Are video games art?
Of course they are – the interesting question is, what type(s) of art?
In application, the Institutional approach does not strike me as too interesting. Applying it to computer games we simply ask – are games recognised by Institutions as art. The answer is that it is varied but growing. In the UK BAFTA have video game awards (I’ve been a judge), in the US, the National Endowment of the Arts now includes video games in its endowment program (I’ve had discussions with them about this); and in many countries, images from games are exhibited in gallery settings, and game music is played in concert halls. Now it can be argued that these are still just elements from games, and that the works featured are done so as artefacts of the craft of video game production (art theory distinguishes between art and craft).
So it’s a judgment call as to the point where games make the category shift.
Here we should note that much modern, post-modern and avant-garde art is still subject to some popularist debate over the meaning of art, and forms such as photography, film and television have taken time to be accepted. In short under this definition evidence seems to suggest that video games are or, are in the process of becoming, institutionally accepted as art.
I think the Functionalist question is much more interesting; as here we ask what are the characteristics of response we have to video games. Here I'm using the plural as I think that any given individual has multiple responses based on work, circumstance and person and that these differ by person. But I think that there are some characteristics of responses we can define particularly within the aesthetic sphere. So when noting any given type of response I’m not making the claim that everyone always has it nor that it excludes other responses / readings of a work, nor normatively which one(s) of these are correct.
First a small note about interactivity. I see aesthetic response as intrinsically bi-directional. That is appreciation of a work is a combination of what we apprehend (sense data if you will) and our critical faculties (basically see Kant on this one), thus there is a minimal level at which all aesthetic experience is interactive – this will become important in a moment.
I suggest that there broadly five attributes of games that characterise the aesthetic experience of a video games, four of these I note merely for book keeping purposes and more can be found in the standard literature on the subject, one I propose is unique to video games or works that share certain qualities with video games.
The five characteristics, roughly in order of level of abstraction are:
2. Design patterns / gameplay i.e. as a non-animated design
3. Content: Components such as graphics, music, story (if there is one)
4. The act of game play i.e. as the animation of the design in a co-created act
5. An artistic performance of play i.e. a form of performance that has particular artistic merit and might be appreciated by an observer
For the sake of brevity I’m not going to talk about 1,2,3 and 5 as I suggest that the experience that we have of these characteristics in the context of video games does make them categorically different from the experience we would have in other contexts. Hence when we hear video game music, the experience of that in-and-of-itself is just the experience of music (though not only the experience of music - which I explore below). Whether things such as (1) ‘code’ or (5) ‘watching game play’ are aesthetic experience are things that I think are well covered in the literature on the topics as mathematics and watching sport as aesthetic experiences respectively.
The category of experience that I think is unique to video games is the aesthetics of game play itself. What I mean by this is the experiential qualities of the act of play that are a simultaneous combination of:
i. Apprehension of other aesthetic qualities e.g. the visuals
ii. The moment-by-moment interplay between the space of choices and affordances of the video game work, our choice among those options and the consequences of those choices
iii. The game-literate reading of the gameplay within the context of a give genre
iv. The kinaesthetics of game play
Basically I'm saying that it’s the experience that we as gamers have when we game, and what is important is that the experimental nature of it cannot be pinned down to any one element but is necessarily all of them together even if we are not conscious of one or more elements at any given moment. For example we might not be conscious of what we are doing with the controller as we may simply perceive our will giving agency to an avatar, but there will be some component of the experience that is related to the button pressing.
What’s more, it is implicit in what I have said that there is a form of literacy at work. As with much art, and much that is criticised in the popular media, some works need to be read in relation to others, forms take on a grammar that has to be understood to understand certain elements of the work. Here we might think of Duchamp’s readmade’s – object that he chose and designated as art. Not only does one have to read these in their art-historical context of the time they were made, but also what is lost on non-French speakers is that the titles of many of the works also employ verbal puns.
Increasingly video games are making literacy explicit within the work – through referencing of other works, through using recognised mechanics and though playing with the expectations of the experienced gamer. For those that lack such literacy such elements are not even comprehended. While it’s not my focus here, so called video-game art often gives primacy to such elements e.g. Cory Archangel’s recent Beat the Champ (Barbican London February – May 2011: http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=11621) where a succession of treated video bowling games play endlessly bowling gutter balls.
Possibly the most interesting element of the aesthetic experience of games is the sophisticated nature of the co-created experience. One way we perceive a game is through the unfolding and collapsing options that we are presented with and the possible outcomes of those options. In choosing or not choosing at any given moment we are performing with the affordances set by the designer(s), and they are creating a topology of choices that we navigate through decisions. The experiential nature of this is not the choices at any given time nor the act of deciding by the dynamic interplay of the two over the play session (see Aarseth on this also Bogost and others on how Rhetoric operates in this sphere). Of course one needs a ludo* somewhere thus this fascet I term the ludo-aesthetic propoerties of video games.
Now one might argue that this is just the same as any other experience such as theatre, as in addition to the bi-directional nature of apprehension there is some interaction between the actors and the audience even if not made explicit. However there is not the same nature of choice as in games – Hamlet will always have the same fate. Likewise one might liken this to dance or playing sport. In these cases the interplay between rules, other actors, and oneself is of a very different character to video games. Certainly team sports unfold over time and some options collapse such as when one side scores of when one is attacking or defending, but the interplay with the confining nature of video game affordances and the experience that this generates is of a different nature.
This characteristic of video games is problematic from a critical perspective as to appreciate some aspect of them one needs access to direct experience. As while computer gamer are in many ways ‘like’ other experiences they are sufficiently different to require use. This is not to say that a video game cannot be studied without being played but there are certain characteristics there are unavailable with this. What’s more as noted above there are still further elements that are unavailable unless one has a certain literacy – though this might be likened to, say, the experience of jazz which is no doubt very different for those with a literacy in the form.
To speak to the popular debate for a moment, I feel that much criticism of video games as an art form derives from this lack of experience. A ‘cold’ use of a video game that does not willingly take on the nature of the experience cannot here be counted as experiencing a game, that’s like having music you don’t like on for a period that you endure. Another issues is saying video games are not art as they don’t provide a given aesthetic experience as well another form does e.g. games do not do narrative like films; but of course film does not do narrative like books. Thus it seems to me that the fact that video games lack features that some critics point to in other works by way of comparison – actually video games, in part do these things differently, and more importantly those particular characters of the aesthetic experience not the quintessential point of the form. That is it’s like normatively saying films are lacking because they don’t to just what books do in respect of narrative.
Lastly, from a more theoretic point of view I’m aware that in this piece I have merely asserted that experiences are aesthetic ones. Most of the ones I have pointed out are established the one that is not I have characterised but not defended the assertion that in virtue of these properties it constitutes an aesthetic experience by reference to the fundamental properties of aesthetics and extension of those in this case. There is an argument for that, but I’ll leave that for a philosophy paper as it’s mainly a technical category argument from analytical philosophy that’s not that interesting to most outside the field.
In summary video games are an art form, from a functional perspective, as they are capable of generating a range of aesthetic experiences, the character of one of these experiences is unique to video games in virtue of their particular interactivity and related literacy.