Artistic Differences

Should video games be considered an art form? We ask some leading developers to gauge their views on this thorny question.

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In 1917 French artist Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal and called it art. Eighty-seven years later it was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 art world professionals.

Art is notoriously tough to define. The moment a reasonable description of art is agreed upon, something comes along that demands it be re-evaluated. The latest culprit to upset the balance is video games. The debate of whether or not video games are an art form began as a discussion among academics a little less than a decade ago, and has since gained momentum in the video games community and, to some extent, the mass media.

One side argues that video games are increasingly valuable cultural artefacts that employ new technologies and a range of creative processes to produce an effective, and artistic, entertainment medium. The other side argues that the interactivity of video games renders them unfit to be classified as art. But this feature doesn’t aim to draw conclusions--it aims to give voice to those who have not yet had their say. Do video game developers see themselves as artists? Do they want the games they make to be labelled as art? Do they care?

All art takes into account the intentions of its creator. With that in mind, GS AU has caught up with some of this year’s most innovative game developers including Jonathan Blow (Braid), Media Molecule (Little Big Planet) and Blue Tongue (de Blob) to find out what, if any, artistic motivations were at the heart of their creative visions.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain changed the way people thought about art.
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain changed the way people thought about art.

Defining the Indefinable

In November 2005, US film critic Roger Ebert claimed that video games will never be as artistically worthy as movies or literature. He wrote:

”I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilised and empathetic.”

It would not be wrong to say that Ebert’s perspective on video games mirrors the majority of the non-gamer public. But what if things were the other way around? In his book titled Everything Bad is Good for You, US author Stephen Johnson defends video games against the widely held preconception that they, along with other forms of popular entertainment, are detrimental to cognitive and moral development. To do this, Johnson envisions a world where video games are the standard and books have newly been invented. He imagines that critic responses to this new medium may be something like this:

“Unlike the longstanding tradition of game playing, which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements, books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion; you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you.”

Video games have a long ladder to climb before Johnson’s imagined reality can become our own, but acknowledging games as an art form is a step in the right direction. While defining art relies to some extent on subjectivity, there are certain characteristics that appear to be staples in any definition of the visual arts: great technical ability, self expression, a level of visual harmony and/or beauty, an insight into reality and the potential to make the viewer question the way he or she looks at the world. Interactivity, you’ll notice, is not on the list. This, in a nutshell, is the case against video games as an art form. Traditional forms of art engage the viewer in a static way; video games engage the viewer through participation.

Helen Stuckey, games lab curator at the Australian Centre for Moving Image in Melbourne, has been working with video games for eight years. She says art cannot happen without interactivity. “Interactivity is a very challenging experience for earlier definitions of what art is,” she said. “I’m trained to tell people what’s art and video games are art--they are a beautiful blend of art and technology that take years to develop and are full of craftsmanship of an extraordinary kind.”

The question of whether video games should or shouldn’t strive for artistic value is important. Certainly, with games like Okami, Shadow of the Colossus or BioShock it’s easy to imagine art playing a central role in the original aims of the game. But should all developers keep this in mind? “I think they should,” Stuckey said. “You certainly see games where you really feel that art has been part of the ambition, and in some ways they’re much closer to the traditional definition of art, both in the fact that they’re storytelling games and that they’re beautiful.”

Video games like Okami come close to traditional definitions of art.
Video games like Okami come close to traditional definitions of art.

At the same time, Stuckey warns that video games are creating their own rules about what is artistically valuable; an art form in their own right, and by their own standards.

“Games create their own kind of aesthetic, so we don’t want to be comparing them to other art forms to find out what makes them art. We have to look within games. Most art forms have a relationship between the creator and the audience--audiences now come with their own concepts and ways of reading that enriches the artwork. That’s a very active relationship when you’re dealing with video games, because you have to be literally playing the video game to appreciate it.”

In early 2006, US author and self-confessed gamer Nic Kelman wrote Video Game Art, a book whose aim is to convince readers that video games are the dominant art form of the new millennium. Like Stuckey, Kelman argues that video games have created new standards for artistic merit.

“A game like Shadow of the Colossus might be considered valuable for its beauty, music, or as a whole,” Kelman said. “A game like Madden NFL 08 might be considered artistically valuable for its ability to portray reality as accurately and deeply as possible. The emotional impact of video games is just as deep and strong as a movie or a book or a piece of music. The people who do not agree are most often those who have never played a video game. “

Historically, art has been discussed in such a way that supports the notion that an artwork is created by a single mind. Despite collaborative projects such as film, art has continued to be framed this way. In countries like Japan, where manga and anime are celebrated as mainstream art forms, there is a much stronger sense of video games as an art form made by collaborative voices. But the West is still to catch up.

“It’s a shame that people don’t have an understanding of the faces behind games, and that games are made by creative people,” Stuckey said. “Your average punter can tell you the roles that go into the making of a film, but even your most passionate gamer can often struggle with defining the roles that go into making a game.”

In Japanese culture, video games, manga and anime are celebrated as art forms.
In Japanese culture, video games, manga and anime are celebrated as art forms.

According to Stuckey, gamers care passionately about having a more complex dialogue around how video games impact on their lives, what they make them think about, and how they resonate with broader philosophical ideas. “I’d like to see a lot more knowledge in the general public about who actually makes games. We don’t really discuss creators and I think that would be good for games. People have to start associating them with creative people rather than companies.”

However, not all academics share Stuckey’s opinion that video games should strive to be artistic. Miguel Sicart, assistant professor in game design at the Center for Computer Game Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, argues that game developers have no obligation to produce artistic products. “The mandate of mainstream developers is to make games that are fun and that sell,” Sicart said. “This doesn’t mean that they have to renounce making good games, but art challenges its spectators and users, and blockbuster games cannot afford to do that. Games should be fun and engaging. Art requires more than that. There is a clear trend towards making artistic games, but this is coming from indie developers.”

Sicart’s own take on the debate is that in order to understand video games as art, society must place them in relation to, not separate from, previous forms of artistic expression. “In a game like Braid, the mechanics are the message. To play this game is to understand the relation between the actions afforded to players and the vague narrative that frames them. In this sense, Braid is close to be a conceptual art piece, and hence a work of art.”

Diamond in the Rough

One of the most innovative games of the year was the Xbox Live Arcade puzzle platformer Braid. Its creator, Jonathan Blow, used the game as a reflection of his own personal experience, thoughts and ideas of the world. If art is partly about self expression, then Braid is a definite contender.

“I definitely produced Braid as an art object. Nothing in the game is random; everything is put there because I wanted it to be there,” Blow said. “It’s not all autobiographical, just a metaphorical version of things that happened in my life, things I’ve thought about, or things I’ve done. There were things that I wanted to try and things I wanted to show people, and video games are a natural way to do that.”

It took Blow three and a half years to make Braid into a game that has simplicity and elegance at its core. After its Xbox Live Arcade release, it was purchased by more than 55,000 people during the first week and was critically acclaimed by the review community (GameSpot gave the game a score of 9.5, the highest score given to a downloadable game in the site’s history). Reviewers praised Braid for its innovative use of the time reversal as a platformer, its art style, music score and story. But the most obvious thing about Braid is its distinction from other video games.

“It exists for a different reason than what most games do, and people pick up on that,” Blow said. “It isn’t a game that caters to a certain demographic, and it’s not a game that’s trying to do the same thing as another game. People appreciate where Braid is coming from, and what it’s trying to do.”

As somebody who makes games and intends them to be art, Blow thinks the debate surrounding video games as art is not a useful one.

“I know what I’m doing, so why do I need to argue about it? It doesn’t change what I’m doing. It just doesn’t make sense for someone to come along and tell me that what I’m doing is not art.

“The problem that I have with the ostensible argument of whether games can be art is that people very seldom approach things at that level of thought. It’s not just a level of discussion that seems very productive or helpful.”

Braid’s creator believes video games should aim to change people’s lives.
Braid’s creator believes video games should aim to change people’s lives.

According to Blow, games like Braid that differ from the mainstream can help change public opinion on the artistic value and worth of video games. But if video games are to ever become more than just mere entertainment, they will need to master a new formula that is innovative and successful. New York Times writer Daniel Radosh argues that the games that come closest to achieving artistry tend to be non-narrative: abstractions of light and sound and puzzle adventures that subvert a gamers’ sense of space, time and physics. Radosh argues that while a game like Halo 3 is flawless, it does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try.

“Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance,” Radosh argues. “They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favour of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life. Gamers have a right to expect more than what the medium now has to offer.”

Blow is trying to achieve just that. But he’s not certain the revolutionary change he’s hoping for will come anytime soon. “In order for people to appreciate video games we, the developers, have to stop creating 99.9 per cent juvenile crap,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

“I would really appreciate if the game development community explored the potential of the medium and make stronger and more compelling games outside what we’re doing right now. No one save teenage boys and a few exceptions wants to run around killing monsters as Kratos from God of War. Very few people are interested in that on a societal level. We, as developers, have found an audience that is very interested in that and we keep playing to that audience, because it’s very risky not to.”

“There are very few games right now that are really aimed at changing a person’s life. I think I’ve made some attempt at that direction with Braid. It’s a game that is trying to speak to people, to make them see the world in a new way. I hope we can keep on creating games like that.”

Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

Play and Learn

Roger Ebert’s comments in 2005 sparked the first real public debate on whether video games can or cannot be classified as art. The main arguments against video games which sprung from what followed centred on the belief that video games are unable to communicate meaning in the same way that films or books. While the majority of video games are not built in this fashion, more and more video game developers agree that video games have the potential to communicate ideas about life and the world to players.

According to Kellee Santiago, president and co-founder of thatgamecompany--the studio behind flOw and the upcoming title, Flower--video games have already begun to tap the communicative possibilities of interactive media.

“I want to see more critiques of games that focus on how games make the player feel,” Santiago said. “Games are a medium through which we communicate, and therefore they are art. Those of us who played games through our most formative years know that games absolutely do communicate ideas and can impact an audience.”

Flower was inspired by the personal travel experiences of its developers.
Flower was inspired by the personal travel experiences of its developers.

Santiago founded thatgamecompany in 2006 with business partner Jenova Chen after meeting at the University of Southern California. Combining their shared passion for video games with a will to push the communicative boundaries of the medium, Santiago and Chen began working on titles for digital distribution. “The timing seemed perfect for us to go ahead and create games that offer different emotional content and push the idea of what can be communicated in a video game,” Santiago said.

And that’s exactly what they did. After striking a three-game deal with Sony for the PlayStation Network, thatgamecompany’s first commercial title, flOw, was released in February 2007, and quickly became the top selling PSN title. The company’s next game, Flower, aims to be the video game equivalent of a poem. Rather than telling a sophisticated story, Santiago and Chen want players to have their own interpretations of the game.

“Flower's creation is very much inspired by my personal journey through the US,” Chen said. “Having grown up in metropolitan China, I was shocked by the endless green grass fields and the windmill farms I saw while travelling between big cities. I mixed what I saw in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and my hometown Shanghai together with the wild dream of nature.”

For Chen and Santiago, learning to treat video games as an art form came naturally. When working on a game, the pair abandons any considerations for the kind of game they as developers want to make, and focus on what the game could communicate to players. This approach to game making is one that Chen and Santiago see splitting the game development community.

“On one hand it appears we [the game development community] are crying out that games should be recognised as art,” Santiago said. “On the other hand, it also appears we're saying that content in games doesn't influence player behaviours. I see a contradiction in wanting to be taken seriously as an art form, but then waving any responsibility in the kind of content we produce. “Only when a gamer accepts a video game as a work of art will they become aware of the ideas it is communicating. We hope Flower inspired some thoughtful contemplation in the player, and we hope it inspires ideas that players will be able to discuss with others.”

A New Approach

Despite academics like Miguel Sicart indicating that mainstream developers and publishers will continue to deliver successful prototypes of video games without moving beyond the conventional boundaries of the medium, some mainstream developers have already begun to push the envelope.

In September this year, Australian studio Blue Tongue and publisher THQ released the colourful puzzle game de Blob. Lauded by video game critics worldwide for its originality and entertaining gameplay, de Blob invites players to use their creativity in restoring a city back to life by re-animating it with colour. Creative director of Blue Tongue, Nick Hagger, says de Blob invites reflection and interpretation.

“If we accept that as one of the definitions of art, then de Blob should be considered art,” Hagger said. “Games are still a somewhat nascent art form, their widespread acceptance as art is reliant upon generational and cultural change, as well as the development of a shared critical dialogue, which allows people to engage equally in discussion of games.

“As games become more a part of mainstream culture, I think the debate will be less relevant.”

de Blob was developed by an Australian studio and praised for its originality.
de Blob was developed by an Australian studio and praised for its originality.

Like Jonathan Blow, Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, Hagger used video games to reflect his own values and ideas of the world; de Blob reflects a lot of Hagger’s feelings about growing up in the inner city.

“I think any medium that makes you think about what you’re doing outside it and invites wider questions about your world is artistically valuable. This debate is something that is less about the perceived artistic merit of the medium, but more to do with the insecurity of gamers wanting to accelerate the mainstream legitimisation of games; it doesn’t engage anyone beyond those people who are active participants or consumers of gaming culture. I think the majority of people making games would have no trouble asserting that what they create is art; developers join the games industry because they have a passion for creative expression, regardless of their specific discipline.”

This is certainly true of Media Molecule, the developer behind Sony’s Little Big Planet. Like de Blob, Little Big Planet uses creativity to encourage self expression; Media Molecule’s vision for the game centred on fusing art with gameplay and design.

“Right from the start, art was integral to the creation of Little Big Planet,” said Media Molecule’s executive producer, Siobhan Reddy. “We wanted the game to be about expression. Our art director is actually an artist and he brought to the table that traditional aspect of art that you see in the game.”

While Reddy believes that video games as a medium are artistic, the current video game development industry is far too broad to demand artistic value from all video games.

“There are definitely games out there that are wonderful examples of a synergy of art, design, gameplay and sound, all of which take the player on a journey. Of course, not all video games can be, or need to be, like this. It’s just great that there are some developers out there who are using the medium to produce art. Artists don’t have to be painters or sculptors--I consider my programmers at Media Molecule artists because I’ve seen what they can do.”

Little Big Planet aims to attract non-traditional gamers through its innovative approach to gameplay.
Little Big Planet aims to attract non-traditional gamers through its innovative approach to gameplay.

Through Little Big Planet’s creative tools and gameplay, Reddy and her team hope to attract non-traditional gamers to gaming.

“I can play it with my nephews who are eight and six; I can play it with my brother who is a photographer and artist; I can play it with my sister and her fiancé; and I can even sit down and play it with my mum and my dad. And for a game to be that diverse is really rare.”

Earlier this year, Media Molecule and Sony teamed up with design schools in New York and Sydney to promote Little Big Planet and give design students the opportunity to create their own levels. The partnerships were a success and, according to Reddy, helped to promote the studio and the work they had created. This, she says, is something more development studios need to do. “We as developers all feel comfortable seeing and using technology as a way to fuse all the different aspects of art and creativity together. But I would love to see teams get more exposure. It comes down to studios backing their teams, and giving them the opportunity to express themselves. The industry should promote its own talent, but that could quite easily start with studios promoting their own talent first.”

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