Arts and Crafts

Occasionally on industry or gaming forums someone will inadvertently kick off a debate, usually by mentioning 'Ico', whether or not video games are considered Art, with a capital A. These debates rage on and on and never reach a satisfactory conclusion. I can understand the desire of so many invested interests battling for video games to be taken seriously. Video game violence is the fashionable political bandwagon of our age and many ignorant and media-hungry political figures are picking up this non-issue as an easy vote winner when terrorism and immigration aren’t quite enough. There is serious investigation and study to be had there, but they’re only interested in vilification and easy popularity. In the face of this a lot of people with good intentions are trying desperately to portray games as a mature medium by forcing the epithet “Art” on it. It’s a little like one extreme viewpoint battling another.

But are video games Art? No, they’re not. My viewpoint revolves around confusing the medium and the product, in the same sense not all books are literature and not everything shot on film is a masterpiece. Games are a medium and though it is certainly one that can facilitate art, the products, the games themselves, individually, are not. I also think you can’t make art accidentally, and the main driving force behind almost the entire catalogue of products out there is the bottom line, filthy lucre. I have yet to see a game that was made for the sake of itself, (Duke Nukem doesn't count). Decision makers are often producers or CEOs with a background in business management, law or banking; these are not people with Art-capable souls, as we all know.
So to quickly get past this, my own viewpoint, I say games are a craft, require immense amounts of creativity and drive, but are not Art. The medium is mature and should be taken seriously, even if the industry behind it is well into its moody teenage years and has a way to go yet before being considered anything but childish.

But what do the Japanese think? Now I have to be careful here. Making generalizations about a culture I am in but not part of is always difficult, and I’m sure other observers may have differing viewpoints. But what strikes me as typically Japanese is their appreciation of design, visual arts and aesthetics. It’s usually in the vein of “style over content” but nonetheless they seem to enjoy many aspects of the visual. Manga artists release books with selected works, video game character designers have shows at Design Museums and industrial designers have many monthly and weekly magazines devoted to their output I have not witnessed any heated discussions about games as Art in Japan, possibly because I’m looking in the wrong places, but they are certainly appreciated. Though they are toys, let’s be frank, people here have no qualms about seeing video games as something to be savored more than just toys. And that is what I like best.

There is no crime in seeing video game art as something you can hang in a gallery or study in glossy books. There is no harm in savoring the experiences and stories as you would a good book or exciting film. In short, you do not need to make games into Art before you can take them seriously and appreciate their impact on society and your soul. Why is the West so hung up on this? If something is too childish or not listed amongst the Greats of History it must be collectively found to be Art before one is allowed to let it run its course and be appreciated by the wide public. It’s not Art, just appreciate the craft and skill that has gone into it and the esthetics of the final product or experience. That should really be enough for you.

That said, I guess if we all agree to call it Art anyway we at least have strong ammunition for the political anti-games movement. Or we simply have to wait for the next new medium to come along for ignorant people to be afraid of. Or we can just pooh-pooh the political vultures and hope they go away; they usually do. Either way, don’t let’s force video games into a compartment it doesn’t belong. Games are fun, games are great experiences, games are escapist, games often look great, and games push technology along to an extent. If the archeologists of the future think of it as Art, well, that’s their problem. Let’s just hope they don’t dig up the E.T. landfill.

What do you think, in one word or less?


  1. its interactive art.

  2. Good points. I agree with you about games being a medium rather than automagically art, and that most games are so tainted by the sales brush that it's laughable to say they even approach it (although there are certainly important pop culture artifacts, and Professor Jenkins might say that these are argueably more important than "proper" art. And there's always this idea that the maligned medium inherets the ivory tower as soon as the old guard die off. Happened with Novels, after all).

    However, there are games which I feel aren't financially motivated (especially within the indie/doujin scene), by ernest people who want to explore the medium. I would baulk at calling anyone in this medium an artist, not just because most of the famous names are more mouth pieces than they are real talents, but because, as Hokuzai said "From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. but all I have done before the the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy five I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokosai, but today I sign my self 'The Old Man Mad Abgout Drawing.'". Erm. Long quote, just to say that one aspires to art, but as soon as one has succeeded at it, they have failed. Anyone claiming to be an artist should humble themselves. "Respect those seeking the truth, and suspect those claiming to have it."

    I think that the nature of the medium is generally misunderstood by the masses, constantly misrepresented in the media, cynically mitigated by the industry, and often misused by its own makers. This creates an environment where no-one appreciates games on an artistic level, no-one is introduced to games on an artistic level, no-one will patronize aspiring game artists' stabs at art, and no-one is experienced enough to make art.

    This is a quagmire that we'll eventually shift out of, but it'll take time.

    I have absolutely no doubt that games will arrive that we can (mostly) accept are works of Art, but it's such a young medium that it rarely happens, and is always going to be a trickle. I do think that it's inevitable, though: A generation brought up with games will eventually demand "more than just fun". That's when we'll allow it in society.

  3. Ah, one of the greatest benefits of having your own blog is the ability to express your thoughts uninterrupted, with the opposing comments neatly tucked away on another page.

    (Just ribbing ya.);)

  4. "Long quote, just to say that one aspires to art, but as soon as one has succeeded at it, they have failed. "
    The games industry needs its own Dada movement!!

    Anon above, yeah. Blogs are great! I must remember to edit away all the contrary comments later! :)

  5. Damn, Dada, we MUST!
    I propose a GaGa movement. Who'll join me?

  6. I don't think art has to be non-commercial or anti-commercial. If you want to make art, you can stick it into the most gnarly of corporate sponsorships. You've got to be deft and persuasive to make it stick, you have to sell the bullshit to your maecenas... and be earnest to yourself and everyone along the way... unless your defining art philosophy is somehow full of lies as a part of its vocabulary... This is half or more of the skill in contemporary art.

    I think Lego bricks should be considered a work of art, as should Tim Schafer's Full Throttle (not to be confused with the Charlie's Angels movie), as should Allan Kaprow licking jam off a Volkswagen Beetle, as should a great manner of other things that transcend their given medium -- be it toy, video game, act of impromptu theater or whatever.

    I've tried to make the argument for games as art so many times to myself and to others and never quite managed to get it down. I don't think I was trying to do so in order to establish games as a more serious phenomenon than random politicians make them out to be, rather I was hoping to move the discourse to some new level.

    The only sites I can read any more are Eurogamer, Shacknews, this place and a few other stray blogs... everybody else writes consumer guides and pretends they're offering actual critique.

    This was longer than I intended it to be.

  7. The distinction between an individual work of art and an art form, or medium, is valid.

    However, to say that most games are commercial dreck and thus video games are not an art form, but a craft, I think is invalid. If the Mona Lisa was the only work of oil painting that survived to this day, oil painting would still be an art form, even if everything else was utter rubbish.

    I think if there's one single game one can consider a work of art, then video games are an art form. Everything else is just a question of signal to noise ratio.

  8. Thank you!

    I was feeling like the only game developer to believe that the medium of interactive development could yield art, but has not.

    In any event, the linguistic battle distracts us from the more important issues of demonstrating that games are not "just for kids" and getting the feds off our back.

  9. GaGa movement. Love it! I just signed an old Famicom cart "M. Mayamottle," title it "The Game." Only $100,000! Any buyers?

    Come on, Duchamp's "The Fountain" sold for 4 million. I'm offering a bloody bargain here folks!

  10. Before reading the post, I voted NO, games are not art. I know there are zillions of arguments for and against, but my opinion harks back to something broader than this discussion: I think art, the kind that hangs in museum, is mostly pretentious. There simply isn't even a definition of art. For some cultures, everything they made was art. For ours, only the things that are exposed as such. Art is an image.

    As such, it really doesn't matter whether games are art or not. Should they have this label (and that's all it is), I will still enjoy them or not enjoy them as I did before. It's a futile discussion. Some games are really high up there in philosophy and meaning. Others are base and generic. Most all of them affect my life in a way far more profound than anything that hangs in a museum, simply because of who I am.

    Are games art? Well, after you answer that one, why don't you just go on and tell us the meaning of life next. But it's really completely irrelevant as a discussion.

  11. I say games are a craft, require immense amounts of creativity and drive, but are not Art.

    I think you are confusing your craft with the product. "Games" are not a craft, but "making games" is. "Making games" is a process. It is up to the craftsman to decide whether or not his process is also part of the art. Once the product of the process is done, it is no longer up to the craftsman to say whether or not it is art. That's up to the audience.

    I say that every video game is a work of art. If you see them simply as a paycheck, well then, that's up to you.

  12. The reason I find this discussion (not this particular branch of it, but the whole games as art debate in general) so tedious is that as Roderick points out, nobody is really clear as to what constitutes a work of art, game or not.

    To many people, the experience of playing a game can be vastly more rewarding, entertaining and educational than a walk through the National Gallery, but to others the opposite is true. Likewise, some people think the Tate Modern is littered with pretentious pieces of junk that have little to no value to society, whilst others see beauty in simplicity and humour in the banal. This dictionary definition basically says that Art is about beauty. If that's all art is, then games can be art as far as I'm concerned. If art has a more complex meaning, something like love, which might mean something a little different to every person you ask, then games might be art, they might not. Does it really matter?

  13. I agree that Art itself is difficult to point out, let alone what to assign it to. It's mostly semantics anyway. My biggest problem in the whole debate though is that if you assign games as Art you are giving it much more implied specific value than it is worth/needs/has.

    Even if we can't decide on a definition of Art I'm sure a lot of us have an intuitive feeling for what it is and though we don't often agree on many things, some thing are above and beyond discussion. I don't see games as belonging to that last group. I intuitively feel it stands well outside art.

    The main point of the post was, though, that that doesn't matter. You can still enjoy and appreciate them.

    Bez had a great point about aspiring to be and succeeding in making Art. Game devs aren't even aspiring. Not that it will never happen, it just isn't, right now, if you ask me, art.

    But who am I?

  14. Andrew KhosravianMonday, January 15, 2007

    You mention, as an argument for games not being art, that games are made primarily for money, but a lot of older films came from the same perspective. Griffith never considered himself anything more than a tradesman, but he was inspirational to generations of film makers.

    That being said, I don't really think games are a medium particularly well suited for art. The potential is there, but it seems like such a monumental task to make anything meaningful that preserving the necessary vision is impossible.

  15. My brain hurts.

  16. If we all agree that art is a nebulous concept and certainly subjective in interpretation, then surely any time anyone considers something to be art, it is - to them? If so then games, by definition, are art, so long as someone considers them as such; the poll would indicate that's certainly the case.

    I voted "yes", although I'm really a bit on the fence. I have played some curious, thought-provoking indie games which I think I'd call art.