Video Games And The Philosophy Of Art

The film critic Roger Ebert’s recent comments about video games and their potential as art, and especially the immense stir the comments caused on discussion forums all over the internet, shows the intrinsic interest there is in the question of whether video games are art. Of course, many people see the debate as entirely pointless, and there is the separate question of why we should want to establish that video games are art.

But the question remains, and it is entirely sensible: are video games art?

Individual opinion on this issue is understandably varied, but what has not be been noticed in all of this debate is that video games are increasingly a topic of study within the philosophy of the arts. A number of recent philosophical papers and books, including those by Aaron Smuts, Dominic Lopes, and my own book The Art of Videogames, have taken up the task of explaining video games in terms of the arts. A natural aspect of this explanation is the status of this new medium within the arts. Indeed, it is from that the philosophy of the arts that we should most expect guidance in solving our problem. In my own book I devote an entire chapter to what I will argue here in brief.

Let’s forget Ebert here for the most part; his criticisms of video games do not show a level of serious thought on the topic, or even evidence of engagement with actual video games. What then can be said about video games and art from the perspective of the philosophy of the arts?

The basic problem is clear: in asking whether video games are presently art (or could be in the future) we are asking whether they do or could properly sit within the category of the arts. The obvious question thus facing us is how we should we categorise or define art.

It is at this stage that the informal discussion found in internet forums so easily slips into confusion. Vague definitions of art are offered – “Duchamp’s Fountain shows that anything can be art these days!” – and then equally vague assertions are made that video games do or do not fit into this category.

Almost all such arguments show little or no awareness of the current state of the definition of art debate, at most referring in a very basic way to the ideas of Plato or perhaps Wittgenstein; or more usually, what the discussant personally takes to be the nature of art.

But let’s look at what the experts have to say on definitions of art. In fact the philosophical debate about the nature of art is not the barren academic debate that it might be expected to be, but rather it is a fertile discussion in which a number of important recent theories have been proposed, and much progress on the understanding of the arts has been made. The philosopher Stephen Davies’ book Definitions of Art is a good place to find out about recent trends in the debate.

Needless to say, there is not wholesale agreement on the correct definition of art, but the least we can do is look at how video games sit in respect of the current best contenders. Covering the entire range of current definitions and explaining their philosophical motivations would take this piece far outside of its intended focus, so what I’m going to do here is forward the case for video games as art using a definition of art I think has a lot going for it.

Cluster accounts of art claim that art can be defined – or at least characterised – by a disjunctive list of conditions. A “disjunction” is a technical term for an “or” statement, and so a disjunctive analysis of art comes in the basic form of “x is art if and only if x is a, or x is b, or…,” and so on. What the disjunctive aspect of such definitions is meant to solve is the problem that even uncontested artworks are fairly diverse. What do the Mona Lisa, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Pulp Fiction, and Ulysses all have in common? In fact there may be no one feature shared by all of these things, even though their properties may overlap so some extent. The cluster approach claims that an art work is such if it has a significant proportion of a set of listed criteria, even though it may be missing some of them.

Some philosophers claim that cluster or disjunctive definitions of art are trying to have a bet both ways. Perhaps this is the point of such definitions: art may not have any one essential property, rather it may be comprised of a collection of properties that overlap in instances. And this is often that way that things exist in the world, even in the natural world where classes such as biological species can be comprised of individuals with sets of characteristics that overlap with related species. (In fact, it may be a fault of old fashioned philosophy to think that objects in the world can be unequivocally defined in terms of “essences”.)

What sorts of characteristics are we talking about? In a research paper on the topic, the philosopher Berys Gaut claims that art is comprised of the following properties,

“the presence of which ordinary judgment counts toward something’s being a work of art, and the absence of which counts against its being art: (1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant (properties which ground a capacity to give sensuous pleasure); (2) being expressive of emotion; (3) being intellectually challenging (i.e. questioning received views and modes of thought); (4) being formally complex and coherent; (5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings; (6) exhibiting an individual point of view; (7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original); (8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill; (9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.); and (10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art.”

All artworks, the claim is, have some significant collection of these properties, and, if pressed, we could list which of the characteristics various artworks and forms of art typically have (though for the sake of brevity I will not do so here).

The list presented by Denis Dutton in his recent book The Art Instinct is similar, including direct pleasure, the display of skill or virtuosity, style novelty and creativity, criticism, representation, “special” focus, expressive individuality, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, traditions and institutions, and imaginative experience. Faced with an object having a large number of these features, Dutton thinks that we would have to admit that the object was art. Naturalist accounts such as Dutton’s go further than basic cluster accounts in that they claim that the properties on the list are psychological, behavioural and cultural propensities that are human universals, seen in some form in all cultures. All cultures, then, have art, even though local instances of art – whether it is a painting in a gallery in Manhattan, a carving from a pre-European contact Maori tribe, a symphony in concert house in 19th century Vienna, or even an instance of Fallout 3 – show considerable variation in their perceptible features.

Thus there is an obvious way to solve our problem of whether video games are art: we can simply look at how many of these art-typical conditions can be found in video games. It is clear that not all video games have a significant proportion of the conditions, so it will turn out that under this analysis a game like Pong may not be art. But this does not seem to be a problem, because to establish that video games are art does not rely on establishing that all video games are art. Furthermore, hardly anyone really thinks that Pong is an art work, or at least if they do, they are employing a very idiosyncratic concept of art.

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When we look at the modern examples of video games that are most frequently put up as serious contenders for being art, how do they match up with the cluster conception of art? Let’s take just one example, BioShock, a game which most recent gamers are likely to have heard of, if not played, and let’s reflect one by one on Gaut’s list of art-typical conditions.

BioShock possesses aesthetic properties: its art deco setting has frequently been called out for particular praise, and the game does present a sumptuous world of fallen splendour. This possession of aesthetic qualities is one of the most immediate and obvious links between video games and art, and indeed, unlike much recent avant garde art that seems entirely unconcerned with beauty, video games have a strong connection to the art of previous historical periods through their concern with beauty.

BioShock is expressive of emotions: in the game, the Little Sisters engage our sympathy, and the Big Daddies induce our fear, and the game as a whole has a rich emotional tenor ranging from crushing peril, to tenderness, to surprise and awe (think of the twist sequence; for me this was accompanied by an astounding feeling of revelation, including that spine tingling feeling that accompanies the most emotionally affecting of art).

BioShock is intellectually challenging: the Objectivist component in BioShock is not some mere exercise in name-dropping, and though you can play the game oblivious to this layer of meaning, the parallels with Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged do fill the game with an immense significance. Moreover, the connections prove intellectually provocative, leading the thoughtful player to carefully consider the philosophical principles expressed through the failing world of Rapture, and so challenging the Objectivist philosophy behind it. But to see this, one must engage with the game intellectually and bring to it a pre-existing understanding of the issues of altruism, moral choice, freedom, and responsibility that the game touches upon.

BioShock is formally complex and coherent. Though a lot of the structure of the game is particular to its nature as a game-it has levels and objectives, enemies, and save points encoded in the “vita-chambers”-there is also much that is of artistic interest in its depictive structures. There are several sections of the game where the careful design of its environment allows it to convey an artistic point: think about the incredible opening sequence of the game, where using an in medias res technique, the player-character is dropped into the middle of the story, and the mystery of Rapture is introduced as he (and we) become literally and figuratively immersed in the fictional world. There is coherent and complex artifice and design in this sequence, and as a result the artistic impact is undeniable.

BioShock has the capacity to convey complex meanings. Spoilers ahead! The twist sequence in the game functions so successfully because of its layering of fictional and formal aspects of the game: as the character discovers that they have been a pawn in a battle for the control of Rapture, the player is led to think about how they too are a pawn in someone else’s game. This layering leads to some satisfyingly complex interplay between the themes of action, responsibility, freedom, manipulation, and moral choice. These complex meanings are an important part of the artistic worth of the game.

BioShock expresses an individual point of view. The unity of the art in BioShock is pretty obvious to the observant player; it fits together as an organic whole, and we naturally want to see it as an expression of an artist’s viewpoint. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that it is the work of a studio, much like films are. Ken Levine is a figurehead for this individual studio style, and we can see in BioShock much of the individual style that makes its predecessor System Shock 2 the terrific game that it is. But there really is in operation a sort of proxy artist of the work, and though the game is very much an aggregation of several artistic visions, this individual artistic style shows through in the result (and was adopted by 2k Marin when they produced a sequel to the game).

BioShock is very clearly the product of a creative imagination: it depicts an imaginary world, that though having obvious precedents, also has a flavour all of its own. One of the most common compliments given BioShock is of the compelling nature of Rapture as a setting. This surely owes to the imaginativeness with which Rapture was conceived.

BioShock gives evidence of a high degree of skill. This is most evident in the artistic design of the game, the writing, the voice acting, and the many aspects of the game that established its artistic credibility. The game simply is a collection of some very good performances by the various artists who were involved in its production.

BioShock does not however belong to an established art form, as the very debate we are engaged in here shows. It’s not just critics like Ebert who doubt that video games are art; very many gamers and game designers themselves have such doubts. But given the cluster nature of the account, this is not a decisive point against video games, and indeed it is to be expected given that video games are a relatively new phenomenon. All art forms come into existence at some point of course. Establishing an artistic form takes time, and what also takes time is the realisation that a collection of works is a new art form. This results from the collective intuitions of those involved with the form, but also arises as theorists and critics begin to recognise the status of the form as art and to engage with it in a serious way.

Finally, and this is my judgment, BioShock is the result of the intention to make an artwork. Intentions can be slippery things, but it seems evident enough in the game that it is intended to be something more than just a game: BioShock is intended to have the features listed above (they are not accidental) and it is intended to have these features as a matter of its being art.

Hence, BioShock seems an entirely natural candidate for art status. It has, in some form, all but one of the criteria. The one it lacks-belonging to an established artistic form-it lacks because of the very newness of video games. BioShock is not necessarily a masterpiece (the last act is problematic) but this is beside the point; the vast majority of art works are not masterpieces. Surely it would be unfair to deny BioShock art status when it has so many of the qualities that in other uncontested art works accounts for their art status?

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There is an important reservation here, however. Let’s return to Ebert very briefly, because he does express at least one argument that seems pertinent. He claims that video games cannot be art because they involve rules, competition, and so on. He says, “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Most definitions of art claim that an item needs to have properties a, b, and c if it is to be art; what they often do not make reference to are qualities that might disqualify an artifact from being a work of art. But the involvement of rules and competition might be just such a property, especially when we reflect that these are more commonly seen as defining features of sports and games.
It is actually quite difficult to find uncontested forms of art where rules and competition are involved in the artwork itself. Some works, such as Greek Tragedy, were produced for competitions; and artists can certainly be in competition with other artists for the attention of the public, but in neither case is the experience of the work itself the occasion for competition. One can understand Greek Tragedies perfectly well without knowing that they were produced for competitions with rules; but to even begin to engage with BioShock, one needs to understand that it has certain rules and objectives, because these rules and objectives guide engagement with the work. Of course, some works are about competitions-sports films for example-but again, these do really involve the audience in competition.

Ultimately, the issue here is one of how cultural categories partially overlap with each other. Video games clearly overlap with art as it has traditionally been conceived (as the analysis of BioShock above shows), but they also include properties not typical of traditional art, as they broach the conceptual territory occupied by sports and games. But these cultural similarities are ubiquitous: art overlaps with craft, which itself overlaps with hobbies. As such, these classes illustrate the continuity between the cultural practices of our species. These continuities are unavoidable, and acknowledging their existence is necessary for an accurate understanding for how the world is genuinely arranged.

There are good technical reasons for why the continuity between art and games exists in the case of video games: the new interactive digital media that have developed so quickly over the last fifty years allow for artefacts that can depict richly artistic games. That is, because of their distinctive media, video games are able to take on the nature of works of art.

A comparison with traditional games is informative. In traditional games like chess, because the pieces and moves are abstractly defined, a game of chess can move between media-it can be played on a board, via pictorial inscriptions, or even in the mind, as in blindfold chess-and so its media are not an intrinsic part of its nature as a game. A particular board and piece set might be intricately carved and itself become an artwork; but this is a different thing than the game of chess itself being an artwork. Chess is only infrequently called art, and even then I suspect that this claim is meant to flatter chess. Chess may definitely be beautiful, and it is surely among the greatest of games, but it simply is not clear that it has enough of the criteria seen in genuine art.

But in video games, the game is itself necessarily rendered in an artefactual way and so it can take on the stylistic, emotional, aesthetic and representational aspects seen in art proper. It can also subsequently become the object of artistic criticism, and hence, video games, unlike almost all traditional games, are substantially aligned with the category of art. Applying the appellation of art to video games is not merely an attempt to flatter video games; rather, it is demanded by the facts of how video games exist as works with all the features we see in traditional art.

The question remains: can an artefact that involves rules and competition also be art? I see no compelling argument for why it cannot. And this really is where Ebert’s argument falls over; it is not merely enough to show that previous art has not involved rules and competition; one needs an argument for why future art cannot do so. Sure, previous works have not involved competition or rules of the kind seen in video games, but with every new art form that evolves there are likely to be new typical features. With the rise of film for example, the art of the moving image came about, and as a result film has an artistic nature quite different to previous forms of art. That it is a film critic who has been arguing against the potential of video games to be art is an irony lost on almost no one.

We are faced here with the kind of debate that follows from any number of studies of the world. Our experience of the world is always incomplete, and when we experience something new-be it something newly discovered, or newly invented-it can happen that the concepts with which we categorise the world need to be modified to reflect the new discovery. Video games may be just such a case in prompting us to revise our understanding of what an artwork can be.

Are video games art? My answer is yes. But they are also a transformation of our concept of art, and as such art itself will never be the same again.

Works cited

Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

Berys Gaut, “Art as a Cluster Concept,” in Theories of Art Today, ed. Noël Carroll (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).

Dominic McIver Lopes, A Philosophy of Computer Art (London: Routledge, 2009)

Aaron Smuts, “Are Video Games Art?” Contemporary Aesthetics, 3, (2005).

Grant Tavinor, The Art of Videogames (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Grant Tavinor is lecturer in philosophy at Lincoln University. His book The Art of Videogames has been released by Wiley-Blackwell in their New Directions in Aesthetics Series. In his spare times he enjoys roaming the Capital Wasteland and shooting ghouls.

Details of The Art of Videogames can be found here: http://au.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405187883.html

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