Are Games Art? – A Ramble

First of all, the answer is clearly “yes!“. But, I recently happened to read some online articles about this tired old debate and felt like giving my opinions about why games are art – in addition to giving some of my thoughts about the medium in general. And, yes, today was something of an uninspired day.

Leaving aside the obvious point about how games contain visual design, music and things like that, I’d argue that games are art because of the role they play. Whilst things are often only seen as “Art” when they are placed in galleries (as if they are sacred relics of some kind), this goes against the whole point of art. Art is there to enrich everyday life. Art is there to make us imagine. Art is there to contribute to the shared cultures that we all live in.

Art is, in the best possible way, the background to all of our lives. It’s like the bass line in a rock, punk or heavy metal song. Most of the time you don’t even hear it, but if it wasn’t there, then it would probably be very noticeable. So, yes, art is something that surrounds us all.

That song in the background? That’s art. That poster on the wall? That’s art. The design on that T-shirt? That’s art. The desktop background on your computer? That’s art. I could go on, but art is something that travels alongside us as we go through life, making the world seem more interesting, allowing us to make more sense of the world and providing material for our imaginations, thoughts and daydreams.

Whether you make it and/or are a part of the audience, art is an essential part of being human. It’s why even the earliest humans painted pictures on the walls of their caves.

If, like me, you’ve grown up with games, then you’ll know that they clearly fit that description.

For example, when a cloud of dust from the Sahara turned the skies above Britain an ominous shade of grey-orange last year, my first thought was ‘Oh my god, this is just like one of the early parts of “Silent Hill 3‘. This is exactly the same sort of thing as when I’ve seen the view from the top of Portsdown Hill at night and thought ‘Cool! This looks just like the opening scene of “Blade Runner‘.

Likewise, if I’ve been playing “point and click” games for a while then, in the few minutes after I stop playing, I’ll sometimes find my thoughts filled with sarcastic descriptions of everything I see (in a similar manner to the main characters in these games) – in exactly the same way that a novel with a distinctive narrative voice will sometimes briefly shape the tone of my thoughts after I finish reading it.

If I get nostalgic about certain times in my life, then the games I was playing at the time will be a part of that nostalgia (in the same way that the music I was listening to at the time will be). I could go on, but games fill the same role as things like music, films, books etc… do. Therefore, they are art.

One of the arguments, made by the art critic Jonathan Jones in 2012, against games being art is that they don’t reflect a single artist’s vision. Or, as Jones puts it: ‘A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition.

However, this argument falls apart when compared to other artforms like film and theatre. Yes, one person might have written the script. But that script is interpreted by a director, and then further interpreted by the cast. There’s no one individual who has absolute control over how a film or a play turns out. Yet, not even the most old-fashioned of critics would deny that film or theatre should be considered part of “the arts”.

But, one area where games do fall down slightly is the topic of easy accessibility. In short, it’s less intuitive for beginners to dabble with game-making.

Unlike picking up a pencil and doodling, picking up a camera and taking some photos or picking up a cheap guitar and following a piece of tablature, it’s more difficult for a beginner to dabble in making games. Even though there are “game maker” programs out there, most of these either have a steep learning curve and/or severely limit what curious novice game developers can do.

I mean, I’d love to make games. But, I’m a visual artist and a writer instead for the simple reason that these artforms have a more intuitive learning curve. Likewise, the tools needed to make drawings/paintings, comics and prose fiction are cheap, open and widely available to all. So, even though I’ve dreamed of making games ever since I started playing them, I’ve gravitated towards these other artforms instead for the simple reason that they were more welcoming to beginners..

In addition to this, games are perhaps one of the only artforms where there are additional barriers to entry for the audience. If you want to watch a film and you don’t have a DVD drive, Blu-ray player, VCR, television or internet connection, there’s always the cinema. If you want to listen to music, then you just need a cheap radio, MP3 player or CD player (or you can go to a concert, or pick up an instrument, or just hum a tune). If you want to read the latest novels, then the hardback editions might cost £15-20 each – but they’ll probably be in libraries (if the government hasn’t under-funded them into oblivion) and/or second-hand bookshops after a while. I could go on…

Games, on the other hand, have system requirements. In order to even play a popular modern game that might cost £40-50, you also need a piece of technology that could cost £300 or much more. And it will probably become “obsolete” within 5-10 years.

Yes, there are obviously retro games and some low-spec modern indie games (eg: the games I play these days). Plus, there are mobile phones (that have games on them). Plus, there are probably a few old arcade machines (anyone remember those?) languishing in a dark corner somewhere.

But, can you imagine not being able to read a novel because you haven’t paid to upgrade to the latest version of the English language? Or not being able to see a film because your television is out-of-date etc…

Games are an artform, and they should damn well act like it! In other words, they should be open to everyone.

Yes, this might mean that games don’t have the latest ultra-realistic graphics. But, this is where the “art” comes in. If a novel can render a vividly realistic scene in the audience’s imaginations using just 26 letters, then games can get by on lo-fi graphics (that will run on even the oldest or cheapest of electronic devices). I mean, the “art” in games doesn’t come from the realism of the graphics – it comes from the story, the visual design/art style, the atmosphere and/or the experience of playing the game (eg: the gameplay).

So, yes, games are art. But, they should really take a few lessons from other artforms about being more open to both potential audience members and to those who are vaguely wishing to dabble with game-making.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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