It's No Picasso, But Do You Like It?

Data manager Eddie Bautista explains why, in some ways, comparing literature and fine arts to video games is a bit like drawing comparisons between games and the adult film industry.


GameSpot data manager Eddie Bautista accepts valentines as long as they're clean. Sending naughty emails will get you a date with his junk mail folder.

Perhaps the key to developing video games as a mature art form lies not in changing video games, but in changing our idea of what an artistic video game is. We call things like paintings, films, books, and music art, but they are all pleasing in different ways. Why can't a truly great game be considered a masterful representation of the medium just because it's fun? We seem to be judging the artistic merit of games as if they were paintings, literature, or films; but they're not, and they shouldn't necessarily try to be.

The developer of Black has described its game as 'gun porn.'
The developer of Black has described its game as 'gun porn.'

Rather, games are "like porn...sort of," according to David Jaffe, a developer who worked on last year's God of War. At D.I.C.E. 2006, Jaffe compared the game industry to the adult film industry, going so far as to suggest that "[games are] just like porn or motion rides where there's no capacity to reach high emotional levels." As part of his address, the designer posed the questions: "Why is it that every game pitch I hear these days wants to be like a movie? Why don't video games embrace game language?" In effect, the designer was suggesting that games shouldn't aspire to be like movies, but that they should instead embrace what makes games distinctive.

Surprisingly enough, Jaffe isn't alone in his views, even about that whole pornography thing. David Cage, writer and director of the cinematic game Indigo Prophecy, also draws parallels between games and adult films. In an interview with Australian magazine JumpButton, Cage compared game and porn narratives:

Most games offer a disruptive narrative, similar to what you'd find in porn movies. You get a couple of minutes to set the context, the set, and the characters; then an action sequence; then another bit of story to set the context for the next scene, to prepare for the next action sequence; and so on.

No one cares about the story, because it's not a key component of the experience. In games, like porn movies, the user is there for the "action."

Cage does make a good point. The key component of any game is the "action," and all other qualities that can be considered "artistic"--well-written stories, beautiful settings, poetic dialogue--are really just bonuses.

Perhaps games should try to be more like adult films--now wait, hear me out. By that, I mean this: Games should exist as a separate medium meant to entertain people. Let's face it: porn offers a service to its users; it doesn't pretend to be "art" or something greater than it is (at least, not the few that I've know, by accident). Why can't we think of games in the same way? Games aren't film, prose, poetry, dance, acting, music, sculpture, or painting, but we can still celebrate those interesting and interactive components of games that set them apart from everything else--and on their own merits.

Of course, many games have artistic elements--sights, sounds, stories, technical aspects--that add to the overall experience. The people who brought us Shadow of the Colossus and ICO, for example, are certainly masters of their craft. But why do we need to assign extra value to our beloved pastime by calling it "art"?

This is going up on my wall.
This is going up on my wall.

Film critic Roger Ebert weighed in on this issue after the video game-based movie Doom opened last year to poor critical reviews. "That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept," Ebert writes. "But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic."

More than a few game players have taken offense to this theory. But why? While I do wonder if Ebert's thumbs have ever touched a game controller, he does make an interesting point. If I wanted to be more cultured, civilized, and empathetic, I probably wouldn't play a game. I'd read a book, walk in a museum, or watch an artsy film. For me, games were always a fun form of escape from all the schoolwork I did in college. I'd finish writing my third paper on Shakespeare, figure out how I was going to "explain" (or more appropriately, "BS") the cultural significance of my still-life painting, and then I'd pop Poy Poy into my PlayStation and hit my friends with logs and rocks. Let's keep games separate from my literary criticism.

If you want art, take a look at Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing. It's not a "game" in the traditional sense (in that the product is utterly broken and often unplayable). Big Rigs is a game you cannot play, like a chair you cannot sit in. That's art. It has to be, right? I mean, you're not really "racing" against anything, yet the word "racing" is in the title. The game must have been trying to adopt the principles of nonsensical, dadaist know, like painting a picture of a cat and titling it "Dog." Sometimes your vehicle gets caught in some sort of a spinning vortex--perhaps a comment on the conflict of man versus machine versus nature. Now that has got to be art.

Next Up: Freeplay by Andrew Anderson

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