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Games as Art?: The Play's the Thing
by Steven Conway on 03/10/11 05:15:00 pm   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.


Your Princess Is In Another Castle

Are games art? Can they be deemed moving, emotive, beautiful? Immediately the question exhausts me. The only thing more exhausting, more irksome, by virtue of its predictability, are the innumerable cliché answers: “the narrative in [game] was sophisticated”, “look at the graphics of [game], beautiful!”, “the characters in [game] were so memorable and nuanced”, “look at the intelligent way [game] played with storytelling convention”.

Now, all of the above may well be true for certain digital games; indeed I could name a few of my personal favourites that fit into each of the above sentences. Yet I can't help but feel it's all missing the point.

The problem is, in answering the question with statements beginning “the narrative”, “the graphics” or “the soundtrack”, people continuously fall into the trap of trying to play media such as books, film or music at their own game. Quite simply, we keep repeating the mistake of looking in the wrong place for the true aesthetics of the digital game form. Time to move on to the next castle...


Objets d'art

We come from a history of locating the art in the object, in the grandiose 'work of art': the painting, the statue, the book, the dress. This is prudent enough, it is much easier and analytically cleaner to evaluate one specific artefact's aesthetic merit, than to consider the comparatively messy world of not only the object, but of the interaction between artist and work, between audience and art, art and environment.

The danger implicit in such an holistic evaluation of the work would be the daunting prospect that the meaning and artistic merit of the piece is not constant or inherent, as John Fiske points out, “texts are activated, or made meaningful, only in social relations and in intertextual relations” (Fiske,1989: p.3). This was of course Duchamp's point with Fountain, that the status of art was not something intrinsic to the object. Built upon in eclectic ways by the artistic collective known as 'Fluxus' throughout the 60s and 70s, and across the humanities thanks in part to post-structuralism, questions were raised concerning the importance of the audience's understanding, whether interpreting a sculpture, a poster, a television show, and so on. In the same period, digital games were slowly emerging as a cultural force in their own right, reaching their golden age during the late 70s.


Games as Media?

A large problem is, because we play digital games on personal computers or on our gargantuan flat-screen televisions, and because our consoles can play DVDs, Blurays, and mp3s, it's easier for us to just wedge a distinctly square peg into a round hole, believing it will eventually fit if we push it hard enough. It remains convenient for us to just categorise games as media; at least it's a step-up from toys right?

Yet this creates many problems, not least of which is our unthinking translation of many preconceptions, ideas and vocabularies straight from speciously comparable mediums like literature and cinema into games. More square pegs, more round holes, as illustrated in my discussion of the 'fourth wall' and digital games (

Now that's not to say there aren't comparisons to be made, digital games have obviously borrowed much from the above mediums, and do share features with media. Rather, to re-purpose Wittgenstein, the danger lies in the power that language has in imprisoning us in certain modes of thought, removing the possibility for any other way of conceiving the subject. We are now comfortable in discussing the role the audience plays in the reception of art, of media, of communication, but by identifying games as media first, we're missing an important part of the equation; the unique ability for the audience to create in games, to play.

As I believe Jonas Heide Smith commented, perhaps we should stop trying to view digital games strictly as media, and see them instead as a modern branch of the (ancient) ludic tree. So if games don't fit neatly alongside media, where do they find their home?


If It's In The Game, It's In The Game...?

What are games? In their most classical sense, games are structures. They are systems we engage with, sets of rules and limitations that give meaning to action. As Bernard Suits (1978) described:


To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, and where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.


Notice the importance of action within this quote. We play games, we engage with them, they are an activity. To wheel out a favourite quote of mine from Galloway (2006):

If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions. Let this be word one for video game theory. Without action, games remain only in the pages of an abstract rule book. Without the active participation of players and machines, video games exist only as static computer code.

(p.2, italics in original)

Games need players. Soccer without players is simply a few lines of white chalk on a field, adorned by posts at either end. Remove the posts and put a net across the middle and we have Tennis. Chess without players is just sixty-four squares, thirty-two pieces and a rulebook. None of these are things I would pay to see; none of them appeal to my aesthetic sensibility.

In the same way, ballet without the dancer is not ballet. The major aesthetic dimension of ballet does not reside for me in the set design or in the costumes, but in the performance. Similarly, put Barcelona FC on a soccer pitch and I'll eagerly devote attention. Put Roger Federer on the tennis court and I'll gladly pay. Put directly, games, when enacted, become so much more than the sum of their parts. With this in mind, can the aesthetics, the beauty of games truly be said to be located just in the game? As hinted at in my introduction, perhaps we should start looking somewhere else, somewhere outside the game, or more accurately between the game and player.


The Play's The Thing

The true aesthetic dimension of a game, is what makes a game unique: play. Watch me play Chess and it's highly unlikely you will be held in awe of my ability, inspired by my innovation, uplifted by my effervescent performance. But watch a grandmaster, a Bobby Fischer, and you may well be mesmerised by the beauty of the play. Put me on a football pitch and (asides from the odd moment of brilliance I assure you), you'll be as likely to laugh as you are to applaud. But watch Dimitar Berbatov delicately control a ball, nonchalantly glide past an opponent before curling the football into the top corner of the goal, and you will understand why it's called “the beautiful game”.

Of course, this means that digital games, as art, fly in the face of our common sense: traditional art, once designated as such, is a stable, unchanging representative. But, like ballet, like much Fluxus art, games are not static. Games change, they are dynamic, they shift and pulse and breathe, yesterday's euphoric basketball performance may be followed today by the most wearisome match ever witnessed. Clearly, the aesthetic dimension is not solely contained within the game, nor within the player's actions, but in the interaction between the two, in the ability to create moments of transcendent play that create in spectators (and other players) a sense of wonder and admiration. I have witnessed this in high-level Counter-Strike play, in StreetFighter tournaments, in StarCraft, where entire audiences have been silenced by instances of extraordinary play that spoke to their aesthetic appreciation and had an undeniable impact, whether that be intellectual or emotional. So, to answer the question “are games art?”, perhaps we should first respond, “who's playing?”


Conclusion – The Problem of Procrustes

Procrustes was a serial killer in ancient Greek mythology whose modus operandi was to murder his victims by either stretching their limbs, or chopping them off to fit an iron bed of his design. This is precisely what we do when we take our knowledge of aesthetics from other art-forms and try to apply them to games; we stretch, we chop, and we inflict violence upon our understanding. Instead, we need to refuse to get into the bed! More pointedly, we need to throw out the old bed and design a new one, a bed that comfortably accommodates the dynamic, complex and evolving digital game form. We need to recognize the fact that the aesthetics of a game, its beauty, resides not solely in its graphics, or sound, or narrative, but in its play, and thus also in its player.

Of course, in designing our new bed, we mustn't forget lessons learned from the old one. We do need to incorporate what we know from the history and philosophy of aesthetics, much of our understanding of the aesthetics of literature and film can be applied to particular games. This should be acknowledged, whilst always vigilantly and intelligently scrutinized. But in first centring the aesthetics of digital games on play, we can further our cognition of the form, better articulate the pleasures it affords us, ferment more nuanced, insightful discussion, and ultimately provide us with a more refined critical approach in designing better games.

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Dylan Woodbury
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Wow, that's funny, I posted a blog just a couple days ago on the same exact topic through gamasutra too - that games are art through the gameplay.


I feel it is an important topic that we really need to decide on within our industry before we convince other outsiders that games are art. You should check out my blog post too - our ideas are nearly identical (unless you read it when it was on this site the day before yesterday). Somehow, didn't get featured like you though.

Keith Nemitz
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I read your article to say, "art in a game is brought out by a player." Sounds good. But does your article also claim that without a player it's art cannot be judged?

Poems can leap out powerfully or drop like lead depending upon the person who recites them, but does that mean I cannot enjoy the art of a poem, simply by reading it?

I have read rules for games that I've never played, and occasionally I have had wonderful experiences groking the system explained. Even computer games can be explored without really playing them, especially simulations like Sim City.

Jacob Pederson
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Ah, but just by reading it you are conducting a one-man purely mental performance of the piece. Exactly the same way you can play certain games completely in your head :P

The poem does not exist just sitting there. It requires a reader or performer. Even something like a painting is like this. The universe doesn't care about the painting. Only other apes care.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Love it Jacob. Point well taken.

Mark Venturelli
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@Keith This makes no sense, the poem does not exist without people. You don't read a poem in a "neutral" way, it is just as personal as it is when someone recites them.

Dave Endresak
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Well, I may agree that games are play; actually I have stated that all life is play and thus all life is a game. However, I disagree that games are actions, except perhaps in a very very rudimentary meaning of the word, and certainly not as it is meant here.

For example, if I play a word game (an oral word game, that is) alone or with someone else, there is no action aside from the motion of my mouth, lips, breath, etc to form words.

Likewise, if I play a visual novel, adventure, or simulation game, there are no actions in the sense the word is used here because the only actions are mouse clicks for selections (or menu up-down-left-right and return key).

There are many more examples, but my point is that games are still art just as any media is art (and in fact many forms of art do not need a medium aside from the body). Any form of creative effort is art. Whether it is appreciated as such by someone else is a moot point.

This kind of debate always happens with new media. For example, photography was once viewed as "not art" because the pictures were not created by hand by an artist (or artiste ^_^). There are people who may claim that synthesized music for instruments or voice (such as Vocaloid software) are not art, but many others certainly feel that such works are art and appreciate them as such.

It really doesn't matter if someone cannot appreciate that games are art forms because many others do.

Christoph Kaindel
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I think games have more in common with the theatre than any other art form. Johan Huizinga said there are two types of games, performing (like the theatre) and competitive (sports, card games etc.). But they are closely related. The ancient Olympic Games were originally held as a religious service in honour of Zeus, and many modern sportspersons are performers too.

While I agree that playing a game is one activity that sets it apart from art forms like literature, painting etc., it is also one thing it has in common with the theatre. Like a computer game, theatre is a collaboration of many artists. First of all, there is the author. Shakespeare was undeniably an artist, but the actors and directors who interpret his works and put them on stage are as well. And there are the costume and stage designers, the light designers, the choreographers, all artists in their own right, who work together to create a production following the vision of the director. But the thing is, like in a game, the costumes stay the same, but each and every performance is different.

So to sum it up, I would say that games are made by a collaboration of many artists, but everything only comes together by the game being played. I can enjoy just reading Shakespeare, but it's really on the stage where he belongs (even though there are a lot of abysmal productions out there ...)

Steven Conway
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Dylan - Thanks for the link, I've just read your article, very interesting, and it's good to see I'm not alone in my thoughts.

Keith - Thanks for the comments, food for thought. But I would point out, firstly, that your poem analogy is specious; reading a poem and playing a game are two fundamentally different things, for one you cannot change the words of a poem as you read. Also, I would disagree that SimCity is a 'game' in any traditional sense.

Dave - I would be interested in your definition of action, if you can offer it. My understanding of 'action' is to act upon something, to have an effect. Thus in playing a word game, you have an effect when you use a word, you impact and change the course of the game. Whether clicking a mouse, a controller, or swinging a Wii remote, you are having a tangible effect upon the game world. I judge actions in terms of efficacy, not physical exertion.

Chris - Agreed, I too believe games have much in common with theatre (indeed, Caillois would label such performances as games of mimicry) and ballet etc.

Tim Carter
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Let's put it this way: Games could be as important as art, in their own way. Whether that's for good or ill, the jury is still out.

Alan Jack
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I've actually just this very second made this note while studying through "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud:

p. 166 – “Art is the way we assert our identities as individuals and break out of the roles nature cast us in”

Playing games is like an art – does playing games make it easier for people to express themselves when they might have difficulty otherwise? In the same way we press A to be a spy or snowboard down a mountain, do we press A to express ourselves?

Steven Conway
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Tim, Alan - well said.

Jacob Pederson
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This article really encapsulates the argument in a way that many many many of the talking heads out there have missed.

There's that universal human emotion activated when we're watching those four zerglings juke those two marines at the GSL. I imagine it's very similar to your soccer analogy. Without the contestants, the commentators, the audience, the experience starts to fall apart. This is why traditional media critics don't see art when they see a video game . . . they are not getting the full experience.

Ernest Adams
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Games are an art form. Very few of them are works of art, however, just as movies are an art form but very few of them are works of art. Most movies and most games are simply popular culture; light entertainment.

Thomas Grove
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"Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."" - Wikipedia

Mark Venturelli
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Thanks for this, Steven. Good write. Also gave me a cute little quote to throw around:

"Chess without players is just sixty-four squares, thirty-two pieces and a rulebook. None of these are things I would pay to see; none of them appeal to my aesthetic sensibility."

I would only refute the idea that the beauty of play is only on players. Players will certainly make or break it, but the designer also holds considerable responsibility on making play meaningful and beautiful for players.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Just thinking about your response Mark and I guess you can say that the designers/developers of games are the artist's and we, the players, are the art critiques of the world.

Paul Sivertsen
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Very well written indeed. Definitely made me reconsider the value of games as art. I've felt that for a long time, but now I feel like they're one of the highest - if not THE highest - forms of art.

Steven Conway
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Thank you for the feedback everyone, very eloquent and I'm happy I could stimulate some discussion.