I'm not sure if this post is the third in my series on Art and Games (1, 2), or the fourth in my series on Alternatives to Winning (1, 2, 3, as well as some others).
Quick Overview: Art Implies Message
For the sake of argument, let's stick to the requirements for art that I set out in my first article, namely that art is a) deliberately arranged, b) original, and c) attempts to convey something meaningful to the viewer or participant. While there are other ideas as to what makes "art", suffice to assume that I am not talking about whatever they define.
If a paper falls on the ground, I don't consider it art. But if someone puts a paper on the ground and attempts to convey something meaningful by doing so then it's art, regardless of the effectiveness of the attempt. It may be poor art, but it's art. My definition for art is fairly liberal, encompassing flat arts, video, written, sculpture, modern, and, most importantly for this post, interactive arts.
As a comparison, if the artist does not attempt to convey something meaningful, but the viewer finds meaning nonetheless, I don't consider this art, any more than I would if someone were to find something meaningful in looking at the Grand Canyon. Unless we want to consider God as the artist.
Quick Overview: Game Implies Goals
Video game or board game, party game or sport, "breaking Google's pagerank" or "team-building exercise", games are subject to almost as many definitions as art is. So again, I need to focus on what I am referring to. Whether or not we agree on what a game is, is not relevant to this post. I only need to clarify what I am talking about. If you hold a different idea as to what a game is, that's fine, but suffice to assume that I am not talking about that type of activity in this post.
Game to me implies an agreed upon rule-set, one or more goals, and the ability to distinguish between being in the game, out of the game, neither, or both.
For the sake of discussion, my definition of game here does not require interactivity between the players, but does require some interactivity between a player and something in his or her environment, such as seeing something and thinking, moving, or progressing something along from a non-winning condition to a winning condition. This usually entails some sort of competition or challenge, but I don't require that for my purposes (so I am perforce including video games and puzzles).
Nor does it require there to be relative winners and losers; that is, that some participants lose while others win, or that a winning or losing label is assigned to any players upon game completion. This logic for this last exception - no requirement for relative winners and losers - is discussed in my Alternatives to Winning posts (2 and 3).
Game Implies Interactive Progression Using Given Rules Toward a Goal
The essence of the game is not its physical, visual, or auditory components, which of course may be art. A game's essence is the interactivity of the participant with his or her environment. The abstract possibility of a game is realized only through the participation of one or more players in playing it out. It is like a play, only the path through is vaguely guided by rules rather than scripted in total. In some games, the path is more constricted than others, to be sure.
Consider Chess. The goal is to checkmate your opponent, or to achieve a draw otherwise. The first step is limited to the movement of a certain number of pieces. Although limited in nature, the first move of a Chess game is still much freer than the opening moments of a typical movie or play, which can follow only one path.
Game Implies Learning
As Raph Koster notes in his book A Theory of Fun in Game Design, games are educational on a deep level, allowing us to master challenges, and then, after we have mastered these challenges, they bore us so that we can move on to new challenges. It is why game-based education is so successful and engaging, and why many people look to games for specific educational purposes, from augmenting physical therapy to increasing math and spacial reasoning abilities.
Outside of this pattern learning aspect, we can increase our mental or physical abilities in many different ways as a result of playing games, whether from sports, trivia games, or games that incorporate educational material such as environmentalism or health.
Games and Art Both Imply Message
But where games imply learning, so does art. Because isn't the essence of art a meaningful message? A communicates something that someone doesn't know or remember, at least on a conscious level.
If you take the Mona Lisa, for example, you may learn many things by viewing the painting. Maybe about the hidden strength of women, the notion of independence, techniques in brush-stokes, or many other things. Whatever the messages are, these are something that, by definition, you have either learned or remembered by viewing the art. If you have not learned anything after viewing art, you have not gotten the message. Either the art failed, or it's purpose was too mundane, or you were not receptive.
The same applies to games, whether we accept Raph's notions of pattern learning from games or simply the external thematic experiences that the games try to portray.
Every message conveys something new; that's learning. Learning is a series of messages.
Games Are Interactive, And Art Can Be Interactive, Too
If both art and games are, at their essence, vehicles for conveying messages, regardless of their entertainment value, then what is the difference between them?
You can't say interactivity, because I can point to many works of art that make the audience an inherent part of the participation process. For instance, a room to walk through, buttons to push, your voice echoing back purposely altered. All of these include interactivity to convey messages, messages that cannot be conveyed without the interactivity, or at least not as well.
The message of a piece of interactive art may be a new way to feel from the act of decapitating a little figure, or of the loneliness of a large space. Either way, the participation is inherent to the message of interactive art.
Games and Art Imply Goal
Imagine a vast room, deliberately created as an interactive art work in order to convey the feeling of diminutiveness relative to a universe. Now imagine the two experiences of a) walking through the room with the goal of experiencing the message of the art, and b) participating in a race that takes you through the room with the goal of winning the race, but that gives as a secondary experience the same message of diminutiveness while you are racing.
You could argue that by focusing on the goal of winning the race, we lessen the impact of the message from the art, because our attention is divided. Or, you could argue that the message will be conveyed even more greatly, because by not focusing on the message itself, we let in the message subconsciously, which results in a higher impact.
The Goal of a Game is Not the Artistic Goal
Regardless of your argument about the impact of the message via these two methods of interaction with the piece, you must admit that in the second case, the goal of the art is not the winning of the race. That is not the message of the piece.
The race is part of the material that was used to create the art. Just like the space is created to convey something, the activity with which you interact it created to convey something. But the goal of the art is the understanding, while the goal of the game is to achieve victory in the game. The goal of art is never "to win". It is to accept the message of the artist. There is no winner or loser in the message of art.
Example: let's say that two people are running toward a goal. The first person is in a race to get to the goal. The second is admiring the view.
The first person's body can continue to race toward the goal while his mind also admires the view. But in this case, his body is inside the game, while his mind is outside the game. Admiration of the view is not part of the goal of the game, although it may be something that he is simultaneously learning.
Example: Let's say that you are playing Where's Waldo on a beautiful picture. The first person to spot Waldo wins.
Here your brain is more tightly wrapped up in the goal of the game. It can't wander admiring the beauty or managing the message of the art while at the same time working toward the goal of finding Waldo. At least, not on a conscious level. Any time you spend learning about the message of the art detracts from the goal of the game, and vice versa.
Example: let's create an art installment where you race against a man with no legs, so that the outcome is always that you will win. Here we have a game where the goal of the game is to win. Here we have art, where the message is to experience the sympathy for the man with no legs while we function well with our two. Even in this case, the goal of winning is something you do in order to feel the message, but the goal of winning is not the message itself.
It is not the game element that is teaching, but the experience outside the "game".
Winning as a Goal is Incompatible with Art
So, are games art?
Games that involve winning cannot be art "in total", although they can include art in them (and not just visual or aural art). But this art can be absorbed only when the goal of the game is suspended, or if the art is meant to be absorbed unconsciously during the process of playing the game.
If we remove the element of winning from the game, the game can still involves goals. But without the singular goal of "winning", other aspects about the game become integrated into the game itself, rather than external to the game. Games are then simply a subset of art, and the art they contain is a reflection of the artistic skills and messages that their creator's wish to convey.
Update: Please see the comments for follow-up discussion and clarifications.