Thursday, February 26, 2009

101 - Games != Art

A recent Brainy Gamer post forced me to put to words some thoughts that have been buzzing through my neural synapses for a while. What follows is an expanded version of my response to that post and the discussion that followed.

The video game genre is compared quite often to its elder relative, cinema. This is largely due to "cut scenes" that are utilized by game genres to push the narrative forward. Other undertones are noticeable; cinematic "cameras" (views), filters, soundtracks, etc.

Some argue that only by ridding the video game medium of any and all references to cinema will it ever stand on its own as an art form. Perhaps this has hindered some of the yet-unseen, unique developments of the gaming medium. However, I think it's important to note that some of the most modern art mediums, notably photography, borrowed heavily from more mature traditions in order to give itself direction and credibility. Video games are hardly accepted as "high art," or to be more specific, worthy of museum and gallery contexts.

But, as Michael Abbott stresses in his post, the most exhilarating experiences in theater come from rehearsal, not necessarily the final performance, or the part that makes theater an art form. Games are meant to be experienced, as play, not to sit on a pedestal.

As game designers and gamers, I don't think we should necessarily be concerning ourselves with trying to force games to fit the "high art" mold. Because that is not what gaming is about.

Cory Arcangel: Mario CloudsIf anyone has seen or heard of a video game shown in a gallery, perhaps you already have an idea of what I'm getting on about. They are dull. They are relatively simple. They utilize outdated software/hardware. Honestly, they are little more than glorified mods and hacks that have become virtually unplayable. Is that what we want for our games? To be quite honest, it is rare for a person viewing a work of "art" to just "get it," or even for a person to truly enjoy it for what it is, until they read some artist's statement or explanation on the wall. If that were to happen to games, to our rule/play structures, would it really be a game any more?

Fallout 3 concept art
So perhaps we aren't necessarily trying to fit any mold per say, maybe we just want recognition. Maybe we want to be recognized "as-is" as high art. I can tell you that, in order for that to happen, the art world as we know it must come to an end. Radical changes would have to be made for the prestigious art museums to house an arcade, or just simply a place where AVERAGE people might come to PLAY. And I'm not necessarily saying that this is impossible; look at what Marcel Duchamp and Dada did to the world's understanding of what art is, or rather what it should be.

I am saying that games are just a different breed. We are pioneering our own frontier, one that rejects the snooty notions of art that is inaccessible to the masses. We are making our own "art." Or if we are not, perhaps we should be.

As a student of Game Design at an art school, I feel that I've been sitting in "Games != Art 101" for 3 years ( "!=" is code-speak for "not equal to," if anyone is lost). Sure, an emphasis is offered, but did they know what they were getting into when they decided it would bring more students to the Institute? Now, I don't mean to say that I wish I were somewhere else; I'm very glad I came here, especially for the traditional skill training and exposure to theory and discussion that is invaluable to me. One of the most important concepts I've taken to heart is the notion of context and its power; one may banter on about what is or isn't art, but at a certain point it must be recognized for the semantics that it is. Art is literally anything put on display within the context of an art museum. A place where games just don't belong.


  1. "As a student of Game Design at an art school, I feel that I've been sitting in "Games != Art 101" for 3 years. Sure, an emphasis is offered, but did they know what they were getting into when they decided it would bring more students to the Institute?"

    I wonder if more so, they didn't expect such an intense culture to come with the students, nor enthusiasm. Games have such varying degrees of establishment, from independent to triple A titles, every one has such broad goals. More and more it seems the semester regiment is not as ideal as it could be for this, and given the smaller student body I think some radical teaching/curriculum methods, such as our Level Design course, could be installed successfully.

    On a larger note, does meaningful play prohibit itself from the gallery setting in definition, or spirit? How much is lost with the artist statement that play could have stirred? Mighty jar of pickles there.

  2. I sincerely believe that a gallery setting, or even an art-minded interpretation, imposes specific limitations on game design that is unacceptably stifling to the medium.

    I am not saying that it can't be done. Games for galleries can and have been made, but they usually aren't FUN. And isn't that the most fundamental, core, hard-to-put-to-words part of a game that makes it a game?

    Games for galleries are generally short, or do not require the "player" to "finish" them, since a gallery viewer is not likely to sit and play with something for lengths of time in which others might want to play. A gallery viewer is almost as likely to not interact with the game at all, since the tradition of museums is "view, don't touch."

    Games are an experience, one that shouldn't have to be confined. And we don't want games to turn into bullshit, like much art has become, do we?

  3. Definitely.

    It brings me back to my thoughts on ludology a cultural sense. For meaningful play to exist, there needs to be some built in appreciation or willingness for extended play, and I agree that a gallery might not be the proper setting for it.

    Still, there is an undeniable sense of community any way you slice it.