Art History student Allen Fairway begins a series of posts on the topic of videogames…
Are videogames art? It is a point of contention for this young medium, the arguments somewhat reminiscent of the early days of photography and the questions that arose at that time. In order to confirm my opinion that videogames are indeed art, I will review the question in relation to Aaron Smuts’ 2005 argument to the positive, in which he concluded that some videogames should be considered art, but not all – pointing out that unlike the visual arts at that time there were no videogames that could be called a ‘masterpiece’. To strengthen the argument for videogames as art, I will also refer to the ‘Cluster Concept’ of art which is more inclusive of artefacts outside of the visual arts; and also C.Thi Nguyen’s essay on ‘Process Arts’, in which Nguyen argues that the playing of the game itself offers us an aesthetic appreciation separate to the traditional arts, affording such process arts a separate sphere in the world of the arts.
In his essay, Smuts links three examples of videogames to existing ‘major theories’ of art, two of which we will explore here – for if we can associate these videogames with any particular major theory of art, then perhaps they should be eligible for consideration as an art form. Smuts first links videogames to the Historical Theory argument proposed by Jerrold Levinson in 1989, in which he stated an artwork is an object that “has been seriously intended for regard as a work of art […] in any way pre-existing works are or were correctly regarded” (Levinson, p.21). Smuts likens videogames to animation or digital cinema, and certainly cinema is the largest influence and the closest link to the existing arts; however I believe it is clear they are a blend of multiple artforms. Videogames are complex creations, with a specifically composed soundtrack, a scripted narrative like a film, utilise many concept artworks to create a specific visual dynamic and indeed use storyboards as is the case with films. We can therefore state that many videogames are created with the intention of being regarded as art – though in this case in a similarnature to pre-existing works (such as cinema) if we assume videogames are not widely accepted as art.
Secondly, Smuts links to the Institutional Theory of art proposed by George Dickie in 1974, in which he stated the artwork must be an artefact which contains aspects that has made it the subject of appreciation “on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld)” (Dickie, 1974) There are many aggregate websites, such as Metacritic, which compile reviews of games alongside those of cinema, so we can see that critical review of videogames does seem to be as important as that of film. Furthermore, there are places such as the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, UK which not only preserve games in a similar manner to an art gallery would a painting, but also educate people on the value of videogames to society and as an art form.
Smuts concludes that videogames can in some instances be considered art, but at the time of writing in 2005 he felt there were no videogame ‘masterpieces’ that could make a stronger case for videogames as art. I believe this so-called lack of masterpieces may be through too closely linking videogames to existing art forms, missing an entirely different value which we will explore further with Nguyen shortly. Furthermore, Smuts uses the 2001 game Halo as one of his examples, and within the wider world of gaming appreciation this is considered a videogame masterpiece. But let us continue to consider the link with existing arts further for a time through a more encompassing theory on the value of arts in Berys Gaut’s Art as a Cluster Concept (2000). I will relate this to a recent videogame that could be afforded masterpiece status – 2020’s The Ghost of Tsushima (GoT hereafter) by the developer Sucker Punch. The strength of art as a cluster concept is that it is not a definitive list to say one particular theory is the only value in art, but to say that an artefact should be deemed art status if it meets several of a list of criteria (that in itself is not immutable and can be adjusted as the discussion over what is art continues to evolve). We will briefly cover several key points from the cluster concept and how GoT fits with these in order to be afforded art status.
Firstly, it possesses aesthetic qualities. At a base level, a videogame is specifically made to be visually appealing in order for people to buy the game, as technology has advanced there is a higher expectation on how videogames should look. In the case of GoT there has been an aesthetic decision to make the game look as close to photo-realistic as possible, utilising 3D models, motion-capture of real actors and advanced technologies to simulate multiple environments. The game is designed to display c.1200s Japan in era-appropriate design, but also tweaked to take visual cues from samurai films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa. There is also a ‘photo mode’ in which the player can pause the game at any point outside of scripted cut-scenes and take photographs in the game engine. That games have this mode at all displays how important visual aesthetics are to the designer and to their intended audience. Further, there is a composed soundtrack that is the equal to any film score, reflecting traditional Japanese music of the age. The music will seamlessly flow and adapt to changing environments, scripted as such by the game designer. Music is not the only area of aesthetic quality however as great detail is taken in all areas of audio. The glint of a flashing sword is accompanied by a satisfying swishing noise, the character’s cloak rustles audibly as the wind tugs at it, the trample of a horse’s hooves changes as you streak across muddy ground onto harder territory. These are all aesthetic choices to appeal to the player and to satisfy the vision of the game designer.
Secondly, it is expressive of emotion. There are clear, conscious decisions made in the creation of the game in order to express specific emotions to support the scripted narrative of the game, and to prompt the player to appreciate the specific emotion being conveyed in a similar manner to that we would see in cinema. Unlike cinema however, there is a potential for varying degrees of interactivity with the player in creating the emotional scene. Towards the end of the game the player character will face off against their uncle and would-be adoptive father, the elder having to fulfil his honour and duty to the shogun and execute the player character, whom he has loved and cared for since childhood. We cannot interact with this scene, which is presented to us with deep emotive effect. However, in the 2015 game Life is Strange by the developer Dontnod Entertainment, the player in the guise of the character Max must decide at the end of the game to either sacrifice their childhood friend Chloe, whom Max saves utilising time-travel, or allow the character’s hometown of Arcadia Bay to be obliterated due to said time-travel affecting the timeline. Either decision is created to elicit emotion in the player, but it is heightened as the emotive consequence is enabled by the player choice. In these instances, the argument for expressionism seems stronger as the player cannot help but be affected as they are required to become intimately involved with an emotive decision and subsequent outcome.
To quickly round out further examples from the list, we can say the game is a product of high skill – the team encompasses qualified artists, sound designers, script writers, actors for motion capture and so on. It is therefore the product of a whole plethora of highly skilled artists. It is complex and coherent – the player character in GoT must confront his own pre-conceptions of the samurai code of honour and the repercussion of breaking this code in order to save his home. There are themes of loss, of the nature of family, and the how a person will justify horrendous acts in order to serve the greater good. All of these are expressed in a way the player will understand and can muse on as they play. It also exhibits an individual point of view, though perhaps in a different way than we would normally expect. A videogame is, by necessity, a creation of multiple people. There is a game director who ultimately brings the vision to life, but it is the collective vision of a group of artists sharing the same vision of the end design. As we can see, if we subscribe to the cluster concept of art then videogames are a strong candidate to be accepted as an art form as they fulfil multiple criteria, except one. Whilst they share links with many, videogames do not belong to an ‘established’ artistic form. Perhaps in fact, they belong to an entirely different form of art altogether – that of the ‘process arts’ suggested by C. Thi Nguyen in his 2020 essay The Arts of Action.
The theory of the process arts argues that there is a range of artefacts that already exist which are designed to “sculpt activity, often to aesthetic ends” (Nguyen, p.1) and that these artefacts are overlooked as art forms when compared to ‘traditional’ arts. These process arts come about through an intentional design of an artefact in which we gain aesthetic appreciation through our mental and physical processes. Furthermore, the artefact is specifically designed by a person or persons to guide us into and through this process, which links with the cluster accounts concept of an artefact that has been designed specifically to be art. We could say that all arts require some level of interactivity – we cannot appreciate Michelangelo’s David without engaging with our mind, or our feet in order to observe it in the round after all. But for the process arts, a higher level of interactivity is required, which Nguyen asserts is the main value of these artefacts. Robert Sweeny reflects on the interactivity of videogames and how this relates to the engagement and education seen in the traditional arts, using collaborative efforts between artists as an example. Counter to this, he notes that in videogames the player is re-working an existing artwork – something not generally accepted in the traditional object arts (Sweeny, 2010). However, for Nguyen’s theory, this is acceptable. The game director has created the game in a way to be re-created. The artistic vision of the game is only completed through the interaction between the artefact and the player.
In GoT for the player to appreciate the artefact fully they must make physical interactions on a controller in order to progress. The aesthetic appreciation of the game’s visuals, audio, complex themes therefore come from a more personal space – the player is in control of the narrative of the game, of how it is presented to them within the parameters set out by the ‘artist’ – usually the game director. In the set-pieces in which the player character faces off across the screen with multiple armed opponents in the style of the samurai epic films, the player must hold a button to prepare their katana. Their aim is to release the button just as the enemy reaches the character in order to make an instant kill, which can then be chained to multiple enemies. It is a physical interaction that makes for this aesthetically pleasing moment, and further a mental interaction as the player must time this moment correctly, avoiding the ‘fake outs’ from the enemies or risk failure. In Nguyen’s theory, this tactile and mental interaction with the game is the highest value we can attain from videogames as a ‘process art’.
In conclusion, I believe that it is clear to see that videogames should rightly be considered art. We have seen the link to historical definitions of art as noted by Smuts, alongside the inspiration videogames take from the other forms of art in elements of their design, but also further explored a much richer definition of art in the Cluster Concept and how videogames fulfil enough criteria to be considered art by this definition when considering how videogames stand up to traditional arts. We have also considered Nguyen’s notion of the aesthetic appeal in the playing of the game itself, the impact that the player has on fulfilling the artistic director’s vision of the game, and how this links videogames to a separate art entirely. I believe that videogames straddle the two areas of ‘traditional’ arts and the ‘process arts’ and occupy a very unique space of their own in the artworld. That videogames fulfil the criteria for multiple theories on the nature of art makes the question of whether they are art or not irrelevant, our attention should therefore be invested into critiquing their qualities as an art form and examining them with the same eye as we would any existing form of art.
Dickie, G (1974) Art and the aesthetic: an institutional analysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Levinson, J (1989) Refining Art Historically in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Winter 1989. Accessible at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/431990?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents (Accessed: 19/04/21)
Nguyen, C (2020) The Arts of Action in Philosophers’ Imprint v.20, n.14. May 2020. Accessible at: https://philpapers.org/rec/NGUTAO-8 (Accessed: 21/04/21)
Smuts, A (2005) Are Video Games Art? Accessible at: https://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=299 (Accessed 19/04/21)
Sweeny, R. “Pixellated Play: Practical and Theoretical Issues Regarding Videogames in Art Education.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 51, no. 3, 2010, pp. 262–274. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40650513. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.