Games Are Not Art

GTA IV Jack Thompson
GTA IV Jack Thompson

If you couldn’t already tell, I like games. I want to spend all of my time writing about them or playing them. I won’t ever stop playing them, or at least enjoying them, no matter what happens. Why did I just say that? Because I’m about to piss a whole lot of gamers off, and I want them to remember I said that when we get into the meat of this article.

At this moment in time, games are not art.

It’s not that I think they’re bad, they just aren’t what one would define as “art”. Do I have a concrete definition for art? Absolutely not, and I could care less about it. We seem to be looking for the entitlement that comes as an “art form”. While I would like it if society stopped thinking that games are for kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are an art form.

Games are not currently art in my opinion, because of what art is, in its current form. It has several properties which exclude gaming. The main one is simple: Games are meant to be played. You do not interact with most things that are classified as art. But there is no piece of artwork that can be played. The difference being, that you view art, you absorb art, the only way you interact with it in almost all cases is to see it, in some respect. You cannot “view” a game. If a piece of art has outside influences that inherently change it, then it is currently not art. Simple as that.

Flower game screenshot
Flower maybe the closest we get to an "art" game

It’s an observation vs interaction argument. Some art can be interacted with. Some people make sculptures that can be moved, but that isn’t changing it, just rearranging it in a way that is intended. Games aren’t meant to be observed. Games by definition, cannot be observed. You play a game. You are controlling the character, making decisions that inherently change the game. In Flower, you control the breeze, but there is still an objective and things that you must complete in order to progress. Current art doesn’t have that. There’s no part of a book that will stop you from reading it until you’ve successfully read every word on every page to the book’s satisfaction. If “The End” snipes me on my ass every time I play Metal Gear Solid 3, (assuming I don’t cheat) I will not progress further into that game. I will never be able to see the ending, or how the story continues because I cannot progress any further.

How many times has that happened to you when you were a kid playing games? There is this one part that you just can’t get past, and you put the game down and never pick it back up again. For me, that happened in The Bouncer. I got to the final boss, and just couldn’t beat him. I never got to see how the story ended, and never got the satisfaction of seeing the man that I had worked so hard to build up the energy, stamina and power to defeat, actually get defeated.

If I wanted to, I could skip to the end of my Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit book and figure out exactly how it ends. Nothing will stop me from doing so other than my own notion not to spoil the ending for myself. When I watch Salt or The Social Network, nothing’s going to stop me from skipping to the end of these movies and looking at the conclusion that both those movies will probably be terrible.

Braid screenshot
Games can be pretty, but can't be "art" right now

Can games eventually be art? Of course, once they change the definition of what “art” is. When art can be interacted with, engaged, enjoyed with and through the person using it instead of enjoyed by the person seeing it, then games can be art. But allow me to ask a simple question:

Why in the hell would games want to be art?

Games are so much better than art. The point of this article isn’t to prove that games aren’t art, it’s to prove to you that they shouldn’t be considered art. To say that games are art degrades the games themselves. If it is true that games are not art because art is not generally interacted with as I just said, then that becomes a limitation of art, not an expression of art’s superiority. Art isn’t better than games, no matter what Ebert wants us to believe. Games are better than art, solely because they can be interacted with. In books you are forced to use your imagination, because the limitation of the book is that it can’t show you moving pictures. The limitation of the movie is that you cannot interact with it, you cannot take control of it, you are essentially just a person viewing it with no control over the events. In games you get that control. You control the main character. Your actions are his actions, and you are being led through worlds that could be replicated by movies, but not with the same feel. Games are far better than art, and game designers don’t wear those pretentious hats and act with an heir of superiority. Why are we fighting for a position that is beneath us? Do you fight for second place in Crash Team Racing? No, of course not, so why is it that gamers are so hell bent on trying to be given a title that is currently beneath them? If anything, art should be begging for games to be in its little club. Instead, (as the medium before it always does) they act like they are somehow better, more pure or are superior to the medium that surpasses it simply because they can’t keep up.

So no, games are not art, in art’s current definition. But I am proud to say that games aren’t art. When art’s ready, we’ll be waiting. Until then, we should be the ones with the sense of superiority on our faces. All movie-goers can hope for is to be us. To give the person interacting with it the sense of control, of bonding and of attachment with the main character. At the end of a movie, the audience cheers for the main character’s triumph, or cries at their failure. At the end of a game, we are that main character. We’ve been through what they’ve been through. Lets see any type of art do that.

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11 thoughts on “Games Are Not Art

  • August 25, 2010 at 9:31 AM
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    As soon as somebody defines something they just limited it. I agree with you.

  • August 25, 2010 at 10:15 AM
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    what about some video format installations? NOthing happens until spectators or audience make actions to it.
    These are commisioned by museums, the place art’s suposed to be.

    In my opinion, any representation form that makes the spectator or the spectator-manipulator, feel something, needs to be called art.

    Videogames are the free (you can die if you want, or just be a hero) exploration of someone’s plastic/audio work. But they’re everywhere! lots of games! nobody gives a shit to put’em on the great X museum.

  • August 25, 2010 at 11:37 AM
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    @Jak

    See i think that’s a bit too broad. If I walk by my fridge and feel hungry, that doesn’t make the fridge art. You’re thinking “actions” in terms of any action taken to a piece of art. (at least thats what I think, correct me if i’m wrong) If thats the case, then those are not interactions with the artwork itself. Yeah you can get it commissioned by a museum, but thats certainly not an interaction with the artwork itself, thats just moving it or selling it, not interacting with it.

    Another person has used the example of “But i can pause a movie!” Again, not interacting with the film, but interacting with the dvd that the film is on.

    The last thing you said seems to be an argument that games aren’t art more so than they are. Games tend to not be put in museums (though i wish they did, maybe i could then grab a copy of Marvel Vs Capcom) because they aren’t a work of art. Though again, I wouldn’t have it any other way right now.

  • August 25, 2010 at 12:30 PM
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    Am begging to differ. As one in game design (arcade and home and alternate reality), the shaping of creative output into a marketable output indeed qualifies as art.

    What is the definition of art? I go by the Zappa definition of art in which an event or concept is presented for a time or space frame. If someone attaches a throat microphone and drinks a glass of carrot juice and announces that as his creative work, then it is indeed art. Otherwise, it is just a guy drinking a glass of carrot juice.

    Games consist of different modes of creative forces designed to create an environment of interaction for the participant(s). Many different disciplines are drawn together to achieve this goal. Aural creations such as music and sound effects, visual symbols and environments and gameplay logic designed all together as a cohesive environment. By definition, this would be assemblage art, created from disparate elements into a whole work of creation, based on but transcending the original elements. Just because a game has a set of playability rules does not automatically disqualify it from the definition of assemblage art.

    Games can be in any environment requiring audience participation, such as at home or an arcade or a live event. Games are usually made on a business commission or can be done by an individual or group together as an expression of creative output.

    The exact same applies to art.

    And the argument about a main character to identify with and bond with, that can apply equally to a work of art or a game. You can identify with an advertising campaign mascot, a creative work of art personality, a game character. There may be different levels of interaction, but the identifying and bonding is valid across all formats.

    When all is said and done, both games and arts are creations for the participant/viewer to enjoy and immerse in their creativity. And to quote my favorite song from the group Negativland:
    “Can they really get inside my head?”
    “As long as you keep an open mind”

  • August 26, 2010 at 8:22 AM
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    @ Antonio

    Again, that definition seems built only to appease the masses and not really helpful, like the other one (though yours does at least make a bit more sense)

    However, when you say “assemblage art”, i can only think of one thing: Collages. Which are fine as a piece of art. But, again, gaming cannot be called “assemblage art” despite having a bunch of art in it, be cause unlike a collage, the end result of a game is something thats played, whereas the end result of a collage is something that’s viewed for the purpose of enjoying the collage itself. If you didn’t have to play it, and you could sit back and enjoy the collage for what it was, then it would be art. As such, screensavers are actually more “art” then video games. As hilarious as that is as i think about it, I have to take everything into account if i’m going to make that claim, even the ludicrous, so, absolutely.

    As Ebert said, when has any other piece of art had a “high score?”

  • August 30, 2010 at 7:05 AM
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    Awesome arguments ;D I understood booth.

    So demoscene works could be considered as “real art”… They use videogame realtime graphics/sound technology, they’re fun!! , they use (sometimes) videogame “clichés”,…buuuuuut they’re not interactive.

    These computer art works does not need the viewer’s inputs to be what they are.

    So, you do not define a “carrot juice glass” a piece of art, just because it has been used by some guy in a live performance.

    http://www.capped.tv
    http://www.demoscene.tv

  • August 30, 2010 at 7:09 AM
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    …..then… Are books art? Beacause they need people to read them!!!!

    You can define the word composition, phrase metrics in them, such art. But not the book itself as art.

  • August 30, 2010 at 1:37 PM
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    @ jaK

    Actually, the one demoscene thing i’ve played was linger in shadows, which was lovely, but because of the interaction element (you had to do some weird stuff to progress and see the whole thing) i can’t really give it art, under the rules set previously. Although i’m not really sure, that game was really weird and creepy. I’m not really familiar with the demoscene thing, so i can’t really comment on that, besides that one game.

    And about your “carrot juice glass” thing, theres a simple test for that. when you go to drink carrot juice, how many times have you thought “wow, this here, this is beautiful artwork” or, did you just pick a glass and drink it?

    As for “are books art?” its the same thing as the dvd question. Are books art? no. books contain stories. Are stories art? Absolutely. Books just hold the stories, they’re just the carrier, like the dvd is the carrier of the film. the dvd isn’t art, but the film is. Get it?

  • August 30, 2010 at 1:43 PM
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    @ Everyone

    Everyone seems to be hung up on the part of the article where I state that games aren’t art. That really wasn’t the point of this article, as I said in the beginning. The point of the article wasn’t to try to convince you that games weren’t art, it was to try to convince you that they shouldn’t be, until art decides to catch up with games. Games are better than art, and to call them that would limit the games. Don’t get offended that I say that they aren’t art, but feel proud that they are ahead of art.

  • September 2, 2010 at 1:45 AM
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    You guys need to chill out and read his article more thoroughly. lol.

  • November 19, 2010 at 1:56 PM
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    Here’s how I look at it….maybe it makes more sense, maybe not.

    Art is like a pony ride at a fair. Games are like riding a horse on an open plain. Both have similar elements. Both can be enjoyed. Both have value of some sort. But the pony ride has a limited range of movement. You can’t get on that pony and expect to race along with the wind in your hair, etc. Not to say you can’t enjoy the pony ride, but you have to enjoy it within the limits that are inherently built into the ride (can’t jump fences, can’t gallop, can’t turn, and so on). The horse on the plain has a much broader range of movement (even linear storylines often present a few, albeit superfluous, choices), fewer limits, and allow you to interact more and be more deeply involved with it. The pony ride, art, is just that, a ride. You get on, you go in a circle, you dismount and then say to your friends, “that was fun” and go on about your business. The horse ride, the video game, you get on, you go, you race, explore, and so many other things, then dismount, turn to your friends and say “HOLY COW DID YOU SEE WHEN I XXXXX and then we YYYYYY and ZZZZZZZ and barely cleared that hedge!!! I can’t wait to do it again!”

    That to me is an analogy of the difference between art and games.

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