« Re-rolling Terra Nova | Main | Facebook is taking over the global economy »

Oct 08, 2010



I have an aesthetics paper I was trying to get done before the upcoming US Supreme Court case where I argue that there is an aesthetic of game play (a ludosethic if you will) that meets the key philosophical criteria- thus under a functional theory of art at least some games qualify as art (there's also the Institutional notion of art but wether games are art under this really is a matter simple facts about their settings and reception - but I find this excruciatingly dull as a theory).

The notion about seems to be rooted in modernist theories of aesthetics which I'm not sure are current in philosophy but I might dip my toe in.


I would probably refine "shocking" into "thoughtful", "thought provoking", or perhaps "insight provoking". I don't think art requires you to be shocked, but it requires you to think or gives you some insight. Perhaps it introduces new concepts, or it introduces old concepts in new ways. That's why an impressionist painting is Art, but an everyday condiment label is not. (But, if you frame that condiment label and put it into a art gallery, the context changes and possibly provokes thought.)

This is why I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss pieces like 4'33" or Mondrian's works. At one time they might have provoked thought in people, realizing the value of silence or the order that goes into paintings.

I think another qualification is that art needs to be meaningful. In the examples given in the blog post above, some of the words are no longer meaningful to people who have experienced them or who don't appreciate the context they were provided in. Likewise, I don't think games are meaningful to Ebert for a variety of reasons, so he doesn't view them as art. It's this personal aspect that really messes with defining what "Art" means in a universal sense.

Anyway, this blog post is definitely Art, because it provoked though, it's interesting, and it's true. Plus, it has meaning to me personally! Hmm, that might work.


One should not bother with a defence, to accept the question is to lose.

I feel it is enough to point out that publicly accepting games as art is helpful to reduce persecution of my work from idiots.

Just as adding skateboarding as an Olympic sport would reduce ones chance of being persecuted for skateboarding.

With that in mind anyone who chooses to stand in the way of such a thing, for any reason, is simply a douche bag.

Be they a clueless mr eggbert or just talentless tales begging for attention.


The "shocking" part of the definition seems the most problematic to me. As pointed out above, even if 4'33 or Duchamp's works aren't shocking *now*, they were at the time, if only because they caused people to re-evaluate certain aspects of *other* pieces of art. By now, we are somewhat immune and perhaps even blase about those pieces, but that doesn't detract from them.

In the Fable example, I don't think it's true that people universally see evil as a misunderstood act. Much historical literature, mythology, religion and current media does view evil as just that: evil. I believe you are speaking from the viewpoint of a gamer, however, meaning that you are saying that *in games* traditionally the evil side is just a misunderstood good. Thus, when you say that the game Fable chooses not to show the protagonist as an anti-hero, that is a break with gaming tradition. I am sympathetic to this because this might be 'shocking' to a well-versed gamer, but I would claim that this isn't shocking in a larger context. If a non-gamer who came along and you said that the main character was just evil, I'm not sure they would be that shocked.

On the flip side, I'm not sure that 5'33 or Duchamp's stuff was all that shocking to the non-art-world layman, either. If I had been alive at the time and wasn't involved with the art world, they probably would have just confused me to the point of me ignoring them. So, maybe there always is "an audience" to be shocked.

Anyway, I probably would agree with you saying that games are capable of being art, but in my view there is some notion of 'transcendent optionality' that needs to be mixed into the equation, to provoke meaningful thought above and beyond the artifact. But even that is me stepping too far into the morass of aesthetics. :)



"Cage's 4'33" may be art, but it is not good art... Silence is not interesting"

When have you ever heard silence? To hear silence *would* be interesting... precisely what 4'33" *cannot* present to its audience is silence. How could it be? Perhaps because of my love of Zen Buddhism I have more of an appreciation for what Cage was attempting with this piece. (I think, however, a recording of 4'33" would be thoroughly worthless).

That said, your general attack on "shock" art is something that I broadly agree with; too much modern art is boring because the only card in its deck are its attempts to shock.

"Saying this opens an easy and devastating move for those of you who don't believe in truth-with-a-capital"

Hmm... but you don't seem to believe in truth-with-a-capital either, since you talk about "your truthpile" and recognise that what is true for you is not necessarily true for everyone. The critique of capital-T-truth is levelled at the attempt to make one person's truth into everyone's truth. It cannot and should not be a barrier to personal truth.

(Heidegger, interestingly, considers our only access to truth to be in our encounter with art - I believe this stance still has quite a lot to offer).

"That's my answer to Roger Ebert! What's yours?"

Here's my original response:

Hopefully, this will soon be appearing (along with a lot of other stuff) in book form. It is my hope to destroy the idea that games cannot be art completely. And it is also my hope than by doing so we might actually get more games which are worthy of being considered art.

Best wishes!


Hello again, Dr. Castronova:

You write that "Silence is not interesting" – which may seem fair enough to many of your readers who do not come from a contemplative tradition. But you also mention, not without reason, that you are a Catholic. Knowing that, and in defense of John Cage's 4'33, I'd therefore like to offer you this (not terribly biologically accurate but pleasantly poetical) reflection from Benedict XVI:

Fish live in the sea and are silent. Terrestrial animals cry out, but the birds, whose vital space is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, crying out to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, however, participates in all three: he bares within him the depth of the sea, the weight of the earth, and the height of the heavens; this is why all three modes of being belong to him: silence, crying out, and song. Today...we see that, devoid of transcendence, all that is left to man is to cry out, because he wishes to be only earth and seeks to turn into earth even the heavens and the depth of the sea. The true liturgy, the liturgy of the communion of saints, restores to him the fullness of his being. It teaches him anew how to be silent and how to sing, opening to him the profundity of the sea and teaching him how to fly, the nature of an angel; elevating his heart, it makes that song resonate in him once again which had in a way fallen asleep. In fact, we can even say that the true liturgy is recognisable especially when it frees us from the common way of living, and restores to us depth and height, silence and song. The true liturgy is recognisable by the fact that it is cosmic, not custom made for a group. It sings with the angels. It remains silent with the profound depth of the universe in waiting. And in this way it redeems the world.
It's my impression that Cage's piece was intended as a window of contemplation -- that he was pushing his art in the direction of the apprehension of the sacred just as was Bach when he wrote "Soli Deo Gloria" on the manuscript of so many works – or Beethoven, when he wrote "From the heart – may it reach the heart!" on the manuscript of the Missa Solemnis.

Boredom, with all due respect, is not a property of silence.


I consider video games to be art, and I believe that critics from outside the realm of video games eventually will accept certain video games as art. My evidence is personal: I have watched others play video games and had aesthetic experiences doing so, most notably with a series of Internet recordings in which a complete stranger played through the game BioShock with skill.

I was not playing the game, and since I did not know the player and was not present, I could not take enjoyment from his own. I had only the recordings. If video games are not art, then why did I have an aesthetic experience in that context?

On a different note, I also believe that the first major critic to recognize video games as art will not come from a background in painting or film, but music.

A video game is not inherently static, unlike a painting or a film. The closer parallel is to a piece of music, which has well-defined markers to follow (which could be anything from oral tradition to sheet music) but also a certain level of freedom to improvise.

Like music, video games are played for an audience, with no two experiences exactly alike. There can be an audience of the self, one person playing guitar in the garage or BioShock in the den; or there can be an audience of thousands, who may be gathered in a concert hall to watch a master pianist perform or spread out on the Internet and downloading "Quake done Quick" videos.

An avid video game audience enjoys speedruns, completionist clears, single-weapon play-throughs, and other performances. It makes sense to me that a critic who is not a video game enthusiast but possesses an open enough mind to accept video games as art would come from a background of recognizing and assessing performances; hence, a music critic.


Ted, you were there when I tore into that Whitney Museum Curator on this subject 5 years ago.

How can computer games not be art?



Richard, yes, I remember and I thoroughly enjoyed it!


Charles - I see your point. If Cage's intent was liturgical and sacred, then I might withdraw my criticism. I would have had to be there, I suppose, to judge whether other signs of the performance led the viewer into a deeper reflection of the Infinite. Somehow I doubt that such an intent, if it was present in Cage's mind, was rendered in the work. Note that the holy silence in the liturgy gains its meaning from the sounds that precede and follow. A pregnant silence can be sublime art. Had Cage's silence received a seed of meaning? Or was it barren?


Good day, Ted (if I may):

I wrote to Cage when I was a young theology student in Oxford in the early 60s, and was just beginning to turn my attention to the eastern contemplative traditions, so the question of Cage's Zen has been of interest to me for close to 40 years. I just did some googling, and can report back with the following data:


It appears that Cage was told at some point by the Indian tabla player and singer, Gira Sarabhai, that the purpose of music "is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences".

Several years before 4'33" was first performed, Cage wrote "I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4½ minutes long – these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music, and it's title will be 'Silent Prayer'."

According to Kyle Gann's book-length exploration of the piece, Cage may have written it in part to avoid being "beaten to the punch" by a student who had written a suggestion for putting silent records into juke-boxes in a New York Post article, and he was certainly thinking of silence as a means of quieting the "din" of muzak – but he'd also been studying Zen since the 1930s.

One author quoted by Gann hypothesized that Cage got the idea of 'Silent Prayer' from two chapter titles in Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy, in the first of which he would have read St John of the Cross' dictum:

The Father uttered one Word; that Word is His Son, and He utters Him forever in everlasting silence; and in silence the soul has to hear it.
That would fit in nicely with his Zen readings, Gann suggests:
As the ninth-century Zen master Huang-Po said, "The ignorant eschew phenomena but not thought; the wise eschew thought but not phenomena." And as R.H. Blythe wrote, "The object of our lives is to look at, listen to, touch, taste things. Without them, -- these sticks, stones, feathers, shells – there is no Deity." Eschewing thought, but paying close attention to sensory phenomena, even treating these as the Deity – this attitude explains much about 4'33", and about Cage's music from 1952 onward.

And thus we arrive at perhaps the simplest understanding of 4'33": that it is an invitation to (or, if you weren't aware of what was coming, an imposition of) zazen. If you desire certain things to happen in music, you will often be frustrated by it, and you must let go of desires and preferences. The attunement to sonic phenomena, the understanding of them as the Deity, quiets the mind and renders it susceptible to divine influences. And what else is music supposed to do?

I'd have to say that Gann's book doesn't strike me as terribly insightful on the topic of Zen, but the quotes I've marshaled here bring us (I think) a little closer to understanding that Cage's 4'33" had at least something of a contemplative strand to it – although the "erasing muzak" strand is also there, and pretty amusing.


I guess I should just add, since the John Cage business may seem like a long and needless drift, that in my view, games, the arts and liturgy are all aspects of "the sacred" – Joseph Campbell land, if you like.

The original Olympic Games were sacred to the gods of Olympus, the activities of the gods on earth are termed "lila" or "play" in India, even today we speak of "playing" the violin or going to the theater to see a "play"-- a recent, heavy-duty (and not terribly ludic) tome by Bernhard Lang from Yale University Press is titled Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship, and even weightier is Panos Valavanis' work for the Getty Museum, Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece: Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens.

This linkage of play with the sacred is important, in my view, if we wish to explore the "fullest potential" of games and play -- and particularly if we are concerned about the linkages between games and warfare, and are interested in games as vehicles for peace. As Mihai Spariosu writes in The Wreath of Wild Olive:

By rewarding the Olympic champions with no more than a wreath of wild olive branches, the God [Zeus] ironically transfigures the competitive values of his worshippers and points, through a paradox, to an incommensurable, alternative world in which all contest becomes cooperation, all war becomes peace.A neat trick, and perhaps one we should emulate.

If we don't take people like Huizinga and Spariosu seriously, IMO, we risk missing some of the richest aspects of play, and hence also some of the richest aspects of games-as-art.

Is this line of thinking of interest to folks here?


Ach -- the last two short paras are mine. Sorry!


Yeah, I definitely think video games can be considered art. The latest NBA 2K11 game is shocking in that Michael Jordan is finally in the basketball game. It's interesting in that the game is still made relevant over the years of virtually being the same game with a few changes. It's true in that it's much more realistic than any other basketball video game.


I consider video games to be art, and I believe that critics from outside the realm of video games eventually will accept certain video games as art. My evidence is personal: I have watched others play video games and had aesthetic experiences doing so, most notably with a series of Internet recordings in which a complete stranger played through the game BioShock with skill.

I was not playing the game, and since I did not know the player and was not present, I could not take enjoyment from his own. I had only the recordings. If video games are not art, then why did I have an aesthetic experience in that context?

On a different note, I also believe that the first major critic to recognize video games as art will not come from a background in painting or film, but music.

A video game is not inherently static, unlike a painting or a film. The closer parallel is to a piece of music, which has well-defined markers to follow (which could be anything from oral tradition to sheet music) but also a certain level of freedom to improvise.


I like your style Ed!

Here's my take: 'Good' art is justified, owned and displayed by those who have enough political persuasion to justify it for it's own sake. 'Good' art is largely arbitrarily ascribed to material that we have through fluke of preservation. 'Good' art is not democratic and does not need to be. Good art is created by people who know what they are doing and not just people who know how to do it.

In my view games are not art.


You know who doesn't play the "Is this art?" game?


Don't be so quick to dismiss Duchamp and his readymades. Shocking? Interesting? True? This man turned the art world on its ear when he deftly illustrated that the definition of art does not lie with the so-called critics. An artist can transform a piece of everyday toiletry into a work of art by simply shifting its context into the art world.

In fact, I'll go you one better. ANYONE can be an artist in this manner. Anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I also think this goes hand-in-hand with Scott McCloud's definition of art, as anything we do that's not directly related to survival.

So to artists of my stripe, at least, the question of "Is this art?" is next to meaningless. Of COURSE it's art. Now though, we get to ask the -really interesting- questions. What was the artist trying to do? Why? Did they succeed? Why? Is that what the audience saw? How much did it sell for? ( Hey, artists got to eat too )

But we hardly ever get to those questions because we're too busy drawing up lines and criteria as to what's art and not art, so we can feel that we're on the right side. Or that we're vetting the IMPORTANT works of art so that ... uh ... I'm not sure why, exactly.

I'd also like to say that I really, really hate any definition of art that says only the really good, moving, universal, etc art is actually ART. I'm related to an artist who doesn't shock or awe anyone, makes art that's liked by many but not all, but isn't going to make it into the history books. But he makes a decent living doing what he does, and is damn sure an artist.

As an artist, and as a convicted relativist, I feel that the only real and interesting conversations we can have about art are personal. "This worked for me because..." "This didn't work for me because..." What you might find riveting I might find boring, and the other way around. That's good! We can talk about that! We can have a conversation without once resorting to a venn diagram about where this work falls in the definition of art. We might question each other's taste though.


Nathan you raise some very good points but what I was getting at was the fact that in all these (now tired debates) nobody seems to be cynically questioning the art in 'art' vs 'video games'. The same is true of games vs 'tv' and 'movies'.

It's always that these other forms of media are a yardstick which we measure video games by with no concession to the fact that actually art, tv and movies can be awful and are constrained in ways that video games and video game audiences are not.

From what I have read virtually nobody is thinking of the gamers (or the children!!!) and what they think. Their interaction with games. Do they care that asset B was made by artist 5? Can you isolate one aspect of art in games from the whole or should you only view it as part of the whole experience?


At the seminar I just attended they were talking about this too. Very interesting that you have a similar experience.


Very interesting article. I am finding similar type of information for my university annual presentation. Thanks


Shocking? Interesting? How about the bizarre fact that Jon "Neverdie" Jacobs has emerged from the dustbin of history and the dubious legacy of Mindark's Project Entropia. A recent puff piece in Forbes contends that Jacobs has earned $635,000 from the sale of a virtual asteroid.

Didn't Terra Nova manage to deflate the hype surrounding this pyramid scam years ago? Dan? Ted? Anyone?


you mean "inflate" -;) don't you Aaron? Exodus must be profitable:)


I haven't responded to it because it's just not credible. It's always the same guy.

Look, if you could actually make more than a half mil just by buying and holding a virtual asteroid, you'd think lots of people would do it. I'm waiting to see evidence of the "lots of people" part. In fact I have been waiting for it since about 2004. Instead all I ever saw, or see, is Anshe Chung and the Project Entropia guy.


of course, YOU CAN make a half bil, if you create and sell virtual farmland and vegetables... but you must of course not "play" the game. but own the casino.( or be a family member);)

and even that casino isnt playing with real cash, but stock valuations at best, reported by freinds and pals at worst.;)

eventually , IF we passe humans find it in us, we'll balance our entertainment expenses and our valuation systems to a more sustainable level.

but machine and networked software memes of "better beta faster" are not going to offer that. they will just offer the ability to live in loops and cylces. as fast as the processors allow.

electric slot machines or digital wall street?;)


Thanks for posting, it's interesting here!

The comments to this entry are closed.