28 July 2011

Games As Art

I recently figured out my position in the "Are games art?" debate.  For the longest time, my answer was a simple "yes," but never thought to elaborate as dozens of prominent people have voiced the same opinion.

First, my own synopsis of the state of arguments made for and against the issue.

The most common argument for games as art is The Transitive Comparison.  Recently, Lesly Brezilien at Agora Games wrote about her stance on the company dev blog.  It's a great example and well argued article using The Transitive Comparison.  Simply put, if this thing over here is considered art and these games over there look a lot like that art, then surely games qualify as art.  If similar emotional responses are elicited from both things, then games are art.  It's a worthwhile argument, but is typically countered with The Trash.

The Trash is a standard argument against games as art.  The Trash poses that games are in an infantile state and no game yet comes close to being a work of art.  Roger Ebert goes so far as to say this transformation will never occur.  The Trash refers to games about simplistic entertainment and not meant for deep emotional response, long-lasting value, or considered worthwhile.  Typically, games referenced in The Trash argument are mainstream, high profile, and violent.  In short, how could such an entity be considered art when it has no substantial value?

In my observation, the bulk of arguments around games as art revolve around these two positions.  I'm ready to propose an alternative take on the matter.

Games aren't art as modern society defines the term.  Games are actually an extension of the concept, which is what causes so much debate over the issue.  To me, the interactive video game is a paradigm shift of the relationship between creator, medium, and audience.

In classical art forms, the creator has a vision for a message, recreates that message through a medium, and then submits it to the world.  In many games, this is still the path of the creator.  However, we have just scratched the surface of a new relationship.  In this new form, a creator envisions a *medium,* and through that medium, the audience is left to find their own message.  In this sense, there is no single message communicated, but several are developed by different users.  The intentionally open interpretation is the key notion.

Sandbox games are an easy example, perhaps too easy.  So, let me explain via Half-Life 2.  My experience playing Half-Life 2 is unique.  It's not like any other person's perspective of the game.  Part of my persona fused with the character of Gordon Freeman and how he proceeded through the game.  How I engaged enemies, puzzles, and levels was up to me, despite being a linear gameplay experience.  Valve didn't just make a game with a start, middle, and end.  They created a medium for players to explore and create their own story.  It's the reason the game is so much fun to discuss with others.  Each player had a different experience and the discussion of those experiences is how gamers talk about art.  If the game had no substance, we would have just said it was good or bad and moved on, but there is a reason it's still talked about today.  The reason is that Valve created an artistic medium which merits experiencing, discussing, and remembering.

My point could be boiled down to the idea that something is art if it's open to subjective interpretation.  That's partially true, but my unique addition to the discussion is that games are evolving the classical definition of art.  That evolution is defined by the relationship between creator, medium, and audience.  Instead of defining a message to send to the audience, the creator delivers the medium itself, with which the audience finds it's own message.  Art for a new generation.

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