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Art & Play: What We Talk About When We Talk About Games

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I. An Epigraph:

“Live in your world.

Play in ours.”

(PS2-era Sony slogan; emphasis added.)

II. Introduction – Asking the Question:

So, it’s 2019. We’ve had video games for ~40 years, and as technology has advanced, so, too, have the possibilities for play and creation in this newest form of media. Yes, players can now connect online and play together; entire cities and worlds can be rendered and explored; graphical capabilities allow for ever-increasing photorealism and inventiveness. But in our thinking about this media, we forget that games are also a medium, a vehicle through which creators may deliver their creations to us. Just as molded clay, film, musical notes, or written words are artistic avenues, games are a form that is packed with artistic potential—itself largely untapped after four decades. Part of this has to do with our discourse surrounding games—we call them games, after all, and they are played by players (words, all, that suggest entertainment devoid of any aesthetic or thematic weight); part of it has to do with the economics of the industry; and part of it is simply the medium’s strangeness, our uncertainty about creating in and consuming it as an artistic experience. But, after 40 years, I think it’s time we asked: Are video games art? Or maybe it should be, can they be? And if they can, how would that look?

III. Some autobiography; some colossi; some notes on discourse:

Like many ‘90’s kids, I was born not with an umbilical cord but with a simple black one (creased in regular increments from repeated winding) that connected to an NES controller. By the time I had achieved basic cognition, games were far more than a technological fad or gimmick; the sixth and seventh console generations were showing the world—especially its delighted eight-year-olds—that video games were seriously complex and seriously fun.

And for my formative years, they were: squishing Goombas, smashing barrels atop Gnawty’s head, slinging 3D Bowser into bombs by his tail, and heisting pages as a thievious raccoon was fun; it was Super Fun (64!), and that was all I needed to know. But by the time I was in junior high, Game Informer and G4 Tech TV had gotten me hyped for one game more than any other before or since. That game was Shadow of the Colossus (henceforth SotC).

It’s the only game I’ve ever preordered. I bought an edition of OPM just to get my hands on the SotC demo disk, and I played and replayed it to death. On the message boards of, I lurked and posted; there, that demo disk was unpacked: “They forgot to block this bridge, and you can explore past it this far before the demo crashes.” “If you do a series of diagonal jumps, you can climb to the top of the castle. At the top, there’s an eerie, headless character model.” Then the actual game hit (itself over a decade ago, lord…), and the forums were doubly abuzz with theories of secret areas, of an alternate ending, of an ultra-hidden battle against a 17th colossus.

With time, those theories were systematically debunked, and the boards gave way to more standard fare: “How do you beat #12?” “What does catching the lizards do?” “Time Attack World Record List (KEEP BUMPED!!).” But some members of that community delved into a deeper question: “Is this game art?” There were many responses to the effect of, “No, it’s just a game, stop taking it so seriously;” many more to the tune of, “Who cares?”

But I cared, and so did others. Between the derision, people posted some truly intelligent insights into the nature of art, games, and their intersection (or at least I, at age 13, sure thought so). This left a serious impression on me. For all the years thereafter, I approached games as more than “just fun,” as more than “just games.” I tried to take them seriously; I sought serious games and people having serious conversations about them.

All of this is to say that I’ve been considering the topic of games-as-art for over a decade now, and I like to think I can write about it with at least some authority. The ensuing pages and you, reader, can be the judge of that.

IV. Rendering the abstract – What is art?

Before one can talk about games as art, it’s necessary to pin down what, exactly, art is and isn’t. In general, we’re pretty good at doing this in an abstract sort of way, in our heads, with media we encounter every day. Is my former photography teacher, J.E. May’s, series of portraits of dilapidated pay phones art? Probably. Is your halfhearted Instagram of your quinoa power bowl? Probably not. How about Mr. May’s wedding photos? Well-shot, yes, but perhaps not artistic. Citizen Kane, yes; Transformers, no. Joyce’s Ulysses, yes; James Patterson’s latest ghost-written thriller, no. The marble David, yes; Grecian urns, yes; some dirt clods you inadvertently stomped off your shoes, no. The Mona Lisa, yes; your post-french-fry-binge ketchup streaks, no.

But what makes those ketchup streaks so different than, say, the works of Jackson Pollock? What if those dirt clods strike you as somehow poignant, as a reminder of something sort of poetic like “where you’ve been?” What if the Patterson (et al.) thriller tackles some salient issues in our criminal justice system? What if Transformers shows us some seriously interesting cinematography? What if your power bowl post is an accidental thesis on shot composition and lighting? What, really, is art? Sure, it’s what distances the symphony from the pop song, the tasteful nude from smut. But is it too postmodern of me to suggest that it’s intangible, that it can potentially exist anywhere and anytime? For the purposes of this essay, yes. We need something a bit more traditional and conventional.

So, first and foremost, I’d like to acknowledge that art is almost inherently indefinable, intangible. But if I had to reify it—and I do—I’d say: Art is an aesthetically and formally complex and unified creation that expresses an emotion, idea, or theme. This definition is pretty bad, especially in terms of notions of art as potentially universal (i.e. “creation” is too restrictive; art can occur everywhere) and w/r/t/ intention and reception (i.e. intentional fallacy-grade stuff like what an artist intends as art may not be perceived or received as such or interpreted “correctly,” and let’s not even mention vice-versa). But video games do not occur naturally, and the problem of intent and interpretation is really one of the key issues of the whole games/art dichotomy that I intend to hit much harder in the coming pages. These pitfalls in mind and acknowledged, I hope that the reader will accept this definition as more-or-less accurate or, if nothing else, workable—for the sake, at least, of this discussion.

Humor me.

V. Art, auteurism, and collaboration:

Historically, opera was the artistic apex. A composer arranged a score, a writer penned the lyrics, an orchestra performed, actors and dancers acted and sang and danced, and craftsmen painted and arranged sets. Operas were the collision of every available medium, at the time. They were generally funded by patrons—very wealthy donors of nobility. In the 20th Century, movies replaced the opera: you’ve still got your music, acting, sets, lighting, costumes, but now you’ve got the added layers of things like camera angles and manipulation of sounds diegetic and non-. Again, it’s the collision of every conceivable medium, only now, they’re funded by producers who are motivated, with minimal exception, by profit: will it sell?

And so artistry took a bit of a backseat. Art is hard; art does not sell. And although some directors (e.g. Kubrick) are known as auteurs, as having their hand in every last aspect of production—and as creators of some truly artistic films—many more movies exist, at least on paper, for entertainment. And this is OK; as a culture, we understand film’s artistic possibilities, and we understand what certain films are and are not. Lowest-common-denominator AAA studio blockbusters aside, art-cinema is very much alive and well. Film is an accepted artistic medium, and it has been for a hot minute.

All this to say that video games are the next frontier; or, if not “next,” at least a different one. Like films, games are products of mass collaboration: composers, voice actors, level designers, texture artists, character modelers, writers; all are called upon in the creation of a game. Indeed, until very recently, games were exclusively collaborative projects of massive studios whose endless credits would dishearten just about anybody. Technological limits meant that independent production of a game was all but impossible, sort of on par with trying to create an indie flick in 1915 if you were anybody but Thomas Edison. And games, like films, are produced by profit-focused publishers. But unlike films, there is not—or, at least, has not been until very recently—a thriving art scene. I would argue that this is because the tools of production (across the world and six feet underground, the petrified ears of the petrified remains of Karl petrified Marx perk up) are more restrictive than any others: anyone can learn guitar, buy a camera, or pick up some paint and paper, but game engines and digital design are not skills so (comparatively) basic. But teams can still make art; history has shown us this in film and in opera before it. No, the problems are more nuanced and myriad, and they are of both history and form.

VI. The wrench (and the key) – Interactivity:

Before delving into the more historical and cynical reasons for 40 years(ish) of artless(ish) gaming, I’d like to first bring up interactivity, the lynchpin of the form. Interactivity is what makes games games: no other form is two-directional. Interactivity is what makes games different than a Pixar film; it is the difference of acting versus watching—and that’s a difference that makes games inherently immersive and immediate.

Let’s be a little optimistic, utopian: Most films and books present us with some type of narrative or world, and there is an act of transportation that the viewer must complete, a bridge that must be built between there and ourselves. Ideally, games do not have this hurdle to clear: one is not passively watching, but actively playing—and, thus, being. This difference between spectator and actor is at once the factor that makes games the best—and worst—possible medium for art.

Best because that difference, if taken seriously by the player, can equal maximum immersion, can mean a more intimate experience than any other form can possibly allow. Worst because this places a great deal of faith and weight on the player; that is, short of tearing out pages or reading random words, it’s tough to “mess up” a book; unless you start skipping scenes or playing them out of sequence, one cannot really “wreck” a film. No, those forms exist, complete, without the spectator. Pulp Fiction, once you hit “play,” will reach its end credits literally regardless of whether you are on the sofa to watch. Not so with games: players can opt for inaction, at best, and rule bending and breaking, at worst; their worlds, inherently foreign, awaken an instinctive urge for exploration; their rules stir up a mischievous yearning to be broken. I’m talking about, “I wonder if I can…” or, “What if instead, I…” thoughts that any game-player worth his or her salt—myself, included—has both had and acted upon. (Remember the OPM SotC demo? Exploring until it glitched, exploiting a bug with the jumping mechanics to reach the castletop?)

Because of these factors that are, simply, human—and I mean that at face value, i.e. these are bona fide good faith human tendencies—it becomes complicated, if not outright impossible, to create interactive art. The lack of it speaks, certainly, for what I believe is a 50/50 combination of resignation (if the creator doesn’t take it “seriously,” the player doesn’t have to, either) and plain old not knowing how to approach it (this is, after all, uncharted ground).

We’ll look at all of this in more depth; for now, let’s leave this point here: Interactivity means an immersive art, but also an art that depends on engagement.

VII. Some time travel; some capitalism:

Looking back at games’ origins, it’s pretty easy to find a much simpler, more practical explanation for their non-artsiness: games have always been a commercial endeavor. The first fridge-sized arcade cabinets were designed solely to devour quarters, and the initial appeal of the first wave of home consoles was, essentially, the ability to play those same games at home, sans quarters. These facts combined with limited technology meant that difficulty and replayability were key to ensuring a long-lasting and, thus, valuable game. And look, there’s not anything wrong with any of this; what’s germane here is that games were, from the get-go, a commercial, profit-oriented endeavor. The harder your game was, the more quarters it would consume; the perfect diagonal line on the “X=Difficulty, Y=$$$” graph ought to be pretty vivid, here.


This aside, art doesn’t sell—at least, not nearly as well as alternatives. What’s more, the limited tech of the ‘80’s meant that games were not only short but also that they were severely limited in terms of narrative storytelling and graphical fidelity; the earliest games could hardly aspire to the profound, the sublime, the True. Again, none of this is to suggest that games started off on the wrong foot—only a different one; really, it’s tough to suggest that an artsy foot even is the “right one,” or, for that matter, is attached to the same body.

But we’re jumping the gun. Again.

By the time we had the NES, we had the potential for more serious narratives and visuals. Final Fantasy pioneered fantasy role-playing and was a fairly serious tale—but it was also expected to flop and kill its already-basically-dead studio; they called it “Final” for a reason. Other games like Metal Gear provided narratives on par with ‘80’s action blockbusters, really as vehicles for gameplay that was, by comparison, far more inventive. Meanwhile, PC gaming saw point-and-click adventures with engaging narratives and visuals but otherwise “minimalist” gameplay. (Remember that.)

Let’s open up our temporal window a bit. I’m not trying to say that there are no art or art-ish games. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are both stunning in their aesthetics, styles, and moods—as is Okami. Silent Hill 2 is a strikingly symbolic and melancholy exploration of love and loss. Shadow of the Colossus’s lonely landscapes unite with a narrative about overcoming the insurmountable, and its gameplay is focused on the same. Are there more examples? Almost definitely, and I don’t pretend to know or even approximately know them all. I’ve seen Half-Life 2 argued as art; ditto for Ico and David Cage’s games. The point of this essay—and, specifically, this paragraph—is not to enumerate or illuminate every art-ish game. The takeaway here is that even well into games’ life, artistry is still a bit elusive, is still a seeming exception that proves a rule. Again, I’d argue that this is because historically, games cost money to make, so creators need to make money, not art. That’s a big claim, and it’s a pretty cynical one. Here’s why I’m comfortable making it.

VIII. Artsplosion – The Internet and indie games:

The last decade has seen an unprecedented renaissance of artistic games made by indie developers. Let’s unpack how this happens: 1. The ‘net, as a distribution platform, means a major publisher is no longer necessary; just as with music and film, games no longer have to find their way to brick-and-mortar shelves, only to online digital storefronts or, even less-restrictive, the developer’s own website. 1a. Profit, then, is no longer an almost-inherent motivating factor in game creation, thus devs are more willing to experiment—either with mechanical “gamey” innovations or with more “artsy” things. 2. Technological increases and new tools mean a massive team is no longer necessary for game creation; smaller groups, and even lone individuals, can and do make games. 3. Games have been around longer, so we now know a bit more about interactive storytelling.

As a result of these factors, we’ve seen beautiful aesthetic pieces like Limbo, Proteus, and Dear Esther. We’ve seen narrative experiments like Kentucky Route Zero, To the Moon, and Gone Home. We’ve seen Journey. We’ve seen flash games like Dysphoria tackle issues like trans rights to become part of contemporary artistic frontiers and social movements. Undertale alludes to classic games, pop culture, and genres, and it subverts established generic expectations in a really PoMo-cute sort of way. From larger studios, we’ve seen interesting compromises: Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us both use violence to explore questions of morality and humanity. In short, we’ve seen an outpouring of games that meet our definition of art, now that the tools of production (K.p.M.’s dusty petrified eyes shoot open, sort of) and distribution channels are available. But a different question has arisen: are these games? And that is where I’d like to do some real exploration.

IX. “Walking Simulators” – Interactivity vs. Game:

Many of the above examples, and even many earlier ones (e.g. David Cage’s games (Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls)), are minimalistic—to put it generously—in terms of gameplay. At worst, these games involve merely walking, typically with some narration (Proteus, Dear Esther, Gone Home). Next comes the same, albeit with some “choice” to affect plotlines (Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead). And, really, the more mechanically-involved the game becomes, the further it gets from being a “complete” artistic effort—Limbo and Journey, for example, though both beautiful, engaging, and fun, are all but devoid of any formal narrative. And that’s by no means a flaw; neither is the lack of mechanical complexity in the more plot-focused “experiences” (as I’ve seen them called).

Instead, I’d argue that, perhaps, the two may not be as reconcilable as we may think. It is very difficult, really, to attach serious artistic meaning to mechanics-heavy play; I’ve even heard the term “ludonarrative dissonance” tossed around to describe the situation of a game whose story and themes seem at odds with the fundamentals of its play. As mentioned earlier, titles like Spec Ops and The Last of Us are able to be both exceedingly violent and serious about it by condemning it, silently, via tension and brutality, but this is a complex relationship, to be sure. Is that what we want from games?

Because, really, serious art isn’t particularly fun; for many developers and for even more players, this isn’t “the point” of games. Games are supposed to be engaging via gameplay; innovation on the mechanics front is best. And, to be sure, indie devs have produced countless game-games that are top-notch and face-value fun: Minecraft, VVVVV, Super Meat Boy, Antichamber. Nintendo has built its whole brand around this type of innovation, and it shows—and even their games express formal and aesthetic unity when they want them to. It comes down to that “wanting;” it comes down to prioritization. Because—and read this thrice—I do not believe games and art are reconcilable.

See, I do have a thesis.

X. “Winning the Game” – Purpose, artistry, and mutual exclusion:

Let me clarify: Can there be beautiful, often-profound and aesthetically complex games? Definitely. Can there be truly artistic interactive experiences? Yes. But the two cannot overlap; it’s impossible, and it’s the difference between narrative and game. Let’s return to our Pulp Fiction DVD. We hit play. It runs. It has a beginning and an end, but it does not have winning or losing. There is no “game over.”

There is no “game over” in art. It may challenge you intellectually, but games, by definition, challenge you in a different way: they challenge you to win. And with that motivation to win comes disengagement from art. Listen: At the final “yes” of Ulysses you, too, don’t cry, “Yes!” or say, “I beat it! I won!” And when you play Monopoly, the “point” isn’t to be concerned with latent themes of wealth and capitalism. Let’s look at the reverse: as a kid, did you ever read those Choose Your Own Adventure books? Those were never really about the story; they were like a maze you tried to find the end of, with a bookmark and eight of your fingers stuck all throughout the pages to mark each branch of a decision tree you were slowly climbing. And when you did find your way out of the maze, that’s when you did say “I beat it! I won!” Do you see what I’m getting at, here? The Louvre doesn’t have a win/lose state; it just is. Art just is. Games aren’t.

Limbo, for all its melancholic beauty, is ultimately about not dying, about reaching the end. The player doesn’t need much else; the innate desire to triumph is enough incentive. There is an unspoken contract in playing a game; it is a contract that says: I will try to beat you. Player and game say this to each other. And OK, I’ll concede that sometimes that “I won” triumph is woven into the narrative—but when you experience it, is it because of the narrative, or because of the game? Is any of this making any sense?

Let’s use the flipside to clarify. I find games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead especially problematic. And first, let me say: I think both are great games, and both moved me deeply. I used to be one of the many that called them art, but now I’m not so sure. Both feature narratives that are deep and engaging, and those narratives are impacted by player action. Therein is their gaminess—their very interactivity reduces them into digital Choose Your Own Adventures; no matter how objective and immersed a player tries to be, these games face him or her with decisions that will ultimately be made not for solely immersive or artistic reasons, but for gameplay ones, to achieve outcome _____, to win.

No matter how aesthetically complete, how thematically profound, a game is, win states are inherently alienating to artistry. You can’t have both; they are mutually exclusive. And games can be beautiful, and deep, and moving, and capital-t True, and so, so many are, but those qualities will always be secondary to the game bits. But that’s OK!

XI. Limits and Deconstructions – Where do we go?

I would propose a division between games and “experiences.” Only by stripping away the win state can one have artistic purity in an interactive medium. And really, when you take the “game” out of the field of vision, this seems pretty common-sense. So, how would this look, in practice? Like Journey? Like a movie?

Dear Esther and other win/lose-less “walking simulators” aren’t the only option. Indeed, I’d argue that their interactivity is really just a gimmick—they ought to exist without it, as it serves no purpose; it is false. These projects are closed narratives; just like Pulp Fiction, Gone Home exists in full—whether the player takes the time to unearth it is of no true significance. So how do you do it “right?” You compromise, and here’s how.

Kentucky Route Zero and Firewatch do it right. Like Dear Esther and Gone Home, both projects exist in a win/lose-less world; the player simply experiences that narrative, start-to-finish. But the player is given choices, and—and this is so, so crucial—the choices are arbitrary. What you name your dog in KR0, what joke you tell over Firewatch’s radio, is of no real consequence to the plot, itself static. Almost paradoxically, this loads these choices with weight—not, though, because the player wants outcome _____; indeed, for the very opposite reason. When there’s no pressure of that sort, the player becomes an actor improvising from a script, developing his or her own interpretation of a character. Purely. Truly.

Is this “gaming?” No. Is this “fun?” Well, sort of? But not, maybe, in a “game” sort of way. Just as games can have hints of art, these interactive narratives can bear hints of games. Only by knowing the forms’ limits can one work towards them. And, who knows, maybe the near future will prove me wrong. Maybe this whole notion’s a game to be beaten.

For once, I look forward to the day I lose.


This essay has plenty of flaws. Here are some:

· The implied art=narrative idea, and thus:

· The negligence to mention Journey as a narrative-less aesthetic “experience” that also “does it right” without sacrificing mechanical complexity.

· The utter disregard of mechanical complexity as an art in and of itself.

· The fact that, if you think about it, most games are really closed narratives, and “game overs” are just setbacks towards reaching their conclusion, which, when considered, sort of destroys this whole argument.

· I never really do touch on the whole intent/interpretation issue. Whoops

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