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In what way are video games art? By this I mean video games with a plot. Clearly there is an artistic aspect to them, but I'd like to know if the game part (the ability to control the progression of the plot and the success of the main character) has aesthetic worth or are games just art to the extent that they are like movies?

asked Oct 13 '10 at 00:35

incrediblemulk's gravatar image

incrediblemulk ♦

edited Oct 13 '10 at 00:35

In my opinion if a movie is art then so is a game. Some argue that because a game can be won, it is not art. To win a game you reach its conclusion, but is that not the objective of a film as well?

(Oct 13 '10 at 00:44) satansoldier satansoldier's gravatar image

I want to defend the argument that video games can be works of art. Unfortunately, the term "video game" refers to a broad range of games, from classic arcade games like Pong to the latest role-playing games like Bioware's Mass Effect series. I think it's obvious that a game like Pong hardly meets the criteria of a work of art. What kinds of video games are plausible works of art? In my view, a video game that is essentially a work of narrative.

It's perhaps easiest to see how these kinds of video games can be works of art when one compares it to motion pictures. An artistic video game, like a film, is a composite form combining certain elements of the literary, visual, and performative arts. Many of the comments Rand makes about the nature of film, apply to video games as well (see Ayn Rand's essay "Art and Cognition" in The Romantic Manifesto). Rand observed that "in motion pictures or television, literature is the ruler and term-setter [...] Screen and television plays are subcategories of the drama, and in the dramatic arts 'the play is the thing.' The play is that which makes it art; the play provides the end, to which all the rest is the means." (Romantic Manifesto p71) Here, Rand observes that the "literary" element of a film, the narrative, is its essential element, the end to which everything else is only the means. The essential element of an "artistic" video game, as for film, is this narrative element. The background music, the voice acting, the animation, the actions of the player etc. are only the means to the actualization of the video game's core narrative.

What makes video games distinct from film is obviously user input and player involvement. Some see this as problematic.

Some assert that players contribute something significant to the game, that players are active forces which are able to affect and shape the video game, effectively overriding the sense of life of its creators. (This viewpoint seems to be shared by the questioner who assumes a player has "the ability to control the progression of the plot and the success of the main character.") It is true that a player makes choices—he is able to direct his little visual avatar to do either action A or B, to physically move a joystick or press either X or Y, etc. But this is no more of a "choice" than a footnote is. A player is not able to control the plot anymore than a reader who must physically turn a book's pages—you either do what's required to finish or you don't. More importantly, a player has no control over the sense of life a video game projects nor does it make a video game any less selective or stylized according to the metaphysical value judgments of its creator. A player can only do what the creator has enabled the player to do. This is true of all video games, artistic or not. For example, in many online games, massive numbers of online players can shape all aspects of the game's "virtual reality." But even then, players stay within the framework the game's creators have built. This is even more true of artistic video games that have a core narrative that a player has to actualize.

To summarize, not all video games rise to the level of art. But some, who use aspects of the literary, visual, and performative arts—aspects like background music, voice acting, animation, etc.—can be and are works of art.

answered May 31 '11 at 19:55

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Brandon Killen ♦

edited Jan 03 '12 at 01:46

You claim here that a video game can be art if it contains artistic fiction. You also claim that the interactive aspect of the game is irrelevant to the art.

So a game is just like a movie, except you can play with it, but that doesn't matter.

But interactivity is essential to a game qua game.

Interactivity cannot be ignored in the judgment of a game as art.

The fiction in a game might be art, but that doesn't make the game as such art.

(Jan 03 '12 at 18:07) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

I don't think a game per se falls in the category of art as Ayn Rand defined it. But I think that the drawings and animations can be considered art. It is somewhat similar to an advertisement, which is in and of itself not art, although ads can use art as an element.

answered Oct 13 '10 at 23:03

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BradAisa ♦

I don't think a game per se falls in the category of art as Ayn Rand defined it. But I think that the drawings and animations can be considered art. It is somewhat similar to an advertisement, which is in and of itself not art, although ads can use art as an element.

answered Oct 13 '10 at 23:03

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BradAisa ♦

According to the Ayn Rand Lexicon, art is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments", so to the extent that a computer game does that or allows you to do that, I would consider it art, or a tool for creating art. Most good games are a mixture of both. For instance, the game Civilization, one of my all time favorites, allows you to create a civilization that competes with other civilizations. You have to decide whether it is important to invest in research, defense, diplomacy, entertaining the masses, etc. and the balance between them. You also have to decide which lines of research will be most promising, what form of government to adopt etc. In that sense you are the artist. But the effects of your choices are also controlled by the value judgments the game creator made. For example, when you choose to go from despotism to a republic, people become a lot more productive, but they are less productive and more angry if you are in the middle of a war with other civilizations. In that sense the game creator is the artist, because he is selectively recreating reality according to what he thought was important. So I would say that games can be art, although not all of them are, just like paintings can be art, but there are some paintings that I would definitely not call art.

answered Oct 14 '10 at 02:34

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Francisco ♦

edited Oct 14 '10 at 02:37

Watch out for that rationalism my friend! :) I agree that video games can serve a very legitimate and fun entertainment, but it is not art.

A defintion is not equal to a concept.

The litmus test for art I find helpful is to ask this question: What differentiates this particular product from all other human products? If your answer is pure contemplation, it's art. (Not necessarily good art, however.)

(Oct 22 '10 at 15:08) Kirk ♦ Kirk's gravatar image

Fair enough, as I re-read my answer I noticed that I am very heavily relying on the definition for my argument, I should defer to the aesthetics expert on this one:-) So according to your litmus test, would you consider the idea of interactive art a contradiction in terms? If so, what would be the status of a play that involves audience interaction, like Night of January 16th, or the "choose your own adventure" books?

(Oct 22 '10 at 16:01) Francisco ♦ Francisco's gravatar image

I don't know about a contradiction in terms, but it might take away from the art. It depends, Night of January 16th may not have been as powerful to the 12 jurors (or it may have been better for them). Remember, they only "interacted" by giving a quick vote at the very end. When you view art, experiencing it is part of the contemplation process. This may not be obvious with paintings and sculptures (although the same type of thing can happen) but it is much more obvious with films and plays. You can almost feel like you're in the action experiencing what the chars experience.

(Oct 25 '10 at 11:28) Kirk ♦ Kirk's gravatar image

Kirk are you saying that no video games are art?

I'm not sure what you mean by "pure contemplation".

(Jan 02 '12 at 19:32) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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I don't consider games to be art--even role-playing games that have a strong storyline to them (such as the Final Fantasy series). They do have a strong artistic and aesthetic component to them. But they don't powerfully and consistently project a sense of life, and that's not their purpose. In particular, the involvement of the player means that the sense of life of the artist himself can't be fully, consistently projected in the essentialized and stylized way that art requires.

answered Oct 26 '10 at 02:29

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jasoncrawford ♦

As Brandon says, above, narratives can be art. And video games often have narratives.

But does this make these video games (the more artful ones) art?

I'd say that just because a creation incorporates art doesn't mean that it consequently becomes art.

To revisit Ayn Rand's definition: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments."

Let's chew this definition a bit. Art is something created. Art is a specialized representation (hence, a re-creation) of reality. The style and content of the re-creation are determined by the artists views about the nature of life and the universe.

Let's try approaching this question based not on the idea that video-games include art, but that, quite independent of their inclusion of art, video games, as such, might actually meet the requirements of Ayn Rand's definition.

What is a video game?

A video game is a piece of software which presents some kind of challenge to the player, to be met by providing input to the software. Sometimes the video game presents a challenge which bears a striking resemblance to actual (if unusual) challenges in real life, such as "escape this room before you starve to death or are eaten by giant rats." Often, though, a video game presents an almost entirely abstract challenge: "Eat all the dots in the maze, and watch out for the ghosts unless you eat a power-pill first."

The game designer selectively creates a situation which the user is meant to deal with. Whether this situation is indeed a recreation of reality is, I think, somewhat questionable. Is an abstract fantasy world a re-creation of reality? If not, is it a lack of concrete details that makes it fail to reach this standard, or is it that the creation is of fantasy?

Is the world of The Lord Of The Rings a re-creation of reality? Is that book not art because it is fantasy? I won't argue one way or the other -- except to say that to create an abstract fantasy challenge doesn't necessarily disqualify a creation as art.

What's essentially new about a video game versus other visual arts is that it is meant to be played with, rather than simply observed and contemplated. It's as if someone gave you a wooden sculpture, but then said to you: "open it up and get the prize out." It might have been an artful sculpture, but as soon as you start fiddling with it, it's just a puzzle. It might have been art qua sculpture, but certainly not qua puzzle -- or is it?

Let's be as charitable as possible: can a puzzle be art? I, frankly, am a lover of puzzles, and of video games. But I must ask myself: why do I love them? And why do people feel so passionate about creating them? Why do video game creators long to see their visions created, and why do so many people love to go through the experiences which have been lovingly crafted by game creators?

Do game creators not have a similar passion to that of artists: to show the world a creation which fills the soul with pleasure and joy?

How can a puzzle (which video games, are, essentially) achieve this? What do puzzles say?

They say "You can succeed, if you invest enough time and try hard enough." If that's not a metaphysical value judgment, I don't know what is.

Every video game, of every kind, has this message at its heart. Every game creator wants to show the public a seemingly impossible challenge which is nonetheless possible for most people to master.

Video games give consumers, in neatly wrapped packages, the joy of achievement.

This alone -- this "you can do it" message -- quite apart (and even contrary) to any in-game narrative, is what makes video games an art form.

That said, video games can only communicate this one message. Imagine if a video game were to attempt to communicate: "you cannot succeed." Gamers would hate it unless it were meant as a short-form practical joke. If such a game were long-form, going on for hours only to give the player no payoff, it simply would not sell.

Given that, I believe that video games, as they exist today, are a subcategory of art which communicates a single message: "you can do it." They may incorporate narrative art, but they are not narrative art. They are interactive art -- a challenge; a puzzle.

They bring great joy to those who love them -- those who want to experience excitement without actual mortal danger or great financial expenditure -- those who want to be assured potential success, if in an imaginary realm.

This alone, and not any narrative, is what makes video games an art form, if, indeed, a limited one.

If one attempts to judge video games as a narrative works of art, generally they fail miserably, because the puzzle necessarily corrupts the narrative. The puzzle is the end; the narrative is only the means.

Video games must be judged on their own terms: Is it a good puzzle? Does the narrative do a good job motivating the puzzle? If so, it's a good game. If the puzzles are great, and the narrative does a great job motivating the puzzles, then the game is a great a work of art as a video game can be.

answered Jan 01 '12 at 23:10

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John Paquette ♦

I am going to raise three questions John: 1) How are narrative-based video games not "narrative art", when the whole purpose of the game and every element of the game is directed towards the narrative? 2) Are there any differences, other than the fact that the interaction between object and individual is different, between narrative-based video games and film that make video games non-artistic? (I would argue no, and that the interactive difference is irrelevant.) 3) Most games do not function as puzzles, think of the vast numbers of RPGs. Why do you think otherwise?

(Jan 02 '12 at 14:45) Brandon Killen ♦ Brandon%20Killen's gravatar image

Every game is a challenge, including RPGs.

In a video game with a narrative, the narrative is not an end in itself. I argue that interactive challenge is the essence of a video game, and narrative only serves to rationalize it.

There are many great video games with no narrative at all, other than perhaps a very thin back-story or context. (Doom, Pac-Man) The challenge is the essence of a video game.

When stories started becoming a big part of video games, I considered that to be a dilution of their essence.

Video games don't exist for the story. It's the other way around.

(Jan 02 '12 at 17:19) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Consider the well known art form of a play. In a play, there are the players and there is the audience. A play is art for the audience. It's a job for the players.

The players are too busy doing their job to contemplate the art.

What if, in the near future, there were a video game which allowed you to be Macbeth, acting out the story from the play. Perhaps it would be fun, but would it be Macbeth any more? Hardly. It would be a near obscene corruption of a piece of art.

The story is not the game. The story might be art in its own right, but the game uses that art.

(Jan 02 '12 at 17:31) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

A museum uses art. That doesn't make the museum an art form.

(Jan 02 '12 at 17:34) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Is Second Life a video game?

I think I can accept that if a video game purposely presents a challenge that, though it may contain art, it is not art. But it seems to me that some things which I'd refer to as video games are merely meant to be explored, not to present a challenge. I suppose you could say then that these are not video games, though.

(Jan 02 '12 at 19:45) anthony anthony's gravatar image

John, your assertion that the narrative in a narrative-based video game is not "an end in itself" is just plain wrong. That just flies in the face of what narrative-based video games are, how they function (i.e. how they tell their story), and why many individuals enjoy them. You may well think that narrative is a "dilution of the essence" of video games. I agree--they are certainly no Pac-Man or Doom. They are something else. Less a "game", and more a story. Less an abstract puzzle or challenge--and more a re-creation of reality. That is precisely why I make the distinction in my answer.

(Jan 03 '12 at 01:23) Brandon Killen ♦ Brandon%20Killen's gravatar image

Anthony, I don't think of second life as a video game. It's a simulated social environment.

(Jan 03 '12 at 17:57) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Brandon, I'd say that the more a video game resembles a movie, the more it can be like art qua cinema. But the more it resembles a game or challenge, the less it is like art qua cinema, and the more it is like art qua puzzle. Interactiveness can use fiction.

Yes, fiction enhances gaming, otherwise nobody would incorporate it. Yes, people like entering fictional worlds, helping the hero progress. I'm not saying game fiction can't be artistic. I'm just saying that a game is not art qua fiction. It's art qua game.

(Jan 03 '12 at 17:59) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

More clearly: a game is not a work of fiction. But a game can make use of a work of fiction. If, however, a "game" becomes so much like a movie that it stops being a game and instead becomes a movie with some interactions tacked onto it, then I'd call it a work of fiction, and potentially art as such, but with distractions -- but hardly a game.

(Jan 03 '12 at 18:10) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Brandon asks: "How are narrative-based video games not 'narrative art', when the whole purpose of the game and every element of the game is directed towards the narrative?"

How is user-interaction (necessary to video gaming) directed towards the narrative? It interrupts the story, to wait for the user to do something. That necessarily corrupts pacing.

Imagine telling a kid: you must jump up and down three times before I turn the page in this story-book. It would be maddening to any kid who is fundamentally interested in the story rather than the jumping.

Games are about the jumping.

(Jan 03 '12 at 18:25) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

"Anthony, I don't think of second life as a video game."

Yeah, I think you're right.

(Jan 03 '12 at 19:19) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I'm now at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I've heard several talks by noteable game designers, and I'm more convinced than ever that I'm exactly correct. Many here call games an art form, but the view is that the unique aspect of good video games is that they help a player discover and realize his own creativity. No other art form does that. Again, fiction in a game serves the game -- the game doesn't serve the fiction.

(Mar 08 '12 at 00:51) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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Asked: Oct 13 '10 at 00:35

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Last updated: Mar 08 '12 at 00:52