Games Are Art Only When You're Playing ThemS

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 colored 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/Wired.com

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.