As the title says, games are art. I begin with this because I have gone through multiple false starts in getting this argument going. While I believe most other gamers would agree with me, making this topic seem rather pointless, I have also noticed that a good deal of the rest of the world still does not acknowledge games as an artistic medium. The debate over the artistic merit of games was quite loud years ago when Roger Ebert declared, “Games can never be art.” and since it has quieted down. Unfortunately I think the quiet only really occurred because the only people speaking were gamers. Well, that’s still going to be true today, but perhaps I can at least outline my argument well enough that if a non-gamer comes across it they can begin to understand what this medium means to us.
Now that we are about on the same page as far as where the current argument is, I would like to define the word “game.” I want to do this first because it is always good practice to define important terms, and also because I don’t think “game” has been well-defined for quite some time now. Surfing around the net I ran into multiple definitions, and eventually I was able to cobble together something which felt appropriate:
An activity engaged in for the purpose of diversion, amusement, and/or competition which requires the player(s) to adhere to a set of rules.
I like this definition because as far as I can tell it doesn’t exclude anything which has ever been referred to as a game. It allows for classic board games, live sports, e-sports, and video games ranging from Mario and Modern Warfare to Minecraft and Proteus. Now, I would defend why it is important to include all of these activities, but for some that debate could go on for quite some time and dominate this article. So for now I will just say, “If it’s a video game that can be found on Steam or is similar to something you can find on Steam, then it is a game.” (this is mostly because upon Proteus’ release there was some debate as to whether or not it counted as a game)
With that out of the way I would like to present my primary criticism of the argument between Ebert and Santiago. They can’t agree on a definition for art.
Santiago: The process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.
Ebert: A work which attempts to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.
I’m actually stretching the truth when I attribute that definition to Ebert as he actually refuses to define “art” in his article, believing definitions to be useless because exceptions can always be found. Unfortunately this then means his argument amounts to, “I’ll know it when I see it.” and I hope we all understand that when you are attempting to label something (or argue that something will never fit a label), this just does not fly. So when referring to Ebert’s criteria for art I will be labeling them as the “Ebert Definition”, since I can’t actually attribute a definition to him (so it’s just me naming a definition after him).
To quickly illustrate why I don’t actually like the Ebert Definition: every simulator game ever made passes. Every game which attempts to simulate something is imitating nature. Every historical first person shooter, every form of Civilization and Age of Empires, and even Farming Simulator pass the Ebert Definition of Art. With this alone I could close my argument on a technicality. I could say, “Aha! Games have always been art as they originated as simulators!” But I have a feeling that most people who protest identifying games as art are not those who will be persuaded by emotionless technicality. Indeed, most would attribute emotion to art, even if not all fine art actually appeals to our emotions (I’m looking at you portraits and paintings of fruit). But instead of arguing against a double-standard and claiming games should be allowed into the magical world of fine art on the basis of being emotionless simulations, I want to argue that there are games which do appeal to our emotions.
Here you may expect me to recount aspects of games similar to the cutscene in Final Fantasy 7 where Sephiroth kills Aeris as examples of games evoking emotions within us. But I won’t because then I would simply be attributing the art present in games to film. This is actually a big complaint I have about many “games are art” arguments. Many of them point to visuals or cinematics as evidence that games are art, but those aren’t the core of games. Those are already seen as fine art. So yes, while I could then argue that games are already art because they are formed of multiple pieces of art to make a whole known as a game, I would still rather delve further into why games are different from other media, and how that core attribute can be viewed as, and is indeed, art.
But now I need to define what is special about games. Yes, I have defined what a game is, but I don’t think the definition makes it all that obvious as to what makes games special. What is special about games is interactivity. In other artforms only the creators get to actually manipulate the product. Audiences watch movies, listen to music, and observe paintings, but they don’t get to actually manipulate them in order to explore them. Games are built on audience interaction. If I were to backtrack a bit I could then say games are art because they are interactive versions of cinema, music, etc. So yes, games are a whole collection of artforms, but the mechanics themselves contribute greatly to that art, and it is there that I want to defend their position as art.
In saying that game mechanics are art it is then important to note that you cannot truly judge a game without playing it. This is because game mechanics are, well, the mechanisms with which the audience interacts with the game world. If the mechanics themselves are art, then it means the art of games is developed through play. This means that to experience the art that is game you can’t just watch someone play a game, but have to actually play it yourself. This isn’t necessarily because of the need for immersion, but because games are an artform which requires its audience to get their hands dirty. To elucidate on this point, and to hopefully convince my reader of the artistic merit of game mechanics, I am going to describe the mechanics of a few games as well as the emotional state they place the player in (whether they are aware of it or not). This does mean I might spoil some things about the games, so while I will try to stay away from spoilers, if you’re afraid of reading them, then skip the paragraphs following the Youtube video related to each.
The first is a game which many games-are-art advocates bring up: Shadow of the Colossus. In this game you take control of Wander, a young man who is tasked with slaying multiple colossi. For most game heroes this is already a large and amazing task, but Shadow of the Colossus makes it even grander by making sure the player feels just how small Wander is. Not only is he dwarfed by the monsters, but he is also dwarfed by the vastness of the setting, the greatness of the environment and structures, and even by the size of his own horse. Wander is tiny compared to just about everything in the world. But is common in games. Small heroes taking on gigantic foes happens everywhere, but at least those heroes are also powerful in some special way. Wander however, is not. From the visuals we see that Wander stumbles when he jumps, and it takes effort for him to pull himself up a ledge. But these are still visuals, and not mechanics. There are two mechanics which make Wander feel especially weak in comparison to the monsters he has to fight. The first is that he is physically incapable of damaging them unless he climbs upon them and strikes a weakpoint with his magic sword. If he doesn’t hit a weakpoint with the sword or tries to attack with his bow, then no damage is done whatsoever. Wander is powerless to defeat these beings in any sort of safe way. The second mechanic is the Endurance Meter. Unlike other heroes Wander cannot hold on forever. As he grips onto the side of a colossus to climb his way up to a weak spot his endurance drains, and if it runs out he loses his grip, falling to potential death. As the player we are made to feel weak and nearly powerless because not only can we not safely dispatch our foes, but we also have limited strength (whereas the colossi never tire). We sit on the edge of our seats as we watch the Endurance Meter empty while all we can do is hold on for dear life, hoping that we can reach a resting spot before it is too late and we are flung to the ground.
Next is Limbo. Similar to Shadow of the Colossus in that it makes the player feel weak, Limbo ups the ante by making the entire setting lethal and offering absolutely no combat capability to the player. You are helpless except for your ability to solve puzzles to move onward, and it would seem that every thing in the world wants to kill you. Your movements feel slow, and your jump feels short. You aren’t a superhuman. You are just a boy stuck in a dangerous place. We the players are made paranoid of everything before us as sometimes something lethal will pop out as a surprise. We are made to fear progressing, but progressing is all we can do.
This is the part where I try to push the boundaries of what you will accept. Here I present you with Missile Command. Unlike my other two examples Missile Command is a pre-new millennium game with bare-bones graphics and no cutscenes or explicitly defined narrative (outside of: protect the cities from exploding). But mechanically it does tell a story. It is one of all out nuclear war, desperation, and inevitable destruction. We figure out the conflict is likely nuclear because of the classic mushroom shape of the explosions once missiles hit a city. We then are forced into acts of desperation where it just isn’t worth saving every city anymore and we focus on just one. We only need to save one city to continue to survive, so that’s what we eventually focus on. But there is no escaping failure. Eventually there are too many missiles which fall too quickly, and your entire civilization will be destroyed. There is a great elegance to the simplicity with which Missile Command accomplishes this cautionary tale. It did not need words. It did not need explicit narrative. If a film attempted the same it might just show us a bomb going off, but that isn’t the same as forcing us the players to choose who lives and who dies only to fail in the end. The interactivity is what makes Missile Command hit the audience so hard. We don’t just empathize with an actor on screen or a character in a book. We are that character.
In these few examples I hope I have presented compelling arguments as to why at least a few games currently are art. I hope that this then expands my reader’s view in such a way that they can accept other games as art, as well as give them a rough outline on how to observe the artistic form that is gaming. The interactivity of game mechanics is such a powerful tool for opening our eyes to new experiences in a way that no other art can accomplish. It is truly special, and I think we are robbing ourselves of intellectual, emotional, and artistic exploration if we continue to mislabel games as just playthings, like so many of those who deny the artistic merit of gaming seem to do.