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The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Production: An Antiapology for Ebert, Moriarty et al.
by Andreas Ahlborn on 03/01/13 07:33:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Portrait of Walter Benjamin

Historical roots of the debate

Going over some Arguments from the fresh inflamed debate whether Games are entitled to the Label “Art” (with a capital A), I´m wondering where the roots of this discussion first surfaced in the historical context.

If Marshall McLuhan can be considered as Father of modern Media Theory, Walter Benjamin could be labeled as its Granddad. His 1936 published Essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” is considered by many as one of the most influential works dealing with the Art Theory behind Mass Media.

The core concepts of Benjamins Understanding of Art are well represented with the terms “Authenticity” and artistical “Aura”. In Benjamins own words:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be […] The whole sphere of authenticity is outside the technical.

[Die Aura ist ein] „sonderbares Gespinst aus Raum und Zeit: einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag…Die Zertrümmerung der Aura ist die Signatur einer Wahrnehmung, deren Sinn für alles Gleichartige auf der Welt so gewachsen ist, daß sie es mittels der Reproduktion auch dem Einmaligen abgewinnt.

([The Aura is a] strange web, made from time and space: unique apparition of a remoteness that can`t be close enough…The demolition of the Aura is the signature of a perception, which has grown a sense for similarities to such degree, that she also reclaims the Uniqueness by means of Reproduction.

While Benjamin never tries to make a case whether Movies and Photography could be considered as “True Art” in the context of Aesthetics (because of their dependence on modern technology and reproducibility) his decision to not play the high-low Art card can be explained with his political background (He was a convinced Marxist). He was certainly well aware that the new mass media where looked upon by his colleagues.



The Short version of the “artistic” definition of “Art”

To sum up this understanding of what is considered “True Art” by the overwhelming majority of Art critics and theorists of the last 500 years:

  1. A work of Art must be original (have an historical identifiable material and auctorial source)
  2. A work of Art must have some secret ingredient that is hard to describe but is often labeled as “Soul, Aura, Genius, Originality” etc. ad.inf.
  3. The higher the concentration of this secret ingredient the greater the status of the work of art

Following this definition Ebert can hardly be contradicted: Video Games can never be considered Art in this sense because speaking of an original doesn`t make sense if you are working in a “collaborative digital work environment”. A Videogame can also have no “secret ingredient”. For a videogame to function properly it is absolutely necessary that every line of code, every artistic asset works together perfectly in a tight and controlled fashion. If there was a “secret ingredient” a gamemaker would have to see to it that it is debugged. Otherwise the whole work would fall apart.

I call this definition “artistic” to distinguish it from a scientific definition (like the ones hard sciences use to define a contstant in Math or Physics). Because if we would apply scientific strictness to it, it couldn`t withstand a closer examination. The first part (material/auctorial originality) is based on a Conservation Law that was popular during the last five centuries but was discarded at the latest by Quantum Theory in the early 20th Century. There is no such thing as a “objective, conservative” Mona Lisa. The Canvas Leonardo painted his Mona Lisa on is not the same that we see today in the Louvre. It is a construct and the particles Leonardo “originally” used to create this painting might be floating around Pluto at the moment. Heraklit was closer to the scientific truth (πάντα ῥεῖ).

That doesn`t mean this definition can not be of some value for this debate. We shouldn`t make the mistake to judge definitions by their “Density” (where philosophical, artistical, historical definition would be on the soft end of the spectrum and a definition of PI on the hard end). It`s an inherent temptation to label everything with degrading/praising  attributes and I believe this “judgement” of some media as being “structural” inferior to others is on the same level as defending its own believe/religion against others. It originates of the Fallacy to assume that what is “good” for myself has to be “good” per se (for everybody).

I understand that critics make a living by labeling everything with high/low stars and stripes, with “Kitsch” or “Masterpiece”, but saying something like “Music” is a structural “superior” Artform compared to “Literature” is nonsense or Polemics, and as much as I love Schopenhauer, he has to be called out for that. It`s like saying: English is structural superior to French. It’s a statement that is on the same level as the old joke about the definition of heaven and hell:

var professions:Array = [police, cooks, engineers];

var heaven:Boolean;

var hell:Boolean;

if(professions[0]==”british” && professions[1]==”french”&&professions[2]==”german”){

                heaven = true;

              hell != heaven


else if(professions[0]==”german” && professions[1]==”british”&&professions[2]==”french”){

                hell = true;

              heaven != hell;



The 3 Insults to Gamekind

Critics have to make bold statements to enhance their signal/noise ratio in the Informationflood, and the overreaction of the game Industry and gamers understandably were not helping to clear the issue. Attempts like these are desperate and ill conceived, they only further strengthen the prejudice the public might have about Video Games, that see them as an “immature” mass media trash incapable of contributing to society in a constructive way.

In Analogy to Freud we could identify the Insult Ebert targeted at the industry as first one , Biden/Obamas Insult to dare to make video game partly responsible for gun related violence as second one and David Cages “Peter Pan Diagnosis” as third one.

All this “insults” can be used constructively to try to make “better” games. Games that show that Gamemakers are conscious of the social reality their products are effecting, aware of the ethic consequences if they submit to the dictate of markets with conman-like methods and prostitute their creative integrity. 

The knee-jerk reaction of many gamers, gamemakers and self proclaimed industry-representatives that feel patronized by such statements doesn`t exactly show that we are willing to play by the grown-up`s rules.

It`s a lucky break that the words “conscious” and “conscience” are so close in the english language, because as Moriarty in his talk so eloquently put it: Art can give us a means of “drug-free induced” - “enhanced” consciousness, a healthy way of becoming more aware, an aesthetic way to enrichen our lives. This society has an-aesthetic ways enough to narcotize the pains of our everyday-lives.


How is Technology altering the production and reception of Artworks?

While Benjamin and McLuhan are dealing with the first electronical wave of media mass production, we have to look at the differences that occurred when Technology not only overtook reproduction but also production of Artworks. The main improvement between analog and digital production can be coined as: lossless refineability/cloneablility. Where an analog production/reproduction to a more or lesser degree looses information during the process, and every decision in an analog work environment is mostly irreversible, the digital workflow allows for infinite versions, backups, patches, addons, mods etc. up until the very moment of publication and beyond. Digital Technology itself bridges the gaps of time and produces some Paradoxies like Copies that can be considered as better than the original.

While other media profit from the benfits of digital technology the video game development process is absolutely relying on it. Anyone who starts to learn about games will soon realize that it vastly differs from shooting a movie, recording a song or writing a book. The complexity level it takes to create even the most simple games (PacMan, Tetris) is frightening in the beginning. As with any complex tasks video games struggle on a daily basis with softwarebugs, hardwarecrashes and driverincompatibilities. While other media could vastly build on the vocabularies (language, spatial perception) that are trained in every individual from the very start of his birth during a time were everyone`s brain is most plastic, video games that are dependent on mastering a programming language demand such abstract concepts from the human brain that it can be pushed to its limits.

In “Outliers” (fancy way of saying Extraordinary Individuals) Malcolm Gladwell discusses a 10.000 Hour Theory that recently has been popularized by the  gamification Lobby. It takes 10000 hours of practicing any skill to reach the status of a master/virtuoso, the inofficial, unspoken requirement of every piece of High Art: its maker must have first mastered his craft to deserve the status of an artist. He is especially talking about such somewhat atomic skills that refer to individuals like: writing, drawing, singing, football playing etc.

How does such a theory translate from Individuals to Groups? Can the group/hivemind/teameffort achieve something similarly impressive?

In further hindsight we might find that eventually all Art that seems to be the product of one person is in fact the product of many interpersonal experiences, accumulated over generations. As no human is an island, no artist thrives in solitary confinement.  What Newton said (“If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders[sic] of Giants”) coined at the progression of Sciences is equally valid for the systems of Arts.

Newton and british 2-Pound coin




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JoseArias NikanoruS
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I loved your piece.
I just have one question... can't videogame’s Aura be the moment you (or another human) plays it?
It's true that a "secret ingredient" may be bad news for the programmer but when you're playing a game and you start feeling this "extra something" that sometimes feel magical... isn't that videogame’s Aura?
I remember watching arcades when I was younger and sometimes the game would play itself so as to give you a glimpse of what awaited you... But it was totally different from the feeling that I got once I started playing. You couldn't compare.
In the first case (the game playing itself) it may not apply for an 'Aura' thing but the moment you play and get involved with it... isn't the fact that YOU WATCH (subjectively) the Mona Lisa what makes it art?
Every time I see something about this debate I remember myself a child playing Mario 3 and reading books and seeing movies and all that and... they all felt like they had something magical that made the world so much more wide and beautiful. That's what I identify as an Aura.

Kevin Fishburne
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Hell yes. The Aura is what you feel when you play a game. Interactivity and feedback is the secret ingredient.

I think the idea of "Art" is too narrow when it excludes huge mediums. To me Art is intelligently produced sensory I/O of any kind and combination. Maybe the traditional art purveyors are getting nervous or feeling anti-competitive?

Michael Joseph
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"To sum up this understanding of what is considered “True Art” by the overwhelming majority of Art critics and theorists of the last 500 years:"

4) True art is made with the primary INTENT of being art.

I don't know how #4 gets left out. I'm not an art scholar but I don't think I'm just regurgitating what I learned many moon ago during an intro to art history class in college, that the most defining aspect of art is that it's conceived to be ART. The implication is that authorial control is fully intact and is not corrupted by outside influences (eg market forces or producers or focus groups, etc). This rings true to me. There is no doubt a difference between a deeply personal creation that is intended to be a work of pure expression versus one that is accommodating to market conditions or anything else.

Several points:

I enjoy games (although fewer titles appeal to me these days), why should I care if they are really art or not? I enjoy baseball too. So what if it's not art. Playing video games are essentially a past time. Some argue it's a childish one. Some may teach us a thing or two about life. But nobody in their right mind can argue that Ebert is wrong to say that a persons time could be better spent reading great works of literature than playing any video game ever made. That is fundamentally what his opinion boils down to and he's right. Get over it. No thyself and accept it or change.

Let's stop fooling ourselves. Explicitly or implicitly, 80% of the articles here on Gamasutra relate to past, present or future financial successes and failures of products, companies, individuals or the industry as a whole. You don't hear about the "Painting Industry" or the "Classical Music Industry" or the "Sculpting Industry", etc.

But we don't have to let this reality make us feel diminished about our work _if_ like a good craftsman, you want to bring to market an honest product that you are proud of and which you feel is good and beneficial to your customers (i.e. not denegrating or exploiative) and which you've invested apart of yourself and which you created out of love (aka passion). There is nothing low about making an honest living as a crafter.

We need to stop coveting the title "ART." Art isn't the be all and end off of human existance. The world would still turn without art albeit less happily. If you are insecure about engaging in the crafting or playing of what some view as childish pasttimes, well that's on you.

Maybe once we stop fooling ourselves and putting ourselves up on pedestals for our crafts, we'll actually start to make better games. This willful ego feeding ignorance is hurting us.

Games are craft. Let's be great crafters.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Two Things:

1."True art is made with the primary INTENT of being art."
That would disqualify most of what we consider Art today before the 19th Century. Bach, Michelangelo for example made their works in the context of being hired by the church to contribute to the church service. They certainly created their works not with the INTENT of being art but to make a living.

2."But nobody in their right mind can argue that Ebert is wrong to say that a persons time could be better spent reading great works of literature than playing any video game ever made"

Either Ebert and you say Games are not comparable to Art, then this sentence is comparing apples with oranges, and makes as much sense as sth. like "But nobody in their right mind...would play Chess instead of reading Zweigs "Chess novel"
or are you saying:
at best Videogames fall into the category Moriarty described as "Kitsch", so called pop-art (with a non capital a).
Then this sentence has the form of:
"But nobody in their right mind...would read a comic-book instead of a TRUE book"

Which one is it?

Eberts caving (
r-said-that-video-games-cant-be-art/ ) indicates that he noticed that he had wrote himself into this Self-contradiction.

Michael Joseph
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"That would disqualify most of what we consider Art today before the 19th Century. "

I've heard that argument raised before. That's not how one should commission a work of art. The artist is by definition, more capable than a layman to decide how to fill a particular space. That's why she's the artist. Why even bother to commission a great artist if you're just going to interject your unqualified direction. Hire an interior DECORATOR and drop the pretense that you want art in the first place. This is why i explicitly added that the implication of "intent to be art" is that the authorial control is not relinquished by the artist.

And agreed, works created by great artists in the past who were forced or pressured into changing the work, should be viewed as diminished works (not in terms of technique and skill, but expression) at least compared to what they could have been.

As for your second point, I don't understand. A distinction between things forms from some level of comparison and Ebert is making a distinction.

To say Ebert is caving is a bit strong. How can he be caving when he is not admitting that games IN GENERAL are defacto works of art? He's not saying this at all. And that is what opponents ARE saying. I agree with Ebert that generally speaking, games are not art (although I also believe most movies are craft and not art as well). That doesn't mean that we cannot find artworks that use interactive "canvases." "Slave of God" might qualify. It's also not a video game except for very liberal definitions of the phrase. And in the liberal definition case, it doesn't change the fact that most gamers have never played a game that is a true work of art.

Luke Meeken
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You focus on authorial intent is extremely problematic, and a notion that has (rightly) been out of favor for decades. I suppose we should take all of the pre-Colombian indigenous artwork out of the art museum because none of it was made with contemporary Western conceptions of what is and isn't 'art' in mind, and because none of the artists responsible enough are still around to give us their 'decisive' opinion on the matter. Or maybe, just maybe, art objects exist independent of their authors, and their meaning and cultural relevance is found elsewhere than that author's own ego.

"You don't hear about the "Painting Industry" or the "Classical Music Industry" or the "Sculpting Industry", etc."
You are making a false equivalency here - you are deliberately omitting mass-media artforms that are more germane to this discussion, AND which typically do have industries attached (because they are mass media). Or are you contending that books can't possibly be art because there is a "publishing industry"? Likewise, there is a "film industry," and by Ebert's taxonomy, which you seem to be somewhat in favor of, film is certainly an 'art' form.

The film and popular music industries are probably the best analogy for the game industry and its relationship to "artistry" (in the context of authorship and aura as discussed in this article). Most of the work made within these industries is aura-less craft-by-committee kitsch/trash/whatever, but that's not necessarily an indictment of the medium, and there exists a small fraction of works made within "the industry", and a burgeoning number of works being made by independent creators outside of it, which have clearer authorial voices and the more idiosyncratic/experimental sensibilities that likely contribute to the sense of "aura."

Rather than the rigid taxonomy you subscribe to, which seems better suited to the hard sciences, fields like the arts are better suited, in my opinion, to Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" strategies of categorization, dictated not by rigid either/or propositions, but degrees of resemblance.

Michael Joseph
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@Luke Meeken

The problem with the defininition of art you subscribe to is it effectively makes the word meaningless. Everything is everything.

I will just touch on one thing you mentioned which is about pre-Colombian indigenous artwork in museaums. Museaums hold lots artifacts. (there are even museaums with tanks and atom bomb replicas) There is nothing wrong with saying that although something may not be true art, it is still a creative craftwork with aesthetic qualities and a historical/cultural/anthropological treasure. But I wont pretend to know what the actual purpose or intent of the "pre-Columbian indigenous artwork" you're talking about really was.

It really has 0 to do with western notions of artwork. Authorial control AND intent to be art is only problematic for people who insist that it's not necessary. I don't find it problematic at all. :)

In my world, you don't find art sitting in landfills by the millions of truckloads.

p.s. oh. On false equivalencies you misunderstand me. I wasn't saying that because an "industry" is attached that there are no works of art to be found, but it's a PRETTY BIG CLUE that the vast majority of the works you find there will not be art. For example I would say Harry Potter and Twilight and such are targeted products designed for the consumption by adolescents and young adults. The vast majority of movies are simply NOT art. To the extent that Ebert back tracked on his statement, I think it has to do with the fact that these days particularly, the movie industry looks very much like the games industry.

I've said it in an earlier post, I don't think films or books are defacto artworks any more than games are.

TC Weidner
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I disagree with the assumption that a secret ingredient cant be found in code, how can it be found in text then? or in paint. Surely there is a limited numbers of letters and colors, yet the magic still can happen, just as it can in code. Also in the past art can be created solo or with assistants.

I see nothing in those 3 principles of art that eliminates games making as art.

Lewis Wakeford
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What is and isn't Art is more of an intuitive feeling in the person on the receiving end. It's one of those things that there is basically no value in discussing.

Michael Joseph
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There is value in discussing the definition of art because it is an example of how we allow our language and thus our communication to become confused and muddy. Everything is everything or arbitrary or subjective and people lose all convictions. To be moved by an experience seems insufficiently broad to me. Some people cry at weddings. I don't see how you can seperate specific intent of a work to be art from the label itself.

Maybe we're in an age where the masses feel that works conceived to be art are pretentious and out of date. And maybe current generations of artists are partially to blame. If everything is art then why not just be a so-called commercial artist.. or so the reasoning goes? I find it all really sad. Somewhere along the line, manipulating folks emotions for commercial intent was dubbed art and... everyone was just fine with it.

The everyday world could do with alot more true art and an ability to discern product from true art.

Michael Joseph
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If games are defacto art, then pro-wrestling is a real sport.

If games are defacto art, then food labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" does not contain up to 30% non organic grown ingrediants. It's not a lie (because new age lawyer speak means intentionally misleading people is not lying. Being factual becomes the litmus test for truth.), come-on, but please don't make us put 70% organic on the label!!!! We just covet the unqualified and unadulterated word "organic." Geeeeezus!

Seriously, to strip art of it's defining intent or purpose so that any product or persons may benefit from it's good name seems like an example of the powers of indoctrination.

""For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the propaganda system to which we are subjected and in which all too often we serve as unwilling or unwitting instruments."
-Noam Chomsky

Michael Joseph
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It all boils down to honesty. True art is honest and it's not seeking your love or approval or your purchase.

To call mass media products art is to remove the reqt of honesty or artistic integrity. Why would we willingly want to do that?

Michael Joseph
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Yes they are tedious and your comment is as good example as any of the lack of rigor. Case in point, I already answered your question about commissioned works. Andreas Ahlborn had asked the same thing. What specifically did you not understand about my position there?

EDIT: And i've been very clear and specific about what I view as true art. I think that is contrary to most of the other replies which are quite nebulous about what is art.

Hakim Boukellif
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How do you verify the honesty of a work or artist? Is a freeware game ("true" freeware, not freemium/ad-supported/advergame) that someone made in his spare time less "honest" than an uncommissioned painting that ends up being sold to some nouveau riche for thousands of dollars?

For the record, I'm not trying to say that anyone who sells his works has no or less artistic integrity. Heck, even someone who gives away his works for free could just as well be a narcissist seeking praise from others. The point is that there's no way to verify whether something was made with honest intentions. All you can do is experience a creative work for what it is and rely on your gut instinct as far as that is concerned. But that's something that can only be done on a work-by-work basis, so what's the point in disqualifying entire media or forms of distribution?

matthew friday
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This is, largely, an unsolvable discussion but it doesn't make it less useful to have it, just so we can avoid miscommunication.

Pragmatically, it seems that the most useful definition is the institutional one: if enough of the right people/institutions say something is art and display it as such, then it is. The Smithsonaian and MOMA have said yes (
in-the-collection-for-starters), so that means that video games are now institutionally art at least.

I think much of the argument is that everyone has different concepts of art based on different, disjunctively necessary criteria. Uniqueness, technical skill, addressing of medium, intent, representation, formal elements other discourse etc; all crop up.

Part of the difficulty with video games and art is that gamers get defensive if someone comes out with sweeping statements that denies the medium the status of art. Clearly the medium doesn't preclude works of art, but whether any game has emerged that would be counted as art is a different question (MOMA seem to think so, and have fired the first shot to creating a canon).

Personally, I think that the Modern narrative expects there to be an 'avant-garde' in a medium that is art and this is the focus. Video games doesn't really have this sort of avant-garde in place yet, although many elements are there (like Simony

Roberta Davies
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I agree with TC Weidner above. Code, in itself, has no "secret ingredient" because it has to be written to very specific rules. But then, if I write a novel, I have to follow the rules of language. They're more complex and more subtle than the rules of code, but they're still there and must be followed if I intend to transmit my meaning to the reader.

The fact that most video games are collaborative efforts also doesn't disqualify them as art. Authors collaborate. Most classical paintings are the product of studios, with students and lesser painters handling simple tasks such as painting skies and draperies.

As far as definitions of art go, I'm partial to the one discussed by Robert McKee in his book "Story" (which is intended for students of screenwriting, but is a good read for anyone who creates stories in any medium). Some experiences in life make us think rationally. Other experiences make us feel emotions. Very few experiences make us do both at the same time. A work of art is any experience created by humans which succeeds in its attempt to make (at least some) other humans both think and feel simultaneously.

Obviously there are a great many video games that are nothing like art. I can think of a few that arguably approach the status of art, at least in places. (Bioshock, perhaps? And I'm not ashamed to say I wept at Floyd's self-sacrifice in Planetfall.) Perhaps there's never yet been a video game that's a work of art, but I'm sure it's possible.