Video Games and/or Art

Video Games are one of the world’s newest forms of mass media. In the industry’s relatively short lifespan, it has become the most popular and profitable entertainment industry. Despite its commercial successes, it is yet to churn out a great artist. When one notices this anomaly, they begin to ask why? Is there an inherent quality of video games that is incompatible with art? Or perhaps the medium is still in its infancy and great video game artists await us in the future.
Although video games may have the capacity for expression, its default function is as a product. The first video games were built by scientists and entrepreneurs, not artists and as the industry has grown, the games industry has become skilled in manipulating its players behaviour and encouraging them to empty their pockets.

Games as Art
Film critic Roger Ebert famously stated that “video games could never be art”[1] in response to a TED talk given by Kellee Santiago of ‘ThatGameCompany’. Santiago argues that not only can games be art, they already are. She cites the games “Waco Resurrection”, “Braid” and “Flower” as examples of games that are art.
Ebert responds by stating:
“… you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”[2]
Most video games do not have winners, unless by ‘winner’ Ebert is referring to reaching the end of a narrative, but this would eliminate many artistic media including film. One may also observe that all art has rules. A book is to be read from start to finish and left to right.
American artist, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings rely on a list of instructions to produce the work. For example, to produce ‘Wall Drawing #118’, LeWitt writes:
On a wall surface, any
continuous stretch of wall,
using a hard pencil, place
fifty points at random.
The points should be evenly
distributed over the area
of the wall. All of the
points should be connected
by straight lines. [3]
The drawing can then be recreated in any gallery space. However, it is worth asking, what is the art here, or where is the art? Anybody could follow the rules and produce the image, but so could a computer. The art lies within the creation of rules.
After reading Ebert’s essay, it becomes apparent that it is far easier to exclaim that an item is not art. In fact, I think it is a far more impressive a feat to give an explanation as to why any single piece is a work of art.

Ebert mentions that we know that something is a work of art because simply, “We know”[4]. Perhaps we can identify an item of art once it becomes part of our cultural language, and upon inspection, we recognise it to be so and new forms of art take years to embed themselves within this language.

Ebert’s essay has lain the foundation for the argument over whether video games are art and it seems as though every essay written in support of video games as art are in response to him.
One of said essays, is an article written by Nathan Deardorff for Forbes titled, “An Argument That Video Games Are, Indeed, High Art”.  In this essay, Deardorff draws the distinction between design and art “Where all games are designed, not all design is art. Design can be creative and art, but it is a craft by default.”[5] All video games are designed to be played, else they are not a game. The art can be achieved on top of the design.
However, with the advent of modernism, the line between design and art has been blurred. Schools like the Bauhaus merged artistic studies with that of design. Areas of design like conceptual design, create products for situations that don’t exist, or that don’t have a practical use and lie on the boundary between art and design.
Deardorff goes on to mention that “At a basic level, intention is what separates art from design and craft. Artists intend to express, designers intend to craft.”[6] Other forms of art more obviously convey their expressive intentions. A painting is static, if it changes, it is no longer the same painting. Although the experience may be different, a film is the same film no matter how many times one views it. However, video games offer the player choices, meaning the content differs each time it is played. When a player has the power to control their own experience, a chunk of the artist’s authority is cut out and given to the player. One could argue that interpretation has always been within the audience, as argued by Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author, but the original item up for interpretation changes in the case of video games.

A solution to this problem is offered by Kieth Stuart in his article, “Are Video Games Art: The Debate That Shouldn’t Be”.  After acknowledging that video games’ “very interactivity meant that the creator was unable to claim an authorial vision.”[7] Stuart mentions that "Rod Humble made a game called The Marriage in 2007 that took an important step to stake out territory for games as art whose meaning arises solely through the ludic systems of its interactivity, rather than through the nature of its content”. This suggests that the element of interactivity (that is often suggested to be games downfall in their goal to become art) can in fact, be their claim to art.

Film is a curation of writing, painting and music with the added element of motion. Motion is where the art exists with film. Video games on the other hand, are curations of the same elements in film with the addition of interactivity. Just as motion is the element where art exists in film, perhaps interactivity is where the art exists in video games.

I must stress that the answer to the question “Are/can games be art?” in itself is not important to me, but the question is a useful prompt to pick apart and analyse the nature of games and art and where they may attract or repel. As Ian Bogost states in his essay, “What Do Videogames do to art?”, “The point is not to shoehorn games into some received, stable, agreed upon notion of what art is, as if there is such a notion. The point is to ask the question, what do videogames do to art? How do they change art, turning it into something new?”[8]

Interactivity as Art
It is all well and good that interactivity is where video games gain their capacity for art, but what does that mean?
A game may be considered a work of art for its aesthetic quality, like ‘GRIS’, or for its story-telling, like ‘The Last of Us’ but these are not examples of video game art. For a game to be video game art, it can’t exist as art in another medium. For a video game to be art, the player’s interaction with the game must be where the art is.
A few games come to mind when this question is asked. The first of which is “The Stanley Parable”. In The Stanley Parable, the player begins in an empty office building accompanied by the voice of the narrator. Once the player begins to move, they realise that the narrator will narrate actions you are yet to make, prompting you to follow his instructions. However, once you begin to disobey the narrator, he will react to your actions, and try to bring you back to his story.
The Stanley Parable is a commentary on the nature of games themselves- the conflict between the players’ perceived freedom and the unbreakable rules imposed by the designer. This narrative couldn’t exist in any other medium, it relies on the players’ freedom for the narrative to make sense.
Lucas Pope’s “Papers Please” has the player take on the role as an immigration officer on the border of a fictional country. The player must check the legitimacy of immigrants’ identification and documentation by consulting it with the rulebook that progressively gets thicker as border security tightens. There is no correct way to play this game, one may choose the path of following the rules perfectly but that involves splitting up families or sending immigrants home to a country where they shall be imprisoned. If the player lets too many immigrants in, they will be imprisoned, and their family is left to starve. Pope built a game, where through the banal action of checking passports, the audience is placed in a moral grey area where there is no obvious right action. The game itself, while fiction, confronts the awkward subject of border control, in an era where nationalism is on the rise and freedom of movement is under threat.



In his 2005 article, “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the digital games industry”, Julian Kücklich describes the phenomena of ‘playbour’, in the context of video game modification. Fans of specific games manipulate the source-code to create add-ons or entirely new games. The work is unpaid, and time-consuming but extends the original games shelf-life and popularity. As said in Kücklich’s own words:
“The precarious status of modding as a form of unpaid labour is veiled by the perception of modding as a leisure activity, or simply as an extension of play. This draws attention to the fact that in the entertainment industries, the relationship between work and play is changing, leading, as it were, to a hybrid form of “playbour”[9]

Ian Bogost extends the definition of playbour to include the act of playing a game, in his article “Video Games Are Better Without Gameplay”. He states that other mediums like film
“skip over the boring parts by editing them out: You don’t have to watch a character traverse the stairs, sidewalk, subway, and elevator to get from home to work. But in games you are the character, and thus you must pilot him (or her, but usually him) through every detail that the simulated world demands”.[10]
Thus, video games require the playout complete repetitive tasks to reach goals, in a manner that closely resembles labour.
He uses the game “Untitled Goose Game” as an example of this phenomenon. The game has the player assume the role of a goose, terrorising the inhabitants of rural English village. On a surface level, the game appears as though it is chaotic sandbox, but due to the nature of games, you are eventually fulfilling the goals it feeds to you. Bogost states that the Untitled Goose Game
“turns “being a goose” into “doing the job of a goose.” And the job of a goose turns out to be the same as the job of a person: to carry out a set of tasks, recorded for you on a to-do list, by any means possible.”[11]
 He concludes the article with “The goose isn’t really wreaking havoc, it turns out. The goose is running errands.”
It is important to note that this essay is not a criticism of “Untitled Goose Game” in particular, but rather video games as a whole. In order to the dopamine fix that makes games enjoyable, a player must complete tasks that the game dictates, that aren’t necessarily fun in themselves.
The Stanley Parable, as a commentary on the nature of video games, opens with the image of Stanley sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen with the accompanying narration:
“This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee number 427. Employee number 427’s job was simple. He sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee #427 did every day, every month, of every year. And although others might have considered it soul-rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in.”[12]
The Stanley Parable describes the act of playing a game as a fruitless endeavour comparable to Albert Camus’s 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” ¸ in which Sisyphus, a man damned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down again. Camus used this as a metaphor for life and its absurdity. Although at first it may seem pessimistic, Camus claims that we should picture Sisyphus as happy.

Just as playbour is production under the guise of play, gamification is consumption under the guise of play.
Gamification is a recent term to describe game design elements in non-game contexts. It is often used by companies and organisations to engage users in a task that would fail to keep consumer attention in other media.
In her book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at The New Frontier of Power”, Shoshana Zuboff writes of her concerns that gamification is used to align consumer goals with that of a company. Games rely on the fulfilment of goals to provide a dopamine rush to keep the player interest. Gamification exploits this goal-fulfilment by making the consumer goal, the same as the companies’ therefore manipulating the player’s behaviour into whatever the company desires.
Zuboff uses the example of Pokémon Go to demonstrate the power of gamification. Pokémon Go placed player objectives in real-world locations. This therefore provided incentive for a player to be at a specific real-world place. Pokémon Go and Starbucks struck a deal where Pokéstops (locations where players can collect in-game items) would appear at their shops. These shops would advertise the “Pokémon Go Frappuccino” to the hoards of players lured there.

[1] Ebert Roger, Video Games Can Never Be Art, 2010,
[2] Ebert Roger, Video Games Can Never Be Art, 2010,
[3] LeWitt, Sol, Wall Drawing #118, 1971
[4]  Ebert Roger, Video Games Can Never Be Art, 2010,
[5] Deardorff, Nathan, An Argument That Video Games Are, Indeed, High Art, Forbes, 2015
[6] Deardorff, Nathan, An Argument That Video Games Are, Indeed, High Art, Forbes, 2015
[7] Stuart, Keith, Are Video Games Art: The Debate That Shouldn’t Be, The Guardian, 2012
[8] Bogost, Ian, “What Do Video Games Do To Art?”, 2011,
[9] Kücklich, Julian, Precarious Playbour: Modders and the digital games industry, 2005
[10] Bogost, Ian, Video Games Are Better Without Gameplay, The Atlantic, 2019
[11]Bogost, Ian, Video Games Are Better Without Gameplay, The Atlantic, 2019
[12] Pugh, William and Wreden, Davey, “The Stanley Parable”, 2013

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