Why Games Aren’t Art (and nothing is ((except Art)))

I’m not sure what happened but somewhere down the line the games-as-art debate got turned around.

Originally, gamers and industry veterans wanted games to be recognised as an artform: that is, a valuable, enjoyable and moving cultural product deserving status alongside other media like film and literature. This is a valid argument, games have proven their potential to be a sophisticated narrative artform and have developed, as well as their own visual and auditory conventions, an interactive language all of their own. More people are making and playing games now than ever before and examples of the medium are being included in museum collections alongside other forms of creative entertainment and design.

It’s been pretty widely reported that the Smithsonian Institute and the MoMA have taken games into their collections and now the V&A has its first games designer in residence. That’s huge in terms of the recognition of games’ value as a creative medium, they’re now being considered worthy of archiving and conservation by some of the world’s most prestigious curators.

And yet, the debate continues, only now, it’s not enough that games are recognised as an artform but now they must be recognised as pieces of Art. We get articles like this that try to roll the previous debate into a whole new one where it’s seen as a problem that games aren’t treated the same as a painting or an installation and try to say games are breaking onto the art scene so it can no longer be denied that they are, in fact, art themselves.

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Gallery visitors playing Long March: Restart at MoMA New York

Feng Mengbo’s Long March: Restart is interesting as a piece of Art, it’s politically charged and uses video game mechanics and graphics to say something (albeit heavy handedly) about consumerism, games and Chinese cultural revolution. I think people are excited because they’re seeing a video game that you can play in an art gallery. It was shown in an art gallery, so surely that’s a game that’s art right?

The fundamental flaw here is that nobody seems to be talking about context or intention. Firstly, Art is all about context, if you don’t believe me then you need only look at Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Fountain is one of 20th century art’s most iconic pieces because it challenged what art could be at the same time as it critiqued the artistic process but in doing so it proved a very important point about context.

Essentially the work is a urinal, turned sideways, signed with a pseudonym of Duchamp’s and displayed in a gallery. Its presence caused a stir when it was first exhibited and the morality and virtue of the piece as an artwork was the cause of much debate. Ultimately though it has become such a recognisable piece that despite being an assault on artistic convention it ironically forged a new convention in itself.

Yet even with this twist of fate, the status of the urinal remains the same.

"I see what they're doing here but it's a bit derivative."
“I see what they’re doing here but it’s a bit derivative.”

But what about intention? One game that is repeatedly waved about as being a work of art is Braid, so we’ll look at that.

Braid is a beautiful game, its visuals are evocative of oil paintings and it played on your expectations by referencing some iconic elements from classic games. It also understood the symbolic implications of its central mechanic of reversing time and developed an emotional narrative surrounding it, subverting the expectations it created by using existing language unique to video games, thus creating a story that could only have been told in this format.

John Blow considered the language of games and used it to communicate ideas to an audience that understands games in the same way that Mengbo has but their intentions are completely different and their creations exist in different worlds. Braid is an artistically made video game and Long March: Restart is art, made from a video game. Apples and Oranges, they’re both delicious, they’re both fruit but no one could say they’re the same thing.

The fact that artists are referencing and evoking games at an international level of recognition shows how prevalent gaming has become in our cultural language, it’s a form of recognition, the same as the Smithsonian acquisitions or V&A residency. It means games have been acknowledged as culturally important but it doesn’t make them Art any more than it makes them a urinal.

If you still want games to be considered as art I think it’s important to try and see this from the other side. Imagine you’re a painter and you’ve worked diligently on your best piece for months. You’re somewhat of a genius and every brush stroke, every colour, every line is perfect and it moves people deeply. So you take it to a games publisher and say, ‘what do you think of my game?’ they might shed tears, they might be moved in a way that isn’t totally repairable, if they’re Tim Schafer they might even get you to paint their new game but first, they’ll rightly tell you, “This is amazing, but it’s not a Game.”


3 responses to “Why Games Aren’t Art (and nothing is ((except Art)))”

  1. John Brown avatar
    John Brown

    Equally, that same painter taking his effort to a sculptor would be told “It’s amazing, but it’s not sculpture”. Are the pieces by Tracy Emin art? Is Damien Hurst’s work Art? Are the Kelpies in Falkirk Art? The problem with discussing Art is that it’s not about the intention it’s about the perception. Art is only Art in the eyes of the individual viewing it. August bodies and pretentious magazines may like to believe that they define what is or is not Art but all they achieve is to reflect the views and opinions of their audiences in most cases. Some would argue that the stunning environments in ‘game X’ are Art of the highest form, Art which moves and flows, Art which can be involving, Art with which you actively engage and emotionally connect – indeed can there be any higher goal for Art?
    If games are not art, but the productions over at DeviantArt are, where is that line drawn.. and by whom?
    Art is, by it’s very nature, subjective and as such nothing can be ruled in or out.
    Art is also a collective term like ‘fruit’, however unlike that particular analogy Fruit has a definition based on measurable elements – even if the term is mis-used (strawberries are not a fruit for example) – Art does not.
    Art is mutable, fungible, ever-changing, ever-evolving and yes, SOME games should be considered “works of art” but WHICH games is only open to the individuals to decide and for a group to agree (or disagree) upon. There are no right or wrong answers, there is only art – emotive, thought provoking, curious, strange, beautiful, engaging, wondrous but always only in the eye of the beholder.

    1. Thomas William Haley avatar
      Thomas William Haley

      I disagree, I think there is an inherent confusion of terms in this topic. The is a difference between a piece of Art and a ‘work of art’. The latter is a stamp of quality, the other is a creation unique to the world of art.

      The thing is, art is an industry and there is a vast amount of work within it that is simply terrible. There’s a misconception because of the terms like ‘artistic’ and ‘work of art’ which are to do with the quality of the composition or creation of a piece which apply to more than one medium. The Tracy Emin pieces you refer to are art, ditto Damien Hirst because they were made within the art world in forms unique to it. They couldn’t exist any other way. I dislike a lot of Damien Hirst’s work but it’s still art and he’s still an artist.

      There are many games I consider masterpieces but they should be able to stand on their own without needlessly being labelled as ‘Art’ like that suddenly heightens their value. As Dean rightly states, there’s an exclusivity and fecundity to the art world which games have already circumvented by their inclusive nature, I say, leave art out of it.

      I agree too that the value of a piece of work of any kind is in the eye of the beholder ultimately but nothing exists in a vacuum and the debate is not about trying to flavour individuals’ interpretations but about what is culturally recognised and accepted.

  2. waywardcloud avatar

    You’ve got point about the importance of context. I used to be annoyed that games weren’t considered Art with a capital A, but that doesn’t prevent them from being hugely creative, artistic and just as culturally important. Art may be different for everyone, but the Art world as an institution often seems like a rarefied, corrupt members club. I think we’re better off on our own. We don’t need ‘Art’.

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