More on Games As Art

Reader Hugh wrote a very thoughtful response to my original post about games as art and I want to take the time to respond to it in some depth because it cuts to the heart of the question of why it matters and what it means to describe games as art.

What Makes Games Valuable

His response begins:

I find your comments about computer games (or games in general) needing to be considered “art” for it to be demonstrated that they have “positive cultural contributions to make,” interesting.

Hugh is referring to my suggestion that part of the value of treating games as art is to counter claims made by the moral reform movement that has been trying to pressure for government regulation on youth access to video games in cities across the country. If you look closely, the movement often tries to compare games to other kinds of products and commodities — such as cigarettes — a common reference point or to forms of expression — such as pornography — which do not enjoy full constitutional protection. The goal is to dismiss out of hand the idea that games can be culturally meaningful activities. As I said yesterday, making the case that game playing is a meaningful activity is one of the most important functions of games criticism.

Hugh continues:

Clearly the contribution of value to our culture is not limited to art. Football (American or otherwise) is not art – in fact, it’s a game. But it is very hard to question the value that children or indeed grown people playing sport adds to our culture.

Going for a long walk isn’t art, either. But it’s clearly valuable. Running a popular meeting point, a bar or a cafe, isn’t art, but it has considerable value to society. Hell, running a garbage disposal firm isn’t art, but I’d rather Edinburgh City Council didn’t close their binmen down on that basis.

Even if, say, World of Warcraft isn’t art, that doesn’t mean it’s not of value. In fact, it’s entirely possible to argue that its artistic merit is in fact entirely irrelevant to its value to society.

Again, I would agree with Hugh’s general conclusion here. We can go back to the 2002 Limbaugh decision, issued by U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. in response to a proposed Saint Louis regulation of youth access to games (and blissfully overturned subsequently). Limbaugh argued that games did not deserve constitutional protection from censorship because they did not represent a meaningful form of expression. He acknowledged that they probably held the same amount of social value as sports or traditional games but noted that there were no constitutional rights attached to these activities. We have freedom of speech, which belatedly was extended from political speech to artistic expression, but we do not have a right to play. More’s the pity. At best, there is a vague right to “the pursuit of happiness” but I don’t think you are going to find judges take you very seriously if you simply assert that playing games makes you happy.

Getting Serious About Games

Games can be valuable on many levels. Their status as art is simply one of them. Right now, we are seeing defenses of games emerging on multiple levels.

Some writers — James Paul Gee or Kurt Squire or Steven Johnson, for example — are making the case for games on educational or cognitive levels rather than aesthetic. Gee demonstrates that games are structured around solid pedagogical principles and that they are teaching young people new ways of processing knowledge. Johnson contends that games, like other modern forms of popular culture, have a degree of complexity (and thus pose cognitive challenges) which may be greater than most critics imagine. Squire has shown that communities emerge around games which enhance or expand the educational value of the play experience itself.

The serious games movement tackles the question of games as a form of political or social expression much more directly. They are demonstrating that games as a medium can serve a wide array of social and pedagogical purposes. Advocates like Gonzalo Frasca or Ian Bogost have made strong cases that games can be used for political speech. There are interesting experiments in the use of games for journalistic purposes. And so forth. If these efforts are successful, they will go to the heart of the legal debate — representing the kinds of materials which are most cherished and protected under American constitutional law.

Yet this is treacherous territory since if we make too powerful a case that games can be a tool for persuasion or even education, games reformers are apt to cite it as proof that games “brainwash” or “train” the people who consume them. If a game can “teach” you world history (in the case of Civilization) or change how you think about genocide (in the case of Darfur is Dying), than can a game teach you to kill your classmates? I have tried to address this question in terms of a distinction between meanings and effects.

Here’s a passage from one of my essays, “The War Between Effects and Meanings,” which will be included in my forthcoming book, Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers:

Limbaugh and company see games as having social and psychological “effects” (or in some formulations, as constituting “risk factors” that increase the likelihood of violent and antisocial conduct). Their critics argue that gamers produce meanings through game play and related activities. Effects are seen as emerging more or less spontaneously, with little conscious effort, and are not accessible to self examination. Meanings emerge through an active process of interpretation; they reflect our conscious engagement; they can be articulated into words; and they can be critically examined. New meanings take shape around what we already know and what we already think, and thus, each player will come away from a game with a different experience and interpretation. Often, reformers in the “effects” tradition argue that children are particularly susceptible to confusions between fantasy and reality. A focus on meaning, on the other hand, would emphasize the knowledge and competencies possessed by game players starting with their mastery over the aesthetic conventions which distinguish games from real world experience.

Arguments for the aesthetic value of games represent a third important prong in this effort to develop an affirmative defense of video games rather than simply debunk claims made about media effects. In some ways, it is proving the most controversial in part because of conflicting assumptions about the nature of art.

The New Lively Art

And this is what Hugh gets to next in his comments:

John Carey’s “What Good Are The Arts” provides a compelling dissection of the common belief that the arts are somehow inherently “improving”. I wouldn’t argue that the “art” in World of Warcraft is the reason that kids should be allowed to play it – I’d argue that learning team skills, discipline, perseverance, problem-solving skills and simple escapism are all reasons to play it….

One thing that’s interesting here is that games are clearly a form of expression – “speech”, indeed – but that doesn’t necessarily translate to our conception of art, which is generally considered, at the moment, to be a one-way expression mediated by the author. As I understand it, the US constitution protects freedom of speech, not freedom of art – it is just that in the past 100 years or so, many things considered speech have also been considered art.

My own argument that games constitutes art stems not from a high culture notion of art as uplift or “improvement” but rather from Gilbert Seldes’ concept of a lively art. I discuss this idea at some length in my essay, “Games, the New Lively Art,” which will be reprinted in my forthcoming anthology, The Wow Climax. Here’s some of what I have to say here:

Adopting what was then a controversial position, Seldes argued that America’s primary contributions to artistic expression had come through emerging forms of popular culture such as jazz, the Broadway musical, Vaudeville, Hollywood cinema, the comic strip, and the vernacular humor column….Readers then were skeptical of Seldes’ claims about cinema for many of the same reasons that contemporary critics dismiss games – they were suspicious of cinema’s commercial motivations and technological origins, concerned about Hollywood’s appeals to violence and eroticism, and insistent that cinema had not yet produced works of lasting value. Seldes, on the other hand, argued that cinema’s popularity demanded that we reassess its aesthetic qualities. Cinema and other popular arts were to be celebrated, Seldes insisted, because they were so deeply imbedded in everyday life, because they were democratic arts embraced by average citizens. Through streamlined styling and syncopated rhythms, they captured the vitality of contemporary urban experience. They took the very machinery of the industrial age, which many felt dehumanizing, and found within it the resources for expressing individual visions, for reasserting basic human needs, desires, and fantasies. And these new forms were still open to experimentation and discovery. They were, in Seldes’ words, “lively arts.”

What I am arguing, then, is not that games should be removed from the realm of everyday life and put on a pedestal in an art museum. Rather, games are art because they represent a site of play and expression within the contexts of their everyday lives. They teach us to see the world through new eyes. They teach us new ways to interact with the computer. Art is not necessarily uplifting: it is enough that it refreshes us — heightening our perceptual awareness, enhancing the quality of our lives. In that sense, I am arguing that play matters because it makes us happy.

Expression does not equal Narrative

Hugh continues:

It’s also worth noting that whilst our culture generally considers art to be defined by passive consumption, there’s plenty of precedent for art to be interactive. Theatre, for example, is highly dependent on the audience for its content, as actors “play” to the crowd. With no crowd and no crowd reaction, there is no theatre. That’s even more true in improvised theatre. Architecture by definition is the crafting of an interactive artform, yet no-one doubts it is art.

The core of the problem comes from our assumption that if games are art, then the art must come through telling stories rather than creating new kinds of experiences. Improved storytelling might be one form that games as art will take. But games are not predestined to become a more interactive form of cinema. They could just as easily become about expressive movements — like dance — or spaces — like architecture. For me, Shigaru Miyagawa is perhaps the consummate game artist — not because he creates such compelling stories or psychologically deep characters but because he is so imaginative in his design of space, so open to exploring new ways of interacting with the medium, and so expressive in his use of movement and iconography. Games tap a spirit of experimentation and improvisation through our freedom to explore their spaces and interact with them in a variety of ways. So, again, I totally agree with Hugh’s position here. Stories are one ways that our culture communicates meaning. Rituals are another. Games are still another. These forms may sometimes overlap but they have quite autonomous histories.

Culture and Commerce, Elites and Masses

Hugh concludes:

Possibly some of the resistance to the concept of a game as art comes from the fact that the creation of art is considered in the Western world to be a work of specialized artisans, rather than something which is part of everyday life? Once again, John Carey points out that that’s an anomaly of the last few hundred years – art evolved in humankind as a form of play, and indeed several languages do not have separate words for the two activities.

Our culture, of course, has devalued play, as Pat Kane points out in “The Play Ethic”. Perhaps this is part of the resistance that computer games find when they try to define themselves as art?

Again, I find myself in loud and emphatic agreement with Hugh’s comments here. Games suffer two problems in terms of our modern understanding of art:

1. on the one hand, games are commercial products and there is a tendency to set art against commerce in our critical discussions. We see this even in terms of cinema where some movies get called “art movies” and others get called “popcorn movies,” despite decades of criticism which has sought to identify the ways entertainment properties may nevertheless be meaningful and expressive and aesthetically compelling. I was in a debate recently with Ernest Adams, who is one of the most thoughtful commentators on the games industry and medium, but who is not convinced that games are art. His arguments hinge on this distinction between art and commerce.

2. On the other hand, games are not art because they are so accessible to the general population. Art has increasingly been seen as the property of the educated elite. Under this definition, you have to be taught to perceive and value art. Artistic appreciation becomes a form of social distinction. And there is a tendency to devalue the kinds of informal learning which surrounds our mastery of popular culture form. Trust me, none of us were born knowing how to beat a level.

Many gamers are also worried that if we discuss games as art, they will somehow stop making the kinds of games they like to play. Art is thought of as something stuffy or serious-minded, rather than something playful and engaging. I see this tied to some of the ways that modern art embraced an aesthetic of emotional and contemplative distance where-as Seldes’ “Lively Arts” embraced an aesthetic that emphasized immediate emotional impact. When I promote the idea that games should be considered art, I don’t mean that they should saddle themselves with some alien artistic tradition or that they should necessarily strive to be high art. I want them to remain a popular art. I want them to develop their own aesthetic principles that reflect the ways we engage with games in the course of our everyday life. Rather than strip play from games, I want us to reassert the centrality of play to artistic expression.

Hugh’s comments take us a step further — at least by implication — in suggesting that the art of games is created not simply by the designer but also by the player. Imagine a world where players were judged not simply on the basis of their high scores but also on their expressive performances? To some degree, this tension has already surfaced around something like Dance Dance Revolution. I am happy to argue there that the best players don’t necessarily rake up the highest scores; rather, they score as performers with the audience that watches them. Maybe we make art every time we pick up the joy stick. But in that sense, Hugh is right that this art becomes immediately devalued because these skills are too widespread within our culture and our modern notion of art emphasizes not simply an elite consumer but also an elite producer.

In the end, I don’t think Hugh and I disagree. Hugh argues that games can be seen as meaningful without being considered art. I would argue that artistic expression is simply one of a number of different criteria by which we might identify the meaningfulness of games.

Thanks, Hugh, for such a rich response. Sorry it has taken me a while to get back to it.


  1. Wow! Thanks for the detailed and fascinating response there.

    I’m a little under the weather today, so I’ll try and comment more on Monday or Tuesday when my monitor appears to have a bit less of a life of its own, but I just wanted to comment quickly on one point you raise.

    Hugh’s comments take us a step further — at least by implication — in suggesting that the art of games is created not simply by the designer but also by the player.

    This is a point I find very interesting, from my experiences playing role-playing games of various forms.

    There has long been a lively argument raging in more rarified roleplaying circles as to whether or not the *play* of these games, as opposed to their written creation, constitutes art. Most recently, the Norwegian and Scandinavian live-roleplaying movements have been explicitly defining themselves and their work as art – as have their government sponsors.

    I’d certainly argue that such a game constitutes what you refer to as a “lively” art (marvellous – I’d not run across this terminology). Stories and experiences are created, reflecting the experience of the times, and that the medium is an expressive one is hard to argue. Indeed, when I started to study Method acting for my work I was startled to discover how many of the techniques of Method are similar if not identical to ones which roleplayers have independently discovered and used to make their characters more real and believable.

    But the odd thing here is the ephemeral nature of what is created. The only people who ever experience the “art” as it is created are those who are creating it – and the experience is, as any old-school roleplayer will know, hard or impossible to convey to outsiders. (“Well, yeah, they were stuck in this cave, and it was really steep, and there was a black ooze coming the other – oh, man, you just had to be there.”) Part of this is down to the fact that these games don’t, despite what a number of their authors have claimed, create stories as such – they create experiences. Fictional experiences similar to the experience that *results* from viewing a piece of non-interactive art, rather than the art itself.

    And that’s rather a challenge to the definition of “art”, I would think. Our understanding of a piece of art is that it is something that is created by one person or some people for the consumption of other people – even in forms like dance or architecture, this holds true.

    So, if a piece of art is only ever, by its nature, experienced by the same people who create it, is it art? If the Ancient Civilisation of Mu falls in a forest, but no-one who wasn’t there can ever appreciate it, does it make art?

  2. “Hugh’s comments take us a step further — at least by implication — in suggesting that the art of games is created not simply by the designer but also by the player. Imagine a world where players were judged not simply on the basis of their high scores but also on their expressive performances?”

    This reminds me of the “Quake Done Quick” series of recordings still available online. In turn, I can think of many examples where specific play-throughs of games are highly looked upon: the demos that come with the phenominally difficult Ikaruga game, various blurry videos of Japanese kids playing tetris or other games, high score runs of pac-man, etc… All of these represent gaming’s optimal state: A game in its most difficult mode and a player overcoming that challenge with competence and often grace.

    There are specific maneuvers from Quake Done Quick that I can still remember (and could never repeat myself), despite the fact that I haven’t seen it in ten years.

    Unfortunately a lay-person seeing these demos might not realize how difficult a game is if they aren’t familiar with the game mechanics. If one doesn’t realize that in Ikaruga the ship has no shields, and the ship blows up on contact with one lazer shot, they might not appreciate all of the dodging and weaving. Similarly if the viewer doesn’t understand the details of a ramp jump or grenade-rocket jump in Quake, they won’t appreciate some of the crazy stunts the Quake Done Quick players pull.

  3. Bill McClain says:

    Strange as this may sound, I remember many nights when my friends and I would sit around with PS2 (and a large quantity of cheap beer) and play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The goal wasn’t to beat the game or to complete difficult tasks that the game had assigned, but to come up with and perform the most complex and challenging stunts and scenarios that the player could come up with. The goal wasn’t merely to demonstrate virtuosity, but creativity (so you’re good enough to get the boat onto the highway–but what naughty things can we do with that…). We’d play off of each other as well: if I could pile five motorcycles on top of a truck and make the whole thing go off like a fireworks display, then, the next guy might try 10 on a truck set off with a burning helicopter…etc etc. The final goal was always to come up with something so hard and original that no one else had thought of it or, if they had, would have thought it possible.

    Perhaps the video game equivalentof a jam session?

  4. Hugh’s comments take us a step further — at least by implication — in suggesting that the art of games is created not simply by the designer but also by the player.

    You might find a counterargument in the art of music. There are two different arts being expressed here: composition and performance. I play the piano, but I’m no composer; likewise, a good number of composers may be unable to actually play their creations masterfully. (Granted, like games, this latter class of artists is rare: in games, we say, “Play the game”.) What good is a bunch of dots on lines on paper when there are no players to transform it into sound?