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Approaches to Games as Art
by Kheper Crow on 04/15/13 07:23:00 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.


This post is an introduction in a series I am writing on approaches to making games as art.

Games as art has been the focal point of many heated debates. You no doubt have your own opinion on the subject as I have mine. My views most closely align with this speech by Brian Moriarty. Games are NOT art BUT they most certainly can be, which is why I am writing this series of articles. I want to share my thoughts, challenges, and potential methods to overcome those obstacles I have encountered while attempting to make games as art. I would really like to one day experience a game that feels like art!

I have been very interested in this field since pre The Marriage and Passage time and have attempted many times to make games as art. All attempts were, in my opinion, complete failures. I have made art in other mediums. I have also had some art, including one game art, in a gallery. While I have studied art on my own, I do not have a formal art education. I am sharing from my own perspectives, ideas, and experiences. You can see a few pieces I've worked on at

What is art? What is an artist?

Instead of going with a shotgun definition, I am going to use a focus on one definition as a focal point. Art is a creation that captures the unknown. The unknown being an understanding of ourselves and our reality that we, as a collective, have yet to experience. It has also been called the mystery, God, the void, nothing, etc. This is preciously why art is so hard to quantify, art does not exist in a logical place. To capture a mystery one most become a mystery. As one definition of art arises it ceases to be an unknown and the definition must change.

An artist is then a person who creates with the focus to capture the unknown. I don't see an artist as something superior to those who create for craft or entertainment or education, rather I see them more as an explorer of the mystery whose primary goal for creating is discovery and their own personal development. I also think it is an incredibly unrewarding field as many artist will never actually create a work of art. This has given rise to the many creative-in-artist-clothing we see today. Most artist I have met are severely under-appreciated and are often unable to support themselves let alone their artwork. Art is a very difficult undertaking!

One thing I need to stress, there is nothing wrong with making games. Games do not need to be works of art to be culturally relevant or to be validated for their positive roles in the development of a person. When I read of people trying to force games to be considered art it makes me kind of sad because it shows people who are very insecure with the medium. A good game may actually be way better than a good art piece, this is okay. If you love games then make great games that show off the depth of the medium. Be careful not to make something that tries to be both great art and a great game, you are likely to accomplish neither. I love to work with the unknown, so I attempt to make art.

Destructing common mistakes when labeling art

I have read many arguments about why games ARE art. The following are the common misconceptions I encountered, given in order of my own progression on understanding art. If you disagree, instead of arguing, I highly recommend actually trying to make art in any medium. The best way to understand art is to try and make art.

  1. Yes a game has visuals, audio, and writing; no this does not make a game art. While any of the pieces made to make something may be a work of art it does not automatically make the including medium art. This should be easy enough to understand.
  2. Many very creative people work on games. This is very true. I have no doubt that many people in the game industry could be artist. But it is in the why the creator creates that makes them and their creation art.
  3. I have played games that make me feel/think. Great! Games are getting better and better but art has nothing to do with making you feel or think. This was one of my biggest blocks to overcome in understanding art. While art, or a game, may make you feel/think it is not the purpose of art. Actually, purposefully trying to elicit emotions works against creating an art piece as you are focusing on an emotion versus the unknown.
  4. Look at all the SYMBOLS! This is a super common art school mistake. While indirection and masking meaning is a very effective tool for an artist to use, it does not automatically make a creation art. However, symbols are quite fun.
  5. What about this wave of self exposing games? While life, your own life especially, can be wonderful sources of creative inspiration, it does not mean you are making art. Much like symbols, life experiences are great tools, but they are just that, tools.
  6. Can't everything we create be art? Yes! I do think it is entirely possible to make a game with the sole intent to create a game and still manage to make art. This has happened many many times in history (not with games). You don't have to be a treasure hunter to find treasure, in theory though, a treasure hunter should be way more likely to find treasure.

Now at this point you may be saying "What's left?". Well, not much. Remember you can't quantify nothing. Art is layers on the nothing that is everything and the everything that is nothing. All we have is our own intuition and feeling, tools such as experiences and symbols, and our medium.

Problems inherit to the medium

There are many good resources to better understand the artist intuition and tools. However, the biggest obstacle if you are trying to make games as art is the medium itself. To best be able to create art, the medium needs to be as transparent as possible. I hope to cover the following problems and potential solutions to overcome in future articles. If you have any more problem areas, please let me know so I can try to figure out solutions.

  • Games are games; Art is art: They are two inherently different mediums that don't always work well together. A game isn't a movie (well usually...). Fortunately art can be done in any medium but there are core elements of games that are particularly problematic for art creation.
  • Player Agency: Can a medium that looses authorial control, where the act of creation is shared, still be art? Working with player actions is a very difficult challenge. Personally, this is why I am most excited about this field, I LOVE interactive art.
  • Cultural acceptance between mediums: Even if you make a good work of art, how will it be received? Will the art world reject it? Will gamers even notice it? As artist we need to use tools like our aesthetics to help overcome this problem.
  • Accessibility: I'm just gonna say it. Games are horribly cumbersome. Even supposedly "casual" games require complex controls and lengthy learning processes. Art is generally a pretty inaccessible creation, but the difficulty should be in the content not the interface. This is a huge challenge.
  • Lack of texture: All non-digital medium have a textural quality about them. There is a brush in your hand, a canvas, strings on your instrument. Even a word has a texture about it, like balloon. I have found the lack of texture to inhibit creative expression. When I move a brush, a whim may catch me and I may change my motion. In that whim is the possibility for art to happen. Code and even game design has little freedom.
  • Complexity of development: A game has many parts and that each take a lot of time to develop. Maintaining the focus on art, which is hard to do even on quick art pieces, becomes more and more difficult with each layer of complexity.
  • Communication: Unless you are a maverick with many different fields or are working on something very small, you need to work with others. These others may not share your same artistic vision. Even if they do, there is going to be information and focus loss just from communicating your idea.
  • Ingrained logic: Programming, game design, and even graphical arts tend to be approached from a logical perspective. Logic is usually counter intuitive to grasping something that is illogical. How do you divorce logic from a medium that is inherently logical?
  • Lack of resources: If you are working on games as art, you are a pioneer, congratulations. Don't expect a wealth of experienced elders for advice. Fortunately the tools are a lot better than they were even 5 years ago! Unfortunately, these tools are optimized to support a typical video game, which may be completely useless to you. And don't even get me started on non-investment based funding...
  • Public displays: Art needs to live in the world to be appreciated. If you go digital, you will have to deal with draconian partners an over saturated marketplaces and trolls. If you go to a gallery, you have to think very differently than you currently do and face an audience that may not understand anything about games. Good luck!


Thank you for taking the time to read this introduction. If you have any feedback or encouragement, please share, I'm really not sure if there are others interested in exploring this field with me. If so, I will definitely write more!

Also, I can't stress how important it is to actually MAKE art if you want to be an artist. Any kind. Try, discover, and understand your own voice is crucial to being an artist. Practice, practice, practice!

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Jungwoo Lee
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If we look into the past, any new born medium has often been rejected as a form of art until it flourished and eventually received public reception. For that to occur, the definition of art has evolved to adopt new ideology so that the medium could fit into it. If you consider the same definition of art that was used during Renaissance, I bet you have more than just video game to cross off from your art list. Once art fully embraces digital age, then it would be hard to argue against 'video game is art' statement.

Kheper Crow
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This post was more intended as an introduction to problems and solutions to approaching digital interactive art. I have no doubt in the potential in the medium for artistic pursuits. I do think that, like any medium, there are difficulties, I am merely trying to share my experiences for other aspiring artist in the medium :)

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Ok, overall I don't think you are inherently wrong, but I don't think your assertions are fully understanding of either discipline.
First of all, as someone already commented, "art as a creation that *tries to* capture the unknown" is as much a definition of science or religion as it is a definition of art. I really don't think it is particularly accurate or useful in the subject at hand, nor is it a real component of a lot of established art...
I also don't consider the -unknown- to be -Illogical-, as you seem to imply. Lack of knowledge about something and lack of logics in it are two extremely different things. Everything unknown seems illogical until it becomes known.
I do understand your overall points but I think your analysis is severely lacking, particularly in the observation of videogames (that have long since stopped being "games")
Sure, there are games that still cling to a concept of "toy", these are harder to qualify as art, but the biggest drive of most bigger games today is narrative, which is actually the purpose behind all the technical machinery. If that still doesn't qualify as art in your views, there are many experimental games about several different topics (often unknown topics), which are stripped away of the mechanical gimmics to dialogue directly with the player in different levels with the accident of the computer interface. And if that is not art, I don't think art exists.

So what is the problem?

First off, you are saying that Player agency goes against the artistic creation, and I personally couldn't disagree more. In all art the spectator is required to use it's agency and interpret the object, sure you don't often modify the art itself (although it's not uncommon nowadays), but you always modify the meaning, and that is much more important than the interface as you yourself notice.
Contemporary art is particular in this context, since often the complete meaning and structure of the piece itself is determined by the interaction the person has with it. Of course, some art may be more figurative and require less interpretation but still tells a narrative that must be decoded.
You can't say that still life or landscape paintings are -not art- even if they don't really desire to explore the unknown, but rather represent a particular vision of the known. Because that narrows art solely to the particular of absolute abstraction (if that was even an option ...dada maybe?).

Moreover, I don't think that you're perception of the possibilities of coding and design are quite accurate either. As writing a novel, coding is infinitely varied, sure there are structures that you use repeatedly, and some established methods to fulfill certain goals, but words, brush strokes and materials are basically the same in artistic production. Obviously, nothing is really new, the components mean little by themselves before they come together to create the narrative, Duchamp's urinary or Bycicle wheel are no less art because they existed before, it is in their display and context that they gain artistic meaning. The creative freedom of art is as you noted as well, shared in games, there is a preparation, a staging for the action, and in this way, Videogames are much closer than often considered to play or songwriting, sure, the writer couldn't control exactly how the piece was to be interpreted exactly, but that is precisely what makes this art so interestingly ductile.

Also.. I find strange that you don't consider today's digital output as a faithful representation of the modern world. You don't HAVE to pair up with publishers or partners, It's jsut good if you want a bigger audience, but it's not the only way. Either way, it is still probably the most honest, malleable and liberated public output to the world, you face -all- of the audience... sure you stand against indifference and lack of understanding, but when hasn't art faced the same issues?... Or are you saying that art can only exist in museums? Because again I can't disagree more.

I have many more comments about this (about the "cumbersomeness" of games; have you even played Dear Esther or Journey?), but I'm running late.. so it'll have to be some other time.
All in all I really think that although some of your observations are not totally wrong, they are nebulous and broad at best. The only real issue we have is the state of the big industry and our own intentions of making everything MASSIVE.

Kheper Crow
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Thanks for the thorough reply! A lot of these points I want to talk about in later articles so I'll be brief.
- I actually think science and religion are very similar to art. Many of our most revered artist were also accomplished scientist and philosophers. They are all fueled by their love of the unknown. While a scientist seeks to explain the unknown, an artist tries to expose the unknown while retaining it's mystery.
- I don't think the components, such as the narrative of modern games, makes something into art. You could have a game that encompasses all the great poets, artist, musicians into one work and it still wouldn't necessitate that work as art. For the record, a toy can totally be art!
- Player agency doesn't go against art. It is a challenge to consider when making an art piece. Some of my favorite art is interactive art actually.
- I consider a still life or a landscape a painting not art. Like games, it CAN be art. If you ever want some good laughs bring up Thomas Kinkade in a discussion with artist...
- I went to school for programming. It wasn't until I picked up a brush that I fully understood the importance of texture. There are no nuances to code. When you write you change complete meaning by changing the word you use. When you code, you just make bugs by trying to be poetic. You could make the argument that the bugs are the texture...
- Obviously art does not only exist in a museum. However, the context in which a work is displayed is vital in how it is received. Ever heard of the famous violin player who played in the subway, no one listened. If I put a game art up on Kongregate, would people even notice or would they complain about it's failures as a game?
- I have sadly been unable to play Journey for a couple of the problem areas I mentioned. It's on a closed, inaccessible (for me) system. And I guarantee it is cumbersome as both 3d and the playstation controller are inherently unintuitive. I could grasp both because I have played games, but there are still many many people who would be unable to experience it solely based on the interface. Which is shame. I think Jenova Chen is awesome and doing great things for the medium. He's actually pretty high on my list of creators who may make something that feels like art to me :)

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yeah, fair enough.
I agree that the controller is not particularly intuitive, but the whole point is that those two games I mentioned can be played with a joystick.. or any really basic direction definition device. They don't require complex inputs or "gamey" conventions at all.

I still think your definition of art is very limited, I personally think that an intelligent observation of reality, and of actual existence can still very well be art. Monet's Water lilies, Picasso's Mistresses of Avignon or Van Gogh's self portraits are all some of the most iconic images in the history of art.. but they present non literal interpretations of reality. There is mystery in the technique and in the meaning, not in the actual matter.
In fact I'd say that art is the absolute opposite, it is the discovery of mystery in the known and NOT a search for the unknown.
And this mystery is very much present in any creative communication. The unavoidable inability to fully understand the artist's representation, but the obvious attempt for connecting generates that dis-balance of knowledge and wonder of art. This mechanic is absolutely obviously present in many games today.

About narrative, I am not saying that the games themselves include passages of other writers .. or snippets of literature, but instead that most of the biggest games today are generating narrative in an inherent language. It is storytelling by gameplay, wordless literature condensed in meaningful action (look at spec-ops the line).

About landscape and still life not being art, that is a lack of perception from the viewer though, still life could very well be charged with ideology, portraits landscapes and other figurative pieces of art may appear simple for a viewer but can very well have particular meaning for particular people.
Again.. just because it is known it doesn't necessarily lack mystery or wonder. As cheesy as a sunset may be, looking at a particularly beautiful one can hold a lot of meaning to an observer, We know how all the physics work, how the light refracts on the atmosphere and looks orange... but that doesn't make it any less spectacular..

Just so you know, I have a classic art Background... which lead me to drawing and writing comic books, which later lead me to making hand drawn animation, and in parallel, I studied experiential design and pursued a minor in software programming. Now I'm lead developer in our indie studio, Raptus Games, and to be honest, for me programming is a brush, maybe because I work a lot with procedural generation and animation.. but most definitely I can assure you that code is art.

Of course that context matters, but you have to be smart... Today there are places for art games, Check out Desura, it is a particularly indie friendly platform filled with awesomely interesting smaller games.. Even just posting a Game in your particular site can do quite well if the content is there: it is easier than ever to spread the word.
I know of hundreds that go around specifically searching for superbly unusual experiences and ideas.. so blaming the medium is hardly an option today..

I've seen art expos where Dear Esther has been presented with nothing but a trackball, and Journey very well could too. Others like Unfinished Swan are also well on their way too. Removing the "dexterity" requirements from the players. However, I find that this is also a bit silly.
Art has never been open for everyone.. it has requirements. As basic as you need to learn to read to appreciate Herman Hesse's work, and need to read a lot to wrap your head around Michel Houellebecq's novels. Of course, painting has a much more visual and immediate connection, and as you say it is more about the content than the interface, but it is quite accepted that you must have some form of training to fully appreciate the complexities of art..
That's why I don't think games should steer away from "Skill" just to be more Art-like (I don't believe that is true), since it is one particular that enables for an even deeper degree of personalized experience.

Kheper Crow
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My definition of art is purposefully narrow as I find a focused definition much more useful while creating. I would say my definition is more elusive and romantic as I acknowledge that everything can be art as everything has the potential to touch the unknown. And yes I agree, Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh were all quite good artist.

Mostly I am trying to help facilitate the growth of the medium as a vehicle for artistic expression. I'm not as interested in arguing semantics as I am in providing some, hopefully, useful advice and perspective to those trying to create art with this medium. I by no means believe my opinions to be absolute, but I do hope they provide helpful thoughts and maybe remove some road blocks others have encountered. This article is not doing that so much as it is just providing a foundation to work from.

The interface issues are a perfect example. As an artist do you try to remove the interface limitations by limiting control or do you use conventional controls thus alienating a large percent of potential audience? There is no right answer to the question, but it is vital to think about the components that go into your work and how they affect the participant. I think, maybe I'm wrong, that discussions about these issues can be of some use to someone somewhere :)