So, are games really art?
Roger Ebert has quite famously come out to say that Games cannot be art, or as he calls it “high art.” ( Essentially meaning all forms of art that most people consider when they talk about art. Art as in “artist,” as opposed to “artisan.”) I’m not sure this distinction was entirely necessary to make. I don’t think that many people were attempting to argue that games should be considered art alongside dance or pottery. The question is really about whether games are or are not a medium for communicating ideas and emotions in at least the same capacity as film or books.
I am not simply dismissing the issue imposed by Roger Ebert’s statements, but it would seem to me that he does not truly understand games as an art form. More specifically, he does not understand that the way in which games function artistically is quite different from films and other media. Unfortunately, many modern game designers do not understand this distinction either. Viewed as works of art, most games are quite meaningless when compared to great works in other mediums.
So, can we solve the dilemma we face in dealing with Roger Ebert’s belief? He stated that “If you change [the ending of a story], you become the artist,” proposing, “Would “Romeo and Juliet” have been better with a different ending?” It is here that he makes his claim most poignantly.
Mr. Ebert claims that that the reason games cannot be art is because of player agency. As he sees it, if a game lets the player change the plot, then “authorial control” of that plot is lost and, without an autuer it cannot be art. I agree with this statement, with the exception that most games do not have a plot which can be nearly as radically changed as his Shakespearean example. With a few exceptions, games typically give you no real control of the narrative at all. Clearly, a happy ending to Romeo and Juliet would destroy the play’s potency, but to say that simply adding a variable to a traditional play, as an example of how this type of game story would be written, is making it clear from what poor perspective his argument comes from.
Of course, plot may just not be a good match for games. As Jonathan Blow stated in his lecture at the 2008 Montreal International Games Summit, games which offer challenge are putting friction into a plot. Plot pushes a narrative forward unceasingly, and challenge holds it back, pushing in the opposite direction. The solution to this problem is either to remove the challenge, or to remove the plot.
Another option is to pursue a type of plot that reacts to the player’s failures. ( An option most notably pursued by Heavy Rain, and to a lesser extent, Quantic Dream’s earlier title Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) ) Though this is quite an interesting frontier for games, It is questionable that a plot, when you insert agency into it and make it malleable, is even definably a plot at all.
It may, in fact, be misguided that games so often place plot at the center of the experience. You play for a little bit in a defined play-space, and then you watch a little movie. Next you go back to your defined play-space and then back to another little movie. Repeat until the end of the game, which is hopefully a longer, more grandiose movie.
Now, I don’t intend to tell anyone that they should not make a game this way. I could certainly be completely wrong, and people should be free to make whatever kind of game that they would like. However, a game centered around this type of experience is not actually working to the artistic strengths of either the game or the movie that is interleaved into it. If major games continue to be designed in this way, our medium will continue to be a sort of deformed parasitical twin of cinema, relying on the more developed medium to do all the heavy lifting. I believe it would be a small positive change if both game designers and players became comfortable admitting that video games are just worse at pacing and presenting plot than other story-telling mediums.
“Video game” can be a limiting term, suggesting a challenge to overcome and that the experience must be fun. Recently, the term “art game” has arisen to define a type of experience which sits outside of what people typically expect from a game. Games such as Jason Rohrer’s Passage, and Rod Humble’s The Marriage are two examples where this term is often used. Jonathan Blow has quite publicly used the term to describe his own games. However, while working on his artistically ambitious game, The Witness, Blow has come to a conclusion that it is somewhat ineffectual, stating that we don’t typically refer to a deeply personal work of literature which intends to provoke thought or emotion as specifically an “art book.” It’s just an accepted and perfectly normal thing to do with a book.
Occasionally, the debate about games as art, combined with the frustration of the loaded concept of a “video game” has led to a surprising concept: that “if games cannot be art then the art that I’m creating must not be games.” Two notable figures who have rejected the nomenclature of games altogether are the acclaimed (but self-stated “retired”) game designer Chris Crawford ( Also the author of the excellent book “The Art of Computer Game Design”, a must read for aspiring designers (PDF download) ) and the independent development studio Tale of Tales.
Tale of Tales specifically has made a ironic point of calling it’s works “NotGames.” This is primarily a reaction to the criticisms levied by some players, who have stated that their games are not really games at all. In one of the studio’s more interesting creations, The Graveyard, you simply play the part of an elderly woman as she visits a graveyard and thinks back on her past. Strangely, a purchase of the game only adds the possibility that the woman may pass away while sitting in the graveyard. Some people consider this to be a pretentious move, and that claim could probably be made of the rest of Tale of Tales’ “NotGames” as well. But at least they are trying something different.
It is obvious that game designers are nowhere near a set of best practices for artistic expression in the medium. Some famous figures inside the industry, such as Shigeru Miyamoto ( Mario, Zelda, Metroid, among others ) and John Carmack, ( Doom, Quake, Rage ) have taken offense to the notion of games even being art. So it may not yet be possible to come to a final conclusion on the subject of whether games are provably art or not. However there is definitely a lot more interesting discussion to be had on the subject of art in games, and whether there really is such a thing as an objective experience of a narrative in any medium. (I don’t think there is.)
No matter, it has always long been clear to me that games ARE art, despite any derision I may have about how bad they are at being so. I cannot put my finger on why I feel this way, and it is in this sense that I may be, as Ebert stated, “prejudiced” in favor of games.