Playing With Art

Analyzing the artistic merits of video games

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Defining Art: Part 2

Posted by Nick Dinicola on November 21, 2008

In my first post I laid out some qualities I think games must have in order to qualify as art: I said a game would have to resonate with an audience emotionally while reflecting some universal truth of life. But those qualities only relate to “narrative art,” to a work that tries to tell a story with themes and characters and conflict and resolution. “Narrative art” is not the only kind of art there is, and I think games are unique in that they can also be artistic in a completely different way.

Emotion has been the common trait I write about. I wrote about how Braid’s theme of obsession strikes us emotionally, and how the experiences of Call of Duty 4 and Shadow of the Colossus are emotional experiences, but each of those would be worthless if they had been in poorly made games. If any of those games were unpolished to the point of frustration, would they still have the same emotional impact? I think the structure of a game goes a long way in realizing a game’s artistic potential: Good level design, good sound, good controls, good textures, no clipping, framerate, or bug issues; in other words, a well-made, polished game. Is it possible for a game to be considered art based on these traits alone? Can gameplay be artistic?

Of course I think the answer is “yes.” I think this kind of “structural art” is similar to how we perceive sculptures. Greek and Roman sculptures are considered art for their realism and level of detail; for some it looks as if we could brush aside their long billowing sleeves, despite the fact that they’re made of stone. The Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti is hailed as a work of art due its use of perspective and depth to depict multiple scenes from the Old Testament in one panel. There’s no universal truth in these works, and the only emotion they invoke is awe; the artistic merit in these works stem from their level of detail, from the expertise needed in order to craft such works. Is it really then a stretch of the imagination to argue that a game made with the same skill and attention to detail is artistic?

It could be argued that those works are artistic based on structure alone because they were made by one person, they’re a testament to the artist’s skill. But the Gates of Paradise was a collaborative effort with much of Ghiberti’s workshop helping him. This claim would also invalidate architecture or film as forms of art.

I’m not suggesting that all a game has to do to be artistic is show us a virtual billowing sleeve that looks as if we could brush it aside. That could be considered art by itself, computer generated art akin to painting. But within the larger context of a video game that visual realism isn’t enough because it doesn’t actually use the formal qualities of video games. The formal qualities of art, to take from Wikipedia, are “The constraints and limitation of a particular medium.

For example, the form of a sculpture must exist in space in three-dimensions, and respond to gravity…the formal qualities of painting are the canvas texture, color, and brush texture.

So, visual realism isn’t particular to video games, it’s not what makes this medium unique. What is particular to video games is interactivity. So for a game to achieve this “structural art” it has to show expertise in how it handles interactivity. This definition is very vague however, and opens a whole new can of worms. Is Tetris art for its focus on gameply alone? Is Mario 64 art for its tight controls and well designed levels? Is Portal art for its unique method of interacting with its world? I think a case can be made for each of these games being art because they’re all well made games. So are all games that don’t blatantly suck artistic? Of course not, but this is where the subjectivity of art comes into big play.  Unfortunately I don’t have an exact criteria on what constitutes “structural art.” The most I can offer is that it can’t just be a good game, it must be a game that clearly stands out with its use of the medium’s formal qualities (of which interactivity is only one). I think if a game achives this finely-honed, gameplay-centric ideal, it qualifies as “structural art.”

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