goes on to qualify that in some unimaginably distant future, they might become art, but he certainly doesn't care about that possibility.)

As you might imagine, in the face of statements like "In principle, video games cannot be art", people will tend to get angry and defend them with statements just as extreme. Especially when statements like "Video games are necessarily not art" are so closely associated, in mental space, with statements like "Video games are necessarily a less worthwhile experience than the things I personally spend my time thinking about." I don't think it's too much of a stretch to attribute that corollary to Ebert.

It seems that Ebert's retraction is essentially "Fine, it's not the case that video games are necessarily not art, it's that video games are not necessarily art." Which, okay, cool.

====

Although curiously nobody managed to actually point [Ebert] at any titles that changed his mind.


Thread necromancy, sorry if this specific statement from the original article has been dissected already, but now we know why: Because he never actually bothered to play any of the games people pointed him at, even when they made it as easy as possible for him to do so. Unsurprisingly, when you axiomatically refuse to play video games, no example of a video game is going to convince you of anything.

And, again, that's part of why Ebert outraged the geek fandom. He said not only "Video games are necessarily not art," but also "I refuse to play video games." There's a lot of unpleasantness associated with that pair of sentiments, and perhaps one of them is a reinforcement of the whole "Video games are necessarily less a less worthwhile experience than the things I personally spend my time thinking about" corollary.
Dan H at 13:11 on 2010-07-04
Okay, but the statement "[XXXX] is not necessarily art" is almost certainly true for any medium you'd care to name. Film is not necessarily art. Music is not necessarily art. Printed words are not necessarily art. Illustration is not necessarily art. Video games are not necessarily art.


True, but one of those categories is not like the others.

The reason "film" is not necessarily art is that "film" could mean "cinema" or could mean "footage from security cameras". "Printed words" could mean "novels" or could mean "road signs". Pretty much every argument I've seen for why games *are* art boils down to "video games are art because they have elements in common with other things that people think are art" which is roughly like arguing "road signs are art because they have elements in common with novels".

Nobody is arguing that *things animated on a computer* can't be art (Pixar movies are created entirely on a computer, and I'm sure Ebert would say they count as art). What they are saying (or, more specifically, what *I* am saying, to be honest I don't really care what Roger Ebert thinks) is that video games are not art, in the same way that road signs are not art.

Could it be, as he EXPLICITLY STATED three months ago, that video games can never be art? He specifically stated that video games are not now and can never be art. I quote: "I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art." (Emphasis Ebert's.)


This is getting into extremely difficult semantic territory now, but I think there's a difference between "cannot be" and "are necessarily not" because one is the language of formal logic and the other isn't.

Obviously I am not Roger Ebert, but I suspect that when he says "video games cannot be art" what he means is "understanding video games in terms of art is pointless". Nobody who knows anything about art would suggest that there is a single thing which "cannot be" art in a formal, logical sense (that there are things which are *necessarily not* art) because that would imply that something could be excluded from being a work of art simply by containing some arbitrary element.

If canned-soup drinkers worldwide decided to get a bee in their bonnets about soup being art, insisting that soup had to be taken seriously as an artistic medium and informing mainstream art critics that they had to try *this specific can of soup* because that would *explain everything* those art critics would be perfectly within their rights to say "a tin of soup cannot be art" and this statement would be perfectly reasonable and justified. Of course there is, in fact a famous work of art which is exactly that but that isn't the point.

To put it another way, Ebert's statement basically had two levels: firstly that no game existed which could meaningfully be described as art (and I would argue that he's right) and secondly that there are specific reasons why this is the case (and I happen to agree with his specific reasons).

What I don't understand is why gamers feel the need to put the "art" label on their hobby in order to justify it. Ebert attributes this to insecurity, and I am inclined to agree with him.
Jamie Johnston at 13:52 on 2010-07-04
Forgive me for being pedantic, but since it keeps coming up can I suggest that Warhol's stuff is not the most helpful example of put-it-in-a-gallery-and-it's-art art? 'Cause, the thing is, I don't think he ever actually put a can of soup in a gallery: they were paintings of cans of soup, which isn't really pushing the boundaries of what can claim to be art any more than paintings of silver jugs, for example. Warhol did make actual replicas of other products, but even those were painted blocks of wood or whatever: he didn't just buy the actual things and then display them.

The classic example of something not made as art but displayed as art is Fountain, although even that isn't a perfect example because he signs it, and there's some dispute as to whether it was bought as a urinal or specially manufactured by Duchamp. Possibly an even purer illustration of the 'X can be art but that doesn't mean all X are art' is Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre, otherwise known to British tabloid-readers as 'the Tate's pile of bricks', because it is unquestionably made of bricks that were produced as functional objects for building buildings with. But even that isn't ideal because they were arranged in a particular way by the artist, and are therefore on exactly the same spectrum as particles of paint arranged in a particular way by Leonardo da Vinci. (How dare he call it art? He just bought those paints from a paint-shop and plonked them on the canvas!)

It's kind of a tricky one to find a really spot-on example of something that is art purely by virtue of being displayed as such without any alteration, arrangement, or combination. Which may or may not say something about the arguments that one is trying to use such works to illustrate. I'm not sure because I've confused myself now.
Dan H at 14:11 on 2010-07-04
Fair point.

Tracy Emin's bed might be a better example (since it's literally a bed). Found object art is probably an even better example.

The broader point being that while it is theoretically possible for something to be simultaneously "a work of art" and "a videogame" that doesn't make "video games are art" a useful statement any more than "urinals are art" or "bricks are art" is a sensible statement (or even, for that matter, "paint is art").

Mostly here I'm just reiterating what I said in the original article (because, well, I still think I'm right), which is that the reason I don't think video games are art is that video games are *already a thing* and therefore don't need to be defined as art in order to understand them better.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 17:43 on 2010-07-04
Video games are superficially pretty similar to films. They certainly have more in common with films than they do with road signs or cans of soup. They possess a lot of the things we traditionally associate with art. They can be beautiful, they can tell a story, they can evoke emotions, they can present didactic points, they can be very difficult to understand, they can be very difficult for poor people to approach.

Either there's something about interactivity that is a fundamental barrier to something being art, or most people are simply more certain that video games are not art than they are certain that their own definition of art is correct.

Ultimately, I'm not sure why your argument isn't just "The concept of 'art' is meaningless, whether applied to video games or film or books." I mean, why aren't films "already a thing"? Don't we understand films well enough to define them in terms other than "art"? Ditto paintings. If all we have is this incredibly fuzzy notion of art as...uh, something, maybe, I don't know...but we actually have rather clearer notions of what makes a film good and what makes a video game good, how does the concept of "art" enhance our understanding of any medium?

====

Because no one arguing that games are not art have been able to provide anything approaching a satisfactory definition of art that video games don't measure up to, other than ex post facto statements like "art cannot be interactive" or "art cannot contain resource management", it has to seem like the argument is not actually rooted in what "art" is. Which is why I think it's more revealing to recast the argument in terms of the obvious corollaries: "Video games are a legitimate aesthetic/narrative/emotional experience", "Video games cannot be a legitimate aesthetic/narrative/emotional experience."

And yeah, when respected cultural barometers like Roger Ebert start saying "Video games cannot be a legitimate aesthetic/narrative/emotional experience", people get insecure and defensive about it. After thirty-odd years, the main conceptions of "gamer" are the ones in NCIS and The Guild. Angling to define games as art is an attempt, I think a fairly justifiable attempt, to claim a legitimacy for the activity.

Unless, of course, you think that playing video games is just as illegitimate a pastime as sitting around staring at road signs.
Jamie Johnston at 19:00 on 2010-07-04
@ Dan: I'm afraid Emin's notorious bed isn't much more helpful than any of the others I mentioned. The piece was reported in the press as simply an unmade bed with a rug next to it and lots of stuff like slippers, used tissues, &c. If that had been correct, there would still be the fact that the artist arranged those things in relation to one another. But if it's really true (which I doubt) that Emin exercised no control over the arrangement at all but simply replicated the exact arrangement of items she had in her bedroom on a given occasion, then it would be very close to the hypothetical 'thing that was not art caused to be art solely by virtue of being displayed as art'. However, actually the piece contains another element that, bafflingly, went completely unmentioned in all media coverage and isn't even obvious in any of the many pictures that a Google image-search brings up because all the photographs are taken from the wrong side. Next to the bed are two suitcases strapped and tied together, closed, with ropes and chains. (You can just see them on the far side of the bed in this picture.) No one but Emin herself connected to a lie-detector machine will ever convince me that she just happened to have a chained-up pair of suitcases next to her bed in her actual bedroom.

But anyway, you're right, the difficulty of finding an actual example doesn't really harm the point. It is perfectly possible to imagine a non-art object that becomes art solely because of the way it's displayed, and similarly it's perfectly possible to imagine that a game, like anything else, could become art in that way, the point being that it wouldn't, in that case, be art in virtue of being a game and wouldn't prove that games quá games can be art.

@ Webcomcon:

Either there's something about interactivity that is a fundamental barrier to something being art, or most people are simply more certain that video games are not art than they are certain that their own definition of art is correct.

I think there's another way in which one could reasonably (if not necessarily correctly: I have no fixed opinion on the subject) argue that games can't be art without actually having a clear definition of art.

The contrast between art-object and game is arguably parallel (it seems to me) to the contrast between art-object and utilitarian object. And for great swathes of European history it's been widely believed, and is still widely believed, that a water-jug, for example, even if it be beautiful, tell a story, evoke emotion, and do all the other things you mention, cannot be art for the sole and sufficient reason that it has a utilitarian purpose and is being used or is readily capable of being used for that purpose. So, if that view is valid, one could reasonably suggest that a game cannot be art for the sole and sufficient reason that its purpose is play and it is being used or is readily capable of being used for play.

One can argue this without actually needing to define what art is: one need only posit that art has a characteristic central purpose (whatever that may be) and that for something to be a form of art it's necessary for it to have no central purpose (or even no purpose at all) other than that. Which would be, according to this argument, why a urinal is not art unless it's put on display as art, thus stopping it being used or being readily capable of being used for what it was originally made for.

So it wouldn't be a question of 'there's something about interactivity that is a fundamental barrier to something being art' but more like 'things cannot be art whose central purpose is usefulness, or play, or anything other than doing whatever the central purpose of art is'. That may or may not be a correct or helpful analysis but I think it's one that needs to be answered by anyone who wants to class games as a form of art, and it probably needs to be answered in a way that explains why enjoying a game as an aesthetic and emotional experience is different from enjoying a water-jug as an aesthetic and emotional experience. If you see what I mean.
Arthur B at 19:02 on 2010-07-04
Video games are superficially pretty similar to films. They certainly have more in common with films than they do with road signs or cans of soup. They possess a lot of the things we traditionally associate with art. They can be beautiful, they can tell a story, they can evoke emotions, they can present didactic points, they can be very difficult to understand, they can be very difficult for poor people to approach.

Um.

Are you saying that "more difficult to understand = more artistic"?

Are you saying that "difficult for poor people to get to grips with = more artistic"?

I have serious problems with both stances but I don't want to snarl at you unless you are, in fact, implying what you seem to be implying there.
Jamie Johnston at 19:04 on 2010-07-04
Addendum: It's also worth noting that the line of thinking I've just sketched would also suggest a way to legitimize the enjoyment of games, if that really needs to be done, without classing them as a form of art, which is just to say that they are a form of play and play is in itself a legitimate and indeed very necessary part of human life.
Arthur B at 19:18 on 2010-07-04
Addendum: It's also worth noting that the line of thinking I've just sketched would also suggest a way to legitimize the enjoyment of games, if that really needs to be done, without classing them as a form of art, which is just to say that they are a form of play and play is in itself a legitimate and indeed very necessary part of human life.

This is very much my feeling. To take a non-electronic example for a second, a chess set, finely crafted by a skilled artisan, can be an artistic object if it's displayed for people to ooh and aah at in a museum. But an actual game of chess, I would argue, isn't a work of at. The purpose of the two players isn't to move the pieces in pretty patterns for the edification and enrichment of the audience, it's to try and beat each other in accordance with the rules, using all the skill and chess knowledge available to them. They are not approaching the matter as artists, but as strategists.

At the same time, you'd have to be pretty heartless to say that chess is a complete waste of time.

Which brings me back to what webcomcon said:

Unless, of course, you think that playing video games is just as illegitimate a pastime as sitting around staring at road signs.

What, exactly, would be an "illegitimate pastime"? If a sign-starer gets as much out of road signs as a gamer gets out of games or a film fan gets out of movies, who cares?
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 19:24 on 2010-07-04
@Arthur - Should've put something there to indicate sarcasm. Sorry.
Sister Magpie at 21:23 on 2010-07-04

Unless, of course, you think that playing video games is just as
illegitimate a pastime as sitting around staring at road signs.



This keeps getting tacked on to "is not art" but I don't understand art. Yes, Roger Ebert doesn't seem to have much interest in playing video games, but that doesn't make "they're not art" a code word for that. Most people would consider tennis, gardening or sex art but they're not less legitimate uses of time than painting. (I'd also suspect that RE would say he likes watching movies whether or not he considers the movie in question art.)
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 22:14 on 2010-07-04
What, exactly, would be an "illegitimate pastime"? If a sign-starer gets as much out of road signs as a gamer gets out of games or a film fan gets out of movies, who cares?


Defining terms is clearly not in the cards, as far as this discussion is concerned.

*sighs* Sorry, trite snapping isn't going to make any points or endear me to anyone. I'm leaving it there, though, because I want to make the point: I think it's a lot more important to be able to coherently define "art" than it is to coherently define "legitimate pastime".

And I snap because I don't particularly have a definition, other than that "watching films" has a social acceptability that "playing video games" doesn't. Does that acceptability have anything to do with the status of films as art? Perhaps not.

Probably the reason I recast the argument in terms of "it's acceptable to play video games" is because, like I said, the statement "Video games are not necessarily art" is blindingly obviously true and the statement "Video games are necessarily not art" is blindingly obviously false. It seems more plausible that this is really an argument over the legitimacy of video games as a medium, and being labelled art seems strongly correlated with how acceptable a narrative medium is. Or, you know, maybe not.

I think there is some insecurity on the part of gamers, and I don't think it's an unjustified insecurity. Probably trying to get games labelled art isn't the best way of dealing with that.
Arthur B at 22:30 on 2010-07-04
I think there is some insecurity on the part of gamers, and I don't think it's an unjustified insecurity. Probably trying to get games labelled art isn't the best way of dealing with that.

I agree with the idea that labelling games as art isn't a brilliant way to deal with geek shame. To pull examples from various thread participants: chess, gardening, tennis, sex, and producing and eating canned soup are all activities which you could describe as not being "art" without looking ridiculous. They're all entirely socially acceptable.

To be honest, I think trying to invoke games-as-art to counteract negative stereotypes about gamers is almost entirely counterproductive; it doesn't actually address the stereotypes or the misconceptions they are based on, and it just sounds kind of pompous. "Actually, pretty much everyone I know who plays World of Warcraft has a steady job and an active social life as well" is ultimately more convincing, for me, than "You philistines don't understand! Raiding isn't a waste of time, it's a performance! It's no different from an electronically-implemented ballet!"
Jamie Johnston at 23:01 on 2010-07-04
Defining terms is clearly not in the cards, as far as this discussion is concerned.

Sorry if I've given that impression as far as I'm concerned. I find defining terms rather fun, so I'm always game for a bit of that (as was evident from last week's Text Factor). But also I took what I think was the realistic view that we aren't going to come up with a satisfactory definition of art in this particular comments-thread, or indeed, most likely, in this particular year, so it seemed worth pointing out that one doesn't have to come up with a complete definition of art in order to mount a plausible 'games cannot be art' argument.
Andy G at 23:09 on 2010-07-04
I've been to an aesthetics conference this week so I'm going to go all philosophical here. Please bear with me ;)

It's kind of a tricky one to find a really spot-on example of something that is art purely by virtue of being displayed as such without any alteration, arrangement, or combination.


The famous philosophical example is driftwood art. However, even then the driftwood has been selected and presented by an artist - but I think that's OK, because it seems that some of intervention on the part of an artist is necessary for something to be art. The driftwood in the museum may be physically indistinguishable from some driftwood on the beach, but that's not relevant to whether it's art or not.

Regarding the whole definition of art thing: there are two main approaches.

One is to say that calling something 'art' is like knighting someone - it's a matter of conferring a certain social status. To discover whether something/someone is art or is a knight, it's no good asking about the thing's/person's intrisnic properties - you have to ask whether the appropriate process has taken place: has the person been knighted by the queen? has it been recognised and sanctioned as art by society or a nebulous subset thereof?

Another approach is to say it's a bit like 'games' or 'chairs' - you can't define art in terms of any single property or cluster of properties, but there is a fuzzy, overlapping group of functions and properties.

In either case, you can't settle whether something is art purely by saying it has a particular feature or lacks it. It's also arguably not really worth getting especially upset about whether edge cases are really art, or whether something that SHOULD have been conferred the social status of art hasn't. The only difference it makes is that an artwork is being put forward as a candidate for certain approaches that people take to art - for instance, interpretation, contemplation, edification. Nothing really prevents you applying those approaches to other things if you really want. Lots of people interpret clouds by looking for faces and pictures, and nobody says that clouds are art, and lots of people are stunned by natural beauty or the elegance of a game of chess without saying that it's art.

So, basically, there's no pithy algorithm for saying if something's art - but that isn't to say you can't define it. It's just not a very interesting question. The more interesting question is whether any games DO have any artistic or aesthetic value.


http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 23:21 on 2010-07-04
Having just spent six hours playing Just Cause 2, I can say with great confidence that it has aesthetic value by the bucketload.

Thinking about art as knighting, that would mean that games aren't art, but in such a way that there's nothing wrong with games therefore--it's just an artifact of the current configuration of society, and if enough gamers become reputable journalists and critics, things will swing the other way.

It would also mean, like Dan said, that it's pretty daft to look at "games" and "art" as correlated, positively or negatively, and that they're simply unrelated concepts. On the other hand, the same would be true of "films" and "art", "novels" and "art", "music" and "art", and so forth.

Looking at "art" in terms of concepts and properties and functions and a symptomatic approach, you could then begin to make a definitive claim, as Ebert does, that games are not art, will never be art, and in fact in principle can not be art. Unfortunately, Ebert's approach was to say "games cannot, in principle, be art", and after that proceed to identify a required exclusionary principle. That shouldn't be satisfactory to anyone.

====

As far as geek shame is concerned, I think the pitfall of "games are art" is that it's fairly plausible. Games really do look quite a lot like narrative art. Video games, to me, certainly seem a lot closer to film than sport. After all, people keep developing new video games, and producing them and publishing them, much as people keep making new movies and writing new books and recording new music, but in an entirely different fashion than happens in sports or chess or cards. Video games have stories, characters, all the trappings of narrative. It seems superficially plausible to say "Well, just as films are a narrative experience, so can games be. After all, what artistic merit can a film possess that a video game can't?". I certainly think that the comparison between video games and other narrative media is a great damn deal closer than any comparison between street signs and novels.

Doesn't mean that it's still a particularly useful comparison when it comes to legitimating the activity.
Frank at 08:58 on 2010-07-05
To me, video games aren't art, no matter how beautiful the narrative or visuals. Art, overall, is useless. Art (paintings, books, film, music, etc.) serve no purpose other than to be observed. Game isn't art. It's a craft, and crafts are meant to be used whether the craftsmen/women work for Steinway or BioWare. The art comes from the user, the player of the piano or of the game, as witnessed by another. I suppose the player of either can be alone and thinking that their play is art, but that's just a bit too self congratulatory for my tastes no matter how superior the player.

Of course, the use of some crafts may rarely be considered artful. Who cares how gracefully one can turn on a Tiffany? No one. But stumbling on someone kicking ass at Alouette or Astroids, how he navigates the keys or how she navigates the spaceship can be some amazing art!


But an actual game of chess, I would argue, isn't a work of at. The purpose of the two players isn't to move the pieces in pretty patterns for the edification and enrichment of the audience, it's to try and beat each other in accordance with the rules, using all the skill and chess knowledge available to them. They are not approaching the matter as artists, but as strategists.

A game of chess can be a work of art. It doesn't matter that there are rules, music has rules as well. It doesn't matter what the intent of the player is either, it's the observer that matters. JKR apparently said something about not writing fantasy, the reader might say otherwise.

Is there some axiom to art, where art can only exist if there's something shitty in the same medium? That what makes a piece art is the piece's aesthetic rarity in the medium? People have seen or produce crap paintings or played crap chess. And then there's Norman Rockwell and Bobby Fischer.
Arthur B at 10:40 on 2010-07-05
A game of chess can be a work of art. It doesn't matter that there are rules, music has rules as well. It doesn't matter what the intent of the player is either, it's the observer that matters. JKR apparently said something about not writing fantasy, the reader might say otherwise.

I think this analogy is a bit too much of a stretch. JKR may have said she wasn't writing fantasy, but she never claimed that she wasn't writing a book.
Andy G at 12:32 on 2010-07-05
I agree with Arthur, art becomes a fairly meaningless term if it's just applied to anything that's beautiful and inspiring.

I also strongly disagree with the claim that 'art, overall, is useless'. Lots of artworks are created for very specific purposes: moral edification, pressuring for political change, granting insight or knowledge. Many artworks are also designed for far more than just observation - every piece of architecture, for example. All sorts of ceremonial objects or music. Greek tragedies served a religious function. The art of rhetoric was used for all sorts of purposes. Large installation pieces create an atmosphere or environment rather than being a single object that is simply there to be observed.

I think, incidentally, that Ebert's claim makes much more sense if it is understood as 'computer games are a poor storytelling medium'. This implies 'computer games cannot be art' if their claim to being art is based on their suitabilty for telling stories.
Dan H at 12:39 on 2010-07-05
@Jamie

But if it's really true (which I doubt) that Emin exercised no control over the arrangement at all but simply replicated the exact arrangement of items she had in her bedroom on a given occasion, then it would be very close to the hypothetical 'thing that was not art caused to be art solely by virtue of being displayed as art'.


For what it's worth, I don't think that I ever said that things were art purely by virtue of being presented as such, what I said was:

1. Tracy Emin's bed is clearly still a bed, whatever else it may be
2. Its being a bed in no way prevents it from being art
3. Its status as art in no way implies that beds in general are art

I might also add 4: Bed manufacturers should not be using Tracy Emin's Bed as a guide to how to make better beds.
Dan H at 13:08 on 2010-07-05
@webcomcon

Defining terms is clearly not in the cards, as far as this discussion is concerned.


No, it's not. The reason it's not is because defining "art" is functionally impossible.

You cannot create a definition of "art" which excludes video games. You also cannot create a definition of "art" which excludes textbooks, potato chips, or heroin. Definitions are far less useful than people believe.

The nature of art (at least as she is understood in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) is that nothing can be included or excluded from the category as a consequence of its including (or excluding) a single property or quality. Many things which are art contain printed words, but so do many things which are not art. Many things which are art contain images, but so do many things which are not art. Art can be aesthetically pleasing, but so can many things which are not art. Art can affect your emotions, but so can many things which are not art.

You can't define "art" by saying "something is art if it contains n of the following properties" - you will inevitably wind up with something slipping through the cracks, or something getting defined as art which nobody thinks *is* art.

The reason I'm skeptical about video-games-as-art is because the arguments for why they *are* art all hinge on them having qualities in common with other art-forms which:

1. Have little or nothing to do with gameplay

and

2. Are frequently *undermined* by gameplay

Let's take storytelling as an example. Video games tell stories just like books or movies tell stories, except that in a video game you frequently have to stop, reload, play the same segments over again, and so on.

This is pretty much the area where Ebert observed that games *couldn't* be art by virtue of their interactivity, and in this case he was totally right (as the article linked upthread about Heavy Rain points out). From the viewpoint of pure storytelling, gameplay is an unnecessary distraction. If the story requires that a particular villain be killed, making me do a "boss fight" to achieve it is unhelpful - it will break immersion and damage narrative flow. You could take the gameplay elements out, and you'd get a better *story*, but you then wouldn't have a *game*.

Just to be clear, here I'm not saying that video games can't be art because they're interactive. A great many works of art *are* interactive (performance art, improv, psychodrama) - hell I'd even argue that "games" like /Passage/ and /Freedom Bridge/ count because their interactivity *supports* what they're doing rather than undermining it. What I'm saying is that interactivity specifically rules out the option of games being art *by virtue of their similarity to linear storytelling*.

Again you could *theoretically imagine* a work of art in which gameplay obstacles were placed between the player and the art-object itself, but I have personally never seen one, and I suspect there's a good reason for that.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 19:44 on 2010-07-05
@Dan - Thanks, that actually clarifies things quite a bit. It's more helpful for me to think of that not as a statement of "Here's why games are incapable of being art", so much as a statement of "Here's why the 'games are narrative art just like films and plays' argument breaks down."

As another example of a game where the interactivity supports the narrative, Bioshock and "would you kindly?". Even if you don't think that the twist worked particularly well, it worked much better in the context of an interactive linear video game than it would've in a noninteractive form.

However, these tend to be pretty rare, and even then that particular twist is quite a small subset of the game itself, and that game is quite a small subset of games generally. To the point where if we want to make a general statement about video games as narrative vehicles, anything positive along those lines will inevitably focus on a few tiny fragments of a very small handful of games.

Your argument also seems to point out that any argument "Video games are not art" will have to be reactive, because it's impossible to define art sufficiently clearly to make any statements about what is in principal excluded from it. You simply have to defuse the arguments the "Video games totally are art" people make.

====

The example of "Video games can totally be art--just put a case on a plinth, hehehe" bugs me for a couple reasons. One of them is that the immediate response is "But that's not even remotely the sense that we think of them as art", to which of course you just say "That's exactly our point, you're wrong about video games as art!" which is stupid.

The other thing is that putting a DVD case on a plinth and labelling it "Video Game" isn't actually a video game as art--it's a lump of plastic as art, which might contain a video game (when the lump has been sufficiently processed by a different lump of plastic and metal). Like you've pointed out, Dan, the video game is something less concrete than the physical storage that houses the video game.
Jamie Johnston at 23:36 on 2010-07-05
@ Dan:

For what it's worth, I don't think that I ever said that things were art purely by virtue of being presented as such, what I said was:

1. Tracy Emin's bed is clearly still a bed, whatever else it may be
2. Its being a bed in no way prevents it from being art
3. Its status as art in no way implies that beds in general are art

Yes, but there's a necessary but unstated assertion there:

0. Tracey Emin's bed is art.

And the problem is that it isn't, which makes the rest of the argument faulty. The bed isn't the art, the bed is just a component of a work of art that consists of a number of components in a unique spatial arrangement. Likewise the can of soup isn't art because the work of art is actually 32 paintings of cans of soup, the urinal isn't art except in so far as it's signed as if it were a painting, which is the whole point of the piece, and so on.

What I'm saying is that really the example can only work if the work of art consists solely and entirely of something that we would not consider a work of art if we encountered it in a different context. Otherwise you can't say 'object X is art', because there are things that have gone into the work of art, such as alteration or combination with other things, other than object X, meaning that the work of art isn't coterminous with object X. So although you haven't said that things were art purely by virtue of being presented as such, I'm suggesting that the way you're trying to use works of art as examples can only be valid with works of art that are art purely by virtue of being presented as such.

I don't feel I've explained that terribly clearly, sorry. But there it is. For pulling the discussion off into this side-alley I'm also kind of sorry and kind of not. Kind of sorry because we can perfectly easily imagine a hypothetical example (like Andy's driftwood one) that will make your argument work fine, which means that this tangent is irrelevant to the question whether the argument itself is valid. But also kind of not sorry, because using Campbell's soup cans or My bed (or Equivalent VIII or Fountain, neither of which you used but which are commonly used in this way) as examples of artists just taking non-art objects and putting them in art galleries and calling them art does actually misrepresent the artists' work and also, even though I know you yourself didn't mean in any way to devalue those works by mistakenly implying that that's how they were made, does risk feeding the Daily Mail attitude that modern art is made without skill, thought, or creativity.
Jamie Johnston at 23:59 on 2010-07-05
@ Frank:

To complement Andy's questioning of the idea that art is useless, can I question your implied claim that games are useful? When we call something useful or say that it is used, we generally mean that one interacts with or experiences the thing in order to achieve some ulterior purpose. You generally use a chair in order to sit down, use a knife in order to divide something into smaller parts, use a pen to write with, and so on. (Forgive me for not engaging with your example: I don't know what 'a Tiffany' is!) But you don't use a game in order to do anything: the game is its own end and you enjoy it for itself. In that respect games are more similar to works of art than they are to utilitarian objects: you engage with them principally in order to enjoy the experience of engaging with them, not in order to get something else done. So I don't think you can really say that games can't be art because art is useless and games are not useless: games are just as useless as art is (or isn't - see Andy's comment), but arguably in a different way.

The 'different way' is what I think Arthur was talking about when he said a game of chess isn't a work of art. Think of your comparison between a piano and a chess-set or a copy of a computer game. The person who plays the piano is producing music for the enjoyment of people who are not participating in causing the music to unfold. (Of course the pianist can also enjoy listening to music she's playing, but even so there's a distinction between the enjoyment of hearing the music and the act of playing it: she can do one without doing the other, and vice versá.) But the playing of the computer game or the game of chess produce enjoyment principally or exclusively for the player because she is playing the game. The playing of the game is the source of the enjoyment: merely observing the game being played may be enjoyable but is not the main and characteristic way of enjoying a game. To put it roughly, a game is something you principally enjoy by causing it to happen, whereas a piece of music is something you principally enjoy by experiencing someone else causing it to happen.
Frank at 07:02 on 2010-07-06
I also strongly disagree with the claim that 'art, overall, is useless'. Lots of artworks are created for very specific purposes: moral edification, pressuring for political change, granting insight or knowledge. Many artworks are also designed for far more than just observation - every piece of architecture, for example.

I fail at rhetoric. By useless, I mean designed without the intent to be utilized. Quilts, tables, vases, pianos are crafted to be utilized. Or as Jamie suggested, knives. Tiffany is a company known mostly for their pretty lamps, so I was saying it's hard to make turning on a switch look skillful. Knives, however, can look amazing in the right hands. Games are created to be utilized (played) and thus aren't art (to me) but are craft.

What makes architecture of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Burj Khalifa more than something to look at, something that can be utilized, is the engineering. Also, and I could be wrong, I don't think the architecture of the Arc de Triomphe or the Peace Arch serves any purpose other than to be observed.


Greek tragedies served a religious function. The art of rhetoric was used for all sorts of purposes.

The Art of Rhetoric. I don't know how the ancient Greeks thought of art or of oration, but if you are referring to any sort speechifying to inspire troops or persuade voters or instill fear in congregations, then... I don't know. Quite a while back, I belonged to an international speech club. Each year there would be various contests. I competed in the humorous speech contest and successfully made it to the final round which encompassed several states and a providence where I choked but had a good time despite several speeches being about the speaker losing one of his balls to cancer. (At least I scored high in originality. le sigh ) I never once thought what I or anyone else was doing was art. Maybe that's because funny gets a bad rap for not being an authentic (art? genre??) whatever. I wonder if generals, politicians, and preachers ever think they're orating art or if the listeners think they're hearing it.

With regards to Greek tragedies, they may have been designed to serve some function, but at the time they were created did the people of the time consider it art? I don't know. If lessons were involved, maybe they thought of the plays as we do text books. It's how I think of a Christmas pageant or Passion play.


To put it roughly, a game is something you principally enjoy by causing it to happen, whereas a piece of music is something you principally enjoy by experiencing someone else causing it to happen.

Here's my attempt at defining art. Art is the observation/recognition of skill within some medium like kazoo, canvas, granite or game. Some art is a finished product like a painting or a sculpture. Other art is an experience over time like listening to a folk solo or watching a game of chess. One goes to a concert or chess tournament for the same reason, to witness the skill being played.


This was written throughout the day with many loving interruptions. Apologies for any incoherency and inconsistency. And with luck, I can address those after a bit of sleep.
Dan H at 11:50 on 2010-07-06
Yes, but there's a necessary but unstated assertion there:

0. Tracey Emin's bed is art.

And the problem is that it isn't, which makes the rest of the argument faulty. The bed isn't the art, the bed is just a component of a work of art that consists of a number of components in a unique spatial arrangement.


I see what you mean.

Perhaps here it would be worth addressing the argument backwards: the artwork /My Bed/ by Tracy Emin still functions as a bed. The artwork as a whole, therefore, could still be considered to be a bed (although using it as such might damage the unique spatial arrangement of the artwork, which might therefore destroy its value as art depending on how you cut it).

Again I'm *not* suggesting that things are rendered art merely by being presented as such (that would be reductionist and oversimplistic), I'm arguing that something can be *both* a work of art *and* some other thing (like a bed, a urinal, or a pile of bricks or - for that matter, a collection of oil paints on a canvas), and that things are neither disqualified from, nor qualified as art purely on the basis of their composition.
Jamie Johnston at 19:57 on 2010-07-06
Agreed. :)
Andy G at 20:53 on 2010-07-06
@ Frank: I'm not sure I understand how you're using the word utilised here. A TV is utilised for a purpose by being observed without being art, for example, and military arches/religious paintings serve the functions of glorifying a nation or deity. Also, observation is just one way of interacting with art - interpreting it, adding to it, creating it in the first place, interacting with it or participating in it. Just think of all the different kinds of art.

Rhetoric: I was referring to the Ancient Greek/Roman stuff. I also don't know much about it, but it did produce various works generally considered art.

Here's my attempt at defining art. Art is the observation/recognition of skill within some medium like kazoo, canvas, granite or game. Some art is a finished product like a painting or a sculpture. Other art is an experience over time like listening to a folk solo or watching a game of chess. One goes to a concert or chess tournament for the same reason, to witness the skill being played.


Just a few questions about this definition - what about artworks that are never observed by anyone? What about *bad* art that doesn't display skill? What about art that isn't based on principles of skill (depending exactly how you're defining that) - Surrealist automatic art for example, or all sorts of other Modernist art that downplays the importance of the artist?
Jamie Johnston at 18:25 on 2010-07-07
Rhetoric: I was referring to the Ancient Greek/Roman stuff. I also don't know much about it, but it did produce various works generally considered art.

Like my previous quibble, this may not matter, but I really can't think of any product of Greek or Roman rhetoric that would be generally considered art. As far as I know they're generally considered speeches.

The phrase 'the art of rhetoric' may be misleading because, although widely used, it's originally a very literal translation of the Latin phrase 'ars rhetorica', and ars in Latin is a skill or a craft, not necessarily a form of art in the sense we're discussing.
Andy G at 19:43 on 2010-07-07

Like my previous quibble, this may not matter, but I really can't think of any product of Greek or Roman rhetoric that would be generally considered art. As far as I know they're generally considered speeches.


Fair enough, I shall bow to your superior knowledge of all things classical!
Here are some very well argued points on the subject.
"Can Games be Art?", and other Childish Nonsense

On the Genealogy of "Art Games": A Polemic - This one is very long.

Arthur B at 04:56 on 2010-12-27
- Writes under the pseudonym of "Alex Kierkegaard".
- Writes essays with Nietzsche quotes at the beginning.
- Writes eye-wateringly nasty rants loaded with misogynistic language on the subject of how the author of Sexy Videogameland is a "two-bit fuckin' slut".

Yeah, I think I know all I need to know about this guy.
Andy G at 12:39 on 2010-12-27
Nothing wrong with Nietzsche quotes! Baldur's Gate starts with a Nietzsche quote!

Misogynist rants are another thing entirely.
Arthur B at 13:12 on 2010-12-27
I confess to being mildly suspicious of things which start with Nietzsche quotes. It tends to make me think the person deploying the quote is either trying to look clever rather than just getting on with it and being clever.

Also, if you need to lead off with a Nietzsche quote in order to convey the point you want to convey, you didn't work hard enough to actually get your idea across in your actual essay. And if your essay does in fact get the point across perfectly well, you don't need to drag Nietzsche in at the beginning to back you up.

In other words, it's the sort of thing which is only necessary if you're incompetent, and therefore a bad sign. Not enough to condemn whatever the quote is attached to sight unseen, and you really don't have to work that hard to overcome the bad impression it gives. If it were an eccentricity of an otherwise decent writer I wouldn't have even pointed it out. But when it's attached to this guy's dreck it's one data point in a series of data points showing a close correlation between the output of this "Alex Kierkegaard" and general suckage. (And just how egotistical do you have to be to use Kierkegaard as a pseudonym, as though your pissy little rants about gaming were even remotely worthy of the real Kierkegaard?)

Also Baldur's Gate doesn't just start with a Nietzsche quote, it starts out with the most overused and worn-out quote of all time. It's thematically appropriate, yes, but it's also utterly redundant, which goes back to my "you only really need the quote if your own material isn't up to scratch" point.
Arthur B at 13:21 on 2010-12-27
Oh, and now I've got to the bit in the second article linked where "Kierkegaard" starts screaming about how journalists will never catch up to his highly educated state and that one day his glorious mind will surpass even that of Nietzsche himself and also Roger Ebert is a big woman who is hidebound by morality.

Yeah. Nietzsche quotes. Used by some they can be alright. Used by this guy, they are a symptom - one of many, but still a symptom.
Guy at 14:13 on 2010-12-27
"Well goddamnit, is it my fault that I'm so fuckin' quotable?"
- F.F. Nietzsche

Clearly, somebody is very, very worked up about the state of videogame journalism these days.
Doubtless the real Kierkegaard would feel the same, were he alive today. Sure, he might have something to say about how modern religious movements have lost all sense of what he called "the single one" and... no, who am I kidding? He would be ranting angrily about how women - oh, I'm sorry, I mean "sluts" - shouldn't be allowed to write about computer games.
Andy G at 14:53 on 2010-12-27
Also Baldur's Gate doesn't just start with a Nietzsche quote, it starts out with the most overused and worn-out quote of all time.


No, that would be "That which does not kill you can only make you stronger" ;)

Of course, Nietzsche quotations generally don't bode well. In some ways, he's a victim of his own brilliance - he is so good at writing pithy little one-liners that he constantly gets mined for quotes by people who don't actually pay attention to what he says.

I just feel the need to defend him given that my own dissertation started with a Nietzsche quotation (admittedly, the dissertation was about Nietzsche rather than computer games, so it was somewhat more appropriate).
Arthur B at 15:04 on 2010-12-27
Presumably the quote didn't serve as your dissertation's abstract though, which seems to be the case in the Women Should Shut Up About Games article...
Melissa G. at 15:20 on 2010-12-27
I haven't even read the articles yet, but my skepticism and rage was already triggered by the fact that the linked url contains "for artfags only" after the backslash. Not a good sign, my friends....

Off to read the articles and, I'm sure, return with more rage.
Andy G at 17:10 on 2010-12-27
Oh dear just read the article. And that's definitely not one of Nietzsche's finest moments - though actually I believe it comes from BEFORE the period where he became virulently mysognist (early Nietzsche can be read as being sympathetic to the possibility of the spiritual and intellectual emancipation of women, albeit with his own eccentric sexist spin. Later Nietzsche was mysoginist even by the standards of the 1800s).

If someone quotes Nietzsche as an authority on women, that should set some pretty big alarm bells ringing ...
Andy G at 02:24 on 2010-12-28
Oops looks like I can't spell misogyny
Dan H at 00:16 on 2010-12-29
I just feel the need to defend him given that my own dissertation started with a Nietzsche quotation (admittedly, the dissertation was about Nietzsche rather than computer games, so it was somewhat more appropriate).


I think you get a pass for using Nietzche quotes in things which are actually *about* Nietzche.
Whether "Alex Kierkegaard" is a raving misogynist or not is irrelevant to his discussion of the 'question' "Can Games be Art?"
Arthur B at 22:24 on 2011-01-05
Whether "Alex Kierkegaard" is a raving misogynist or not is irrelevant to his discussion of the 'question' "Can Games be Art?"

Not directly. But it is one of many pointers we've identified to his underlying beliefs. In particular, his idolisation of Nietzsche and his belief that no subsequent mind has ever equalled Nietzsche's and his conviction that pretty much everything in every cultural sector is being ruined by "artfags" and "hipsters" suggests a nostalgic, reactionary outlook - he seems to think that culture, and perhaps society as a whole, hit a peak in the late 19th Century and everything else has been a story of slow decline (aside from video games, which existed in a pure Edenic state until the dreaded "artfags" showed up).

And on top of that, you have "Kierkegaard" declaring that one day he will not only be Nietzsche's equal, but that he will actually exceed his attainments one day. And you have him setting required reading for simply participating in his web forum, a required reading list which, once he has completed his planned essays, will amount to reading two entire books written by himself. These rules, and this declaration of genius - he declares his intent to overtake Nietzsche in one of the very articles you link - betray another axiom that he's been working under - that he, personally, is possessed of a powerful intellectual capacity and that his views and opinions are important, so important that people need to be immersed in them before they can even begin to make sense on his discussion forum.

In "Cocksucking Videogameland" he talks about how he believes a good female games journalist should behave: exactly like a male one. In "Kierkegaard"'s ideal world, the fact that a woman is writing a review would never be brought to his attention. He calls the writer of Sexy Videogameland a "slut" because he believes that she is making herself too visible in her writing. This is an expression of the two strands in his thinking, the nostalgic and the self-aggrandising, I've identified: he thinks women should shut up and play by the rules as they did back in the day, and he considers himself ideally placed to tell women to get back in the box and do what they are told.

Likewise, his hostility to "art games". They are new. And they are not to his taste. Therefore they are killing gaming and a sign of the utter corruption of our culture, and anyone even vaguely intelligent would burn their designers at the stake. It's all based on the same thinking.

By the way, how'd you find his articles in the first place?
Guy at 02:53 on 2011-01-06
I actually read a couple of AK's essays and found them... a little interesting but ultimately kind of sad. He's obviously clever, at some level, but he's also rather obviously more driven by his rage than by his intellect. So one or two interesting or thoughtful points will be buried in swathes of stuff about his hatred of "artfags" and "sluts" and what have you, with the result that reading it is a kind of slow and tedious trudge through someone else's unexamined psychological baggage. The sad thing about it, from my point of view, is not just the obvious thing that it's always depressing to see someone with profound problems who's doing nothing to address them, but that... the thing he's so proud of, his towering intellect, is actually going to waste because he can't think clearly about the stuff that he's so deeply invested in. A brittle, rigid way of thinking ultimately traps you into thinking and saying dumb stuff, no matter how hard you push yourself to try to get it all "right". So he makes untested assumptions, self-contradictory statements, begs the question without realising it, &c &c, all the while vituperatively decrying the stupidity of anyone who disagrees with him in any way. I think a lot of nerdy people go through a stage like this as teenagers; some, sadly, never grow out of it.
By the way, how'd you find his articles in the first place?


Someone at RPGCodex linked to his definition of RPGs. Why?
Arthur B at 23:49 on 2011-01-06
Ah, OK. I just noticed that you were a member of his forum (if the Elzair there is you) so I wanted to know whether you had some sort of role on the insomnia site or were just a browser who'd happened to stumble across it.

So, seeing how you've been reading "Kierkegaard" longer than we have, could you outline what we've missed about his work? It's just that I'm having trouble finding the merits of it and the whole "walls of pseudo-academic text peppered with foul language" writing style just isn't working for me.
So, seeing how you've been reading "Kierkegaard" longer than we have, could you outline what we've missed about his work?


Well, for the purpose of this 'discussion', I will quote some selected text.

The question "Can games be art?" is nonsensical, and therefore any answer one might come up with for it will also be nonsensical. Put another way: the question is not a question and the answer is not an answer. It's kind of like asking if the "sky" can be "sad". When you ask such a "question" you are using language in an improper way, and the only solution to the "problem" posed by the "question" is for you to simply STOP ASKING IT.

The problem lies with the words "game" and "art". If you type these words into a number of online dictionaries you will get several dozen definitions, which fact should immediately make you suspicious of whether there is any generally accepted definition at all. The short answer is there isn't. Some of mankind's greatest minds have tried defining what a game is and failed, while on the other hand the word "art" is used in so many different contexts that the only thing we are expected to understand when someone refers to something as art is that they are praising it.


So getting back to the question "Can games be art?" (which to make sense of we now read as "Can games be good?"), the only acceptable answer to this question would be, "Of course, and so can anything." Music, movies and even food can be art (but only good music, movies and food). Books can be art (but only good books, and we even have a fancy name for them: we call them Literature). War can be art (The Art of War). Sex can be art (The Art of Love). Even my cock can be art when I am in the right mood, et cetera, et cetera.


Dan seems to understand that the 'question' "Can Games Be Art?" is nonsensical. However, he also seems to imply that games cannot be good, and that is just nonsense.

Arthur B at 20:23 on 2011-02-02
I'm sure Dan can speak for himself, but you seem to be trying to ascribe an opinion to him by quoting big chunks of "Kierkegaard", when really if you want to work out what Dan is saying you want to be quoting Dan.

Where do you believe Dan has implied that games can't be good?
Arthur B at 21:25 on 2011-02-02
(Also, the quotes you've picked out are contradictory. In the first one "Kierkegaard" says there is no single definition of "art". In the second he asserts that the question "Can games be art?" maps directly to "Can games be good?" - but if there's no single definition of "art", you can't just blithely assume that the use of the word "art" in that question definitely means "good".)
Dan H at 21:26 on 2011-02-02

Dan seems to understand that the 'question' "Can Games Be Art?" is nonsensical. However, he also seems to imply that games cannot be good, and that is just nonsense.


Like Arthur I'm not sure where you're getting that from.

Where I think Kierkegaard is wrong is that while he seems to recognize that "can games be art" is a meaningless question he seems (ironically) to be making the same argument as people who think games *are* or *can be* art. It's just that instead of saying "we can't say whether games are art, therefore they are" he's saying "we can't say whether games are art, therefore they aren't, but because nothing else is art either that's kind of the same as them being art".

He's also making the usual mistake of argumentum-ad-dictionary. Just because a word has multiple different definitions or meanings, that does not mean it is impossible to use it correctly or sensibly. Just because people have argued for years about what art is, that does not mean it is meaningless to call something art and it certainly doesn't mean that the appropriate response is to reject all definitions of art except for "something of high quality." For a start, that definition is so broad as to be meaningless.

I'm not arguing that games can't be good, I'm arguing that whether a game is good is wholly unrelated to whether a game is art. Kierkegaard and the people with whom he claims to disagree seem to believe that a game just has to be good enough and it will be equivalent to the works of Shakespeare or Michaelangelo (either because it will be art, or because the concept of art is meaningless except as an indicator of quality - these two positions are really the same position for all intents and purposes). I believe that "art" and "game" are orthogonal functions, and that it is not particularly desirable for any entity to attempt to fullfil both.
Dan H at 21:56 on 2011-02-02
Sorry for following on Arthur's double-post with another double-post, but I'd add that as well as making contradictory assertions about the nature of art (actually I don't think he's being contradictory, rather he's just presenting a stupid argument: nobody can agree on what art means, therefore art means good. It's the equivalent of arguing that since nobody can agree which religion is correct we should all be Buddhists) his initial example for why the question is meaningless is extraordinarily badly constructed.

The question "can the sky be sad" is a perfectly reasonable one with several perfectly reasonable answers: No, because inanimate objects cannot express emotions. Yes, because "sad" can be taken as a metaphor. Neither of these answers are meaningless, they just might not be answers that Kierkegaard is interested in.

For what it's worth, I would suggest that "can games be art" is more like the question "can furniture be edible". It clearly can, in that there is no particular reason that one could not design edible furniture, but there is no particular reason to believe that making furniture edible would make it function better as furniture.
Andy G at 23:03 on 2011-02-02
Also: it's just not true that saying that something is art a way of recommending it. It's not an oxymoron to say something is bad art, or boring art, or uninspired art.
Arthur B at 23:33 on 2011-02-02
Also, whilst Sun Tzu may indeed have written a book called The Art of War (well, he wrote nothing of the sort because he wasn't writing in English, but that's how we conventionally translate the title), I don't think you can point to any specific war and say "This war was a work of art"; that's not the sort of statement people are going to understand unless you back it up with a more detailed explanation of what you're talking about. And yet "Kierkegaard" seems to treat the word "Art" in the title of Art of War as meaning the same thing as it does when it is used in connection with music, food, or books.

It's really an incredibly sloppy article from top to tail. You can more or less pick out any selection of three paragraphs and find holes you can drive buses through.
Morgus at 06:36 on 2011-02-18
>Even the broadest possible definition of "art" doesn't include things like resource management, reflex tests and strategic thinking.

I strongly disagree with all of this. The puzzle-reflex gameplay in the Legend of Zelda series really serves to immerse you in the Hero's Journey, both in its construction and deconstruction. Also, "resource management" could easily help capture the desperation of, for example, a siege situation set in Middle Earth.
Andy G at 15:33 on 2011-02-18
So to put it in the terms in which Dan put his position more recently (i.e. within the last year!), you disagree with the following:

The arguments for why they *are* art all hinge on them having qualities in common with other art-forms which:

1. Have little or nothing to do with gameplay

and

2. Are frequently *undermined* by gameplay


Because you are saying that in some games (or at least in some hypothetical games) there are or could be features integral to gameplay that are relevant to the game's being or functioning as art?
Morgus at 21:53 on 2011-02-19
I don't disagree that the common defenses of video games as art are fairly weak and easily destroyed by the two points listed, but I do disagree that the fact of their game-ness can not help storytelling. Believably guiding a character through a well-crafted story can not do anything but aid in the immersion.
Morgus at 22:23 on 2011-02-19
Especially since the very best RPG's will often give you meaningful choices. Like Planescape: Torment.
Morgus at 22:34 on 2011-02-19
Reading AK's stuff, he seems to share a lot of this site's opinions, he just puts them very tactlessly. It's a mistake to confuse tone for dissent, fascist as that sounds.
Guy at 12:40 on 2011-02-20
While I think there is definitely a tone problem, it's really not the main problem. Deriding the people you disagree with as sluts and fags is very ill-mannered but it also reveals a fundamental attitude toward women and homosexuals which wouldn't be remedied just by expressing the same ideas in a different tone. Such attitudes tend to be accompanied by... uh, a broad smorgasbord of associated unpleasantness. Additionally, while he may agree with some of the opinions expressed on this site (note that the site itself doesn't have opinions, even if it does have an editorial slant) the manner of arriving at those opinions is quite different. Despite all the florid quotations from Nietszche and the referencing of Wittgensteinian philosophy, there's much less respect paid to the process of argumentation than happens here. It's irrelevant that AK arrives at similar conclusions if his process for arriving at them is to make a bare assertion and then pour forth rage at "artfags" for page after page.
Wardog at 16:39 on 2011-02-20
Thank you, Guy. You saved me having to write that :)
Guy at 16:59 on 2011-02-20
No worries. :)
Dan H at 09:34 on 2011-02-21
Guy's last point is probably the most pertinent in this context: conclusions aren't what really matters, processes are.

I am not a Catholic because I do not believe that there is any strong evidence that the Christian God exists, and do not have any cultural connection to Catholic traditions.

Jack Chick is not a Catholic because be believes that Catholicism is a conspiracy sent by Satan.

We both "agree" in the sense that we have both arrived at the same conclusion (we neither find any compelling reason to be Catholics) but we cannot really be said to agree in any meaningful sense.

AK apparently thinks that Games are Not Art because he objects to people who like art. Other than that, he has basically the same opinions and attitudes as people who *do* believe that video games are art ("but like who knows what art even is man"). The argument that video games are not art because art is for fags is not the same as the argument that video games are not art because gameplay and artistic expression are unrelated functions.
Arthur B at 10:09 on 2011-02-21
I am not a Catholic because I do not believe that there is any strong evidence that the Christian God exists, and do not have any cultural connection to Catholic traditions.

Jack Chick is not a Catholic because be believes that Catholicism is a conspiracy sent by Satan.

Whereas I am not a Catholic because they don't do chocolate chip Death Cookies.
Morgus at 21:23 on 2011-02-24
I only read a few of his articles, didn't look at the "blah blah blah I hate hipsters" stuff.
Arthur B at 21:48 on 2011-02-24
How did you miss it? He screams about hipsters whenever he isn't screaming about women or "artfags".
Wardog at 22:22 on 2011-02-24
Probably, y'know, best to read something before deciding whether you agree with what is being said.
Morgus at 06:53 on 2011-02-25
Well, I read his attack on computer and J RPG's, and I thought that was pretty astute.
Morgus at 07:00 on 2011-02-25
And actually, reading "On the Genealogy of Art Games," AK seems to attack people who say "Games are not art." He makes a whole paragraph of games that he thinks people should consider art or GTFO.
Arthur B at 12:51 on 2011-02-25
Well, I read his attack on computer and J RPG's, and I thought that was pretty astute.

I thought his analysis of CRPGs was mired too much in the assumption that CRPGs must necessarily be like tabletop RPGs. Which is kind of the same fallacy as assuming that (to pluck an example out of thin air) literary SF and cinematic SF are the same genre, only more so. They might have some commonalities but they have strikingly different histories and cater to difference audiences - audiences which might have a large degree of overlap, but different audiences nonetheless.
Morgus at 15:06 on 2011-02-25
That defense of CRPGs' merits feels kind of circular...
Arthur B at 15:51 on 2011-02-25
Not really, my argument is that CRPGs should be judged by CRPG standards and tabletop RPGs should be assessed by tabletop RPG standards, and you shouldn't expect games in two completely different mediums to provide an especially similar experience.

Morgus's argument seems to go like this:
- Tabletop RPGs have these qualities.
- CRPGs do not have those qualities.
- Therefore CRPGs are not real RPGs.

The flaw in this argument is that at no point has Morgus established no definition for what a real RPG is, aside from assuming that they must have the same qualities as tabletop RPGs. Yes, tabletop games came first, but you don't get to lock the meaning of a word in stone forever just because you used it first.
Dan H at 16:15 on 2011-02-25
As Arthur says, it's not circular at all.

If somebody says "X is bad because it is not Y" and you say "X is not required to be Y and would not be improved by being Y" that's not a circular argument.

If you say that Tables are bad furniture because they aren't edible, and I say that furniture is not required to be edible, I'm not presenting a circular argument, I'm just pointing out that your assumption is wrong.
Wardog at 00:31 on 2011-02-26
Guys, why are we wasting discussion time on sexist, homophobic dude?
Andy G at 01:36 on 2011-02-26
@Kyra: Anyone who names his articles after Nietzsche books must be worthy of serious scholarly attention!
Andy G at 01:49 on 2011-02-26
But agreed it would be better to circumvent Mr Kierkegaard entirely. I do think Morgus' original question was quite interesting.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:51 on 2011-02-26
Wait, when did we become scholars?

Hot damn, does this mean that ramble I wrote about the robot Russell Crowe movie counts as my thesis?
http://3stan1990.blogspot.com/ at 09:48 on 2011-02-27
I disagree entirely with 'Games are not art', 'Games are not improved by being seen as art', and partly with 'The question of whether or not games are art is completely useless'.

I define art as 'Something created entirely to evoke a reaction in a viewer, with no practical purpose'. So a statue is art, a car isn't. I go a bit further and define high art (or Art, if you like) as 'Something created to cause thought or discussion on a particular topic' and low art (or entertainment) is 'Something created to cause a feeling or emotion', so Watchmen and Captain Planet are high art, Hamlet, Pixar movies and porn are low art.

(I'm aware I'm the only person on Earth who has these definitions, and that it oversimplifies complex arguments, and that the definitions themselves have flaws but it helps people to understand where I'm coming from)

Anyway, my point is that the better video games are those that make the player feel like whatever the game is about - Mass Effect makes you feel like a kickass space marine, Fallout makes you feel like a kickass cowboy in a postapocalyptic wasteland, KOTOR makes you feel like a Jedi/Sith - and the more you feel like whatever the game is about, the better the game is, generally - GTA: San Andreas makes you feel like a kickass gangbanger, Saints Row 2 is even better at making you feel like a kickass gangbanger, therefore Saints Row 2 is a better game.

That said, all this would only ever be useful for someone trying to work out what makes a great game, i.e. people who actually make video games, and maybe video game critics, so I agree that the whole argument is pointless and misguided on a fan level.
http://3stan1990.blogspot.com/ at 09:51 on 2011-02-27
The Jedi/Sith are also kickass.
http://3stan1990.blogspot.com/ at 10:18 on 2011-02-27
Sorry about the triple-post, but I forgot to make this point in the middle of my post:

The question of 'what is art' is only really useful for artists, and then only so they can get to the question of 'what is good art'. Edgar Allen Poe's short stories improved once he sat down and thought 'Okay, what am I trying to do here and how can I do it better'.
Arthur B at 12:26 on 2011-02-27
I define art as 'Something created entirely to evoke a reaction in a viewer, with no practical purpose'. So a statue is art, a car isn't. I go a bit further and define high art (or Art, if you like) as 'Something created to cause thought or discussion on a particular topic' and low art (or entertainment) is 'Something created to cause a feeling or emotion', so Watchmen and Captain Planet are high art, Hamlet, Pixar movies and porn are low art.

That's fine, but almost nobody championing the cause of "art games" uses that definition, because that would force them to concede that games they don't approve of are art...
Dan H at 12:36 on 2011-02-27
Hi Stan,

Your definitions of Art are perfectly reasonable, although not without their problems. Insults, for example, are designed specifically to produce a reaction in an audience, for no practical purpose but are clearly not art. Cakes are designed to produce a reaction in an audience - in that they are something we consume not for their nutritional value but for pleasure. And while I know that you're being deliberately controversial here, any definition of "High Art" which includes Captain Planet but excludes Hamlet has got some fairly basic flaws.

I also wonder whether, even by your broad definition, "making you feel like you are X" really constitutes "provoking a reaction". You could make a strong case here that video games are actually one of the few things that *don't* fit your definition of art, since what they actually are is a tool to facilitate pretending.

If I want to pretend I'm a badass Jedi I could play Knights of the Old Republic, or I could buy a toy lightsaber, or just stand around in my living room with a blanket over my head going "voom voom". The fact that I can use a blanket or a toy as part of my make-believe does not really make the blanket or the toy "art" as per your definition, by which logic neither is Knights of the Old Republic.

That said, where I very much agree with you is that the question of whether games are art is relevant only insofar as specific "artistic" qualities will materially improve the function of a video game as a video game. The overall question of categorization is meaningless. You can come up with a definition of art that includes video games, you can come up with a definition that excludes video games. Ultimately the question of whether video games are art is useful only if it leads to people making better video games (or possibly better art).

The reason I come down on the "not art" side of things is that I think people overgeneralize. If everybody stuck with your definition (which is that the "art" in video games is the extent to which they make you feel like what you're supposed to be) I wouldn't have an issue. The problem is that for most people GTA IV (with its serious angsty protagonist who deals with real life issues) is better "art" than Saint's Row II (which just makes you feel like a badass gangster). Most people would agree that the game which makes you feel more like a badass is a better game. You would argue that the game which makes you feel more like a badass is better *art* as well (which is perfectly reasonable but as you observe most people don't share those ideas). From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I'd rather we got rid of the "art" question entirely and just stuck with "what makes a better game".

Thanks for commenting though, that was really interesting.
http://3stan1990.blogspot.com/ at 16:15 on 2011-02-27
@ Daniel

Your definitions of Art are perfectly reasonable, although not without their
problems. Insults, for example, are designed specifically to produce a reaction
in an audience, for no practical purpose but are clearly not art. Cakes are
designed to produce a reaction in an audience - in that they are something we
consume not for their nutritional value but for pleasure.


True. The examples someone else pointed out to me when I explained it was expensive sports cars - there are some that are designed purely for amateurs to drive around specialised tracks, that would fall apart if you tried to take them down the street to, say, pick up groceries. I deliberately choose not to have a more specific definition for now, partly because, well, I don't take the whole thing that seriously and partly because my definition is useful to me as it is. Though your response has caused me to take a closer look again :-)

Also, I should probably explain that I don't think High Art and Low Art (or even the label 'art') are indicators of quality - they're just trying to accomplish different things. Captain Planet is trying to get the viewer to change their way of thinking, Hamlet (to my admittedly limited knowledge) aims to excite, frighten, and amuse them. Obviously a work can do both (and really it's easier to change the way someone thinks by manipulating their emotions, and impossible to make any work of fiction without your values shaping it).

.
I also wonder whether, even by your broad definition, "making you feel like you
are X" really constitutes "provoking a reaction". You could make a strong case
here that video games are actually one of the few things that *don't* fit your
definition of art, since what they actually are is a tool to facilitate
pretending.

If I want to pretend I'm a badass Jedi I could play Knights
of the Old Republic, or I could buy a toy lightsaber, or just stand around in my
living room with a blanket over my head going "voom voom". The fact that I can
use a blanket or a toy as part of my make-believe does not really make the
blanket or the toy "art" as per your definition, by which logic neither is
Knights of the Old Republic.



I hadn't actually thought about it that way. I'll get back to you on that if I can think of a good response.

The problem is that for most people GTA IV (with its serious angsty protagonist
who deals with real life issues) is better "art" than Saint's Row II (which just
makes you feel like a badass gangster). Most people would agree that the game
which makes you feel more like a badass is a better game. You would argue that
the game which makes you feel more like a badass is better *art* as well (which
is perfectly reasonable but as you observe most people don't share those ideas).


I would actually say whichever game provoked the strongest positive (oops, whole other argument there!) reaction is the better art *and* the better game. But yeah I see where you're coming from.

I don't really care whether Saints Row II or Hamlet or Pixar movies or porn actually are art, I only care that they do what they try to do well. I agree entirely with getting rid of the 'art' question in any serious context. It's like Star Wars canon - it's fun right up until people start taking it seriously.

Thanks! I found the article and your response fascinating.

@ Arthur

I fail to see the problem :-) Anyone who uses the term 'art' and isn't prepared to change their way of thinking is Doing It Wrong.
Dan H at 16:23 on 2011-02-27
I would actually say whichever game provoked the strongest positive (oops, whole other argument there!) reaction is the better art *and* the better game. But yeah I see where you're coming from.


Yeah, that's perfectly reasonable, given your starting definitions.

I think where it gets difficult is that a lot of people get the causality wrong. As in they say "Element X will make this game more artistic, which will therefore make it more effective" rather than "Element X will make this game more effective, which will therefore make it more artistic."

GTA IV is a very good example. The game includes art-like-elements (strong central storyline, well developed central character) which actually detract from the purpose of the game (making you feel like a street hardened gangbanger).

It's like Star Wars canon - it's fun right up until people start taking it seriously.


Hey, Star Wars canon is srs bzns.

I think we're basically on the same page here. "Are Games Art" is kind of like "Do Balrogs Have Wings" - it might be fun to line up arguments on one side or the other, but it doesn't actually help you understand the subject under discussion.
Arthur B at 17:33 on 2011-02-27
I fail to see the problem :-) Anyone who uses the term 'art' and isn't prepared to change their way of thinking is Doing It Wrong.

Well, it's no problem at all for people like you and me who don't really very much investment in whether a particular thing is art. But for some people, this is serious business. A bunch of indie developers have a huge investment in the idea not only that games can be art, but only some games qualify as art. Some of them are invested in it so heavily they've essentially made it part of their business model (see Tale of Tales). The whole "art games" movement hinges on the idea that a great many products which lots of people regard as great games are not great art, and that games-as-art is an emergent phenomenon which they, and not Rockstar or Volition or Bioware or EA or Activision, are at the forefront of.

Personally, I'm inclined to agree with you on your definition of art. But you can't understand what the art games people are trying to say if you don't look to their definition of art. And as I understand it, Dan's article isn't saying that games aren't be art by any definition of art you care to come up with, it's saying games can't be art in the sense that a lot of people would like them to be art.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2011-03-01
Stan: It's like Star Wars canon - it's fun right up until people start taking it seriously.

Dan: Hey, Star Wars canon is srs bzns.

You know, as resident batshit Star Wars geek, I feel I should point that that's my line. (Not that Stan isn't 100% correct—it's just that I can't seem to help taking it seriously.)
Ethan E at 05:17 on 2012-03-08
This is a particularly interesting article to me, and I think I might voice my general opinion on the subject.

Can video games be art?

Yes, if you think Art is merely something to inspire thought, which it's sometimes defined as. No, if you think that the very fact that if you make it art, it cannot be a game, thereby, it cannot be a game and art at the same time. These have come up above, as you can see, but I'd like to point out- You have very logical, well thought out in general ideas about art.

Well, that's your problem.

Art doesn't have to be logical, and thereby isn't in many cases. Furthermore, to speak for all kinds of art, ever, is a bit much. I'm sorry if I'm merely repeating what is said above, but I'm just pointing out what I gather in simple, direct terms. My answer is that Art is Art to whoever thinks it's Art, and that, for the moment, is all I have to say on the matter.
Dan H at 09:54 on 2012-03-09
Art doesn't have to be logical, and thereby isn't in many cases.


I think that depends on what you mean by "logical". After all, "Art does not have to be logical" is itself a logical statement.

I'd also point out that the world is full of things which do not have to be logical - chairs, bananas, codes of laws, stopwatches, essentially *nothing* is constrained to be "logical" except for valid arguments (and those are frequently wrong or unintuitive). Art is not special in this regard.

To put it another way, it is perfectly reasonable to define "Art" as "anything a person thinks is art" but that again is a logical definition (and not, I feel, a helpful one). You're not (unless I read you wrong) asking us to conclude that because art is not logical, and anythign a person thinks is art is art, that therefore nothing is art to anybody.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 22:12 on 2013-02-25
Hmmm, my personal opinion is that yes, games are art Then again, I'm working on a rather wide definition (although not neccessarily a clear one)

It's more like... Can we agree that games *contain* art? Narrative art, partially (although as mentioned the quality is pretty low) but definitively graphic arts, and also music, composition, etc. All of these things that are (rightly so) considered art in other contxts?

And to me, kinda, if something has art in it, it is in some ways itself a work of art. A building that is decorated is a work of art, even if built for a utilitarian purpose. A ship is a piece of art, an engraved sword is a piece of art.

I'd even argue that a mug with a teddy bear on it is a piece of art, in it's own way.

Arthur B at 15:14 on 2013-03-08
Necroing because holy wow, Yahtzee is really doing the games-are-art crowd no favours here.

The basic argument:
- People used to say that films were not art.
- The idea of artfilms caught on once people started buying into the idea of directors as auteurs.
- Therefore, to get people to accept games as art, we need to convince people that game designers are auteurs and convince people that the primary responsibility for a game's quality rests on one person's shoulders, even though that is increasingly less and less true in the AAA market.

This is post hoc logic at its finest.
Ichneumon at 07:49 on 2016-01-29
I am so very late to this one, but I really do find many of the arguments made here against games as an artistic medium to be remarkably fatuous and poorly considered.

For one, the assertion that an object with an express artistic purpose in mind cannot be considered as an artwork if it is self-evidently functional in what is not an immediately apparent "artistic" capacity is something that I think any post-Barnes art museum would have a very immediate problem with. Ritual masks, ornate weaponry, elaborate commercial signs—all of these are innately functional objects, yet all of them may also be considered on a purely aesthetic level, and in many cases, the aesthetic aspect and the functional aspect are inextricably intertwined.

Which is not to say that art and games are the same thing; and depending on the sort of game or artwork one is crafting, the qualities intrinsic to making either succeed may indeed be at cross purposes. But to assert that a game cannot be art seems to me to deny that the creator of a game might design the very mechanics of interaction, play and progress to convey a particular aesthetic or narrative point that a more conventional work of art may be unable to convey. Deeming such narrative or aesthetic architecture to not be art in itself, whether or not one considers games as a category to be art—or, specifically, video games as a category to be art, seeing as we are focusing on those—is really terribly intellectually dishonest to me, or at least indicative of some unfortunate cognitive dissonance.

That I am making this particular argument is a touch ironic, seeing as while I see great potential in the use of interactive, game-shaped media for storytelling purposes, I'm really not all that into video games. I have certainly enjoyed a few, but I'm very picky, and I'm just not that good at them to begin with.
Ichneumon at 07:54 on 2016-01-29
And mind you, I'm not trying to say, "You're an idiot whose wrong and bad and shut up!" I just really think that some of these arguments against the notion are really weak tea for you guys. Wardog was absolutely right that most "games are art" people don't really know what they're talking about, but at the end of the day, the logic here feels only a little less shallow and sophistic, which is disheartening.
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