I was looking over a recent post on Arthouse Games about Ebert’s old attack on games as art. . . . I couldn’t help but take the bait, so I commented. Then I figured it was worth putting up over here.

I hold it to be true that no definition of art can be accurate as long as it excludes anything tangible (or, arguably, intangible). There are judgments and criticisms of art, how well it is liked, its value or utility, but there is no logical reason to say that anything that exists is not art. Centuries of art have repeated that lesson.

Furthermore, to say that video games are in some way incapable of meeting the standards of ANY definition of art, is ridiculous. The best Ebert could come up with is suggesting that anything with interactivity dilutes the intent of the artist and is therefore not art, or is somehow “low art.” Is criticism not interactivity? Isn’t light reflecting off of a screen, sculpture or painting and into one’s eyes for their mind’s interpretation interactivity? Do we all share a single uniform experience from a given work or do we perceive it individually? The answers to these questions are obvious. All art involves interactivity in one sense or another. The intent of the artist is, therefore, to select a manner by which the audience will be controlled or manipulated to a given end.

No medium to date equals video games in expressive complexity and freedom. Not to mention, no medium inspires as much audience dedication and thus no medium can deliver as much raw experiential data to the willing member of a lay audience.

No one will ever spend over 100 hours reading a single book, watching a single film, viewing a single painting, or listening to a single song. Video games achieved that sort of attention not long after conception.

Mind you, I meant 100 solid hours. I suppose I should have made that clear. I’m surprised that professionals in games seem to concede that games are not as true to the artist’s intent because of player freedom. . . . That is completely and obviously false. . . .

About the author:
Christopher J. Rock (http://)
Film student at California State, Long Beach. I want to make the gaming world a better place.
  • Discussions/disputes of this kind do nothing but make my head hurt. I’m an artist, I always have been. I don’t have to explain the value or importance of my work to any pretentious asshole. Let the audience decide.

  • Christopher J. Rock

    Lately I can’t help but feel like kind of a sucker for getting pulled into these kinds of things.

    To me, the debate had no reason to begin in the first place and it was over pretty quickly. The only guys that still argue the other side are those outside of the games or outside of art.

    So people that know nothing about games disrespect them. Is that a surprise? So people that know nothing about art prefer to call their games something else. Who cares?

  • These are my initial reactions to your post. I could probably develop them a lot further, and with greater clarity, but I’d rather get a reaction first. I highlighted seven points that you brought up during the post, and responded to each of those.

    1. I hold it to be true that no definition of art can be accurate as long as it excludes anything tangible (or, arguably, intangible).

    This claim seems rather innocuous. I don’t think anyone has ever argued for a definition of art that excludes objects. Generally, it’s more a matter of how an object may constitute an art object. Whether a metaphysical (intangible) object can be an art object is contentious. How would it be accessed? Is there an example of an intangible art object in the history of art? What is the medium of metaphysical art? Thought?

    Art probably needs to be tangible, the art object anyway. If a “work of art” is not public (meaning accessible to others through the senses), it’s probably not art. Music is heard, painting is seen, literature is heard.

    2. there is no logical reason to say that anything that exists is not art.

    Why not?

    3.Centuries of art have repeated that lesson.

    There are actually centuries that have shown otherwise. There are very few objects classified as art, in terms of the realm of tangible (and intangible) objects that are generally thought to exist. It’s only in the modern era, leaning toward the contemporary period even, that the boundaries of art have attempted to reach outside their historical confines.

    4. to say that video games are in some way incapable of meeting the standards of ANY definition of art, is ridiculous.

    I assume by this, you mean, any definition that excludes video games is inaccurate or wrong? There are some definitions, a potentially infinite amount, that create standards of art that video games could never meet.

    5. anything with interactivity dilutes the intent of the artist and is therefore not art, or is somehow “low art.”

    Do we all share a single uniform experience from a given work or do we perceive it individually? The answers to these questions are obvious. All art involves interactivity in one sense or another. The intent of the artist is, therefore, to select a manner by which the audience will be controlled or manipulated to a given end.

    This is probably the crux of the issue. Can art be interactive? How does interactivity effect the classification of an object as either art or not-art?

    I agree that all art involves interactivity of some kind—art must be public. If there is no situation conceivable in which an object may be experienced, it’s not art. If Mozart’s Requiem never left his head and made it to paper, I doubt you could call it art; no matter how perfectly conceived in thought. A step further, if it was never performed, it’s not art either. The nature of that interactivity is a reflection of the object. Consider two examples. In the first, consider how I interact with a kitchen knife. I interact with the knife by gripping it’s handle, rocking the blade over an onion, placing it in the dishwasher, etc. The properties of the knife remain relatively fixed throughout our interaction. Perhaps the blade is dulled. I do not gleam any creative, emotional or mental impact from the use of the knife. In the second example, consider how I interact with a book. I read its pages. The words work collectively to provide images, ideas, concepts. The knife, in contrast, provided little thought outside of pure functionality.

    These are rough examples, but they serve a couple purposes. The intent of the knife is to cut things. The intent of literature, when its art, is to engage the mind (emotionally, intellectually). Lots of objects can be used for artistic purposes (almost limitless), but it depends on the intention of the artist as to how that object is interacted with. Modes of interaction that do not engage the mind I would consider a strong indicator of non-art. Entertainment, for example, tends to disengage the mind. Video games, more often than not, fall into the category of disengaging the mind. They are fun to play, but do not always express any grand creative vision, though some may.

    A potential retort could argue exactly the opposite, that video games engage the mind quite fully. Engage the mind in what way? Puzzle solving? I think puzzle solving is the most common objective in a game. I mean puzzle solving in the loosest sense; including, ‘how do I get from point A to point B’, ‘how do I defeat the enemy’, ‘how do I score points’, ‘how do I reach the end’. Games always have objectives that must be met to ‘win’. The nature of this interactivity limits the potential for video games as art from the outset. No other form of art has an objective like video games. You do not attempt to win anything while viewing a Rembrandt. This basic premise is fundamental to video games. One example of a game without an “end” was brought to my attention: Mario Paint. I would argue, in this case, that the game itself is not art, but the work created with the game is (potentially anyway) the art.

    If the process of defeating an enemy or gathering coins were somehow built around a creative vision, with the end goal being the vision itself, and not the completion of the activity, one could conceivably make art out of a video game. However, the nature of a game is to complete the task; thus inhibiting the hallmark of art, a creatively expressed vision. The creative vision falls by the wayside as the ‘game’ portion takes over. Only a game that neglected the most fundamental aspects of games could hope to achieve artistic status. What benefit is brought to the table by having a user complete the task rather than watching it be done?
    If the activity were so perfectly delineated by the maker of the game so as to achieve a specific result, one could question the level of interactivity truly present (the work goes from being a video game to a video). I find it difficult to imagine a game with such complete freedom that one could create art while playing. This goes back to the Mario Paint example; the video game itself is not the art object, but rather what is made with it.

    The confusion I think, comes with the elements of video games that are art, and those that are not. The interactive elements are quite clearly something different from art. But a great story within a game has artistic value. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that elements of games are art, but never the ‘game’ aspect.

    6. No medium to date equals video games in expressive complexity and freedom. Not to mention, no medium inspires as much audience dedication and thus no medium can deliver as much raw experiential data to the willing member of a lay audience.

    In what way are games more expressive or complex than other art forms? Art can be made from anything. If I made an art piece that included a video game and a sculpture in one whole “piece”, that would already be more cumulatively expressive than a video game on its own. The “video game” as a medium, is just as limited as any other. No video game works operates without projected light (television or projector), a relatively limited color pallet and graphical capability (compared to painting, sculpture, etc.). Live music will forever be superior to recorded music (which games rely upon). There is expressive potential, but no specifically grand

    7. No one will ever spend over 100 hours reading a single book, watching a single film, viewing a single painting, or listening to a single song. Video games achieved that sort of attention not long after conception.

    What does the amount of time invested have to do with whether games are art? I spend more time with my brother than I do with video games—he is not art. Going on the theory that art engages the mind, it could even be argued that the time devoted to video games is more an indication of their pure entertainment value than any artistic merit. Art is difficult to digest often; it requires work to interpret and appreciate. The greatest films of all time, from an artistic stand point, are not always the most popular.

  • Thanks for the response, Jeremy. I’m happy to see someone dedicate so much intelligence and time to this discussion.

    Before anything else, I should repeat that this post was a “forward” of a response to another blog, so the ideas contained within it are not properly detailed or evidenced. It almost feels like a wild rant, but I still had a compulsion to put it up. You may want to read some earlier blogs if you’re interested in getting a better idea of my perspective (http://blog.sokay.net/2007/02/25/what-is-art/). That being said, some inaccuracies may be inevitable because of the informal nature of this blog. If anything you find takes too much for granted, I’d be more than happy to clarify my own ideas so that you can better state your similar or different views.

    I want to address interactivity first, because it is of the most relevance to a blog that is firstly about games.
    You describe the goal of a player in a game as to solve a puzzle, to beat the game. This is akin to saying that the goal of a reader is to simply “get to the end of the book” to have “beaten the book,” perhaps because they only read novels so that they can test their reading ability. To the contrary, we read for the experience of reading and all that is associated with it just as a player plays for the experience of playing and all that is associated with it. Playing is merely the process by which a game is enjoyed, just as reading is the process by which a book is enjoyed.
    You may have read about Post-Structuralism which, among other ideas, proposes that all art takes meaning from culture, all art communicates an ideology. Post-structuralist theorists could analyze any work, a commercial, a cereal box, a pop movie or song, your shoes, and reveal its inherent ideological meaning. That is not to say that the creator was a genius for including the meaning, but that the creator may be completely unaware of their inclusion of ideology in their work, but still be applying it as clear as day.
    You may understand games as art, if you approach them from a similar perspective. Games are full of assumptions about the player and the world, they are an expression of reality. They are a more defined expression of reality than any other art can provide specifically because interactivity allows the player to experiment and come to a clear understanding of the reality in which they play.
    Not only do the definitions of a given reality create emotional responses and a general “mise en scene” (I’m a film student . . .), but they games can exhibit and promote ideology more effectively than anything else by working at a very sub-conscious level. Rather than attempting to persuade and convince like other arts that are viewed as communicative, games can trick a player into believing what is completely unreal by providing a controlled simulation of reality. A player may believe that their free will gives them the power to judge this simulation as they would anything else, but just like any other artist, a game designer can bend the confines of his work to suggest whatever he or she desires.
    For example, there is much argument about the lessons games teach about conflict and warfare. Many believe we should use games to teach sharing and peace. A game like The Sims is one that you could argue teaches social awareness in this way. However, The Sims lies to players by pretending that society works in such a simple way. It ignores the dirty complexities of real human relationships and obviously censors the parts of human life that we prefer not to discuss (even though the censored parts are often turning points in human life: drug addiction, sex, killing).
    You could say that those are artistic failings of The Sims (I might), but you they are also the artistic decisions of the game’s creator, which tell us something about the creator and the society from whence he or she (or they) came.
    I do admit one thing, there is a shortage of games produced by individuals that consciously attempt to express themselves through games. This is due to the widespread belief that it is not possible, the widespread belief that those attempting it are elitists, and the fact that even a simple game is very difficult to produce.

    About the “100 hours” statement. I should clarify that the statement was made not as evidence that games are art, but as evidence of their potential: ” . . . no medium can deliver as much raw experiential data to the willing member of a lay audience.” My point was that you can write a lengthy book, you can shoot a lengthy movie, you can even paint a giant picture, but the more you include in your work, the less interest anyone will have in it. Most people consider a 300 or 400 page book or a 3 or 4 hour movie very daunting. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s ever been a game that was ever called “too long.” Game players tend to think “the longer, the better.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it demonstrates something very unique to the medium of games.

    Moving on . . .

    Whether or not the intangible could be considered art might be too much for a talk that already spans a great deal of art philosophy. I will say that I only began considering the intangible when I limited art’s definition to all that is tangible. That definition required me to consider what I was leaving out and while I am still uneasy about expanding my boundaries, I find it difficult to argue against it. Obviously, you find it less difficult to ignore the intangible, but that has to do with the real concept at hand.

    I’d like to juxtapose a couple of your statements only to explain my meaning about definitions of art working as its limitations:
    “I don’t think anyone has ever argued for a definition of art that excludes objects.”
    “If a ‘work of art’ is not public (meaning accessible to others through the senses), it’s probably not art.”
    That second statement is an example that works against the first one. By that definition of art, that something that is not public is not art, limits all that is art to only what remains public. And by that meaning, a painting, no matter how wonderful, ceases to be art when it is locked away from public view. That is a definition that is simultaneously a limitation and, I would argue, an unjust and arbitrary one (though very popular).
    But I don’t mean to shrink your thoughts down to that single statement which probably represents very little of your beliefs, I only mean to demonstrate how easily one slips into placing artificial boundaries on the meaning of the word “art.” This is exactly what I have tried to avoid by not allowing myself to completely deny the possibility that the intangible can be considered art. However, I have really not dedicated enough thought to the place of the intangible to come to any peaceful conclusion.

    To my statement, “there is no logical reason to say that anything that exists is not art,” you asked “Why not?” I can only answer that this is because any limitations we’ve placed on art are purely arbitrary. We have decided that art is not so much a word with a logical definition, but a classification for objects that we consider better than other objects in some mystical way. This mystical superiority is not defined by an object’s ability to succeed at a clear objective, but just to have a certain magical quality that none of us can seem to agree on and many of us see in differing and opposing objects. Well, I prefer to reject any use of the word “art” as a matter of taste. I prefer to define art as something absolute and so I am required to define it more broadly than others.
    But maybe that is not the simplest way to present this concept. I think the easiest way to show you my perspective is to respond to your “Why not?” with “Why?” Why are some things not art? Perhaps you will be so sure in your answers that there is little to explore, but you may come to the same conclusion as I, that the discriminations of history are more a matter of style, fads and prejudices than of defensible rationality.

    “Art probably needs to be tangible” Why?
    “art must be public” Why? It’s not art anymore in a closet?
    “There are some definitions, a potentially infinite amount, that create standards of art that video games could never meet.” Like what? I suppose you could say art is everything that is not a video game, but I wouldn’t expect that theory to get very far. Maybe I would be more accurate in saying that there is no widespread definition of art that video games cannot satisfy. Surely games can be viewed and heard like the arts you mentioned before.
    “If Mozart’s Requiem never left his head and made it to paper, I doubt you could call it art; no matter how perfectly conceived in thought. A step further, if it was never performed, it’s not art either.” Why?
    “I spend more time with my brother than I do with video games—he is not art.” Why?

    Aren’t you only basing this an arbitrary definition of the word? Isn’t it only what you are comfortable calling art based on how it was used in school or among friends? Much of language is defined by use, whether that use is logical or not, but in that case linguists generally demand uniformity in a word’s use. Art has no uniform usage at all, so I say that while we select our philosophies, we choose them based on logic with foresight rather than outdated associations.

    Philosophy, like technology, has shot off at light speed over the past century, but it is only the exponential growth of what was already occurring. Every art was at one time ridiculed and later accepted. It’s only been recently that we have had the gull to realize that pattern and begin challenging ourselves, hunting the weaknesses of our beliefs and seeking revolution. Take Dadaism as a prime of example of what has already been accepted as art. After that, who can say no to games or anything else for that matter?

    I’ll be honest with you. Lately, I’ve begun to think that I prefer to say “Nothing is art” instead of “Everything is art.” The reason is that the word “art” has been too overused, misused and abused so much that it means little and tends to confuse. Why can’t we just describe something as it is? A painting is a painting because the part that matters was made with paint. A film is a film because the part that matters was made with film or something very analogous to it. If we stick to speaking like that, we can still have our interesting philosophical debates, but we’ll be much more clear to the layman and rid ourselves of the elitist classification of “art” that we only give to the “master race” of works that we prefer to the inferior commonplace.

  • I’ll address each of the main issues I think are there, again. I didn’t re-read this before I posted, hopefully it makes sense.

    1. This is akin to saying that the goal of a reader is to simply “get to the end of the book” to have “beaten the book,” perhaps because they only read novels so that they can test their reading ability. To the contrary, we read for the experience of reading and all that is associated with it just as a player plays for the experience of playing and all that is associated with it. Playing is merely the process by which a game is enjoyed, just as reading is the process by which a book is enjoyed.

    It depends on the book. Some books are read for pure enjoyment, not art. The difference between “playing a game” and “reading a book” is quite important. I’ll refer back to an earlier comment I made regarding the essentials of a video game. The participatory aspect of video games is what makes them games. If you were simply watching it go through the motions, it becomes just video and not a game. Because a player is involved in the process, the objective becomes necessarily about winning, or completion. On top of that, it becomes about how well it is executed. This process does not exclude artistic elements from being present in a video game, it merely dilutes the artistic possibilities, as well as the experiential process. As I noted before, the more ‘gamey’ a video game is, the less likely it is to be art (maybe… I’ve yet to see examples to the contrary). A game might have a great story or great (design: composition, color, movement; similar to film in most regards), but these are secondary to the must fundamental aspect of a game. Should those other elements take true precedence, the interactive control a user has becomes inhibited or pointless. With regard to books, there are no real variables with a book. The book remains the same. If a video game remained the same, it would no longer be a video game, but a video (again). The experience of reading may be done with skill, but that is interpretive skill, as opposed to motor skills. It is the artistic interpretive process rather than how quickly I navigate space or make decisions. Those types of motor skill decisions (or even “puzzle” solving decisions) made in games, are all made with the primary goal of completing a task. This is necessary to “move on” in a game. Reading may be necessary to “move on” in a book, but it doesn’t change where the book goes; consequently, it is less primary to the aim of reading. If one were to read out of pure motivation to finish, this limits the artistic experience on the part of the reader. I see potential for games to work in such a way that the experience of participating was manipulated in such a way as to be artistic; that is, the activity the user undergoes may constitute an artistic expression created by the game maker. Yet again, when the act is manipulated to this degree of perfection, the so-called ‘interactivity’ would have to be almost non-existent, lest it become a ‘game’. This diluted mixture of art and game aspects is what limits video games in the end. A video game as a whole, it seems, can never be a whole art piece.

    2. I can only answer that this is because any limitations we’ve placed on art are purely arbitrary. We have decided that art is not so much a word with a logical definition, but a classification for objects that we consider better than other objects in some mystical way. This mystical superiority is not defined by an object’s ability to succeed at a clear objective, but just to have a certain magical quality that none of us can seem to agree on and many of us see in differing and opposing objects.

    “There are some definitions, a potentially infinite amount, that create standards of art that video games could never meet.” Like what? I suppose you could say art is everything that is not a video game, but I wouldn’t expect that theory to get very far. Maybe I would be more accurate in saying that there is no widespread definition of art that video games cannot satisfy. Surely games can be viewed and heard like the arts you mentioned before.

    I’ll be honest with you. Lately, I’ve begun to think that I prefer to say “Nothing is art” instead of “Everything is art.” The reason is that the word “art” has been too overused, misused and abused so much that it means little and tends to confuse. Why can’t we just describe something as it is? A painting is a painting because the part that matters was made with paint.

    Why are they arbitrary? Which limitations are arbitrary? I think most people define things in a combination of ways, all related to experience; experience in the broadest sense possible, including personal, historical, emotional, intellectual, etc. Maybe some have thought about how they define things more than others. Some people may even think more clearly or accurately. Others may have thought longer, but with less insight. There is some common standard of logic and experience amongst all people, which we must appeal to when defining anything. You can argue to the contrary on the idea of a common standard of logic/experience, but that’s a giant can of worms. Anyone can make a definition of art that excludes video games. That doesn’t make it an accurate definition, but it’s a definition none the less. Art is a word. By that, I mean that the letters A-R-T constitute a word used in a language used to communicate the idea of art. Art, as a concept or thing, is not the same as the word. The idea of art does, by necessity, include some objects and exclude others. While we often find it difficult to create hard lines of distinctions between what is one thing, and not another, those boundaries exist. You have to consider the properties of an object. Art consists of certain properties mixed together to create a whole—the pure art object. Some objects may possess similar properties, but not enough to constitute an art object (or perhaps just a partial art object, such as I believe to be the case with video games). A pure art object contains the most essential of these properties. If art did not include some type of boundary, I think it would diminish its value in extremely significant ways. As you stated later, if you say everything is art, you might as well be saying nothing is art. There is no value in everything being art. Everything should not be taken lightly; Literally every – thing in existence is clearly not art. Personal experience, as well as historical, seems to indicate that tremendous value can be taken from art; in which case, I think I’m inclined to argue that art is made up of certain specific objects. On the other hand, we do not want to limit what an art object can be made of. In this regard, there are a great many things that can be art. You may contend that the essential properties of an art object are different from what I consider the essential properties of an art object. I am arguing that what I consider to be art traditionally, video games do not wholly qualify for. There is a property in video games that is essential to them, which is markedly different from art.

    To say that are objects are mystically better than others is a bit loose. “Better” is a loaded term. They are different, for sure. Mystical? I think it’s more logical, historical, experiential than mystical, though mysticism may have a small part to play. Whether anyone can agree on concrete definitions does not change whether there are concrete definitions to make; or simply ways that are more logical or less logical of thinking about a definition of art.

    People who love video games get defensive when these Philistines say their games are not art because they think it devalues them. There is value in games, but it is simply not the same value that is derived from art.

    Now, you’re probably asking, “what are these properties that make one thing art and another not art?” A creatively expressed vision through a publicly accessible medium(?) Form (see Clive Bell)? It’s difficult to say, and generally easier to rule things out than rule them in. It’s also easier to look at the cases, and evaluate each object as its presented; as we’ve done for video games. In which case you can evaluate its merits as either sharing qualities with other supposed art objects or differing. Whether you want to call video games art or not is irrelevant in a sense. It’s more a matter of arguing that there is a distinctive quality to video games that makes them different from “art”.

    A painting is a painting because it is made with paint (though this has been debated recently—more so in art circles than philosophic). A painting, however, is not always art. The painting of flowers hanging on the wall at the local Motel 6 is not art; or at the least, it’s very bad art. Describing something as it is poses a great challenge in many cases, but is an excellent place to start none the less.

    3. “If Mozart’s Requiem never left his head and made it to paper, I doubt you could call it art; no matter how perfectly conceived in thought. A step further, if it was never performed, it’s not art either.” Why?
    “I spend more time with my brother than I do with video games—he is not art.” Why?

    I will clarify… an art object must be potentially publicly accessible. A painting locked away in a store room is potentially viewable. Nobody can listen to Mozart’s requiem on paper. Paper does not perform. The art object in music is the performed sound, not the notes on the page. Mozart performed without an audience, is still art (but it must be at least possible for someone to hear it). You might consider this arbitrary, but I think it is important if art is to maintain a level of integrity and influence. Art that no one can experience is rather useless (see Tolstoy on Aesthetics; he argues a rather extreme version of art whose aim is to socially unify all of man with God). My brother is not an art object because he does express a creative vision. He may share some properties (color, composition), but he performs too many other tasks and functions to qualify as art in any meaningful way.

    4. Art has no uniform usage at all, so I say that while we select our philosophies, we choose them based on logic with foresight rather than outdated associations.

    Philosophy, like technology, has shot off at light speed over the past century, but it is only the exponential growth of what was already occurring. Every art was at one time ridiculed and later accepted. It’s only been recently that we have had the gull to realize that pattern and begin challenging ourselves, hunting the weaknesses of our beliefs and seeking revolution.

    I doubt philosophy has moved with any great speed or dexterity in the past century more so than any time period prior. I think this is a rather common mistake; the “our generation is the greatest generation ever”. You’re not arguing that point exactly, but every era thinks they are the most advanced. In terms of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations for nearly all philosophy done in the last 2500 years (academically anyway). Not to discount the theory and tremendously brilliant work done since, but there’s nothing modern that doesn’t have its roots in work that was already done. To regard any of this previously brilliant work as archaic or out of date is a bit… insane. Hume is no less relevant or insightful today as he was when he first wrote, and the same can be said for any number of ‘old’ philosophers. There are new applications for that philosophy, and new problems to solve, but the underlying principles are basically the same as they’ve always been.

    I don’t think there’s much evidence to support the idea that every art was ridiculed at first before acceptance. Some of it was, some of it wasn’t. If anything, I think there’s a lot of sociological evidence supporting that we no more scrutinize our beliefs now than ever before. Many of us operate under the guise of skepticism. Being doubtful means being thoughtful, which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

    Art has no uniform usage at all? It must have some specific usage. Why call it art otherwise? That specific usage may be broad or complex or any number of things, but it is specific to art. Which associations are out of date?

    As a general comment, I don’t see any games making great strides toward art. There are too many elements geared toward being simply ‘fun’ and marketable. Most games are made to make money. This hurts their artistic potential. Again, with the amount of time invested playing them, I think this works against games. Art takes serious mental work. If games were as rigorous as the great art from history (we can discuss what that is), I doubt anyone would want to invest 100 hours in them. Their brains would hurt (and maybe their hearts too). Crime and Punishment is a daunting work, as is Lawrence of Arabia. Yet, these works are daunting for a reason. They are incredibly complex and take a lot of mental fortitude—they engage the mind. In this way, they also offer greater depth and expressive quality as a whole. I remember you arguing that video games have the greatest potential to mimic reality. I don’t know that this is true, or that it makes a difference. Photography is not a greater art than painting because it is more “realistic”. It might literally share more properties with the physical, sensory world, but it does not express certain intellectual or emotional ideas any better than another medium. A good example is to consider Brancusi’s sculpture “Bird in Space”. Compare that with this (http://www.newzealandfineart.com/images/TOMTIT-webready.gif) painting of a bird. Is the Brancusi sculpture less successful artistically because it does not mimic reality in the way the painting does? The greatest of all paintings is not inferior to the greatest of all films. Video games may eventually mimic physical reality better than another medium, but I think they’re quite a ways off right now.

  • Christopher J. Rock

    I’m sorry if I’m skipping over anything you wanted to continue on. I’m going to try and put some focus in this reply so our writings do not have to grow larger and larger, and more and more convoluted.

    “The painting of flowers hanging on the wall at the local Motel 6 is not art; or at the least, it’s very bad art.”
    This is the key to our discussion. Art has become a compliment. “If I can’t say it’s not art, I must be able to say it’s BAD art!” But what does bad art mean? It means you don’t like it, that’s all. A painting’s being at motel 6 does not make it bad and a painting being of flowers does not make it bad. Many may observe a work in that context and assume it to be bad, but that does not make it so. And if one did not assume, but actually observed the painting closely and came to the conclusion that it was bad art, how much more weight does that hold? It’s only a matter of taste. In the same way, we are basing our definitions of what is art on taste rather than logic.

    You are right about the difference between the separation of art as a concept and art as a word. That disparity is what I find sad and wish to destroy (for the sake of better education and communication). That is why I say it may be better to say nothing is art than everything is art. However, those statements are not equal because each one places a different value upon objects. I believe that all objects should be observed as artwork, not that no object should be.

    My view is that instead of debating whether an object “is” art, we should debate what artistic properties it has. Art must be a light we shine on an object, a perspective we take in analysis, rather than a category we fill according to our own tastes. In this respect, I would make the statements that everything is art or nothing is art. We can both place the value of art on all things and deny art as a state of being. We can define art as a quality of objects, not a label.

    About the ability of games to simulate reality; that does not make them “better” than anything, but they do it in a way that is different from anything else, allowing them to achieve some of the same artistic effects to a greater extent (for better or worse). For a painting to communicate mass, for example, it must be shown in some way. But realistically, there is no direct relationship between an object’s look and its mass. Games can communicate mass by illustrating an object’s behavior in an environment controlled by the player. That sensation is much more visceral, much more sub-conscious, and it demonstrates the use of interactivity as an expressive tool.

    We both see that video games are generally not treated as art, even by those that produce them, and recognize that as a limitation on their expression. However, the incompetence of the artist does not speak of the medium. The majority of work in every other art is quite pathetic, we only point to the few great works as examples of what “can be,” letting them represent the medium as a whole. But what was thought before those great works existed? I can tell you that film was considered a children’s toy for many years before being viewed as an artistic medium. Does that mean it was a toy or that filmmakers just didn’t understand what they were doing? I find the latter to be true.

    There are games I can point to as extremely valuable from an artistic standpoint, but as I said in the original post, we cannot expect people that don’t play games to respect them. So instead of trying to convince you that any current games fulfill your expectation of artwork, I’ll propose some possibilities that may highlight places to look.

    As you said, players generally play games hoping to “win.” This may not last forever, but I find it extremely interesting and hope to exploit it one day with a game of my own. Why do we assume that you can win a game? Because games are assumed to be for fun and winning is fun. Well, I’m telling you that game’s are not limited to being only “fun,” so let’s picture a game that would break this form. What could it mean if you can’t win?

    The obvious answer is that you see the world through a defeatist lens. The game would communicate that sad message that progress is always futile. That wouldn’t interest me much though, I’m more optimistic.

    When I consider this, I think of my own view of reality. Many people, including my own friends and family, encounter difficulty when faced with the openness of the real world. They can be defeated by the fact that they must direct and motivate themselves to an objective of their own designing when all they’ve done is fulfill the wishes of their parents, their teachers and other adults. One gets out of college and says “What now? Get a job? Why? Will I be happy there? What will make me happy? What will make my parents proud?” Without any game with a goal or any coins to collect, many people seem to drown in choices.

    Alright, so how can all this be packed into a game? Games are expected to tell a player exactly how to win, how to get the pat on the back. What if a game presented the player with an environment in which “winning” was as loosely defined as it is in reality? What if it simulated the social pressures that push in many different directions and left it to the player to select their path? I would have to make a game that allowed the player to chase girls defined by my view of girls, take jobs defined by my view of employment, become a criminal according to my view of criminals, or I could limit them to only those paths that I wish to discuss in the game. Some players would break under the pressure, others would flourish. Regardless of the result, my view of reality would be communicated through the game. Isn’t that the same thing that any book, film, painting or song does? Isn’t it a compilation of views and feelings that the audience reacts to? Aren’t we all expressing our own feelings and ideas, our own experiences within the confines of reality?
    How much harder is the world because there is no scoring system? What is the meaning of that?

    Another interesting direction would be to reward a player for committing actions that go against their own beliefs. In a world where the “winner” is someone that gives up on their principles, is the real winner someone that refuses to play the game correctly? If I believe that to be true, I can create a game to communicate this idea.

    Of course, if I ever do get to make this game, the analogy would have to remain a secret until the very end when it was made more obvious to the player. By that time it would be too late for the player to turn back and hopefully they would learn a greater understanding for some of the Biblical characters that are generally scorned.

    No, there is no guarantee that the player would pay enough attention to notice all these details one could include in a game, but there is no guarantee anyone will pay enough attention to see meaning in any other work of art either. There’s no reason to guarantee that anyone will view the games that have already been released as art and recognize their meaning. And I know these are “ideas for games,” not “actual games.” Hopefully these ideas illustrate the possibilities of the medium and that logic can be applied in retrospect to what has already been done.

    A game must be analyzed in many ways, some of which are related to previous art forms, others of which are brand new. The “motor skills” of the player are only relevant to a designer that wants to manipulate them toward a given end. Not all games emphasize that aspect of interactivity and very few require only that much of a player’s attention.

    As of now, games are in an “experiential” or “simulator” stage. The technology is new enough that each successive experiment focuses on just providing enough stimulation that the player actually feels caught up in the simulation as they would be in reality. I don’t think we need to stay in this stage, but this is the reason that so much more attention is paid to aesthetics over meaning. It’s style over substance, but so is much of what we consider “great art.”

  • 1. “If I can’t say it’s not art, I must be able to say it’s BAD art!” But what does bad art mean? It means you don’t like it, that’s all.

    And if one did not assume, but actually observed the painting closely and came to the conclusion that it was bad art, how much more weight does that hold? It’s only a matter of taste. In the same way, we are basing our definitions of what is art on taste rather than logic.

    I’ll address the lesser of your claims first. I didn’t intend to argue that because a painting was in a Motel 6, it was necessarily not art or bad art. But I think you understand the sort of kitschy, generic painting of a bird and flowers I’m talking about. There’s generally a reason they end up in Motel 6—they offer no great artistic value. They may be executed competently enough, but there is no great meaning derived from them. At least not in the historical, social, intellectual context in which the artist created the work. The setting gives some indication to its purpose as well. Great art does not sit passively in the background as a decorative pacifier for an overnight traveler (though again, it can; in the realm of literal possibility). The opposite is also true. A gallery painting is not necessarily art simply because it hangs in a gallery. I heard a painting professor react in disgust to my appraisal of Klimt, he called it “trashy hotel decorations”. Still, the setting does give some indication to its purpose (artistic or decorative).

    Now to the meat: Art is Taste. I’ll try to keep my reply short and sweet, since many books and articles written by seminal minds in the field have been dedicated to the topic of taste alone (Hume, most notably). What makes you say that our definitions of art are based on taste rather than logic? Often, people resort to “I just like it” when they have a difficult time articulating why something appeals to them; there may yet be a more “logical” and universal justification. What color you prefer may be a matter of taste. But what color represents (in a given context) is fairly concrete. A Russian painting with the color red created during the communist era would likely communicate a fairly specific political message. This is delving into intentionality on the part of the artist, but we’ll assume there is an intentional political message. In interpretation of this painting (let’s call the painting RED), a viewer would want to make an educated assessment of the work (using their knowledge of history, art, social and political settings, as well as emotional and personal history). The viewer does bring something to the table, but the viewer does not “complete” the painting to make it art. Their interpretation does not change what is actually in the painting. Either they interpret it correctly or they don’t. The painting itself is the object, which the viewer must evaluate based on the properties of the work. If art is a matter of taste, the painting is really almost an arbitrary object. I could associate any sort of property with the painting that is not actually there (that is, placed in the painting by the artist). I’ll refer to my comment before that there must be some common standard of logic and experience amongst all people such that we can concretely assess what is and is not in a painting. Not all people share exactly the same experience or exactly the same sense of logic, but there is some overlap certainly. The overlap is the standard. If there were no commonality, I doubt you would be continuing to debate. One would simply give up and say, ‘that is your preference’. The standard does not exist in a vacuum, apart from human existence. However, humans are built in a specific way, and exist in a similar enough way such that a standard exists as a product of that existence.

    Also consider where we place praise on a great painting—the artist. Either an artist expertly communicates an idea through his or her painting, or he or she does not. If it were a matter of taste, why credit the artist with creating something I happen to prefer? We try to assess what the maker of the painting was communicating. There is a cut off point where either something is in the painting or it is not, whether the painter intended it or not.

    Judging art falls under two criteria: how well it communicates the artist’s vision and the depth of that vision. Determining the depth of the vision is a rather dubious task, but let’s use some extreme examples. A thorough and complex depiction of the fall of man in literature would probably outweigh a thorough and complex depiction of “fun”. The fall of man in the context of human existence is a ‘weightier’ subject than “fun”. In regards to execution, the fall of man as a subject does not by necessity make a work of art better than a painting about fun. A poorly communicated work about the fall of man
    certainly devalues the work compared to a perfectly executed work about fun. It may be the case that the fall of man, in the future, ceases to be a weighty subject, but at this point in history, it carries very concrete and definite associations and values. This is where it’s tempting to argue that it’s all taste. In the future case where the fall of man is less important, you may want to say that a work of art changes. It would cease to be as valuable. Still, it would be more accurate to assess the work in its given historical context. The greatest of works communicate visions that endure through human history, regardless of whatever social, political, and technological progress may occur. Maybe fun is more important to someone than sinful man and the corruption of the human soul. We want to leave room for a person to believe that (especially in a distinctively “modern”, tolerant culture like the US), but I doubt we consider that person to be thinking clearly about the reality of human existence.

    Maybe you want to argue that human existence is different for everyone. This is true in some regards, and not true in others. It is true that one person sees and feels different things than another. But if a person feels “anger”, anger is the same in one human as it is in another. Maybe the degree of intensity varies, but anger is universally the same. You can call these instances of anger when they are different from one to another. One instance is different from another instance of a specific thing, but the general properties of anger are the same in spite of the different instances. Another example: the letter “A” 1 is the same in the first part of this sentence (next to the number 1) as it is now, “A” 2; but there are definitely two “A”s (now three); instance 1 and instance 2 (and instance three). They vary as to location in physical reality, but they share certain properties of proportion and communicative value.

    All this to say that I think there are very logical, universal, and concrete ways of assessing a work of art. I hesitate to call art a matter of taste at all really; it devalues the work and makes it less powerful. If art were a matter of taste, I could call Fergie’s “London Bridge” a better work of art than Beethoven’s 9th. Who wants to argue that point? There is something obviously better about the work of Beethoven than the “work” of Fergie. Bad art does not simply mean I don’t like it; maybe I do like bad art. Bad art is bad art because it communicates a vision poorly, and/or it communicates a vision of inferior quality. What makes something inferior in quality? That is more of an issue, but there must be room for something to be inferior to another.

    What is the difference between taste and logic? What evidence is there that we based our definitions on taste rather than logic? I think I’ve been logical thus far; thought out at the very least.

    2. That is why I say it may be better to say nothing is art than everything is art. However, those statements are not equal because each one places a different value upon objects. I believe that all objects should be observed as artwork, not that no object should be.

    You can’t have it both ways. It really doesn’t accomplish anything to evaluate everything as if it’s art. I could evaluate every object in existence as a basketball. Is my mouse a basketball, does it share any common properties? What use is there in that? There are some things that can be quickly eliminated as not art. It takes little mental faculty or interpretive skill to know that the computer I’m typing on is not art. Some things may be borderline, but you would have to look at the individual cases. Evaluating every object as if it “could” be art is not nearly the same thing as saying everything is art, which I believe was the original claim.

    There are some clear differences between objects that exist. To say everything is art would mean that we wouldn’t want to evaluate anything on its artistic merits, since everything is art. We would want to evaluate it by some other criteria, one that takes into account the differing properties of the objects. That is why it’s quite similar to say that if everything is art, nothing is. Art doesn’t do any real work if it is everything. Whether any thing can potentially be art is saying a whole different… well, thing.

    3. The majority of work in every other art is quite pathetic, we only point to the few great works as examples of what “can be,” letting them represent the medium as a whole. But what was thought before those great works existed?

    The majority? How much is the majority? Where does that statistic come from? I would agree that great art is not determined by the medium in which it is made. There are literally thousands of paintings I think are great, obviously fewer that are beyond great. That’s just painting, not music or sculpture or literature.

    How can you call it pathetic if it’s a matter of taste? That would just be your opinion, and there’s no need to convince anyone your “opinion” is right.

    There is something to the idea that it takes a medium time to develop. Film being the most recent example, as you noted. All of the first paintings made were probably not art. This does not meet video games may become art simply because they share some common history with film (that of being viewed as entertainment only). There is a distinctive trait that makes a video game a video game, and that trait will never change—interactivity built around goal oriented tasks. When I talk about “winning a game”, it must be thought of in the loosest of senses. It’s more an issue of completion, coming to an end by accomplishing certain tasks. Because the user is a necessary element in completing those tasks, it dilutes the potential of video games to be art. It’s like the equivalent of calling a blank canvas art. A painter creates art with the canvas, but it is not art until the object is complete. A video game, in a sense, is not “complete” until the user participates. This also makes the user an artist in the process, if it is art. The final object then, is what? Not to sound like a broken record, but the interactive necessity takes away from the artistic elements present in a video game (story, color, composition, form, etc). The interactive part of games is not the art, the “video” part CAN be (and that’s a big CAN).

    Can the interactive part of a game create an experience like the experience of art? The objective based nature of interactivity severely limits the potential. It’s always a matter of “why make it a game?” A video would accomplish the same thing if you were arranging a game to such specific parameters as to achieve artistic ends (thus making it not a video game). I think your example is a step in the right direction, but I’d have to see it in action.

    4. There are games I can point to as extremely valuable from an artistic standpoint.

    Which? And by what standard of Art? What artistic values do they express (specifically)?

    5. Isn’t that the same thing that any book, film, painting or song does? Isn’t it a compilation of views and feelings that the audience reacts to? Aren’t we all expressing our own feelings and ideas, our own experiences within the confines of reality?

    It is not the same thing. A book, painting, film, or piece of music communicates a vision through a medium. A video game is incomplete as an art object. It requires participating to be “finished”. As such, it is diluted. The primary thought is, how do I accomplish this task in order to make the game complete, whatever complete may mean for that game. Perhaps the decisions required by the game express a sort of creative vision, but because they are tasks to complete, they take on a nature different than art. There is a primacy in the level of thought that keeps artistic work from being done in the experience of the player (this is purely during the decision making, interactive part of video games; the “game” part of games”).

    6. this is the reason that so much more attention is paid to aesthetics over meaning. It’s style over substance, but so is much of what we consider “great art.”

    What great art is style over substance? Who is we? When is more attention made it “aesthetics” over meaning? Can I get examples of a few for each?

  • I will be blunt to stay short and avoid the broken record syndrome.

    Art:
    Most agree Michelangelo’s David is art. Michelangelo had to manufacture David one step at a time. If you could watch that process, at which point would the block of stone become art? Or if you watched it in reverse, at which point would it stop being art? (both are the same question, but only sort of.)

    Games:
    You mention the player “completing” a game, suggesting that the game as a work is incomplete until the player fills in the blank. If it were to be complete, interactivity must be gone, making it a video and thus not a game (so a moot point).

    Well, I program games. I know that the code of a game cannot be changed by the player. The game itself is as static as letters on a page, frames on film, notes in a song or limbs on sculpture. The only thing that changes is the perspective of the player.

    In sculpture, the audience is viewing what is essentially a new work of art from every different angle they look at a work. The sculptor must take into consideration the angles from which their work will be viewed and design his sculpture accordingly (3D composition). Similarly, a book or film can be said to use a dimension that sculpture does not, time. Each part of a book or film is temporally contextual and therefore also dependent on our perspective. If someone reads the end of a book before the beginning (which some people do), their experience will be different than others.

    That is how interactivity works in games.

    When you play with a ball in a game, you are not completing the ball as a work of art. The ball was already a work of art, as a ball. It is an expression of a ball created by an artist. That ball will react to the world around it in a way defined by the artist. Believe it or not, balls are very complex objects that can be easily misrepresented in a game. Polygons are even more complex and are very misrepresented in most games. Physics in video games has evolved in the same way the uses of perspective, texture and light developed during the Renaissance. A painter can never PERFECTLY represent light with paint (because light is made of light, not paint!), but they can create such a good illusion, that perfection is unnecessary. In the same way, a game can never PERFECTLY simulate physics, but it can create the illusion of having done so.
    Of course, like painters manipulate the image, game designers do not always attempt to create realistic physics. Physics are a powerful tool when controlling the emotions of a player, their perception of the world around them. By purposely moving away from what is mathematically considered “real,” we can communicate a message or feeling, or create an experience that is philosophically more realistic (See http://blog.sokay.net/2007/03/11/realistic-jumps/ for a very common example of this). Each of these are important artistic decisions that all game designers must make (because even games without physics simulators still have a sense of “physics” . . .).

    Interactivity is also limited and if I build a game, I control that limitation. I define all the ways that the player can effect and therefore perceive the world. There is no freedom whatsoever. Any creative activities that a player engages in had to have been created by me as the designer. This is an important part of game design.
    It is only recently that designers are realizing the importance of player expression in a game. The designer must come up with means of expression that will be perceived and manipulated correctly by the player, which requires a well adapted perception and manipulation of the player by the designer. If a sculptor cannot balance his large statue on its own “legs,” he can add a tree stump to support the weight and cover up his flawed design, an actor can wear make-up to hide the discrepancies between his own appearance and that of the character he is portraying, a filmmaker can fill the sky with computer generated WW2 bombers even though none can fly. Game designers use the same techniques of smoke and mirrors and hands that are quicker than eyes to manipulate the player into seeing only what should be seen, do only what should be done, experience only what should be experienced. The ability to demonstrate such control is one thing that separates the best from the rest.

    I give you the game Half-Life 2 as an example of a game as art because it shows exactly what I’ve just discussed.
    The physics are excellent. They are not realistic whatsoever, but they appear to be because their design hides their flaws and shows us all the convincing details. Close attention was paid to creating a natural feeling of the objects around you, much of which is defined by the play of light on the environment. There is even one level in which only sunlight is used (the level is designed to bounce light into all the necessary places, so there is no need for “artificially” placed light sources).
    The writing is simplistic though better than many games, probably around TV quality, but there is so much more to this game that perfect writing is not necessary to hold the player (though I found the very end disappointing, purely due to bad writing).
    Then there is the experience itself. You find yourself feeling and, more importantly, acting as a terrified character in a horror story. I know more than one person that was so scared of the Ravenholm level that they would not play it. I loved that after running from houndlike creatures into a dank, old building, I found myself spinning in a pitch dark room, firing wildly until the growling came to an end. That state of panic, I can tell you, was real. It was closer to an actual fear of death than I have ever felt because of any film or literature.
    All of that is scripted, all of that is planned, all of that is static. One player may turn left where another player turns right, but both can only see what they were meant to see and do what they were meant to do within the confines of the game. That is how a game is art no matter how you define it.