Games Are Art Only When You're Playing Them

The debate continues to rage (or perhaps it is at a smouldering point at the moment) as to whether or not video games are art. In an essay from the book, Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, Andrew McAlpine of the band Andrew M and The Coalition of the Willing, asserts without reservation that video games are not art. His reasoning is simple: The end of art is the aesthetic experience, while the end of video games is the playing of them.

The question of whether games are art has found different fields to play in. Do games rise to the level of art, the way that some films and books do? Can games impart emotional experiences in the same ways? And, if not in the same ways, in equally valid ways?

For McAlpine, the question rests in the point of the thing. Art is there to make you have an aesthetic experience communicated to you. Games are there to be played within certain rule sets. Thus they are incompatible.

My view is that McAlpine, and much of the discussion that the general gaming community has been privy to is being painted in too broad strokes to really deal with the specific issues at hand. Questions like "what is art" are not specific enough. We need to delve into questions such as "who is involved in the making of art?" and "Is the making of art art in itself, or is it some other thing?" It is on these two questions that I want to focus the rest of this article.

The first, "Who is involved in making art" inquires into the way in which we have traditionally experienced art in the past. Certain mediums, such as the written word, the acted play, the film and musical performances, seem to have a simple relationship between the one who makes the art and the one who receives it. The writer writes, the reader reads. The aesthetic experience is a hand off from the creator and the recipient. However, the process is not nearly that simple. While it may be true that an author may write, edit, and print her own books, other media are not nearly so mono-layered. A composer who writes a symphony is creating the blueprints of art, the musicians who perform it are working from that blueprint. Who makes the symphony? Many different orchestras have performed Beethoven's 9th, but who is said to be making the art when the symphony is played? Is it Beethoven or the Orchestra?

In other words, is a symphony meant to be played or listened to? If it is to be played, then the listening is secondary, and the notes on the page are the art. If it is to be listened to, then the art is not complete until the musicians do the performing. In that sense, they are co-workers in the art. The symphony is not complete without the musicians.

The same may be asked of plays acted on a stage. Who makes Hamlet art? Is it Shakespeare or is it David Tenant asHamlet? Does the Bard himself make art or does he only make the blueprint of it? Is Hamlet not art until the stage is set, the lights lit, and the actors begin to suit the word to action and the action to the word?

Further questions arise: If art is to convey aesthetic experience, and that is its primary goal, then what about the multiplex facets of human cognition involved in receiving art? Is art not art until I have also taken a part as a receiver of the aesthetic experience. And to do that, do I not also need to add something to it? Do I not bring all that I am already outfitted with to make art into art? McAlpine's argument is clearly designed to talk about how Rock and Roll is degraded by Guitar Hero and Rock Band and similar games. Rock is to be more than just hitting buttons on a controller. But of course, it can only be more than that if I am already outfitted to like it. If my idea of good music is the Fur Elise, and nothing else, then try as K.I.S.S. might to convey melancholie, Beth will not move my heart.

Thus we find that even in the aesthetic transfer from artist to recipient, all parties involved are makers of art. The Mona Lisa may be what it is materially unchanged since DaVinci's day, but unless a human mind outfitted in certain ways approaches it, it is not art. It is coloured pigment on canvas.

Thus we turn to the second question: Is the making of art, art itself? Is the carving of the statue of David an act of art, or is it merely creating art? If there is no art in the creating of art, then why do we call a person who creates art, artistic? In fact, the creation of the thing would then be merely a mechanical process that one can get right or wrong in the attempt to shape the piece of art that is intended. Then one is either a good shaper of stone, layer of paint, or plucker of strings on a guitar. Another way to ask this question is: is acting an art, or is the only art the play that is produced?

What does this have to do with video games? I propose that video games, like a symphony or a play, are incomplete art. I believe that Beethoven's 9th symphony, there on the page, is still art, but it is incomplete. There, on the page, the written symphony's end is to be played, so that the resulting composition of notes on a page and the work of musicians, can be experienced. It has what we might call an incomplete composite end. It is incomplete because it requires another artist to complete it (i.e. play the music) and composite because its first end is to be played, and its second end, to be enjoyed, is reliant on the first end.

Another way to state this is that an incomplete composite art is first one thing with one end, and then in the consummation of that end, it becomes another thing with another end. A written play's end is not only to be acted, but to become "an acted thing" which has its own end, to be enjoyed aesthetically. This is a particular kind of art that exists as art, but with the intention of transforming into another kind of art.

I believe video games are this kind of art.

For all of the work that game developers do in their years long process of making a game, the game is incomplete when it ships. (This is different than the all too common experience of games which require patches at launch). A game has an incomplete composite end. The first end, which is incomplete, is that a game is to be played. The second end, which is dependent on the first, is the aesthetic transmission of joy.

The difference between video games and a symphony, is that a symphony is primarily intended for its second end to be enjoyed by an audience who is not the orchestra. However, as any garage band or singer of karaoke can tell you, the playing or singing of a song can be its own aesthetic experience. In this we turn to the second question, is the making of art itself art? If it is not, then it matches McAlpine's description of playing a game, trying to hit all the buttons at the right time, so as not to lose. We know that making music, acting and writing are more than that. They are aesthetic experiences in themselves, and thus they also have composite ends. The making of music or writing is to be both aesthetically pleasing and productive of a result particular to that art. Writing a symphony is to be both enjoyable and productive of a symphony. Making a video game is to be both enjoyable and productive of a video game (something I'm sure that many game developers was experienced as true more often).

Thus we find that at every level, video games are in fact art. From the developing of the game as an art, to the final shipped game itself as an incomplete composite art, to the playing of the game, to the rising experience of watching games be played, it is hard to distinguish between the Symphony->Performance->Crowd Experience and the Video Game->Game Player->Observer Experience.

It is true that usually the person who receives the aesthetic experience from a game is also the one helping to make it art. It is also true that often, when the "artsy bits" come in, there is less interaction by the player. But games like Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain have sought to undermine these distinctions. And the playing of a game becomes specifically the completion of the art that was started first in a producer's mind, passed through many hands, and finally into the hands of the player who, like an actor, works either well or badly within the limits set by the previous artist.

Thus we end up with a conundrum: Gamers as Artists. How do we reconcile this conclusion with our lived experience of the foul mouthed, unimaginative, belittling people we sometimes meet online? Are gamers not only ready for their games to be art, but to be co-workers in the vision of the artists?

Photo: Jim Merithew/

Joshua Wise is the Owner/EIC of the website The Cross And The Controller, and one of the hosts of the Podcast No Avatars Allowed. He splits his time between the site, working on his Masters in Systematic Theology, and working full time as a .Net Developer.

Republished with permission.

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    No, I think taking that viewpoint that degrades the work of the "composer". A musical composer, by means of analogy, can provide the key elements, the framework, for performers to fill with themselves -- their expressive nature, their interpretation of those key elements. Or a musical composer may be so rigid as to notate every expressive element of the work as he or she desires, so that there is much less "room" for the performer to operate unless the performer completely rips the original work apart and creates something of a derivative work from the original. There is an artistry in how both of these works are written.

    We can compare this somewhat to certain kinds of games. The former kind of composition mentioned above can be likened to open world sandbox games like F:NV, or TES IV (or probably V as well), where the key elements of the plot are presented to the player, as well as other plot strands, but the player is free to express the character and their actions within a wide spectrum and still actually complete the plot and story. The latter kind of composition can be likened to RPGs with a much more constrained narrative, where there is much more plot written and while there may be a lot of room for the player and the PC to operate with their reactions and dialogue, there's much less room for things like emergent gameplay and elements of things like untold, inferred narrative from open world games.

    Experiential versus expositional storytelling and narrative. That's not to say that beautiful music and beautiful games can't be made from either compositional/creational scheme, and it's not to say that open world games are somehow "incomplete" either like how a composition as you put it is "incomplete".

    Matrix Reloaded

    Not every work of literature or painting would be considered the pinnacle of art, why would they demand that of every game.

      That's what I've always wondered. Does something being put on a portrait qualify it as art immediately? If I shit on a portrait and say it means something, I could have made art. If I spend a shitload of money and time creating a video game centered around the same piece of poop, it's considered crap, pardon the pun.

    Perfectly reasonable logic there, that bit about rules.

    Obviously a symphony is not art, because you can only listen to it with your ears. That's a limitation. Clearly not art.

    Of course games are art. Art is anything that can be dreamed up, then created, then enjoyed (or not)... food is art, vomit on canvas is art, architecture is art, music is art... so too are games. Anything that is created to transfer some kind of emotion is art.That's the beauty and beast of art. You can't say games are not art simply because you do not like the medium... I don't like the fact a giant red square on white canvas is art, but it is. Regardless of my opinion of it - the fact it caused an emotion makes it art.

    You know, i just don't get this debate. The outcome makes no difference whatsoever to any aspect of any game ever. Games as art or not? Who cares?

    If the mona lisa was locked in a vault and was never seen by human eyes, would it still be art? of course it would. Its not the beholder that creates art, its the artist.
    Is the code architecture of a game, Art? Are the libraries of specially prepared textures, Art? What about the AI, is that Art?
    They are all brushstrokes on the same canvas as far as i am concerned.

      But is a sign for a $2 shop art? a doodle on a pad next to a phone? A dog turd?

      No. Art is much more that simply it's materials or it's craftsmanship or it's placement or it's spectacle or anything it is something that is a sum of parts, not governed by anything but the idea at it's core.

    Ha the fact that it's in debate ensures that it is actually art.

    Could be, are not.

    Although, I can think of a few games that have come pretty close.

    I think the thing that many people forget when entering into this discussion is that interactive installation have been a part of the fine art world for a very long time and they could be considered a 'game' of sorts.

    Modern warfare 3 is not 'art'. It is a commercial product, designed to be an overblown war simulation created as a form of entertainment in order to be sold to make the publishers money. Just like many blockbuster films. I've heard many people bring up Shadow of the Colossus as an example of why games should or could be considered art and while it is a very good (one of the most amazing games I've ever played, I still have my limited edition copy on ps2) and very different game, it's still not 'art' for the same reasons that MW3 is not also art.

    I'm not saying that art can't be a product that makes money, it is, but that is a side effect and not a defining factor in it's creation. Art is about exploring an idea, saying something without using words, communicating in a different way, sometimes with images, sometimes with sound sometimes with installations, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that it is only created in order to express this idea, that is it's only goal, not to make money, not to score points, not to entertain, not to simulate.

    Art could never cater to anyone and everyone, (hell even though I have studied art I still don't like 90% of it), it can't bow to an aesthetic or any kind of principles (like illustrations and pop music) that would force limitations upon it (like making sales, or linear gameplay) it can only answer to it's self to properly communicate it's purpose without compromise.

    That's my opinion anyway.

      You don't think producers of games primarily want to evoke emotion from the experience of playing? All you've done is minimized these people's work by pretending they're just in it for the money.

      Maybe for MW3 you're right, after all it is yet another multiplayer focused sequel. But there are a lot of games out there designed to evoke reaction in the player, to convey a great story and create an emotional response. It's foolish to say these were built with only money in mind and therefor they are not art. The article makes a lot of sense actually, you're probably the one who needs to think a bit more eh considering your argument relies on minimizing game creators intentions to the simplistic "oh they just want moneyz."

    After reading through the article again, I have realised how stupid it is, it sounds like the writer doesn't know anything about art at all.

    Go and study art then get back to me.

    I'm getting a little sick of this debate being constantly rehashed every week.

    Art can take many forms and be perceived by one or more of our senses; hence: culinary art, visual art, audible art (music), artistic scent (creative smells/aromas) and tactile art.

    When it comes to aesthetics; we are talking about the nature and appreciation of beauty (in art) - beauty in many forms and in all our senses.

    The art and perception thereof by the individual is completely subjective, and this is where the 'artistic merits' of a piece are debated. An individual claiming one media/piece is art and another is not is simple opinion, and cannot accurately define a subject as being or not being art. Everything is through the eye of the beholder, therefore anything can be considered art if an individual perceives it as such.

    /end rant

    ...I'm getting tired of this. you cannot hold 'a art' but you can hold 'the product of art'. Art is an action, someone who performs this action is commonly referred to as an artist. An artist does not create art. Therefore a game cannot be art, it may however contain 'the product of art'. Someone who plays a game undertakes an action, that action can be viewed as artistic. (anon has a BFA).

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