Sunday, April 30, 2006

Are Games Art?

There has been noise lately regarding this question. Of course, the question is usually addressing video games, as opposed to any old games, such as board or card games, or sports, etc.

I started trying to write about this a few days ago, when I realized that the primary reason that people argue about this type of question is owing to the lack of agreement about the basic definitions, rather than the actual purported question.

So to approach this question, you have to bring it up (or perhaps down) one level to first talk about the underlying assumptions behind the words. Once you agree about what you mean by "games" and what you mean by "art", the question becomes superfluous.

Deconstructing the question

Before answering "Are games art?" we need to answer three basic questions first:

1) What do we mean by art?

2) What do we mean by games?

3) What is the importance behind the question, i.e. what does it matter if we can or can't classify games as art?

A little diversion about language

There is a brilliant novel by Suzette Haden Elgin called Native Tongue. The plot background of the book is astonishingly obnoxious, of the radical feminist male-hating sort: all rights of women in the U.S. have been repealed and women are now considered animals. All men basically go along with this (to higher or lesser degree). The book then implies that even the best men cannot be trusted. It is this type of offensive view about men that does no good for the world of feminism.

The story of the book is good but standard sci-fi fare.

However, one of the main parts of the story is the development by women of a new language Laadan. This plot point is the main idea behind the theme of the book, which is its brilliance.

The theme is that the words of a language determine the cultural importance of an idea within that language. If a language has no word for "peace", then trying to describe "peace" to someone within that language will make you sound like an idiot. Suzette uses this to examine if the very languages we use disenfranchise women by having no appropriate words for ideas that women consider important, such as particular types of sensitivity, emotions, or taboos. If a woman has to wave her hand and use cumbersome language to explain how she feels or what she means, then society tends to ignore them. On the other hand, if they can say that something is "fleep" (let's say), then everyone would understand and accept this idea as both normative and significant.

That is an elegant and interesting idea. You can see how this works from the way that we have been naming medical conditions that used to simply be considered bad manners with new scientific terms, e.g. ADD, hyperactivity, etc. By naming these as illnesses, we then feel justified in spending a lot of time and effort in examining them, as well as excusing those who have them from their poor behavior.

The central tenet of her argument is arguable: does language precede significance, or vice versa? But anyway, that's not what I came to talk to you about. Go read the book. The reason I bring this up is only to explain why the language we use to categorize things, such as art or games, has significance.

A little diversion about definitions

Philip José Farmer wrote in the introduction to one his very racy sci-fi novels about the most dangerous of people: those who seek to define things, like 'pornography', 'art', 'morality', and so on. The reason that they are so dangerous, he wrote, is that they seek to stop the world and pin down definitions, imposing their beliefs on others.

I am afraid that I represent one of those 'dangerous' peoples in his eyes. In my opposing view to his, I find that people who intentionally refuse to make definitions to be far more dangerous. People who refuse to define poverty, thereby eliminating any possibility of addressing it. People who say that all morality is relative, and that people who purposely blow up babies are merely one side of a point of view that one cannot really rationally argue against. Sorry, not for me.

I will admit that every line in the world is fuzzy, and the closer one looks at the line, the fuzzier it gets. I agree that if you look down to the deepest levels, that one can argue just about anything. I simply don't subscribe to that as a realistic way of viewing the world or of making policy decisions.

For this reason, I am willing to define art. It will simply be my own limited definition. There is no reason for me to expect that everyone else would adopt this definition of art. However, if you are going to be arguing about whether games are art, it is entirely useless to do so before you agree on your definition of art. Otherwise, he will say yes, she will say no, and you can argue all you want without getting anywhere.

What do I mean by art?

There are many possible required components that make up the definition of art. Since I will never satisfy everyone, I will only attempt to give my interpretation and move on from there. You can choose to accept my interpretation or not, but my answer to "Are games art?" simply follows from my definition of art.

We used to have pretty clear definitions of art until the modernist movement came along in the early twentieth century and deconstructed this definition piece by piece, until the modern world gave up in disgust and now refuses to define it. Now we are all arguing about it, in terms of what should be displayed, who should be funded, and so on.

From my own limited perspective, here are the necessary components of art:

* Art must be made, not found. For me, art implies deliberate design. This doesn't preclude a certain amount of randomness in the execution, such as throwing paint at a canvas. But it does imply that the judgment of the artist be used to include or not include the resulting creation within a contained and separated piece. A found rock is not art, nor is a piece of paper on the floor, unless the paper was put on the floor in a particular way.

* Art must be original. An exact replica of another created work, or even generic imitative copies of some work, can only be considered craft, however beautiful they may be. Craft may be lovely; craft may even be art.

* Art must tackle one of the 'deep' issues, such as beauty, truth, faith, innocence, divinity, evil, love, etc. There is no art about a direct representation of something. Two people can paint the same mountain. One might make a beautiful picture of the mountain, but it would be considered craft. The other may make a picture of the mountain, but when you look at the picture you see faith, or hope, or glory. That's art. Excellence without great meaning can never be more than craft.

It is not my intention to describe how one tells the difference between these two for any particular piece. I expect that there will always be items about which people will argue whether they are art or craft. I am merely expressing my own idea of what is necessary, not how to distinguish this.

Things that I think are not necessary for art include:

* Beauty. Not all art need be beautiful, in my opinion.

* Lack of function. An artistically made chess set can be art, even if you can play with it.

* Function. A perfect cup that elegantly does what a cup is supposed to do I would consider craft, not art.

* Talent. Note that I have not differentiated between good art and bad art, only between art and craft. A finger painting may be original and about a great theme, but it's poor execution may preclude it from being good art. I would still consider it to be art.

What do I mean by games?

It should be noted that there are a number of different possible ideas of what people mean by games in this question:

* The game components. Few would argue that some game components, such as a beautiful chess set, could be considered art.

* The game rules. If the game rules are particularly elegant, perhaps they can be considered art. In this case, we would have to decide if it is the elegance of the ruleset, the actual expression of the rules, or the beauty of the game that can be played using these rules, that constitutes the actual "rules" of the game.

* The game experience. The rules may indicate how to play, but they are static and non-experiential. It could be that when we talk about games being art that we mean the actual experience of playing the game. In this case, the game would be a form of participatory art, akin to dance.

I prefer to consider the two latter possibilities as related. That is, the same way that a painting is a dialog between the artist and its viewers (ignoring "art for art's sake"), I will consider a game to be a dialog between the game designer and the game participants.

What is the difference whether games are art?

The answer to this is not whether certain games should be hung in a museum or be funded by an arts council. Nor is it the respectability gained by being able to tell people that you are not only "playing games" but participating in an artistic event.

It is a philosophical question inherently interesting in its own right. Answering it gives us a broader definition of what art is, as well as what games are or can be. Also, by tying together games with other artistic endeavors, we can use the parallels between these endeavors to discover new things about games, as well as about other types of art.

The answer

If you have reached this point, the answer to the original question "Are games art?" should be entirely obvious: yes, no, and maybe.

Some games are good art, when they are original and provide the player with a deep perspective on essential truths. An example of this, in my opinion, would be Go.

Other games are bad art, in that they may tackle important questions, but in an amateur or facile way.

Other games are not really art, but are lovely craft, such as Tikal or Shadows Over Camelot.

But the exact division between which games fall into which categories is beyond the scope of this article, and likely subject to a lot more controversy.


Update: Alfred responds here.

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