Video Games Are Not Art, They Are... Cars

Sounds nutty. But let me explain!

So much of the tired old argument that "video games are art!" is based upon a direct comparison of this medium to another. Comparing the emotions, characters, setting, art style and soundtrack to that found in film, television or to a lesser extent comic books. Those things are (usually, at least, though TV has its limits) considered art, and because games have creative aspects to them, games should be art too!

But it's a wasted approach, because none of those mediums are interactive. They are passive, forms of art and/or entertainment that come to you as you simply sit back and watch, listen or read. You do not interact with a movie or a novel, not in the way you do with a game.

So striving to have games wholly and universally labelled as "art" in the sense that a novel or illustration is labelled "art" is a futile effort, because you're trying to have an entire object categorised based simply on some of its more superficial trappings.

A game's look or sound may be art, sure, or its story or setting or statement, but what about how it feels? And I'm not talking about your emotional state, I'm talking about how it literally feels in your hands as you control a character, fly a plane or reload a virtual rifle.

Games are more than art; they are also mechanical, something we can appreciate, sure, but also something we have to use.

Just like cars.

Think about it. The automobile, even the cheapest, simplest vehicle, is a marriage (or conflict!) of art and function. There are engineers and scientists whose job it is to make sure the car works, and runs efficiently, and there are artists and designers whose job it is to make sure the car looks good.

Sometimes the engineers win out, and we're left with a car, like the Lancia Delta, that may perform brilliantly but look like a dog's breakfast. Other times, we can have a car like the Aston Martin DB9 that looks so beautiful it can bring a man to tears…then bring him to more tears when it can't run for a week without breaking down.

You can't have one without the other. A beautiful body - like those seen in the Gran Turismo 5 screenshots around you - without an engine or transmission is simply not a car. An engine and transmission sitting on blocks without a beautiful body to put them into isn't a car, either. It's only when the two come together that we have the final product.

Games are exactly the same. You can have all the art and celebrity voice-overs and moving music and poetic gestures you want, but if there's nothing to interact with, it's not a game. It's just... a collection of various pieces of media. Likewise, the handling and mechanics of a game, or its level design and puzzle difficulty, are just an intangible, unrecognisable collection of 1s and 0s without a character and world to dress them in, or a story to give them purpose and context.

Cars are also a great example of how people can prioritise their enjoyment with a product. Me, I'd never buy an ugly car. Ever. It's just how I roll. My father, on the other hand, would buy a rolling pink cube if it was safe and economical.

Here, too, games are similar. There are some, like Assassin's Creed for whom presentation is everything, and there are others, like Dwarf Fortress, that couldn't care less about how they look, so long as everything you use works to the creator's satisfaction. One, expensive and beautiful, is a Ferrari. The other, cheap and hideous, is a Toyota Corolla. Some gamers will appreciate one, others the, well, other.

It's a direct, tangible issue other forms of "art" never have to confront. Because your appreciation of them as a whole is not affected by how you use it, it doesn't matter how difficult a film is to watch, because if it's tough to watch, well, that's just what the creators intended, and maybe it's not for you. Likewise, how a painting is viewed by an audience should not be a concern to an artist, because they are creating art, not a product or service.

But if a game is tough to control, or it doesn't work? If the character you are supposed to be moving across small platforms is not programmed correctly, not designed properly, not tested adequately, everything else about a game - it's "art" - is for naught, because no matter how pretty it is, you'll stop playing. The game will, like a car, simply break down.

Just like cars, the "art" of video games then is in most (though not all) cases a luxury, afforded only when the mechanics - a most un-arty term - are in order. And they can only be applied to a game - a set of rules, numbers and programming - when there's a game to apply them to, otherwise those beautiful images are beautiful only in their own right, not as an integral part of a larger work.

There is no doubt whatsoever that there is art to be found in cars. In the design of the vehicle's body, the flow of the interior, the curvature of the seats. But do you call cars art? No, you don't. You call them cars, that's what they are, and you leave it at that.

It'd be wonderful if people could do the same with video games. It sure would save us all a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching!

[images: GTPlanet]


Comments

    You're assuming that game-play can't be art, and I disagree completely. I think you'll find that the games people choose to label as art are those that can express an emotional connection through game-play rather than through its visuals alone.

    I agree, a game is mechanical in that it takes alot of different systems to make a game and a game isnt a game until they are all combined, but games can be art as much as a car can be art. A game can be beautiful to look at so with a car. It can have passion and love poured into it but as art in a traditional sense probably not. A game can make you feel things emotionally just like a car would so i think its a perfect comparison.

    I think this article is really on to something, and then I disagree. Your arguments are great, I totally see where you're coming from and I buy 98% of your logic. The problem with this argument is that all artworks have a technical aspect to them, not just games (or interactive computer stuff).

    Leonardo DaVinci is a good example of a truly brilliant artist who made his technique/technical quite visible. We all know about things like linear perspective, the technical process of using vanishing points to make a flat image look three-dimensional. What about shading? Working out the relative position of shadows to the light source in an image is actually a physics/math problem. Sculptors are also scientists, geologists I suppose, who need to know an awful lot about marble and metals. An author must first learn the syntax of his language (yes spoken human langauges have syntax. That's you why know wrong sentence is this.)

    Music is mathematical. The technical understanding of music theory is very much like learning a computer language. Then there is the technical aspect to learning one's instrument. How does it work? What is it made from? etc. Architecture is considered an art form in many cases, and it is probably the closest parallel to the car analogy here. A building is definitely an interactive device, yet can also be very beautiful. There were reasons outside of what the author here is calling 'art' to the design of the Sistine Chapel. There were concerns about moving people in and out, concerns around where the priest will stand relative to where the congregation will sit or kneel. There are massive acoustic constraints: the shape of the room is used to make the choir sound a certain way. What of chefs? Are they artists of food? Food is certainly 'useful' the way you speak of cars, but food can be crafted as artistically as the chef is capable of AND it requires a thorough knowledge of chemistry and the properties of the palette, temperatures etc.

    On the point of difficulty: the 'difficulty' in watching a film is not the same kind of 'difficulty' found in games. I want to write about this more deeply sometime, I find it fascinating. The difficulty of a film or novel is in the understanding and interpretation of the meaning behind the work. That is almost NEVER the meaning of the word in gaming, other than perhaps Heavy Rain, which has stuff that is easy to access and difficult to watch because it is 'confronting' not because the game isn't letting you past a certain point. The difficulty in making a choice in a videogame is much closer to the difficulty of watching a confronting film, like Boys Don't Cry or something. Choosing Button A or Button B is easy as pie, but predicting/interpreting the results of the decision can be hard.

    Moral of this rant: Cars are art too. The art of crafting a car doesn't begin and end with shaping the body's shell. That said, art is also in the eye of the beholder. If one doesn't spend any time thinking about a car as artistic, its not art. They are definitely useful objects, in the same way a building is useful. But a designer or a aficianado will look at cars and see more than utility.

    "But do you call cars art? No, you don’t. You call them cars, that’s what they are, and you leave it at that."

    This is all written as though cars and art are mutually exclusive. But you know what, many people would call the captivating lines of a DB9, Lancia Stratos and Ferrari 250GTO; the complex curves of an old Brabham F1's intertwined exhaust pipes; the inboard suspension of a Pagani Zonda; even the carefully tuned exhaust note of the Lamborghini V10, to be art.

    Art doesn't have to be good to look at, it's not only aesthetics. Art can be music, literature, dance, engineering, or even the mechanics underlying an ugly videogame. It's such a subjective, indefinable term, that really, it can be found everywhere anyone wants.

      +1

      Though more precisely, aesthetics isn't all visual.

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