“Are video games art?”

The always inquisitive and never dull Well-Red Mage recently bestowed the community with another “Big Question.” The first “Big Question,” you may recall, was “What have you learned since you started blogging?” Twas an interesting question to answer, on that provoked plenty of inner dialogue.

When I noticed the second question, my heart lurched a little.

Asking Big Questions #002: “Are video games art?”

Ahh, that old chestnut, is it? Honestly, I’m not even sure of how to best approach answering this for myself. Having read the responses to the Mage’s original post, as well as other responses from the community, a large part of me agrees with most folks.

Q. Are video games art?

A. Yes. They are a form of creative expression as valid as any other. Game developers are no less passionate and emotional about their resulting works as painters, actors, dancers, and so on. Art is meant to convey ideas, which is the point of video games – to convey messages – from the trivial (maze-driven fun as a yellow circle) to the profound (we are everything).  Art isn’t a fancy, snobbish, behind-glass affair, though it can be. Video games aren’t fancy, snobbish, behind-glass affairs either, though they certainty can be. Truly there’s nothing not “art” about games.

But…

Eons ago, I went to grad school for museum studies, and the question “what is art?” inevitably came up during a class discussion. At the time, we also learned that a local art center had a video game exhibition planned. As such, the discussion eventually veered into not necessarily a critique of video games as art, but rather a question whether or not we needed to evolve our thinking. After all, “what is art?” means different things at different times; we choose whether or not to see “art” as something classical and fixed or something more transient.

Anyway, at one point someone in the room asked a resounding question that’s stuck with me ever since:

“Is MS-DOS art?”

(Why DOS and not Windows XP, ME, or T&A? I’ve no clue.)

This brought the discussion to a brief halt, followed by an almost universal “NO!” from the crowd. (And it wasn’t as if we had come to a resolution over “are video games art?” either.) It was a moment that was forever burned into my brain because it actually made me question, for possibly the first time ever, “what are video games?”

I really don’t want things here to get to esoteric (but I fear they will…a warning), but what is a game but carefully constructed code? Is not the same true of an operating system, a word processing program, or that nonsense you use to file your taxes online? I daresay that no one would call Microsoft Word “art” (“fart” maybe…hahahahaha…sorry); it’s a utility, a tool. A bunch of well-placed lines of code that result in a useful product.

Isn’t that kind of what video games are too? It’s a device meant to carry out a particular function. Though…okay…splitting hairs, yes, this is more a description of consoles or computers as the tool we use to play games, but a video game cartridge, disc, computer code is a uni-tasker. It doesn’t do anything else except give one access to a game. That’s not really art…is it?

I guess this is somewhat akin to arguing that pigment is art, or marble is art, or spray cans are art, which renders whatever point I was trying to make rather moot. So computer code isn’t art, but the way that someone utilizes it is? Couldn’t it be that some of these folks are simply better at applying various systems to the code than others? That’s not really art…it’s more like science in my book.

Man, I knew things were going to get a bit abstruse.

Understand that I’m not outright arguing that video games aren’t art; this more an attempt to rectify my internal conflict. Because, see, someone recently mentioned to my work-self that there must be an “art” to archiving. I thought about that for a moment and said, “not really. There’s more science and less art to what archivists do.” I apply proven (and not-so-proven) systems to groups of records in order to make them accessible. There’s nothing about an archived collection of papers that says “art” to me. The end result is useful, but it isn’t creatively or emotionally expressive.

If I choose to see video games as data that’s functionally composed in order to produce a specific result, then I don’t see how I could call that “art.”

Once again, if you think I’m here bickering with myself, you’re not wrong.

Here’s the thing, I feel as strongly in supporting games as art as I do games as science. Because the video games can be both technically brilliant and emotionally powerful. Considering it further, they actually need to be both to resonate with us. Games that have sound code with little feeling fall flat, like with Agents of Mayhem. (Played well but lacked heart.) Games that are emotionally heavy with messy underpinnings are often initially lauded but later left lifeless, like with The Stanley Parable. (Possessed an in-the-moment brilliance that withered away.)


Well, now that I’ve essentially corned myself into a meaningless war over semantics (it’s possible that I’ve had a little too much coffee this evening…or perhaps, not enough), that still leaves the question “are video games art?”

[stares at blinking cursor for what feels like an age]

Yes, mostly. Sometimes not, but…yeah, sure?

[bangs head on keyboard; drifts off into darkness…]

40 thoughts on ““Are video games art?””

  1. I genuinely enjoy your take on the argument of if video games are art. I personally believe that they are art. As someone who is going to school for Computer Game Design, which means getting a BFA, and designing a game myself, this hits close to home. You make some really good points for both sides and I think it can be reasonably argued. However, the sheer amount of work in regards to music composition, art design, level design, narrative and so forth, that goes into video games, makes it possibly more of a hybrid art form that allows for advanced interaction. Using this to portray almost anything you want to a player and providing self expression, which I believe art is to be truly about, I think the two are inseparable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! With each new comment here, I’ve gained a little new perspective on what video games mean to people – it’s really fantastic.

      To your point, I like the notion that there’s an art to creating interactions in games. I can honestly say that I’d never really thought of that before, but you’re right. As a developer, sure there are rules and lines of code to follow when it comes time to make a game a physical thing, but providing players with the space to do as they please (or not, depending on the game) requires more thought than pure sciences allows. There’s an art to imbuing a game with emotion – simply entering a bunch of “ifs,” ands,” and “nots” will only get you so far. There’s a science to giving a game a backbone and an art to giving it a soul. You really can’t have one without the other.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to agree with charlesdoliver, above me. For me, at least, the art of video games is in the stories they tell. There’s a TV special that I really love called “How Videogames Changed the World” (I think you can chase it down on Youtube if you’re interested), and it talks about The Last of Us being a point where video games were generally recognised as art. The show points out the incredibly moving nature and story of that game, which often moves its players to tears. Moving the viewer (or player in this case) with a fictionalised story to feel any type of strong emotion definitely counts as art in my book.

    Having said that, I agree with you that there is a somewhat blurry line. I have to admit there are a lot of games I wouldn’t consider art, particularly ones that follow the same formulas years in year out (sorry Call of Duty). I don’t feel that audiences connect to them in the same way, the emotions seem to be more anger at the other people in multiplayer than caused by moving events or storylines within the game. You could argue that enabling that connection with other people and giving them a situation where they get angry at each other over an issue that doesn’t exist outside of the game makes such games art though.

    You’re right, this is a more complex discussion than I thought! My head hurts… 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, sorry about the headache! It’d be easy enough to just say, “Yes/no games are/aren’t art.” But once you really start to dissect the question, the answer becomes harder to pin down.

      I can see how “art” might be lost in games that are formulaic, uninspired, or otherwise output for the sake of output. I’d pin this on yearly sports titles. Granted, many newer sports titles are now imbued with some sort of story, but that’s not really how people connect with the games. But it’s like you say. Said sports game may not be art in the typical sense, but when you add in multiplayer, which allows people to connect and come together over the sport they love, there’s art in that. But the line is very muddy.

      I was going to say that I think I’ve seen “How Videogames Changed the World,” but then I looked at up, and indeed I have not. I will definitely check it out – thanks for the tip!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it all ends up being about the interaction the player has with the game, in the same way that art often all about the viewer/reader. As you say, the line is muddy.

        I hope you enjoy “How Video Games Changed the World”. I love it so much!!!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true. Those paths — that of the art of story and the art of storytelling – intersect well in many games. And if life imitates art, then there you go!

      Like

  3. I have been working in the video-game industry for quite a while now and I do believe that all things creative are art! Also, I just came across your blog and love it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kindness, and how cool to hear from someone in the industry! 🙂 I think it’s safe to say that most folks have definitely swayed me into the “YES, video games are art” camp. There remains a part of me that will always question that…but I tend to question everything, so that’s nothing new, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post on art and video games. I do believe they are art, and just like painted/sculpted/sprayed etc. type of art, there’s GOOD art and BAD art. Of course, that depends on who is looking at it, but let’s be honest, some games are terrible. Whether they were rushed, not well executed or the developers didn’t care that depends. But, some games are just better than others, just like some art is more famous than other art because of the impression it leaves.

    The time, dedication and detail we put into things makes them come out better, that’s a fact of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! You’re totally right in that with some games, art aside, there’s just no saving them. But it would seem that famous or infamous, as long as we remember something as art, be it a painting or a game, then there’s no questioning its substance as “art.”

      Now, “good” art vs. “bad” art..??..how interesting that you should bring that up, as I’m going to attempt address that here very soon… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Video games are in may ways art. After all, there is an entire department in every game’s development dedicated to art styling and visuals and whatnot (unless they are making a text based game, in which case the game becomes a story book essentially which I maintain to still be referred to as art). As the pinnacle of entertainment in this day and age, video games combine storytelling with vibrant visuals that vary from game to game and express the creators style both visually and through the messages the want to convey. I believe games fall under a different category however, as experiencial art. Similar to how interpretive dance is experienced, so can a person playing a video game take away from it their own thoughts and interpretations of what it is that’s trying to be brought across by the creators.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with you. Video games to me are 100% art. A team is devoted in development just to the visuals of a game, and these are created in the same way a painter would paint a picture. A game can’t be created without artists, and even if it were to be (like MUD’s), it is essentially a story book in which the player can either read and experience or write their own. Video games are the pinnacle of entertainment, combining visual with playable storytelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To address both your comments (thanks, by the way 🙂 ), I love the thinking of video games as experiential art that’s put out there by a team of creators, of *artists.* Painters are artists in the same way as developers are artists – it’s only the set of tools that is different. Once you bring the art of storytelling (I also really like the notion of games as playable stories), then there’s no way to not see video games in the same realm as “art.” It’s all pretty fascinating!

      Like

  7. I would liken the code used to build video games to the words or maybe more appropriately letters to build stories. Are letters art? Is the paint to make a picture art? I’d say no, but then you have that concept of emergence where you could take all of the parts of a plane that could never fly on their own, but put together and they can. The same way one neuron, two, or even a billion can’t give rise to consciousness, but how they come together and the connections between can and do. Gestalt psychology deals in the philosophy that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I’d see games as codes as I’d see living beings as atoms and cells. Taken piecemeal you’re not seeing the whole picture so code is used to build games in the same way paint is used to make portraits, letters make stories, and cells make living beings.

    Well…NOW I’m being esoteric…and presumptuous 😳

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooo, but that’s okay! I really like the comparisons, because in that light, there’s little reason to argue over the individual components of what we use to make “art.” Not only can we agree that without them, from paint to atoms (which is just more atoms), there would be nothing, but with them, we create; the universe creates. Fundamentally, we ARE art. And video games are one extension of us, and are therefore, art. That’s a “big think” way around things, but it makes total sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Now that is an interesting question, and a well-thought out answer that has got me asking questions myself, but one that largely skips over the science that goes into the creation of more traditional mediums, which is something that those of us who participate in these debates do constantly.

    Fact is that the creation of anything in any other medium is as much process as coding. When you paint a picture you sketch an outline, add the background, the broad strokes of whatever your subject is, details in layers, etc. Different paints work differently on different canvases, certain colours stand out in the human mind or mean certain things, this colour mixed with that colour creates thus colour. A food photographer once told me to never put food on a blue plate because humans see blue as unpalatable or inedible.

    But instead of citing the often scientific method that goes into the creation of what we traditionally view as art, we look towards traditional sciences and say “I think this can be art as well” (like that bloke you mentioned who asked about the art in archiving, or the above comment that mentions they sometimes view maths as art). Possibly because of our own cultural hang-ups of what we assume an artIST looks and acts like? (eg. the rule breaking hipster throwing paint against the wall until something beautiful is there). That’s a different thread entirely.

    Me, I have a rather narrow definition of what constitutes art: was it made with the intention of creating an emotional response in its audience?
    I don’t think MS DOS was (though XP is a different matter). I don’t think Maths was. They are tools for the making of art though. (Food photography and those youtube videos of girls eating outrageous amounts of food absolutely are art though).

    I’m worried I’ve gone on several tangents. Again, great article. You very obviously get me thinking and arguing with myself and others.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to comment on was that I think the question “are video games art?” is too easy and I’d love to hear your thoughts on “what video games are good art?” Now that’s a storm in a teacup.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Good art?” Man, there’s just….I mean….it’s way too early in the morning for me to wrap my head around that. Because if I can’t come to terms with the question “are video games art?” there’s no way in hell that I can even begin to consider which ones I’d consider/are considered “good art.” 🙂 But! I am heartily intrigued. If you’ll indulge me some time to think about it, I may be able to write up a coherent answer in a few weeks or so. (Or, at least put words into sentence and hope for the best.)

      I like your point about the art of creation, or that there’s an art to creation. That would certainly describe the work that video game makers do (along with most everything else human choose to do). This does go beyond pure, unemotional science, even if that’s also part of the process of creation. So we have the tools to create, and from that sometimes comes art. Makes perfect sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m delighted that a lot of thought has been put into this discussion, even beyond the terms of the original question. I think the definition of art keeps expanding with human activities and capabilities, which seems reasonable to me. I just don’t think that the definition of art implodes or recedes, like things can’t be retconned into non-art (say if they disappear from museums), if they are then they are and if they’re not then they’re not but the hard thing is finding the standard of what art is that makes it universally identifiable. Personally, if we get into the mechanisms and the vehicles of art, then I’d consider those necessary components are part of the art but not art themselves (ex: the canvas, the brush, the code), at least not art in the same classification. Like I think mathematics are an art form, or can be, but they’re not the same as a marble bust. Games as science and art… now that’s a conversation!

    Anyhow, thanks for the follow up!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have to admit that I tend to avoid questions like these simply because I don’t *know* the answer. But once you asked it and I saw the responses from folks, it made the stage feel much more comfortable. After writing my post, I felt less like I would be judged and more like my wishy-washiness might be, well, if not accepted, then at least tolerated, so for that you have my thanks.

      I really like that you bring up mathematics, because I absolutely see art in and resulting from math. And frankly, computer code, while it might not be math, it’s still a series of equations that, when properly aligned, can result in beauty. Huh. That’s not a bad case for saying, yes, video games are art, both internally and externally.

      As for Games = Art + Science…hoo boy, that’s practically a thesis. Please don’t ask it next. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Are games the result of art and science?

        Jk but you touch on a subtext with asking these questions that I think came out in some of the responses it got, notably on Twitter: what’s more important than stating what’s right or wrong in the context of this question is the conversation itself. I ask these questions because not only do we get to debate but we also get to listen to each other, to have a discussion about our differences and similarities. Regardless of the actual question, that open discussion is a virtue that I think needs to be championed in today’s age. With so many sites these days having closed-comments sections on every article, it’s like people have lost the ability to accept criticism or not even that but to accept that other people have opinions. Aristotle said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The internet needs more space for civil discussion, so thank you for taking part.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. cool post. I did like your point about how as the times go by, maybe our definition of art needs updating. I think this concept applies to many things in life and human history.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes! One of the neat things about the human race is that we aren’t stagnant. We are constantly evolving and shifting in thought. Of course, change is tough, but it comes with the territory whether we want to or not. Who knows what people will think in “art” is the next millennium!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Enjoyed your thoughts on all this. As you point out:

    “Isn’t that kind of what video games are too? It’s a device meant to carry out a particular function. Though…okay…splitting hairs, yes, this is more a description of consoles or computers as the tool we use to play games, but a video game cartridge, disc, computer code is a uni-tasker. It doesn’t do anything else except give one access to a game. That’s not really art…is it?”

    I suppose not! But then you could say that a painting is just a combination of oil and paint and brush strokes on a canvas. It’s what those tools make that’s important.

    Someone I know once described video games as puzzles that also have stories.

    I think that’s true as well. But if the story, the narrative, the journey, the message speak to you – if there’s an emotional or intellectual response – then I definitely think games can be art.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, I’ve never thought of games as puzzles + stories, but that’s really true. And just as it’s really satisfying to place that final piece in an actual puzzle, so too it is really satisfying to bring a game to its conclusion both through its story and mastering its mechanics. And really, there’s an art to deciphering games. Yes, we are all given the same set of tools on how a game plays (press X to do this; press Y to do that), but figuring out a game beyond that can delve deep in to creativity. Art begets art, I suppose. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. “Yes, mostly. Sometimes not, but…yeah, sure?”

    I think this is exactly where I am with the debate. I think games contain art but sometimes they aren’t designed to be art. Similar to your coworker that felt that there was an art to your work, you (the reluctant artist) in this case don’t think it is artistic but someone else comes along and appreciates it as such. I guess it all comes down to who sees the art how they want to approach it. So in short, art is nebulous and always moving.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Indeed, it’s not a solid concept, and that’s what makes it so wonderful to explore. We each experience “art” quite differently, even in those times when we all agree that “art” is art. I think there’s quite an art to city planning, but I doubt city planners feel the same way. “Art” really doesn’t have any parameters or limitations. So sure, games can be art. I guess if one asks the question of “are games ALWAYS art?,” then a little flexibility is required in answering.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Are paintbrushes art? Well, maybe to someone. Didn’t Andy Warhol sort of do a whole thing about that? Anyway…

    Personally, I think maybe the disc and the console and the code and the television and the controller and all the other physical components that make a game “go” aren’t exactly art, but what we think of as the game (that is, the sum of characters, story, mechanics, and art style) most definitely is art. After all, if we break down a painting into a canvas and pigment, then suddenly *art* isn’t even art anymore.

    Regarding a job being an art versus a science… Usually the “art” part of a job is just a part that people can’t find the words to describe, isn’t it? Being a therapist is part “art” and part “science” but the “art” part is a combination of personality, experience, gut feelings (or subconscious cues), and a touch of luck – it’s hard to identify simply… just like art, I suppose.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. This is a really fascinating discussion, because the question of “what is art?” kind of hits at the core the rational vs. the irrational. We know what we see and do, and is that any more or less important than what we think or feel? Maybe that’s getting a little too deep when talking about video games, haha. 🙂

      I have to admit that part of my feeling about videos games as *maybe* art has everything to do with my museum bias. (If you had asked me the same 20 years ago, I’d hardly be as argumentative.) Museums are excellent at placing things out of context. You take an Atari console, a light bulb, a Nintendo cartridge, and a clay pot and stick them behind glass, and suddenly, they’re “art.” Their utility becomes usurped by artfulness. And while everyone may agree that these items aren’t “art,” because someone has deemed them special enough to showcase, their meanings are transformed.

      That was a weird tangent, but your point remains. “Art” is hard to identify and explain, but each of us knows when we see it, and when we don’t.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I love deep conversations, especially about video games! You raise a good point about the rational versus the irrational. Regarding my own interpretation, I would say that both are equally irrational, because our thoughts and feelings are interpretations given to us by our brains, and even what we see and feel must be interpreted by the brain in order to have any meaning to us whatsoever. So, our entire existence can be rational, irrational, truthful, and a lie all at once.

        Ahem. Back to video games and art. I do agree that there is no accounting for taste, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc. etc., but I wonder if when folks ask if video games are art, they are really talking about art in a traditional sense (my comments about Andy Warhol aside! haha). In a way, that almost makes it simpler, because games do have artistic elements. Or maybe it’s harder for the same reasons.

        I’ve talked myself into a hole and I can’t get out! Send help haha.

        Liked by 1 person

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