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Games Are Art – But What Does That Mean?

This is actually an old article that never got posted due to the over-saturation of columns on the topic.  Given Nathan’s choice for inaugural Round Table topic (“Has the full potential of videogames been fully explored yet?”), and John Constantine’s wonderful recent argument on the case (focusing on the “literacy” required to properly play and evaluate games), the time seemed ripe to repost my own thoughts.

So I’m sure everyone remembers Roger Ebert stirring the hornet’s nest and bringing the “Are Games Art?” argument back into the spotlight.  His proclamation against games as art has been dissected to hell and back elsewhere on the web – Tycho of Penny Arcade perhaps summed it up best: it’s really just a generational thing.  Now, I’m not dredging this back up just to toss more stones at the film critic.  Rather, I’d like to assume that Kellee Santiago’s claim (that games are art, albeit still at the primitive end of the spectrum) is correct, and explore some of its implications.
To me, it seems that games strive to be artistic in two distinct ways: through both film and immersive methods.  The former approach presents a story to its audience, which players must fulfill tasks in order to progress through (e.g. Heavy Rain or Uncharted).  The latter presents an immersive environment, through sound and visuals, that the player is free to manipulate in certain ways (e.g. Flower).  The former method is more prevalent, and tends to wear its silver-screen influence on its sleeve.  Heavy Rain is very reminiscent of a film noir mystery, and Uncharted is only a half-step away from being Raiders of the Lost Ark.  This influence makes a lot of sense, as cinema has been manipulating our televisions in the name of entertainment and art long before video games were conceived, but it also presents a few problems.  The first is that when a game is too cinematic, it tends to estrange its players and lose touch with the interactivity that defines the medium (see: Metal Gear Solid 4’s overly long cut scenes).  Second, not all cinema constitutes art.  There’s an important distinction between movies and films – the former being entertainment and the latter being artistic – and games have been overwhelmingly drawing from the “movie” end of the spectrum.  Storytelling in games has come a long way since the days of the original Final Fantasy, but in most cases it is still more simplistic and puerile than its televisual counterparts.
The “Flower” approach does not bother with any of this, however, leaning more on the side of the visual arts.  These games feel more like interactive painting or sculpture.  You are given a (usually gorgeous) environment and a way in which you can interact with that environment – that’s about it.  As such, it requires a different sort of interpretation and assessment than those of the previous category – a sort closer to that of the visual arts.  Players might ask themselves what certain colors or objects represent to them, or what the significance is of the fact that a certain series of notes plays whenever an action is carried out.  However, for now this type of game is still mired in abstraction (not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it seems that’s all there is), and most do not prompt us to ask such questions of them.
None of this is meant to be condemning – games are a fledgling genre, all things considered, and artistic sensibilities surrounding them are even younger.  There is no way that games could be as artistically advanced as other contemporary mediums as of yet.  However, there is so much potential in this regard that is truly fascinating.  The unique element that games as a genre possess is their interactivity, and we have barely scratched the surface of the implications this interactivity has for art.  An “artist” might contemplate not only the question of “What does this image or sound communicate?”, but also, “What do the choices I give (or do not give) my players communicate?”.  As some simplistic examples, what would it mean if you could raze the landscape in a game like Flower, but every time you did the colors faded a bit?  What would it mean in a story-driven game if all 100 branching story paths led to the same dismal ending?  Interactivity is an exciting element because it is so unexplored, and because it is a more active way of communicating ideas to an audience than the passive mediums of television and film.

There are challenges to these artistic endeavors, to be sure.  Production costs, the long hours involved in fleshing out multiple story paths, coordinating large teams to pursue a goal less tangible, perhaps, than the usual, are just a few.  However, I am optimistic that games like Heavy Rain and Flower can serve as the initial building blocks for something great.

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